The Top 10 Geographical Changes of the Decade resulted from both geo-political and geological forces. Most are geological events that mark a collision course between commercial/industrial development and ecology.
The scale of these changes is so extraordinary that it is almost impossible to rank them by their significance, which, in all cases, resonates many decades into the future.
10. Death of the Dead Sea: The Dead Sea is shrinking by one meter per year, and the surrounding land is developing large, irreparable cracks that have forced farmers and businesses to relocate because Israeli and Jordanian water diversion projects along the Jordan River sap all but a small stream of the Dead Sea’s source water. The water that does reach the lake is heavily tainted by raw sewage from upstream countries. Industries along the shore contribute to the problem by creating evaporation pools for harvesting minerals.
9. Oceanic Garbage Patches: In recent years, scientists have discovered that debris in the oceans accumulates in a gyre of currents, creating what is commonly referred to as “garbage patches,” but may be more properly described as “plastic soup.” In 1999, Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) founder, Captain Charles Moore, discovered the accumulation of confetti-sized bits of plastic and miscellaneous other refuse in the “North Pacific subtropical gyre, now commonly referred to as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’” (algalita.org). The eastern portion of the gyre, AMRF’s original study area, is about twice the size of Texas. Moore’s team has taken samples from thousands of miles of ocean, and every one of them has contained plastic. This is a serious threat to the fish, birds, and other marine creatures that consume this toxic trash, as well as a potential threat to the humans that eat them.
8. Separation Wall: Israel is constructing a barrier to separate itself from the Palestinian West Bank. According to B’tselem, much of the wall is located in the West Bank, instead of along the Green Line (the recognized boundary), so Palestinian land is pulled into Israel’s territorial claim. Many Palestinians are cut off from their own farm land or from the markets where they sell their produce. They are also isolated from roads, schools, and medical services.
7. Hurricane Katrina/Broken Levees in New Orleans: Before New Orleans could recover from Hurricane Katrina, the levee system failed, flooding 80% of the city and some surrounding parishes. Around 1300 people died (according to CNN; the Brookings Institution says 1800 died), and thousands were left homeless and unemployed. Even now, four years later, jobs and affordable housing are hard to find. Rent rates have increased, and there is a lack of subsidized housing, since the city decided not to rebuild some of the damaged public housing structures. The crisis has also precipitated the demise of public schooling in America: sixty percent of students are enrolled in private charter schools (Katrina Information Network).
6. Earthquake in Sichuan: In May 2008, the Sichuan province of China was devastated by an earthquake that, according to a Columbia University scientist, may have been caused by the construction of a dam near a major fault line. Around 70,000 people were killed and 10 million left homeless by the quake, which also altered the landscape by destroying farmland, leveling villages, and creating lakes. According to telegraph.co.uk, millions are still homeless.
5. Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake (and tsunami): In December 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale triggered a tsunami that affected people in thirteen countries, killing more than 227,000 people and displacing 1.8 million. The livelihoods of 1.5 million people were destroyed, and hundreds of square kilometers of vegetation were obliterated.
4. Melting Himalayan Glaciers: According to NASA, areas of the Himalayas are warming five times faster than the rest of the Earth, and glaciers are quickly disappearing. The temperature increase may be a result of black soot deposits—a byproduct of industrialization in nearby China. The Himalayan glaciers—one of the planet’s largest sources of fresh water—are critical to the survival of the peoples of the Asian sub-continent.
3. Deforestation in the Amazon: Around 140,000 square kilometers of the Amazon have been deforested in the last decade. This destruction has profoundly affected our planet because forests remove carbon dioxide from the air; as the forest dwindles, the CO2 increases and contributes to global warming. For most of the decade, deforestation progressed unchecked, but Brazil’s bold steps in 2009 reduced deforestation by 45% (mongobay.com).
2. Melting of Polar Ice: According to NASA, large portions of the Antarctic ice shelf have broken off from the mainland and disintegrated. While this event did not raise ocean levels (since the mass of the ice was already present in the ocean), it did clear the way for glaciers that had been supported by land to slide into the sea and cause sea levels to rise. The disintegration of ice is a self-perpetuating cycle because ice helps maintain global temperatures by reflecting sunlight.
The disappearance of Arctic ice carries the same dangers as melting of Antarctic ice, but it also has a more direct impact on human and animal populations. Hunting has become more difficult for indigenous peoples because shifts in the weather and landscape have caused arctic and marine wildlife to alter their migration patterns. The very existence of some arctic species has been threatened by the rising water. Polar bears, for example, often drown in their search for food because there are fewer ice islands at sea (NRDC).
1. Ecological Crisis at Lake Victoria: Although this crisis appears to be confined to a single lake in Africa, it is listed number one in this top-ten list because it serves as a metaphor for the problem at the heart of most of the geographical changes listed above: humans expect the Earth to continue to provide abundant resources as quickly as they can be used. Lake Victoria serves as a metaphor but is a crisis in its own right. The livelihood of 30 million people depends upon this single, expansive lake. But the water level is declining, toxins are building up, the number of fish is dwindling, and the amount of harmful algae is increasing. Disaster can be averted if there is a concerted effort to rehabilitate the lake and reorganize commerce and industry in the area. Similarly, we may be able to avoid global disaster if we muster our ingenuity to develop new forms of energy, more efficient processes, and a collective mindset that willingly accepts change.
As we look forward to a new year, let’s consider how we can give new life to our planet.