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Environment News Round-up: October 2022

Delta State Nigeria

Multiple regions suffered flooding this month, with Africa, southern Asia, Australia and the Americas all hit. Nigeria was one of the worst affected countries with hundreds of fatalities and millions displaced. In Brazil, the presidential election was inconclusive and will go to a runoff at the end of this month. There was no end in sight to political uncertainty in the UK as Liz Truss resigned after just 44 days in office. Avian influenza continued to ravage wild and domestic bird populations. At the same time, autumn bird migration got into full swing with twitchers’ behaviour grabbing the headlines in Shetland.

Continued Flooding Affects Multiple Regions

Yet again, extreme weather events dominated the news this month. Floods affected countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as Australia. Following Hurricane Ian’s passage at the end of September, the clean-up operation began in Florida. Elsewhere, one of the worst hit countries is Nigeria. Flooding has been affecting an increasing number of Nigerian states since February, but the situation worsened considerably this month. Many fear floods will last until the end of November. Over 1,200 people have died this year in the country’s worst floods for decades. At least two million have been displaced. Chad, Ghana, South Sudan and the Central African Republic were also hit by floods this month. Further afield, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Australia are likewise affected.

Warri, Delta State Nigeria
Delta State is one of many Nigerian states facing their worst floods for decades – photo by A. Insole

Brazilian Elections Head to a Runoff

Brazil held presidential elections on the 2nd, but with no candidate gaining over 50% of the vote, a runoff was set for the end of the month. The result is widely seen as likely to have a huge impact on efforts to combat the climate crisis. The incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro, has presided over a period of huge deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Weakened protections for both the Amazon and indigenous rights have allowed huge areas of forest to be cleared for cattle ranching as well as soybean farming.

In contrast, Bolsonaro’s challenger, former left-wing president Luiz Iñacio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula), supported greater rights for indigenous peoples and curbs on deforestation during his presidency from 2003-2010. He has emphasised environmental concerns even more during his latest campaign. The Amazon is a crucial carbon store and so its survival is vital in the fight against climate change. Look out for an update in November’s news round-up.

Political Uncertainty Reigns in the UK

Following a tumultuous 44 days as the UK’s prime minister, Liz Truss resigned. The damaging effects of September’s mini budget ultimately led to her downfall. Rishi Sunak was very quickly confirmed as her successor but only time will tell whether he will continue with policies seen by many as an ‘attack on nature’. This also applies to new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey. As reported last month, these policies, including the proposed removal of all EU legislation (something Sunak supports) prompted a huge backlash from a range of organisations including the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts. Truss had also come out in favour of fracking and against solar farms, causing consternation from those in favour of renewables.

Solar farm
Liz Truss vowed to restrict new solar farms

Avian Influenza Update

This year’s catastrophic outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) shows no signs of abating. New restrictions were introduced this month in England, Wales and Scotland to try and limit the impact on domesticated birds. Over 30 cases of bird flu have been confirmed in captive birds since the start of October. Anyone keeping over 500 birds must introduce strict biosecurity measures. These include restricting access to visitors and introducing enhanced cleaning of clothes and vehicles. At present, though, owners do not need to keep birds inside. Wild birds continue to be devastated as well with the gannet colony on Grassholm one of the latest affected. Cases are also increasing across the United States as HPAI continues a western spread that began in December last year. Some fear that as migration season gets going, birds will take the virus to their Central and South American wintering grounds.

Environment new round-up avian influenza
In Scotland, HPAI devastated great skuas for the second year running

Autumn Migration gets into Full Swing

As well as causing concern that it may exacerbate the continuing avian flu crisis, autumn migration caused other issues this month. During migration, birds are sometimes blown off course or lose their bearings en route. The Shetland Islands are a hotspot for seeing these lost birds from far away and each autumn hundreds of birders descend on the islands to look for these vagrants. Unfortunately, in their desperation to see, and often photograph, rare birds, some of these ‘twitchers’ are behaving increasingly badly. That was the case this year in Shetland in an incident that made the national news. Twitchers sometimes ‘flush’ tired, hungry birds, forcing them from cover to enable better views, with many concerned about the welfare implications. There were also reports of people obstructing fire stations, roads and trespassing in peoples’ gardens.

White's thrush
This White’s thrush was a rare visitor to Shetland this autumn

Research Round-up

Some of this month’s published research made sobering reading, beginning with the latest Living Planet Report, compiled by the WWF in conjunction with the Zoological Society London (ZSL). The report uses the Living Planet Index to track mammal, fish, bird, reptile and amphibian populations. This year’s report found that the relative abundance of these populations fell globally by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018. Even more worrying is the fact that the most biodiverse regions, including Latin America, have the biggest declines.

Butterfly Conservation published the results of this year’s Big Butterfly Count. Observers submitted close to 100,000 counts during the three-week event. Some species seem to be increasing in both numbers and/or range, with the gatekeeper appearing in the top spot this year after a poor showing in 2021. Common and holly blues also did better than the previous year. However, the Butterfly Conservation scientists are concerned that the overall trend for butterflies is one of decline. The average number of butterflies seen per count was the lowest since the project began 13 years ago.

Environment news round-up common blue
More common blue butterflies were counted this year than last

Two pieces of research on plastics came out in October, both with worrying implications. Early in the month, scientists in Italy revealed that microplastics have been found in human breast milk for the first time. A group of 34 new mothers were tested, with 75% showing traces of microplastics. There is still much uncertainty about the effects of plastics on humans, but the harmful chemicals they often contain is huge cause for concern.

The results of a second piece of research appear to justify these fears. It found that we have been under-estimating the impact of plastics on the internal organs of seabirds. Previously scientists suspected ingestion only impacted the stomach, but this new research shows how plastics cause major organ and tissue damage. The birds involved in the study had all swallowed larger pieces of plastic which then fragmented into microplastics, causing a range of physiological issues.

Fulmars
Scientists are increasingly worried about the impact of plastics on seabirds like these fulmars

Finally, the Met Office published data showing that over half of the UK’s longest running weather stations recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer. Weather stations active for over 50 years provided the data. This summer also saw the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK, with a high of 40.3˚ in July.