So much happened this past year with respect to the environment that it is hard to know which way to look first. Climate change continued as oceans acidified, glaciers melted and politicians finally sat up and took notice, at least on paper. As environmental developments unfolded, tribes across Turtle Island did their best to mitigate the damage. These 10 major environmental stories of 2013 will no doubt continue to dominate throughout 2014 as well.
1. Climate Change
New computer modeling began revealing just how close Earth is to a tipping point—and how little we know about the interconnectedness of what is happening. The warming trends seemed to have left the atmosphere, at least for now, and moved into the oceans, which the models found are heating up at an unprecedented rate.
2. Extreme Weather
From fire to ice, Indian country was hit by the four elements to the four directions. In South Dakota, a rogue blizzard claimed the lives of 100,000 cattle and other livestock, many of them on tribal lands. Flooding wrecked huge swaths of Indian country. One of the hardest hit areas was Santa Clara Pueblo, whose soils are still stripped from the devastating Las Conchas wildfire of 2011 and which is now subject to flash floods. Tornadoes ripped through parts of Oklahoma.
3. Greenhouse Gases
Methane got a lot of press in 2013. While the influence and volume of methane emitted by melting Siberian permafrost remained unclear, more of the gas was found to be belching from the ocean floor than was previously suspected. In an especially alarming milestone, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases, surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. And at the tail end of the year, scientists discovered another greenhouse gas that is both more harmful and more abundant than the other gases combined—perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), which breaks “all other chemical records for its potential to impact climate,” researchers at the University of Toronto announced on December 9.
4. Ocean Health
The world’s oceans continued to acidify. Their surface temperature reached its highest mark in 150 years, not boding well for what is going on at their depths. Indeed, scientists suspect that much of the global warming phenomenon could be taking place below the surface and that it will manifest itself suddenly, with dire consequences. At the same time, the Pacific continued filling up with garbage.
5. Keystone XL Pipeline
Protests continued against the 1,700-mile-long, $7 billion project designed to carry oil from the Alberta oil sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico coast in Texas. The environmental assessment undertaken by the State Department was released in draft form, saying that the pipeline would have little or no decisive effect on oil sands development, job creation and environmental health in general. Tribal leaders and Nobel Prize winners alike came out against the project, as protests continued and many high-profile activists were arrested. As the year closed, opponents of Keystone XL’s southern leg had lost yet another legal battle, and that section of the pipeline was nearly complete.
6. Ice Melt
The Arctic and Antarctic continued melting, while more and more information came to light explaining how, and what effect it might have on climate in general. The Himalayas, most notably Mount Everest, were found to be shedding their mountain glaciers, as are the Swiss Alps. For a few days over the summer, almost all Greenland’s permanent ice sheet liquefied, at least for a few inches and a few days.
7. Fukushima Radiation & Cleanup
Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown stemming from the devastating 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami began showing up in fish on the west coast of Turtle Island. The Japanese government and utilities finally admitted that tons upon tons of radioactive water was being released into the ocean daily and that many of the melted-down nuclear rods were in a more precarious position than anyone had realized.
8. Animal Species
Bees dropped out of the sky from pesticides; elk dropped dead from toxic algae; starfish began turning to goo. These were just a few of the alarming die-offs that were noted by scientists in different parts of the world. By disturbing contrast, other species were doing a bit too well—feral hogs breeding from Texas through the Plains, and pythons invading the Everglades, for instance.
9. Battles Over Mining, Coal Trains, Fracking and Wind Power
Biggest among the huge roster of environmental battles to choose from was the taconite mine in Wisconsin. The Lummi Nation stood firm against a coal-train terminal in Cherry Point, Washington. Up in New Brunswick, Canada, fracking demonstrations turned violent when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police descended upon a blockade by members of the Mi’kmaq Elsipogtog First Nation. Wind power caused controversy as well, especially with a new permit that renders the killing of eagles by wind turbines legal by defining them as unavoidable collateral damage.
10. Navajo Nation Dances With Coal
Just as the ball was about to drop on 2014, the Navajo Nation finalized the purchase of the effort to take control of coal processing on their reservation. But many called out the deal as flawed, and in December, just as the Nation was winding up its work on the deal, a highly regarded grassroots environmental group came out publicly against it.
The Nation also reached a historic agreement for cleanup of the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station, while renewing the power plant’s lease. Signed by the Nation along with the Department of the Interior, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Salt River Project, Environmental Defense Fund, and Western Resources Advocates, the agreement came hand-in-hand with a cleanup plan for this, the single largest source of nitrous oxide pollution in the United States.