What went wrong in the world of science in 2019.
The Amazon ablaze
Forest fires consumed thousands of square kilometers of the Amazon this year, and many blame the policies of Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, for fanning the flames.
Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) estimates the number of fires in the Amazon increased by 44% compared with 2018. One factor was an increase in deforestation, to about 9700 square kilometers in the 12 months through July, the largest area since 2007–08, INPE reported in November. Ranchers and farmers cut down and sell valuable trees and then burn the forest to make space for planting crops or raising cattle. Remote sensing indicated that this year’s fires tended to be far away from where crops are grown, suggesting ranchers were probably responsible.
Since becoming president in January, Bolsonaro has pushed for agricultural development in the Amazon and cut the budget for environmental protection. After the fires started, Bolsonaro blamed nongovernmental organizations for setting them, and called the deforestation figures “a lie.”
When the director of INPE defended the integrity of the agency’s analyses, he was fired. The conflagration and Brazil’s response drew international opprobrium. The United Nations offered assistance, which Bolsonaro declined, and Germany and Norway stopped donating to the Amazon Fund, which supports forest protection. After the international outcry, Bolsonaro sent in the military to help fight the fires, which dropped off sharply in October. —Erik Stokstad
Measles came roaring back in the United States this year and continued an upsurge around the world. Poverty, displacement, conflict, and—particularly in the United States and Europe—vaccine misinformation are all playing a role in the resurgence of a virus that killed an estimated 142,300 people in 2018, and for which there is a highly effective vaccine.
In the United States, 1276 measles cases were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through 5 December, the highest tally since 1992. More than 75% of the cases were linked to outbreaks in New York, primarily among unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities.
The number of cases reported in the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) European Region reached 92,000 in the first half of the year, exceeding the tally for all of 2018, previously the worst year this decade.
Globally, the picture was worse. WHO received more than 440,000 confirmed measles case reports through 5 November—25% more than in all of 2018 and more than twice the number in 2017. The real numbers are likely much larger; WHO estimates that fewer than one in 10 cases is reported. Its estimate of actual 2018 cases: 9.8 million.
Several countries were particularly hard hit. A Ukrainian epidemic spawned by political upheaval and vaccine misinformation led to 56,802 case reports through September. In Africa, Madagascar contended with more than 126,000 cases between January and April, before a nationwide emergency immunization campaign dramatically curbed the epidemic. The Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered still higher numbers: It reported 269,079 cases by 2 December, leading to 5430 deaths, mostly in children under 5 years old. And in the tiny nation of Samoa, where childhood vaccination rates had dropped to about 30%, an outbreak sickened some 4898 people as of 2 December and killed 71. —Meredith Wadman
Bird counts dwindling
A sobering study has documented an almost 30% drop in the number of North American birds since 1970, with common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds declining as well as rarer species. The losses have raised fears that many species could go the way of the passenger pigeon, a species once so abundant that its extinction in the early 1900s seemed unthinkable. Habitat losses and ecosystems under stress from pollution, climate change, and development are among the leading causes.
U.S. and Canadian researchers combined data from annual spring censuses, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, an international assessment of shorebirds, and aerial studies to look for population changes in 529 species. Thanks to conservation efforts, waterfowl and raptors are thriving. But birds living along shorelines are not doing so well—sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third—and the number of birds that inhabit grasslands has declined by about 50% over the past 50 years. Even the most familiar birds are in trouble: Nineteen common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970.
All told, North America now has 3 billion fewer birds, but the situation is not hopeless, researchers say. Reversing habitat loss could stabilize populations. And simple steps, such as keeping cats indoors and planting native plants, can help, says a coalition of conservation groups that has come up with policy recommendations and an action plan for citizens. —Elizabeth Pennisi
An eleventh hour climate awakening?
U.S. public acknowledges climate threat while politicians stall
Advocates for stronger U.S. action on climate change took heart this year from signs that public opinion is swinging their way. Numerous polls showed a rising proportion of Americans believes climate change is real, humans are contributing, and government and industry should take steps to address it. But that shift in public opinion has not resulted in political action at the national level—in fact, the Trump administration pulled back several key climate change regulations this year. And with unprecedented wildfires in Australia and North America, coral bleaching in the Pacific Ocean, and a deadly heat wave in Europe making the cost of warming unmistakable, governments’ failure to curb global greenhouse gas emissions ignited protests around the world.
A survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost 80% of Americans now agree that human activity is fueling global warming, and close to 40% call climate change a “crisis,” almost double the number willing to use that term 5 years ago. A Pew Research Center survey found a similar shift: Fifty-seven percent of Americans now consider climate change a “major threat” to the United States, up from about 40% in 2013. But surveys also reveal deep divides by age, geography, and political affiliation, with older people, those living in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, and those who identify as conservative less likely than other groups to see climate change as a serious threat requiring action.
Local governments in the United States are responding to public concerns. Although most Democratic politicians have long backed government action on climate change, most Republicans have not. But this year, many Republican officials publicly changed their tune. Florida’s Republican governor created a position for a science adviser to help figure out how the state should deal with rising seas and other climate-related challenges. The U.S. Congress, too, saw a glimmer of cross-party cooperation, with lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives establishing bipartisan caucuses to discuss climate.
Yet the Trump administration has forged ahead with a range of policies, including withdrawing from the Paris climate pact and rolling back emission limits on power plants and automobiles, that experts say will make it more difficult for the United States and the world to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. Overseas, like-minded governments in Australia and Brazil also backed away from efforts to address climate change. And this month at a meeting in Madrid, nations that have signed the Paris pact continued to disagree on how exactly to achieve even the relatively modest commitments they have made, let alone strive for the deeper emissions cuts needed to head off dangerous climate change.
Such political developments, together with the world’s continuing appetite for fossil fuels, have cast a pall over efforts to curb warming. Despite the dramatic growth of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, global emissions of greenhouse gases will keep rising if current energy trends continue, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris concluded last month. To make real progress, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said, “We will need to see great political will around the world.” —David Malakoff
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