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Environment News Round-up June 2023

Common tern

This month saw world leaders gather for a global climate and finance summit in Paris. The meeting coincided with yet more record-setting temperatures, the intensification of wildfires across most of Canada and worryingly high sea temperatures off Britain and Ireland. Meanwhile, protesters celebrated as Iceland confirmed it was suspending its annual whale hunt. In the UK, the Green Party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas, announced she is standing down at the next general election. We have news of a new fully electric short-haul flight coming online by 2028. And this month’s environment news round-up also includes an update on the ongoing avian influenza outbreak.

Leaders Meet for Finance Summit as Temperatures Rise

World leaders met at the New Global Financial Pact Summit in Paris this month to discuss the possibility of reforming global financial systems. The main focus was on enabling developing countries to access more help to recover from COVID-19 and deal with climate change. Countries from the Global South are already being hit disproportionately by the effects of a warming climate. In recognition of this, the summit explored suspending debt repayments by countries hit by natural disasters, as well as helping them transition faster to renewables. United Nations head António Guterres also spoke at the summit. He said that there is an urgent need to change our financial institutions in order to provide global justice for the world’s poor.

The North Atlantic is experiencing an unprecedented heatwave

The need for urgency was highlighted by multiple climate events during the course of the month. By mid-June, there were concerns that 2023 could be the hottest year on record. Global temperatures were nearly 1˚C higher than previously recorded for any June back to 1979 by the midway mark. Scientists are concerned that this will be exacerbated as the Pacific warming phenomenon called El Niño strengthens this year. Waters closer to home are also warming. Seas off Britain and Ireland are currently experiencing an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures in some places up to 5˚C higher than normal for the time of year. There are fears that huge numbers of marine organisms will be unable to cope with the extreme heat. Increased oceanic temperatures also increase the likelihood of destructive storms forming.

Beadlet anemone
Marine creatures, from anemones to coral, are sensitive to extreme sea temperatures

Meanwhile, in Canada, wildfires that began in March intensified in part due to soaring temperatures. Over 400 fires are burning and almost every province is affected in Canada’s worse wildfire season ever. Smoke from the fires is also impacting the US and has now reached Europe. Heatwaves are also affecting other regions around the world including India, the southern United States and Mexico.

Iceland Suspends Whaling

Animal rights campaigners celebrated this month as Iceland announced it is suspending its annual whale hunt. Iceland issues an annual quota for minke and fin whales. The move comes following a report that found the hunt does not comply with the country’s Animal Welfare Act. Ostensibly, the hunt is only suspended until the end of August, but it is unlikely that Iceland’s last remaining whaling company will carry out any voyages for the remaining two weeks of the season after that. Demand for whale meat has been falling recently, and it is becoming hugely unprofitable. More Icelanders want it to stop than continue. Campaigners hope that the suspension, combined with its unprofitability means the hunting will stop permanently. Japan and Norway are the only other nations that continue to carry out non-subsistence level whaling.

fin whale
Fin whales, like this one, and minkes are hunted by Icelandic whalers

Caroline Lucas to Stand Down at Next Election

In the UK, the Green Party’s sole MP, Caroline Lucas, announced she will stand down at the next general election. She said that being an MP meant she was unable to devote the time and energy she wanted to the causes she is passionate about. Instead of retiring quietly, though, she aims to focus on combating the nature and climate emergencies. Lucas has served as MP for the Brighton Pavilion ward since 2010. Her current majority is 20,000. The party hopes it can build on her success, as well as unprecedented gains in recent local elections, when the country next goes to the polls. This is likely to be some time in 2024.

SAS Opens Reservations for Electric Flight

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) opened reservations for its first ever electric commercial flight at the end of May. The flights aren’t expected to take place until sometime in 2028, however. SAS is committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and says that electric flights for shorter trips are a step towards this. The plane itself will seat 30 and is being developed by Swedish company Heart Aerospace. Heart says its planes will have a range of 200km to begin with, but they aim to double this by the end of the 2030s.

Avian Influenza Update

Following our May update on the ongoing avian influenza, or bird flu, outbreak, there were further developments throughout June. Conservationists have been awaiting the current breeding season with bated breath, hoping that they wouldn’t see a repeat of last year’s devastating events. Early monitoring in Scotland showed that some species suffering big losses in 2022 are back in much lower numbers. This applies especially to great skuas, or bonxies. It is estimated that up to 90% of Shetland’s Hermaness population died last year. A number of Scottish sites have also reported that their breeding terns have either nested later than usual or not at all. In addition, NatureScot published a report at the end of the month detailing drastic reductions in Scottish bird of prey breeding success. They suspect that this is a result of bird flu. However, despite being one of the hardest hit regions last year, so far, large numbers of birds are not dying in Scotland this summer.

Great skua or bonxie
Great skuas were one of the worst affected species in 2022

Elsewhere, the picture was not as optimistic, however. A number of mostly inland gull and tern colonies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have seen catastrophic losses this spring and summer. Black-headed gulls and common terns are the two species most affected. Figures from the BTO indicate that at least 10,000 black-headed gulls have died in the UK since March. The BTO is asking members of the public to continue to report dead birds both to Defra and via its BirdTrack portal to help monitor the disease’s spread.

common terns
Common terns are dying in large numbers at inland colonies this year

Research Round-up

This month’s research round-up leads with news that scientists have solved the mystery of where migrant painted lady butterflies spend the winter. The species is known to cross the Sahara, but researchers weren’t sure how far south they reached. To answer the question, fieldworkers monitored sites in sub-Saharan Africa between 2017 and 2020. They found both butterflies and caterpillars in a band across the subtropics between Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. They also discovered that the butterflies spend the months between September and November in semi-arid savannahs before moving south to more humid areas in December. Incredibly, they are able to produce between three and five generations here, before adults head north in February. We still don’t know, though, why the species has adopted such a long migration strategy.

Painted lady environment news
Painted lady butterfly migration has been a mystery until now

Another African migrant, the cuckoo, was also in the news. Spring is getting earlier in the UK as our climate warms. This in turn is forcing many of our birds to breed earlier so as not to miss out on the earlier emergence of an important food source for chicks: caterpillars. While some species, including some migrating here each year, have managed to keep pace, the cuckoo hasn’t adjusted its arrival to the UK and risks missing out on the caterpillar bonanza. Researchers at the BTO have now discovered why this particular species hasn’t changed its behaviour. They found that birds use a crucial stopover in March and April to feed up before crossing the Sahara. This stopover depends on an invertebrate explosion caused by rains in this part of Africa at this time of year. Crucially, the timing of this hasn’t changed so the birds can’t leave any earlier. This inability to travel onwards any earlier could be a major factor in the cuckoo’s declining UK population.

Cuckoo environment news
Cuckoos do not seem able to adjust their migration to match earlier springs

In better news, a recent study has revealed how effective plants are at dealing with air pollutants. In the study, a small plant wall installation was found to remove toxic air pollutants in just eight hours. Of particular interest is the fact it successfully removed petrol-related toxins from the air. Roads and car parks close to buildings regularly expose them to dangerous airborne chemicals. With many people spending the majority of their time indoors at work, home or school, the findings provide hope that indoor air quality can be drastically improved by introducing plant walls to building interiors.