6 Things To Know About The State Of The Earth's Health Right Now

If you're wondering why everything's green and covered in environmental slogans on your social media today, here's the reason: it's Earth Day — and you're probably slightly overwhelmed with the environmental overflow of news to "celebrate" it. Global warming! Extinctions! Storms! Huge bonfires made out of illegal ivory! Ecology and the damage to the earth's natural resources, from species to landscapes, is a very big topic, but there are certain subjects that are at the front of everybody's minds right now, whether because of new research or some interesting perspectives on old issues. Get prepared to get knowledgeable about the current state of the earth's health.

If these various tidbits about the state of the earth in 2016 motivate you to take action, there are numerous things you can do. Take on a particular issue or several and lobby for better legislation and wider awareness; donate to charities; or make your life as green as possible, from turning off electronic devices to using energy-safe appliances and planting greenery. And, as one of these news items will make clear, going vegetarian or vegan, at least for a few days a week, looks to be a very big environmental step. But even if you just want to read up on issues to spread the word at dinner parties, I'm here for you; we're going to go for a stroll through the state of the world right now, from oceans to big carnivores, bee populations to deforestation and space.

Come on, guys. Let's get educated and go save the world.

1. Coral Bleaching Has Hit 90 Percent Of The Great Barrier Reef


Coral bleaching is one of the most radical symptoms of rising ocean temperatures worldwide, and it's definitely not a positive. Bleaching isn't actually a sign that coral's dead; in response to stress and fluctuations in temperature, coral will release the algae that gives it any color, "bleaching" it completely white and leaving it vulnerable to bacteria and death later on. And the latest stats for 2016 indicate that the problem isn't getting better; it's getting worse.

For one, a study released this month showed that Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a natural phenomenon that can be seen from space (unlike the Great Wall Of China), has now experienced bleaching of some sort across 93 percent of its expanse. It's been likened to the damage the reef would experience through "ten cyclones at once." And it's not just Australia: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association declared in 2015 that a global bleaching event, the third in recorded history (the first two were in 1998 and 2002) had begun.

2. Global Warming Is Changing The Environments & Bodies Of Polar Animals


The impact of global warming on melting sea ice has been relatively obvious to the naked eye, but scientists are still exploring the impact of that loss of ice on the animals and ecosystems that rely on it. And it's apparent that it's causing changes in the diet and behavior of various animals, from the polar bear to the arctic fox.

Polar bears in Hudson Bay, Canada, have been shown to swim increasingly long distances in search of ice to rest on and hunt, which likely tires them out and may increase mortality rates and lower birth levels. And a current study is investigating how shifts in water temperature (and more swimming) might change polar bear diets. But for other species, it's a loss of habitat that's become the really startling issue: a study from March 2016 revealed that snowshoe hares, the bright white hares that live in northern countries and the upper U.S. states, are increasingly being pushed north by rising temperatures, following the snow, and in the process becoming more vulnerable to predators like coyotes.

3. Microbeads Are Threatening Small Sea Organisms


You'll likely be aware of the war against microbeads, those little bits of plastic that were commonly placed inside exfoliating gels and creams until President Obama signed a law in 2015 that forced all manufacturers in the U.S. to phase them completely out by next year. However, they're still legal in other parts of the world, like the United Kingdom, and that doesn't spell good news. New evidence this week suggests that microbeads are so tiny that they can even interfere with the systems of the truly minuscule water flea, as well as building up in the guts of bigger animals like whales or seals.

4. Satellite Mapping Is Taking On Illegal Logging

Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"Deforestation" is one of those terrifying words that carries an air of doom around with it, and with good reason. LiveScience accumulated a collection of statistics about the clearing of forests worldwide in 2015 that will make you want to go tie yourself to a tree, including the deeply worrying figure that, on average, 36 football fields' worth of forest are cleared every minute. It's bad news for habitats, biodiversity, carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, and basically every environmental issue connected to forestry. And illegal logging is a serious contributor to the problem; according to the World Bank, the world loses $10 billion every year from illegal logging practices, and that's not counting intangible benefits like, you know, giving orangutans a place to live.

There's a new initiative to try and curb the problem, though. On April 20, a new satellite initiative was launched, called Glad (Global Logging Analysis and Delivery), which trawls through new images of forested sites and automatically detects any new logging activity that might not be sanctioned. It then sends the images to governments who can tackle the issue. Stopping logging crimes from space? We're definitely living in the future.

5. The Bee Die-Off May Be Related To Rising CO2 Levels


Bees around the world are dying off, and it's a bit of a mystery as to why. Bees that focus on pollination are responsible for a wide swathe of human crops, from fruits and vegetables to chocolate, so their reduced numbers spell very bad news for our future food supplies. Bee losses first became noticeable in the early 2000s, when managed colonies (beehives kept by humans, in other words) began to die off by an average of 33 percent per year, or one-third of all populations.

The Economist points out three different possible causes for the bee issue: fewer floral pollinating plants to provide them, the increasing spread of disease (particularly as bees are shipped and traded worldwide), and pesticides. But another stressor on a particular bee population has been discovered this week, and it may apply to other bees too.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide seem to be reducing the numbers of the Northern American bee, because they're reducing the protein and nutrition levels of one of their favorite foods: goldenrod pollen. Researchers haven't tracked exactly what the loss of protein has done to the population, but they suspect that the massive drop in nutrition can't have helped colonies survive. Knowing this may help improve things, though; it could mean more investigation into giving bee colonies better, sustainable food sources.

6. New Research Suggests Eating Less Meat Could Help Feed The World

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most common justifications for deforestation, even when operated on a sustainable level, is that we need it to feed the world, because the cleared land can be made into crop-growing fields to fill hungry mouths. But a new study published this week indicates that this may not actually be true, and that deforestation may not be a necessary consequence of an increasing global appetite.

The researchers cooked up a bunch of food-provision scenarios for a future where there was no more deforestation, from everybody being vegan/vegetarian to the use of grazing land: 500 different scenarios, in fact. And they suggest that feeding the world without deforestation is entirely possible, if we use new food technologies and adopt a much less meat-heavy diet (livestock takes up a lot of the earth's agricultural land). So go meat-free for a few days a week; it might help feed the world, and help the environment in lots of other ways, too.

Images: Unsplash; Getty