Take pictures in your backyard this weekend to help save nature

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Take pictures in your backyard this weekend to help save nature
  • Is the Great Barrier Reef in danger or not?
  • Hotter nights are an overlooked effect of global warming

Take pictures in your backyard this weekend to help save nature

(Emily Chung/CBC)

Ever wish you could identify all the weeds, insects and other plants and animals in your backyard? Canadians are invited this week to get some expert help with that — and help save nature, including endangered species, in the process.

From Thursday, July 29 to Monday, Aug. 2, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is running its Big Backyard BioBlitz. It’s an event anyone can participate in as a volunteer or “citizen scientist” by taking pictures of plants, animals and fungi wherever they are, including backyards. 

Participants then upload them to a smartphone/web app called iNaturalist that identifies them using artificial intelligence. The identification is later verified by experts around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m an avid user of the app and have registered for this event.)

“Part of the intent is to get people to discover the nature around them and hopefully connect with that,” said Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist with the NCC. “Not only can you contribute, but you can also learn a lot.”

The first annual Big Backyard BioBlitz last year generated more than 20,000 submissions of plants and animals, including some in categories that conservationists are particularly interested in this year:

  • Species at risk, such as turtles, monarch butterflies, some bumblebees, many of which live in urban areas. Researchers are also interested in species recovering from near extinction, such as peregrine falcons.

  • Invasive species, such as emerald ash borer or European common reed.

Kraus said the data is useful to scientists for assessing whether populations of species at risk are increasing or decreasing, tracking the spread of invasive species and seeing where species are moving as a result of factors such as climate change.

Kraus said that could help conservationists prepare to better manage species at risk in the future — for example, by protecting the habitat they’re moving into.

So if you want to participate in the BioBlitz, how do you start? 

Kraus recommends downloading the iNaturalist app and practising with it. He suggests starting with plants, which pose for photos more consistently than animals and don’t mind you getting up close.

You can register to participate anytime during the BioBlitz by following instructions on the event page. 

You can also keep making observations after the five-day event ends — species you add later won’t be part of this year’s campaign, but will be part of the data on iNaturalist and may be added to other projects. (Some of my own have been added to the Georgian Bay Biosphere and Ontario Butterfly Atlas, for example.)

Kraus hopes the event will encourage more people to sign up with iNaturalist and keep using it.

“There are all these discoveries that are waiting to happen across the country,” he said. 

“People are finding things that scientists have not seen before, or they’ve not been recorded in that area. So [the public’s observations] could really help us to better understand our Canadian wildlife, which is critical in a world that’s rapidly changing because of climate change and habitat loss.”

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

We’ve been asking readers what they’re doing differently in and around their home to benefit the environment. This week, a reader from Regina who goes by Iron Maiden wrote:  

“I’m planting heirloom vegetables so I can save the seeds and so be able to replant next year and the next, never having to buy more seeds again, ever. Also, I participated in No Mow May. My lawn got to the point where the dandelions began to fly, and that was OK by me. Bees were all over the place.”

Send us a photo with a description and the location at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! Drought has spread across much of Western Canada and the U.S., with impacts ranging from stunted wheat fields to raging wildfires. This week, What On Earth gets the forecast on the changing water cycle and looks at how science and Indigenous knowledge may help us adapt. What on Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Is the Great Barrier Reef in danger or not?

When it comes to visualizing the effects of a warming planet, few examples have become as symbolic as the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia. A system of nearly 3,000 reefs and 900 islands, the Great Barrier Reef is considered one of the world’s foremost oceanic treasures. It’s also been the site of great damage, particularly from coral bleaching. When the water is too warm, coral expels algae, becoming white in the process. The reef suffered major bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020. Bleached coral isn’t necessarily dead, but it is undeniably stressed and in a precarious state. Given the reef’s vulnerability, a United Nations draft decision released in June said it should be included on a list of World Heritage Sites that are “in danger.” The Australian government has opposed this designation, saying it unfairly targets the country because it is perceived to be a laggard on climate action. While the government has done work to preserve the reef, activists and many scientists say that what Australia should really be doing is curtailing its carbon emissions. Earlier this month, the government convinced the UN to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the endangered list — until 2022. While some environmentalists see this as a setback, Richard Leck, head of oceans for WWF-Australia, said, “UNESCO has put Australia on probation. Business as usual on climate will not prevent an in-danger listing in a year’s time.”

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Hotter nights are an overlooked effect of global warming

(Edmund O’Connor/Shutterstock)

Scientists know that climate change will result in more frequent and intense heat waves. 

They are already having deadly consequences across the world. According to a recent study published in the journal The Lancet, more than five million deaths annually between 2000 and 2019 were associated with “non-optimal temperatures,” with roughly 500,000 of them related to heat. 

During the heat wave that suffocated British Columbia in the last month, more than 800 people died. In the same period last year, there were 232 deaths, according to the B.C. Coroners Service’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jatinder Baidwan.

While we know that daytime temperatures are rising, in some regions — specifically, parts of Ontario and Quebec — nighttime temperatures are warming even faster

Warmer nights mean our bodies don’t have time to cool off. For people with health issues like heart disease or asthma, for example, this can be extremely problematic and potentially deadly.

“Our bodies were not designed to put up with environmental heats that exceed the high 30s [Celsius],” Baidwan said. 

“If you think about it, what happens to an air conditioning unit? When you stress it, it builds up with lots of ice on the outside and then it stops working. And in some ways, that’s a great analogy for what happens to our bodies. With extreme heat, we just find it really hard to do the usual homeostatic sort of mechanisms and protocols that happen in our body.”

The heat wave that affected the Pacific Northwest was highly unusual — a once-in-1,000-years occurrence, according to a recent analysis by the group World Weather Attribution. However, parts of Eastern Canada, including Ontario and Quebec, are seeing more frequent heat waves and tropical nights, defined as nighttime temperatures of 20 C or higher. 

For example, according to the Climate Atlas of Canada, the number of tropical nights in Toronto averaged roughly 6.9 annually from 1976 to 2005. With climate change, under a scenario where carbon emissions decline substantially, that is expected to climb to 17.6 annually from 2021 to 2050.

If current carbon emissions rates continue, the average number of tropical nights in Toronto is expected to hit 20.6 annually from 2021 to 2050. From 2051 to 2080, under the two different scenarios for emissions, the average number would rise to 26.4 and 42.8, respectively.

In 2018, a heat wave blanketed Montreal from June 29 to July 5; temperatures averaged roughly 34 C during the day. Nighttime temperatures didn’t fall below 20 C. In all, 66 people died.

“We’re seeing an increase in hot extremes in Canada that’s larger than the global mean warming,” said Nathan Gillett, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “The average warming in Canada is about twice the global mean warming. And the heat extremes are also increasing at a similar rate. And it’s not just the hottest maximum temperatures, but the minimum temperatures, the nighttime minimums.”

A 2019 report by the federal government said that the country is warming at more than twice the rate of the planet. 

A study published in the journal Global Change Biology last October found that nighttime temperatures are rising across most of the world. In those areas that saw more nighttime temperature warming than daytime, there was more cloud cover, higher precipitation and more humidity.

As Earth continues to warm, air conditioning may seem like a possible solution. The problem is that it requires energy and also produces heat. 

Cities also inadvertently create “heat islands,” where heating is further amplified by concrete structures, adding more stress to people living in a hotter climate. Some cities like Toronto and Montreal are trying to introduce greener building codes and designs to address this. 

“[Heat waves aren’t] something we think about as a big hazard in Canada, but as the climate warms, we’re going to see this more and more,” said Gillett.

Nicole Mortillaro

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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