Wildife struggle in an increasingly noisy world

We live on an ever more-populous planet, pulsating with human-generated noises of every description.  As the din of humanity grows ever louder, what will this mean for wildlife?

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

White-crowned sparrow: stressed-out by noise

It's an important question.  Across the U.S.A., for example, nearly nine-tenths of the population experiences artificially elevated sound levels.  In the world's oceans, noises from commercial shipping alone have risen an estimated 16-fold in recent decades.

The most ubiquitous noise-making structures humans create are traffic-laden roads, which already crisscross the Earth and are projected to increase in length by some 25 million kilometers by mid-century—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times.

A recent study by Heidi Ware and colleagues used an innovative ‘phantom road’ to assess how road noise affects migrating bird species.

Working in Idaho, USA, the authors laid out an array of loudspeakers to mimic road sounds, which they turned on and off periodically to judge the birds' responses.  They also captured birds using mist-nets to assess their overall body condition.

The authors found that bird abundance declined by about a third near the phantom road, with some some noise-sensitive species avoiding the area.

In addition, even birds that remained near the phantom road often fared poorly, having lower body weight and worse overall condition than birds captured elsewhere. 

The authors attributed this to the fact that the birds were often startled by sudden road noises -- and so spent more time looking around for predators and less time feeding. 

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

A graph (sonogram) of road noises, above a logging truck.

This is particularly bad news for migratory birds, which are already stressed out by the huge exertions of migrating vast distances.  More noise disturbance could mean that more birds will starve to death while trying to migrate.

In an independent perspective piece on this article, ALERT director Bill Laurance emphasizes that the rapidly expanding footprint of roads and other infrastructure across the planet is invisibly degrading habitat quality for noise-sensitive species.

Laurance suggests that many kinds of species could be affected by human-generated noises. 

For instance, might sensitive marine species, such as echolocating whales or migratory fish, avoid noisy regions such as high-volume shipping lanes or areas where naval vessels regularly pierce the oceans with high-intensity sonar?

Could echolocating bats be distressed by roaring airplanes or even by the steady whine of wind farms or other infrastructure? 

For that matter, might even hiking trails frequented by ecotourists or researchers reduce local wildlife activity, as has been observed in protected areas in California and Indonesia?

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The oceans are getting noisier too.

The findings of Ware et al. suggest that human-generated noises can be serious stressors for some wildlife.  This is an alarming prospect in a world ever more beset by human-induced noises.

For instance, nowhere in Costa Rica’s iconic La Selva Biological Reserve can one avoid hearing the incessant thrum of a nearby highway.  Many other nature reserves are suffering a similar fate, underscoring the urgency of limiting new roads in protected areas and devising strategies to limit noise disturbances where roads already exist.

For wildlife and for humans too, quiet places on the Earth are becoming increasingly rare and precious.

Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

ALERT confronts US Ambassador about roads

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn loves roads.  He sees them as the salvation for many of the world's ills.

If only we had more roads, he argues in a recent essay in National Geographic Online, then rural communities worldwide would be happier, healthier, and wealthier -- and even less likely to be harassed by extremist groups that prey on isolated communities.

In truth, Ambassador Quinn has a point -- but he is only telling half of the story.  Roads are often good for people but can also be devastating for the environment.  The trick is to decide when roads are environmentally 'good' or 'bad'.

ALERT director Bill Laurance has written an opposing essay in National Geographic Online -- one that tries to bring a bit more balance to the issue of roads.  It's worth two minutes to read this rebuttal.

Laurance argues that roads should generally be avoided in wilderness areas, parks and other protected areas, and places with concentrations of endangered or locally endemic species.

Sadly, roads are expanding explosively today, and far too many roads are 'bad' -- opening a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as poaching, illegal deforestation and forest burning, illicit gold mining, and predatory land speculation.

We are living in the most dramatic era of road expansion in human history.  It is estimated that, by 2050, we will have another 25 million kilometers of roads -- enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.  Nearly every surviving wilderness area on Earth -- from the Amazon to Siberia, and New Guinea to the Congo Basin -- is under assault from roads. 

From an environmental perspective, we are blazing along a road to ruin

Let's hope that road enthusiasts like Ambassador Quinn start to get the message.  Roads are, at best, a double-edged sword. 

And far too often, the sharp edge of the sword is pointed at nature's throat.

Where on Earth should roads go and not go?

"The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to blow up all the roads."

Road to ruin?  (photo by Rhett Butler)

Road to ruin? (photo by Rhett Butler)

Those might sound like the words of an eco-terrorist, but it's actually a direct quote from Eneas Salati, a forest climatologist and one of Brazil's most eminent scientists.

Salati was saying it straight: far too often, roads open up a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- allowing illegal loggers, miners, hunters, or land speculators to invade forests and other native ecosystems.  The results are often disastrous for nature.

But societies need roads -- for economic growth, to access land and natural resources, and for scores of other reasons.  Where on Earth should roads go and not go?

Today, in the leading journal Nature, ALERT director Bill Laurance and a team of co-authors from Harvard, Cambridge, Melbourne, James Cook and other universities present a global strategy for road building. 

Their paper advances a strategy for zoning and optimizing road locations, by assessing the relative environmental costs and economic benefits of road construction for every square kilometer of land on Earth.

You can download the paper for free here

And here is an insightful News & Views piece that Nature published about the article. 

And here is a popular, easy-to-read article that hits all the key points.

This paper has striking implications.  It shows the most critical areas to keep road-free, the areas where roads can have the greatest benefits for improving human welfare and food production, and the places where environmental conflicts are most likely to arise in the future.

By 2050, it's expected that there will be 25 million kilometers of new roads -- enough to circle the Earth more than 600 times. 

Nine-tenths of these new roads will be built in developing nations that sustain the biologically richest and most environmentally important ecosystems on the planet.

Deciding where this avalanche of new roads will go -- and not go -- is among the most critical environmental challenges we have ever faced. 

Help ALERT combat threats to crucial Malaysian park

Have a look at a global map of imperiled animals and plants.  What jumps out at you is the alarmingly high concentration of endangered species in the Malay Peninsula.  That's why ALERT's latest campaign is so crucial--helping to protect one of the most important nature reserves in Peninsular Malaysia.

Selangor Park, along with Malaysia's Central Forest Spine, is prime habitat for endangered species (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Selangor Park, along with Malaysia's Central Forest Spine, is prime habitat for endangered species (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, who lives and works in Peninsular Malaysia, is helping to promote a campaign to protect iconic Selangor State ParkPlease spend 30 seconds to sign this petition--and also 'like' and 'share' this blog on Facebook and other social media.

Gopalasamy shares his thoughts with us:

The Coalition for the Protection of Selangor State Park is greatly concerned with the proposal to degazette part of the park to make way for the proposed Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road.

Selangor State Park is the largest intact forest tract remaining in Selangor and the third largest park in Peninsular Malaysia.  It forms part of Peninsular Malaysia’s Central Forest Spine and functions as the most important watershed for Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya.

The park protects forests that are not only rich in biodiversity and imperiled species but provide crucial ecosystem services such as clean water to many residents and businesses in the greater area.

The recent dry spell in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor highlights the need to hold on to every  square inch of catchment forest.  And putting more roads through the Central Forest Spine, a vital habitat for Malaysia's wildlife, will expose endangered species to more threats from habitat loss and poaching.

Selangor Park is a vital source of clean water for a large and growing populace (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Selangor Park is a vital source of clean water for a large and growing populace (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Since 2009, many members of the public and NGOs have voiced growing concerns about the proposed road project, calling on the government to change the road alignment and not allow it to slice through the park.  But all efforts so far have been to no avail.

Now, with the project about to proceed, we need your help.  Please sign the above petition and help us raise the international profile of this vital area.  You could help us save one of Earth's most important ecosystems.

 

 

Protect wilderness from rapacious road expansion

The world's last surviving wildernesses are under assault--from unbridled road expansion.  That's the key message of a press release today, distributed on the International Day of Forests (March 21).

Roads to ruin... forest clearing in the Amazon

Roads to ruin... forest clearing in the Amazon

Current estimates suggest that, by 2050, we'll have another 25 million kilometers of paved roads--enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.  Around nine-tenths of those roads will be in developing nations, which sustain many of the planet's most biologically important ecosystems.

In wilderness areas, new roads often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems--such as illegal deforestation, colonization, fires, hunting, and mining.  In the Amazon, for instance, over 95% of all deforestation occurs within 50 kilometers of roads.

The press release was led by European MP Kriton Arsenis, a respected wilderness advocate who runs the RoadFree initiative, and featured comments from ALERT Director, Bill Laurance.

"When it comes to roads in wilderness, the key is to stop the first cut," said Laurance.  "Keeping roads out is the only truly effective way to ensure wilderness will survive."