EDITORIAL: What’s that buzzing sound?

ENOUGH, ALREADY about the government shutdown and trashing the full faith and credit of the United States! What about monster hornets?
These bugs aren’t called the “Asian giant” for nothing. The New York Times reported last week that the hornets are swarming in Shaanxi Province southwest of Beijing, where they have killed 42 people and injured 1,600 with their “highly toxic” venom over the last few months. Yikes!

Odd things happen all the time in nature, and the story gave no clue as to why these critters have become so aggressive. But it makes you think a little harder about the term “invasive species.” Last week we reported an update from a member the county Environmental Management Council, who told the Chatham Town Board about the advance of the emerald ash borer. This small, non-venomous beetle also stems from Asia but showed up here in 2002, reproducing rapidly in ash trees, which are common throughout much of North America. Ash borer infestations kill ash trees, and experts don’t expect any trees in the wild to survive.


We humans have some ancient experience built into our DNA in this regard, having been an invasive species ourselves. Since then humans have weathered challenges worse than the plants and animals–zebra mussels, milfoil and West Nile virus to name just a few–that have generated recent headlines more for the inconvenience they cause or the loathing they evoke than for the threats they pose to our lives or livelihoods. But you don’t have to be a scientist to marvel at the pace at which new species seem to arrive here and make themselves at home.

As far as we know, other species don’t sit around and plot which countries they’ll invade next. Scientists say that organisms of various kinds get delivered to new places where they have no natural predators as people travel around the globe and across natural barriers like the Hudson River. Think about someone who hauls ash firewood from Greene County, where the ash borer has been found, to Columbia County, where it isn’t yet confirmed. In one of those loads the beetles will hitchhike to new breeding grounds here they might not have reached so easily on their own.

Don’t blame the ash borer. Species that fail to acquire new habitats when their old ones are disrupted aren’t just non-invasive; they’re extinct. Think about the dinosaurs. They disappeared 65 million years ago in a great extinction event. Might it happen again?

You have to look even further back in the planet’s history, about 300,000 million years ago, to find a time when the oceans of the Earth were as acidic as they are today. That’s according to a report from an international panel of marine scientists released last week.

The panel says the geologic record shows that the acid level of ocean water today has increased more rapidly than at any time in the past and that could contribute to a new mass extinction. The scientists believe the major cause of the rise in acid level is carbon dioxide from human activity.
Maybe these distinguished researchers are alarmist eggheads who can’t see the bright side of turning the seas into vinegar. But doesn’t it make more sense to ask what we should we do now to improve our chances of faring better than the dinosaurs?

But some of the people elected to help protect and defend the nation and, presumably, the species they’re part of, have been content to shut down government as the alarms are growing louder.

The odd thing is, when it comes to addressing the threat of human activities fouling our water with acid, we have a successful model at hand. A couple of decades ago fish and other wildlife in the lakes of the Adirondacks and other parts of the Northeast were disappearing because of acid rain from power plants. States in the region worked with the federal government to achieve a dramatic reduction in acid rain without the economic disaster predicted by opponents.

Slowing climate change is far larger and more complex challenge than acid rain, but the principles are the same. Acknowledge the problem, make solving it a priority and work relentlessly toward the solution.

But right now research that will help us determine how best to protect ourselves is stalled by the shutdown, as leaders of the House of Representatives and their supporters posture and fume. That’s a gift to invasive species. The rest of us might wonder what planet the leaders inhabit.

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