As we begin the countdown for the New Year and prepare to bid adieu to 2015, the hottest year ever recorded on Earth, Patrick Kinsella looks back on the discoveries, developments, disasters and decisions that defined the last 12 months, and finds plenty to both cheer and jeer about in the convoluted plot of the planetary pantomime.
Good COP, Sad COP
If world leaders come good on their end-of-year resolutions, 2015 might be best remembered by future generations for an achievement that took place in the final month. As the warmest year on record raced towards a close, a hugely symbolic success story blossomed in a recently bruised city, with the signing of the Paris Agreement on 12 December, at the end of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (aka COP 21 or CMP 11).
Optimistically hailed as the world’s greatest diplomatic achievement, the 196-country agreement was the product of two weeks of frenetic talks and 23 years of effort to achieve a credible international consensus on the need to address dangerous levels of global warming and anthropogenic climate change. It means both developed and developing countries must limit their emissions to relatively safe levels (2°C with an aspiration of 1.5°C), and a scientific framework has been put in place that—in theory—should ensure such commitments can realistically be met.
Rich nations have agreed to assist poorer countries, and areas affected by climate-related disasters will receive urgent aid. It’s definitely not perfect —the emissions cap established probably won’t prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C threshold that the majority of scientists agree is the limit of safety, after which sea levels are expected to rise irreversibly, and events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves will become more catastrophic—but, well, it’s a start. Albeit a belated one. The agreement could also prove an extinction event for any climate-change deniers left in significant policy-making positions.
Never Rains but it Pours
People across normally frozen parts of North America have just celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas in T-shirts, but NYE fireworks might be somewhat dampened in many places around the world, as the year ends with parts of the UK and South America rapidly disappearing underwater and bushfires savaging southern Australia.
As El Niño returned in typically dramatic style, the weather on Earth spent a good deal of 2015 proving why a consensus on climate change is so urgently required. Droughts and floods were major themes throughout, with deluges bookending the year that saw the planet’s temperature tip over 1°C warmer than the pre-Industrial average for the first time. The direct relationship between climate change and extreme weather is complex, with various local factors shaping specific events, but studies have long shown that the water-holding capacity of air increases by about 7% for each 1°C of warming. This leads to increased levels of vapour in the atmosphere as the evaporation of surface water speeds up (accelerating drought), but it also means that when storms break, they do so with biblical ferocity. In other words, in our new, warmer world, it may rarely rain, but it’s probably going to pour an awful lot more.
The year began with terrible floods in southeast Africa, where at least 176 people were killed in Malawi by a relentless deluge, as El Niño combined with Cyclone Bansi and Tropical Storm Chedza. More lives were lost in Mozambique and Madagascar, and some 400,000 people were displaced across a region where incalculable levels of damage were inflicted on crops, cattle and, of course, wildlife.
Large areas of southern Europe—including Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Macedonia—suffered severe flooding in February and March, and in April the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre came to the conclusion that such events were twice as likely to happen in a warmer climate.
A catastrophic heatwave in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana killed 2000 people midyear, and when the monsoons came they combined with El Niño to produce weeks of torrential downpours, which caused massive floods in Chennai, during which over 400 people lost their lives.
And still El Niño hadn’t finished with Africa. Somalia and Kenya were hit with huge floods in October and November, causing loss of life and homes, and vastly increasing the risk of hunger and disease in already vulnerable populations. In mid December, it was the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa‘s turn.
Meanwhile, in the US, California’s worst ever drought continued as experts began predicting that it would be punctuated by bouts of extreme flooding. Storms and downpours led to the President declaring a State of Disaster in parts of Texas in November, and extreme flooding created a State of Emergency in Oregon and Washington in December.
Britain has been battered several times by extreme weather, with storms bearing such innocuous names as Abigail, Barney and Desmond giving parts of the country a kicking throughout an unusually warm autumn and early-winter period. But the biggest bully of the lot didn’t arrive until Christmas, when the Krampus-like spectre of Storm Frank unleashed an almighty deluge across much of the UK and Ireland. Sections of cities in northwest England began disappearing underwater frightening quickly, as rivers breached their banks, and the situation is still unfolding as we write. Elsewhere, enormous swathes of South America—including Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina—are in flood too.
Arguments raged throughout the year about the relationship between climate change and conflicts such as the one still angrily simmering in Syria. Commentators including Prince Charles were savaged in some quarters for connecting the Syrian situation with the severe drought that affected the Fertile Crescent in recent years, but human-created climate change and conflict are increasingly being linked. Even the Pentagon and US Department of Defence now consider climate change to be a significant ‘threat multiplier’ across multiple regions.
‘Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,’ Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted at the end of last year, and his sentiments were unequivocally backed up by Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech made in November 2015.
‘By fuelling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world—climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere,’ said Kerry.
‘When we talk about climate change, we’re not just talking about the harm that is caused to the habitat for butterflies or polar bears—as some people try to mock it—as serious as those effects might be. We are talking about the impacts on people—people everywhere—of severe droughts, rapid sea level rise. We’re talking about the impacts on whole cities of unpredictable and uncontrollable extreme weather events. We’re talking about the impact on entire countries of fundamental shocks to the global agricultural system.’
Hunters & Hunted
The year kicked off with a purr for feline fans, with figures released by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority in January revealing that the country’s wild tiger population had risen by 30% in four years. Thanks to better habitat management and improved protection from poachers, the number of wild tigers in India had increased from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 by the end of 2014, according to the Status of Tigers in India report.
Flashy smiles turned to pearly white snarls in July, however, when a wealthy dentist from Minnesota murdered Cecil, one of Zimbabwe’s best-known lions, who had been the subject of a long-running study by Oxford University. Cecil, who was wearing a GPS-equipped collar when killed, was illegally lured away from Hwange National Park with bait meat, shot with a high-velocity bow and arrow, tracked for 40 hours and then finished off with a gun. The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force identified Walter James Palmer as the person who paid over US$50,000 for the pleasure of killing the 13-year-old animal. Palmer escaped prosecution, but as public abhorrence was expressed around the world, the lion’s death provoked an enormous backlash against trophy hunting (which is supported by some wildlife groups, including the WWF, as a method of funding conservation efforts), and led to over 40 international airlines refusing to transport big-game hunting trophies. (The debate raged again in October, when an unknown German hunter reportedly paid around US$58,000 to shoot the biggest elephant killed for so-called sport in Africa for three decades.)
A month Cecil’s death, the worldwide release of the film Blood Lions, about the breeding of lions in captivity for use in ‘canned hunts’, further galvanised international outrage about lion hunting, prompting South Africa’s professional hunting association to withdraw support for the industry.
Despite these gains, by the end of the year the scale of the problem facing Africa’s lions was highlighted by reports from the Kenya Wildlife Service that members of the Marsh Pride, a family of lions living in the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwest Kenya, had been deliberately poisoned. The lions, several of which had featured prominently in the popular BBC series Big Cat Diary, ate a cow carcass laced with poison, after apparently killing local farmers’ stock. Eight lions in total were poisoned, and three subsequently died: two lionesses, Bibi and Sienna, and a male named Alan. Human-lion conflict in the area has been escalating because land privatisation is leading Maasai herdsman to illegally take their cattle into the Masai Mara National Reserve to graze at night, where they’re often attacked. Lion numbers in Africa have dropped from an estimated 200,000 to around 30,000 in the last 100 years.
In February, nearly 200 pilot whales stranded themselves on a beach in the shallow waters of Farewell Spit in Golden Bay on New Zealand’s South Island. Locals responded heroically, with a huge effort to save the animals, but many perished.
Much worse was to come later in the year, however, when dreadful evidence of the largest mass whale stranding ever seen was discovered in South America. The bodies of 337 already-endangered sei whales were first spotted from a plane in June, scattered along a remote part of Chile’s Patagonia coastline, but investigators had to wait until the southern summer before they could access the area and begin trying to unravel what had happened. Although scientists are reluctant to speculate until the results of tests come in, one possible cause of the huge die-off is a red tide (bloom of toxic microorganisms, which can occur naturally, but is sometimes created by nutrients from sewage and fertilizer), the like of which has led to deaths in the region previously.
Warming sea temperatures, increased levels of freshwater in the oceans, loss of polar habitats and changes in food supply are all climate-change related issues that biologists believe are having an impact on the health and behaviour of whale populations, according to reports produced by the WWF Global Species Programme and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Whales weren’t the only animals involved in mysterious mass die-off events in 2015. In May, a devastating epizootic illness swept across 168,000 square kilometres of eastern Kazakhstan, wiping out over half of the world’s entire population of saiga—a species of antelope that was once so populous that some wildlife organisations once encouraged use of its antlers as a substitute for rhino horn in Chinese medicine. The die-off was partly blamed on conditions created by higher than normal temperatures, and the scale of the event—which hit the female population particularly hard, as they were gathered in large numbers to calve when the disease struck—was so apocalyptic that the animal is now considered under serious threat of extinction, particularly as poachers were still being caught in possession of large quantities of saiga horns in October.
Poachers get Toasted
Elsewhere, though, it was a bad year for the bad guys in the poaching game, particularly at the pointy end of the bloody trade’s triangle, which conservationists have long urged authorities to target.
After a disturbing census result in June revealed that Tanzania’s elephant population had plummeted by 60 percent between 2009 and 2014, due mainly to poaching, the East African country made two huge arrests in October, starting with the capture of Yang Feng Glan, known as the ‘Ivory Queen’, a Chinese woman charged with smuggling hundreds of tusks into the Asian market. Two weeks later, authorities arrested Boniface Matthew Mariango, nicknamed ‘the Devil’, an ivory kingpin suspected of managing multiple poaching and trafficking syndicates. Both arrests were supported and reported by the increasingly influential website WildLeaks, a WikiLeaks for wildlife crime whistleblowers.
In June, an operation led by Interpol’s Environmental Crimes division and involving detectives from the Kenya Police Service and Kenya Wildlife Service,
resulted in the arrest of tycoon Abdurahman Mohammed Sheikh and his two sons, who are accused of illegally shipping ivory from Mombasa to Asia. The prosecution of another alleged ivory kingpin, Feisal Mohamed Ali, also began in Kenya earlier in 2015, after Interpol featured him on their environmental crimes ‘most wanted list’. He’s charged with possession of tusks weighing over two tonnes, which equates to a minimum of 114 dead elephants.
In July, over 80 countries signed a UN resolution committed to increasing efforts in the fight against wildlife trafficking, and September saw the US and China enter into a renewed agreement to end the ivory trade. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama made a joint pledge to put a permanent end to the ivory trade, both legal and illegal—a hugely significant moment, because the Chinese government has previously encouraged the legal ivory market.
Big progress was also made elsewhere in Asia during 2015. In February, one of Nepal’s most wanted wildlife villains, rhino-poacher Rajkumar Praja, was captured and arrested in Malaysia, after an Interpol-coordinated operation. Over two tons of mostly African-origin elephant tusks and carved ivory trinkets were destroyed in Thailand in August, following the introduction of new laws to stamp out the illegal ivory trade, and in October, Dinh Huu Khao, a Vietnamese timber trader, was jailed for attempting to smuggle a record-breaking amount of ivory out of Togo in 2014, a conviction facilitated and reported on Nat Geo’s new investigative blog Wildlife Watch.
The first Global Divestment Day was held in 2015, with events kicking off around the world on 13-14 February, all calling on governments, individuals and institutions to divest from the top 200 worst offending fossil fuel companies, arguing (not unreasonably) that if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.
Signs that fossil fuel heavyweights wouldn’t have everything their own way did present throughout the year. After a dark period Downunder, when dredging was approved along the seabed around the Great Barrier Reef to enable large tankers transporting coal and gas to access ports, conservationists celebrated a series of major wins in 2015. The Australian government passed two bills banning dredge dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and throughout the World Heritage waters that surround it, safeguarding a fragile ecosystem that supports over 1,500 species of fish, more than 400 types of hard coral, a third of the planet’s soft corals, 134 species of sharks and rays, some 30 species of marine mammals and six of the world’s seven species of threatened marine turtles.
In September, Shell abandoned its controversial attempt to drill for oil in America’s Arctic Ocean, and in November—after chewing on the issue for six years—President Obama finally rejected the fourth phase of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, a 1,897km pipe that would have brought huge amounts of tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf Coast for refining and shipping overseas. The decision was a huge win for conservation groups and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who argued that the project would have had disastrous consequences for the local environment, and also damage the push to move the US away from dependence on fossil fuels towards more sustainable sources of energy. The EPA said the pipeline would have increased emissions by up to 27.4 million metric tonnes per year, the equivalent of building eight new coal-fired power plants.
This was also the year that the Oklahoma Geological Survey officially concluded that the energy industry (namely oil and gas wells, which pump wastewater deep into the ground) was almost certainly to blame for a massive increase in seismic activity in the state—essentially causing manmade earthquakes—and moves began to limit such activity.
Sadly, not everyone was taking notice, and in December the Conservative Government in Britain somewhat sneakily passed a vote allowing fracking for shale gas to take place below national parks and other protected sites—a process that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into a shaft—without allowing time for debate.
It’s been a stellar year for discoveries, on our own planet and beyond. Two dwarf planets—Ceres and Pluto—were explored for the first time ever, signs of life beyond our little sphere began to present themselves and a whole new human species was discovered.
In September—in the same month The Martian was released—evidence was produced by NASA confirming that liquid water is currently flowing on Mars, raising the possibility that the Red Planet has supported life in the past, and perhaps could again.
A month later, Jason Wright, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of the Centre for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, got ufologists very excited by telling The Atlantic that a mysterious and enormous mass orbiting a distant star could be an object, or series of objects, constructed by an alien species. The star—KIC 8462852, which is positioned between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, and is much bigger, brighter and hotter than our sun—is being monitored by the Kepler Space Telescope and a team of Planet Hunters. Something unexplained is in orbit around KIC 8462852, which is creating a light pattern that doesn’t show up anywhere else, across 150,000 stars that the Kepler Space Telescope is constantly staring at. Wright said it could be a ‘swarm of megastructures’, also known as a Dyson swarm, built to harvest solar energy from the star (and remember, that was at least a month before he’d had a chance to see Star Wars—The Force Awakens).
And meanwhile, back on Earth, a whole new species of primitive human, Homo naledi, was discovered in South Africa, in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. The astonishing find was made by a team under Professor Lee Berger, who clambered through a tiny hole in Rising Star Cave and came across 15 partial skeletons, estimated to be around 3 million year old. The collection includes males and female remains of varying ages, providing a one-stop shop for researchers to analyse how these humanoids lived and died. No one is brave enough to say ‘missing link’ yet, but the unprecedented discovery is expected shed light on how humans first evolved.
And lastly, after being up on blocks for two years for an upgrade, the Large Hadron Collider cranked back into action at 10.41am on 5 April 2015, starting a series of smashing experiments that culminated on 25 November with the production of a new record-breaking energy level of more than 1 Petaelectronvolt. Results are still being analysed, but physicists are cautiously talking about findings that might expand the standard model (the paradigm that represents the building blocks of all matter and their relationship with fundamental forces) which at present doesn’t include several things scientists know exist, such as dark matter and gravity, and may prove or disprove the speculative supersymmetry theory.
So, as we leave behind a superhot and highly eventful year, the forecast for the next 12 months looks unsettled, to say the least, but perhaps there are a few patches of sunlight and optimism amongst the grey clouds of doom and gloom.
With El Niño only just reaching its peak, the mercury will certainly keep rising and most scientists expect another record-breaking hot year, which will inevitably be accompanied by a range of extreme weather events—most of which will, as always, do their worst in the planet’s poorest areas, and impact the most vulnerable species.
If the world’s wealthier nations actually put their money where their mouth is (or was, when they were scoffing croissants in Paris), the affects of these events might be mitigated, and we really might even see a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels.
If not—well, at least there’s water on Mars, and possible a super civilisation on a planet in orbit around KIC 8462852—we could always relocate.
Want to read more from 2015? Here are some of our favourite features:
Death on the Steppes: The saga of the saiga antelope
We asked a moose expert what the heck is actually going on in this reader’s video
Siberia’s Tungsuka Event, the unexplainable explosion 1000 times greater than an atomic bomb