Warming Trends: Lithium Mining’s Threat to Flamingos in the Andes, Plus Resilience in Bangladesh, Barcelona’s Innovation and Global Storm Warnings

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Andean Flamingos taking flight at a lagoon in the Atacama Desert near San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Andean Flamingos taking flight at a lagoon in the Atacama Desert near San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

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SCIENCE

How EVs Affect Flamingos in Chile

Beneath the saline lakes high in the Andes Mountains in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia lies the world’s largest trove of lithium, a metal used in batteries for electric vehicles and to store power generated by wind and solar.

This resource is already being tapped by multinational corporations, but scientists warn that their operations, which require high volumes of water, have a big environmental footprint. Combined with climate change—the very problem that lithium batteries that power clean energy technologies are used to solve—the saline lake ecosystems face a one-two punch. 

Flamingos are just one species that call these saline lakes home, eating algae and insects and rearing their young around the ponds, which in the arid Andes are often the only source of water.

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A new study by researchers in Chile and the United States found that the numbers of two species of flamingos in the Salar de Atacama, a system of saline lakes where lithium mining is concentrated, have decreased by 10 to 12 percent in just 11 years. Using remote sensing technology, the researchers found that surface water area had declined significantly as a result of increasing temperatures driving evaporation and increased water demand from mining operations depleting the ponds. 

“That’s a pretty substantial decline, especially when you think about the fact that these flamingos live a really long time but breed really slowly, so they’re not having a lot of young each year,” said study co-author Nathan Senner, a population biologist at the University of South Carolina. “So declines of these long-lived species are potentially much harder to come out of because that reproductive process is just so slow.”

Flamingos bring tourists to the area, fueling the local economy, Senner said. But as lithium mining expands in the future beyond the Salar de Atacama and climate change intensifies, flamingos will have fewer suitable habitats and could see population declines, he added. 

Solutions to this problem could include recycling lithium in used batteries or finding ways to mine lithium with less water, Senner said. But Chile, the country where the Salar de Atacama is located, is currently rewriting its constitution, with climate change and environmental issues at the forefront. In the years to come, Chile might reevaluate who really owns natural resources, who can profit from these resources and whether nature has its own rights. 

“Different kinds of decisions might be made,” Senner said, if Chile redefined ownership “in a more inclusive way.”

SOLUTIONS 

Global Storm Warnings

A warning 24 hours ahead of storms or heat waves can save lives and can vastly reduce the cost of damages, a 2019 report said. Yet 30 percent of the world’s population lacks access to alerts that warn of incoming disasters. In Africa, 60 percent of the population does not receive early warnings. 

But the United Nations announced a goal on Wednesday of providing access to an early warning system for every person on Earth. In a March 23 speech, U.N. secretary general António Guterres asked the World Meteorological Organization to come up with an action plan to implement early warning systems globally within five years. The WMO will deliver its plan to build on existing systems and close gaps at COP27, the U.N.’s upcoming climate change conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November.

Over the last 50 years, a weather or water related disaster has occured on average once every day, somewhere in the world. On average, these disasters kill more than 100 people and cause more than $200 million in losses daily. 

The current lack of access to early warning systems is “unacceptable,” Guterres said, “particularly with climate impacts sure to get even worse.”

Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and heat waves, sparing no part of the planet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found. 

Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the WMO, said in a news release that $1.5 billion would need to be invested over five years to implement and expand these early warning systems in developing nations. 

“We must boost the power of prediction for everyone and build their capacity to act,” Guterres said in his speech. “Let us recognize the value of early warnings and early action as critical tools to reduce disaster risk and support climate adaptation.”

CULTURE

Resilience in the Face of Catastrophe

In November 1970, the infamous Great Bhola Cyclone made landfall on the coast of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), descending on a massive, unprepared population living on the marshy coast. Half a million people were killed. 

In the wake of the storm came an upended election, a genocide, a war for liberation, a world pushed to the brink of nuclear war and, eventually, a new nation.  

That’s the story chronicled in a new book “The Vortex,”  by Scott Carney and Jason Miklien, scheduled for release on March 29. The story of the cyclone, the authors argue, reveals something about what we can expect to see in the future, as climate change makes such storms more likely. 

Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Carney. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The connection between climate change and extreme weather events like the cyclone that hit the coast of East Pakistan in 1970 is becoming clearer as science advances in this area, though at the time of the storm it almost certainly wasn’t considered. How do you see climate change fitting into the story you’re telling in this book?

We see how in this one storm in 1970, which was not probably caused by climate change, right, it was probably just caused by storming. But when storms happen, they land on coastlines just like they land on political situations. Same as a wildfire, same as anything. The thing with climate, as we know, and the Department of Defense has written numerous reports about how climate events can cause war. The thing is, the more of these climatic events that occur, the more chances we have for something like the Bhola cyclone.

Jason Miklien (left) and Scott Carney are co-authors of the new book "The Vortex," a story about the fallout from the Great Bhola Cyclone which struck East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1970. Photo Courtesy of Scott Carney
Jason Miklien (left) and Scott Carney are co-authors of the new book “The Vortex,” a story about the fallout from the Great Bhola Cyclone which struck East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1970. Photo Courtesy of Scott Carney

Every time you have a storm, you roll the dice. And you know, if you get the wrong combination, you can end up in a war. The thing about climate change is that we’re rolling those dice more frequently. And as we see more impacts, not only storms but also all of the other things that climate change does, wildfires, floods, whatever it is. All of those seemingly neutral events are not neutral when you deal with humans.

The nation of Bangladesh is arguably the country most vulnerable to climate change today, with millions of people living in low lying areas with virtually nowhere to go. Can Bangladesh’s tumultuous history tell us anything about what to expect for this country?

Since the Bhola cyclone, they have made some enormous steps to mitigate the worst impacts of storms. They now have cyclone structures, they have actual plans to evacuate people, they’re actually adapting to something that is becoming increasingly likely, that is inevitable. 

And they know that they’re going to lose a lot of their landmass. But they also realize that as that saltwater comes up, people will then move inland and they will have to adapt, and I think that what I’ve seen from the Bangladeshis that I’ve spoken with is this. There is a sense of resilience in the face of catastrophe that we all as humans right now on the Earth need to also inhabit. 

SCIENCE

Animals Preventing Climate Change 

Pleas for the conservation of animals like elephants, rhinos, moose and buffalo often rely on the beauty and majesty of these creatures. Yet preserving large mammals can be important for preventing and adapting to climate change, a new research paper has concluded. 

The study, published in the journal Current Biology and commissioned by the animal conservation group Tusk, found that large mammals help ecosystems survive in the face of warming temperatures in three ways: reducing fire risk, increasing the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface and storing more carbon in the soil.

“Where can the resources for climate also help the conservation of animals? Where can the conservation of charismatic animals also help with climate change?” said study author Yadvinder Malhi, a professor at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “We identified areas where there were win-wins.”

Large animals graze on or trample shrubby vegetation, which helps reduce fire risk by reducing the woody kindling that helps wildfire spread. Reducing dark-colored trees and bushes helps expose the light-colored grasses beneath which reflect more sunlight, reducing the amount of heat absorbed by Earth’s surface. And although it may sound counterintuitive, when these animals eat or crush carbon-storing vegetation from the above-ground environment, they can lock that carbon away in the below-ground environment by trampling shrubs and packing vegetation into the soil. 

Malhi said that nature-based climate solutions often focus on plants and soils for their carbon-trapping capabilities, but he argued that animals also have a significant role to play, and this must be studied more in all types of ecosystems. 

“Animals can be part of the solution to climate change,” Malhi said. “But we’ve still got to tackle fossil fuels, and we don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’s OK to protect elephants,’ and forever delay action on the bigger climate problem.”

SOLUTIONS

In Barcelona, ‘Superblock’ Parties

In Barcelona, some streets are blocked off to through traffic and pedestrians can walk freely in the streets. These are “superblocks,” often three-block long stretches where children play on jungle gyms in the street and vendors sell goods to passers by, while cars are relegated to driving on the roads around the perimeter. 

The city in Spain started establishing superblocks in 2016 and has a plan to keep adding more. One of the reasons for doing so is to reduce reliance on polluting cars and prioritize walking and cycling, which are better for the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and better for human health, reducing unhealthy air pollution and increasing physical activity.

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A new study looked at whether the superblock concept would be feasible in other large cities around the world. The study, conducted by Sven Eggimann, a researcher at Empa Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, found that the potential for superblocks varied significantly based on a city’s layout, but that as much as 40 percent of streets in some cities were suitable options for superblocks.  

“This algorithm sort of allows you to, for every street, calculate how big the impact would be if the street section would be missing,” said Eggimann. “If you’re looking at the city on the street network, some streets are obviously very important, like if they have bridges or, if there are not too many alternative routes. So the algorithm sort of calculated which streets are important for the flow of the entire city.”

Some of the most suitable cities examined included Madrid, Mexico City and Tokyo, favored for their grid-like layout, similar to Barcelona’s, while cities like Atlanta, London and Hong Kong were less suitable, for reasons such as low density or too many busy streets in the way.