Human Interaction with the Environment
Humans, like all other life forms, depend on the unique relationships of the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere. We need air to breathe, water to drink, and land to grow the food we eat. But the balance between people and place is fragile. When humans interact with the natural environment there are always consequences. Some of these are intended; some are not. Some consequences are positive and beneficial; some are negative and costly.
For the inhabitants of Lithuania, the beautiful and tempting blue expanse of the Baltic Sea, with its lazy curving beaches, is no longer pure. Into this sea flows the urban and chemical waste from the Baltic States and beyond.
Marine life has suffered as a direct result of Soviet fishing policies. The natural balance has been destroyed by over fishing, and during the 1980s spawning fish levels in the entire Baltic fell by more than 50 percent. In the past 20 years the concentrations of nitrate from improperly treated waste water have trebled and quadrupled during the winter months. This has increased organic material on the sea bottom, which has reduced oxygen levels and led to the decline in numbers of fish. Stocks of whitefish and smelt have dropped, and cod reproduction has been seriously affected.
Naturalists say that some of the Soviet mismanagement of coastal areas has actually protected the whole coast from development. For nearly two generations, most coast land remained unused. For the first time in 50 years, people are re-discovering beautiful beaches, especially the dune-backed Neringa Spit. Soviet control also saved large tracts of woodland and wildlife, sustaining habitats that have completely disappeared elsewhere in Europe. Fortunately, Lithuania has several natural parks and special areas set aside for the study of plants, animals, and geological sites.
Energy is a crucial question, and the search for it has been a major contributor to the pollution of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine stirred fear in Lithuania and other Baltic States, not only because the 1986 explosion caused fallout across the three countries, but also because a plant of similar design was under construction in Ignalina, Lithuania. No geographic survey or seismic studies were carried out before the plant was started. Two reactors are now up and running, but plans for another two at the same site were halted following the demonstrations organized in 1988 by the Lithuanian Greens, an environmental group, and the pro-independence Sajudis movement.
Lithuania has no natural fuel resources and consumes twice as much energy as it produces at the Ignalina nuclear station and at a thermoelectric power plant in Elektrenai near Vilnius. Officials do not plan to close down Ignalina, which produces more than half the electricity generated in Lithuania, but, with the help of Swedish and American experts, they are trying to increase the reactors’ safety. Little has been done to promote heat and light conservation at home. Windows are badly fitted and buildings are poorly insulated. Government attempts to control fuel use during energy shortages have not been successful. Lithuania’s forests are already threatened by a burgeoning black market for timber exports, and with the fuel crisis, they will increasingly be looked to for fuel to heat homes during the long, dark days of winter. Wood and peat currently supply about four percent of Lithuania’s energy needs.
Concerned with environmental deterioration, Lithuanian governments have created several national parks and reservations. The country’s flora and fauna have suffered, however, from an almost fanatical drainage of land for agricultural use. Environmental problems of a different nature were created by the development of environmentally unsafe industries, including the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which still operates two reactors similar to those at Chornobyl’ (Chernobyl’ in Russian), and the chemical and other industries that pollute the air and empty wastes into rivers and lakes. According to calculations by experts, about one-third of Lithuanian territory is covered by polluted air at any given time. Problems exist mainly in the cities, such as Vilnius, Kaunas, Jonava, Mazeikiai, Elektrenai, and Naujoji Akmene–the sites of fertilizer and other chemical plants, an oil refinery, power station, and a cement factory. Water quality also is poor. The city of Kaunas, with a population of more than 400,000, still has no water purification plant. Only one-quarter of sewage-contaminated water in the republic is processed because cleaning facilities are not yet available. River and lake pollution also is a legacy of Soviet carelessness with the environment. The Kursiu Marios (Courland Lagoon), for example, separated from the Baltic Sea by a strip of high dunes and pine forests, is about 85 percent contaminated. Beaches in the Baltic resorts, such as the well-known vacation area of Palanga, are frequently closed for swimming because of contamination. Forests affected by acid rain are found in the vicinity of Jonava, Mazeikiai, and Elektrenai, which are the chemical, oil, and power-generation centers.
As a Soviet republic, Lithuania was among the first to introduce environmental regulations. However, because of Moscow’s emphasis on increasing production and because of numerous local violations, technological backwardness, and political apathy, serious environmental problems now exist.
Environmental issues effect every life on this planet from the smallest parasite to the human race. The reason for this is simple. A single disruption in the Earth’s delicate balance can mean certain destruction of the very place that cradles the lives of many species. What is not so simple is finding alternatives to the now dangerous and confronting acts of planet degradation that have been afflicted on the planet over recent years. One such issue that requires consideration is deforestation. Trees have been or are being cut down at increasingly high rates. If this is not stopped many unfavorable side effects could result.
Without air there can be no life. Without air of good quality there cannot be a healthy life. Air pollution is an old problem, which has in this century assumed wide economic and social significance. Perhaps the first general realisation of the new dangers came with the great London smog of December 1952. For five days the capital of England was enveloped in a grey shroud, and over 4 thousand people had died and incalculable numbers had suffered a worsening of bronchitis and heart disease.
An average person requires over thirty pounds of air a day or about six pints every minute. Daily the individual draws 26000 breaths, between 18 and 22 each minute, many of which are of filthy air. The lungs of town inhabitants are usually greyish in colour, those of country people are normally pale pink.
The air is being polluted by acid gases, dust, petrol and diesel fumes and poisonous chemicals. These come from cars, factories and power plants.
Of all the pollutants, that taint the air, fine suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and ozone pose the most wide-spread and acute risks. However, airborne lead pollution, coming from car exhausts, is a critical concern in many cities as well.
Other very dangerous pollutants are sulphur and nitrogen oxides. These gases are released by factories and power plants when fossil fuels are burned and by cars. These oxides reach high into the atmosphere and mix with water and other chemicals to form rain that can be as acid as vinegar. Acid rains are responsible for the decline of many forests. Tiny droplets of acid attack plant leaves, disrupting the production of chlorophyll. It also weakens the tree by altering the chemistry of the soil that surrounds its roots.
Acid falls down to earth as rain and snow. Black snow, as acid as vinegar, fell in Scotland in 1984.
Acid rain affects everything it falls on. Rivers, lakes and forests are at risk throughout Europe and North America. In Sweden more than 18000 lakes have become acidic, 4000 of them very seriously indeed. This kills fish and drives out fish-eating wildlife.
Forests are particularly badly affected by acid rain and in many places previously green, luxuriant trees show bare branches at the top, stripped of foliage. In West Germany 50 per cent of trees are affected and, unless some curb is placed on pollution, the figure is certain to rise. In Austria, if nothing is done, scientists and environmentalists have predicted that there will be no trees left by the end of the century.
There is a possibility that damage to ecosystems from acid deposition may be more fundamental and long-lasting than was first believed. Scientists now report that acid rain leaches as much as 50 per cent of the calcium and magnesium from the forest soils. These minerals neutralise acids and are essential for plant growth. If soil chemistry is changed in this way, it may take many decades for all linked ecosystems to recover. Besides this, acid rain releases heavy metals and other toxic substances, providing a persistent source of toxicity to surrounding vegetation and aquatic life.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century, more than 300 million hectares of tropical forests – an area larger than the size of India – have been cleared for plantations (including palm oil and soy), agriculture, pasture, mining, or urban development.
Over the next 25 years, a further 250-300 million hectares of tropical forest are likely to be lost in this way.
Fires good and bad
Fire is sometimes essential for forest regeneration, or provides tangible benefits for local communities. In other cases it destroys forests and has dire social and economic consequences.
Forest fires are a natural part of ecosystems in many, but not all, forest types: in boreal and dry tropical forests for example they are a frequent and expected feature, while in tropical moist forests they would naturally be absent or at least rare enough to play a negligible role in ecology.
When fires become a problem…
Fires become a problem when they burn in the wrong places, or in the right places but at the wrong frequency or the wrong temperatures. Fires in forests that burn under natural circumstances become a problem when those forests are used for a particular purpose, such as settlement or timber production.
Pervasive human influence
Globally, most forest fires are probably now directly or indirectly influenced by humans. But in many areas that are hot and dry for part of each year, where frequent fires would be expected, human influence has now become so pervasive that most fires are ‘unnatural’
In some countries in South East Asia, Africa and Latin America up to 80 per cent of all trees are cut illegally. In Russia, it’s up to 50 per cent, and the country loses US$1billion in revenue annually due to illegal logging and the associated trade.
Half of all the world’s original forest cover has already disappeared and much of that destruction has taken place over the last 50 years.
The greenhouse effect results from “the dirty of the atmospheric infrared window” by some atmospheric trace gases, permitting incoming solar radiation to reach th surface of the Earth unhindered but restricting the outward flow of infrared radiation. These atmospheric trace gases are referred as greenhouse gases. They absorb and reradiate this outgoing radiation, effectively storing some of the heat in the atmosphere, thus producing a net warming of the surface. The process is called the greenhouse effect.
This global warming trend can cause a significant global climate changes. Human society is highly dependent on the Earth’s climate. Climate patterns and human adaptations determine the availability of food, fresh water, and other resources for sustaining life. The social and economic characteriatics of society have also been shaped largely by adapting to the seasonal and year-to-year patterns of temperture and rainfall. Some potential effects associated with climate change are listed in the following.
The enhanced greenhouse effect will result in significant chnages in local, regional, and global temperatures. Some climate models predict that the buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases will result in significant increases in the global mean temperture, ranging from 0.8 to 4.1 K from 1980 to 2030. At or near the poles, glacial and surface ice and snow may begin to melt, raising the mean height of the world’s oceans by as much as 20 cm by 2030 and 65 cm by the end of the next century. This will lead to flooding of many low-lying areas of the world presently occupied by hundreds of millions of people. Scientists are also concerned about the response of living systems, including humans, to temperture increases of up to 4 K over a period of only several decades. There are many questions and uncertainties about the impact of a global warming on our planet and its varied forms of life. A better understanding of these processes and couplings will help to better estimate the environmental, economic, and human health risks from an enhanced greenhouse effect.