Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)
- Will COVID-19 change our food habits?
- Comparing the current drop in carbon emissions to historical ones
- How climate change helped uncover a massive cave in B.C.
Will COVID-19 change our food habits?
On April 20, the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., shut its doors after 515 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the plant. It’s just one of the many meat-packing plants closing across Canada and the U.S. in response to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
These closures have sparked concerns over potential food shortages, although to date none have been reported. But there may be other side-effects to these developments — namely, a change in the way people eat and buy food, which may have knock-on environmental impacts.
Out of concern for the availability of food, for example, some people have turned to creating their own vegetable gardens. But it’s harder to raise a cow or pig in your backyard.
Chris Ratzlaff, a self-proclaimed meat-lover who lives in Airdrie, Alta., said the pandemic has made him rethink his meat consumption. “It’s very early days for me, but it’s definitely something on my radar,” he said. What worries him isn’t the carbon footprint of meat, which is significantly higher than that of plant-based proteins, but the connection between meat production and infectious diseases.
He said his bigger concern is that a lot of deadly viruses “seem to be connected to our heavy reliance on a mass-production meat industry.” For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease, and the 2009 swine flu have been linked to large-scale farming.
A 2016 report by the UN Environment Program warned that “livestock often serve as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and human infections,” adding “this is especially the case for intensively reared livestock.” Some argue that farming on a smaller scale does less damage to the environment, and in the wake of COVID-19, reduces the risk of disease outbreaks.
Ratzlaff, who has “taco night” once or twice a week, said he’s starting to research other options to get his protein, though he’s not counting out meat entirely. One of the changes he’s considering is buying meat locally.
Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said this line of thinking reflects a broader trend. “We are looking at food very differently,” he said.
A recent Angus Reid poll done in conjunction with Dalhousie found that as the pandemic wears on, 50 per cent of respondents intend to buy more local products once things are “back to normal.” The week before, that number was 42 per cent.
Not only that, but even the way we shop is different, particularly when it comes to meal-planning. “Five weeks ago, walking into a grocery store, we were looking for quick fixes,” Charlebois said. “The next day, we’re looking at ingredients for the next couple of weeks.”
While online grocery shopping — which can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping — was something of a novelty before the pandemic, it may become normalized. As a result, local farmers are looking to get into the online food delivery business.
“Right now, my wife and I, we actually buy our fish and seafood from a [delivery] company that didn’t exist two months ago,” Charlebois said.
Buying local may alleviate some concerns over large-scale meat-production farms, but cost can be a holdback, regardless of the environmental benefits.
“People will want to buy local as long as it’s affordable,” Charlebois said. “Governments and politicians and business leaders will always encourage people to buy local. But at the end of the day, the price itself really matters a lot.”
— Nicole Mortillaro
How about you? Are you changing the way you eat and shop? Let us know.
What’s on your mind?
Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.
The Big Picture: The biggest emissions drops in history
Back in January, when China first began to contend with the coronavirus outbreak, it became clear how significant the associated lockdowns would be in reducing carbon emissions as a result of less vehicular traffic, energy-intensive production and overall power use. Since then, much of the world has gone into quarantine to contain the spread of COVID-19, and worldwide emissions have fallen dramatically. The U.K.-based organization Carbon Brief recently estimated that the drop in emissions related to COVID-19 will be the greatest in history — specifically, around 2,000 million fewer tonnes of CO2 than last year. That would mean a decrease of 5.5 per cent. The folks at Carbon Brief caution that this unintended cut still doesn’t get us close to the emissions reductions needed to meet the 1.5 C global limit set by the Paris Accord — to achieve that, we need to cut emissions by more than seven per cent every year for the next decade.
Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web
In another example of how humanity’s retreat during the COVID-19 pandemic is giving nature more breathing room, rare sea turtles have taken advantage of deserted beaches in Thailand to build more nests than they have in two decades.
- In the interests of physical distancing, cities are examining how best to manage public spaces. These experiments can also have environmental benefits. Milan — which is in Italy’s Lombardy region, the maelstrom of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak — has announced that it will be modifying 35 kilometres of streets to create more cycling and walking space. This will allow people to get much-needed exercise, but will also help maintain clean air in a historically polluted area.
How climate change helped uncover a massive cave in B.C.
Researchers have found a large, ancient cave in B.C.’s rugged alpine region that went undetected for hundreds of years largely because it was filled with ice and blanketed by snow until sometime within the last decade.
A scientific paper published this week said a steadily warming climate ate away at the snow plug until it suddenly collapsed, revealing the black hole in Wells Gray Provincial Park before its discovery in 2018.
Geologist Catherine Hickson co-authored the paper, published online in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, after becoming one of the first people inside the cave entrance. She described the pit as an “amazing, earth-formed natural feature,” but acknowledged it was discovered as a result of climate change, “which is unfortunate.”
The cave was spotted after a group of government researchers and biologists flew over the area for a mountain caribou census in the spring of 2018.
While Hickson and other geologists say the hidden cave’s exposure is further proof of how climate change is reshaping the planet, they admit the melt has opened up an opportunity to explore what might be the largest cave entrance of its kind in Canada — a rare opening that could lead to a network of smaller caves and resilient life underground.
The opening of the cave is in B.C.’s Cariboo Mountains. Hickson said the cave acts like a drain for the glacier, swallowing a gushing river created by glacial runoff. The mouth of the cave is a dramatic 145-metre vertical drop into the earth — a pit deep enough to fit the Statue of Liberty.
Hickson said the cave is likely hundreds of thousands of years old. The area around the opening was covered by the perennial snowfield for centuries, the paper found, and was likely exposed in the late 1800s as the glacier slowly withdrew after the peak of the last ice age.
The cave was so hidden that one of Hickson’s eventual co-authors, Bert Struik, didn’t realize it was there when he camped nearby during a mapping expedition in the early 1980s.
“At the campsite, we saw the creek disappear at the cave site and marked its location,” said Struik, a scientific researcher with the Geological Survey of Canada. “We did not make a big deal of it at the time.”
Hickson and other researchers used Struik’s notes from that trip, as well as photos taken of the cave site between 1949 and 2018, to determine the ice plug gave way sometime within the past 10 years.
Brent Ward, a glacial geologist at Simon Fraser University, agreed the massive chunk of ice likely would have stayed in place if not for climate change.
“It’s hard to melt that much material, especially at a high elevation such as this,” said Ward, who did not participate in the research for the paper. “That snow bank and ice would not have melted without the warmer temperatures we’re seeing in the summer.”
Hickson said the sudden nature of the collapse is unsettling.
“I’ve been very aware of the ebb and flow of great glaciers over millions of years…. We’re in an interglacial period. We know that these things happen,” said Hickson. “It’s the rapidity, how rapidly things are happening, that is very disconcerting.”
The cave will not be officially named without consultation with Indigenous communities. Its precise location is kept secret to deter amateur climbers and Instagram tourists from damaging the environment. Trespassers face a fine of up to $1 million.
— Rhianna Schmunk
Stay in touch!
Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].
Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.
Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty