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From Extinctions to Melting Ice: 10 Environmental Issues We'll See More of in 2015

10 Environmental stories that will emerge, or grow, during 2015.

The World Resources Institute is about to release its annual forecast of stories to watch for in the coming year. Indian Country Today Media Network has compiled one of our own. Here is a list of currently environmental stories that could emerge, continue dominating, or grow in importance during 2015.

The ‘Anthropocene’ Era

Because we have cut trees faster than they mature, caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans, harvested fish more quickly than oceans can replenish them, and emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than forests and oceans can absorb, we have reached what is being dubbed the Anthropocene age—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new.” The appellation Anthropocene designates this geological period as one in which humans are a dominant influence on the environment, though unlike the Paleolithic and other eras it is not a formally defined geological unit of time. A proposal to formalize the Anthropocene name is being developed by the 'Anthropocene' Working Group, with a target date of 2016. Look for an uptick in news stories about this in 2015. 

Anthropocene is being used more and more by individuals who care about our planet and our environment. It speaks to overconsumption, sustainability and a host of environmental issues. So start bandying the word about yourself, you’re in the know!

Photo: University of Vermont

Climate Change People Power

During Peru’s United Nations Climate Summit, or COP20, in December, the United States and China announced plans to reduce carbon emissions—by 25 percent for the U.S. come 2025, while China pledged to stop CO2 emissions growth by 2030.

But it’s not just governments that need to act. Climate scientists say the future will be influenced not only by governments but also by people in all countries. We global citizens will have to become familiar with our need to reduce our carbon footprint if we are to save the planet from catastrophic climate change impacts.

Related: Has Global Warming Finally Become the Reason to Vote?

Watch for more news on personal responsibility based on issues raised at the COP20, as well as news from the COP21 climate summit in Paris in December 2015, where participating nations have agreed to produce a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, due to start in 2020 and last until at least 2030.

Related: Indigenous Rights Get Little Mention in 2014 Climate Agreement

Climate developments themselves could continue dominating the news, what with 2015 shaping up to be the hottest year on record, hotter even than 2014, which was the hottest year so far, according to records dating back to 1880.

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Nuclear Energy

In November 2013, four top climate and energy scientists—James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley—published an open letter calling on world leaders to support a new generation of safer nuclear power systems in the face of catastrophic climate changes.

A lot of environmentalists did not agree. But in 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that because rapid carbon emission cuts were vital to stop the severe impacts of climate change, the world must build more than 400 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, in addition to aggressively expanding its sources of renewable energy. Watch for action on that to begin in 2015.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Nuclear Reactor.

Sixth Mass Extinction of Species

You might be surprised to learn that giraffes are threatened with extinction.

And so are many thousands of other species, according to the latest Red List of Threatened Species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many scientists believe that our planet is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. And this one seems to be happening at a faster pace than the previous five large-scale extinctions that have occurred over the past half-billion years.

Related: Back From Near Extinction: Kootenais Open First Ever Hatchery for Burbot and Sturgeon

But unlike past mass extinctions, those blamed on asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, we humans are responsible for driving the current crisis, according to sources such as the Center for Biological Diversity. Deforestation, environmental contamination, overfishing, overhunting and climatic changes could push more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction by 2100. Follow Extinction Countdown in Scientific American to learn more.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Nuclear Reactor.

Fracking

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his environmental commissioners banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing in their state on December 17. Look for aftershocks of that decision to be felt in other states and municipalities, even as far away as Europe in 2015.

RELATED: Environmental Win: Gov. Andrew Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State

While science reports used by New York lawmakers hamstrung fracking in that state, the World Watch Institute had already reported that the most “significant environmental risks associated with shale development” is “gas migration and groundwater contamination due to faulty well construction, blowouts, and above-ground leaks and spills of waste water and chemicals used during drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”

Though the World Watch report does not reference earthquakes—another danger that has been associated with fracking—the DeSmogBlog analyzes those and other hazards in their special report, Fracking the Future, which spells out the perils we face from fracking in 2015.

Related: Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes?

Photo: via YouTube

Would you like fries with that?

Massive Earthquake in Pacific Northwest

While it may not happen in 2015, a megathrust earthquake is due in the Pacific Northwest, and when is just a matter of time. Earthquake scientists monitoring seismic activity along Cascadia coast conclude the dangerous fault line is fully "locked,” with serious implications for an earthquake.

A big unknown, University of Oregon geophysics professor Doug Toomey told the Associated Press in December, is how much strain has accumulated since the plate boundary seized up, and how much more strain can build up before the fault rips and unleashes a possible magnitude-9.0 megaquake and tsunami.

Related: Cascadia’s Locked Fault Means Massive Earthquake Is Due in Pacific Northwest: Seismologists

USGS

Water Scarcity

The drought in California was big news in 2014. But 2015 promises bad news on water scarcity around the country, as the U.S. faces increasingly hotter, drier conditions due to climate change. Take the Colorado River, which supplies water to 22 tribal nations: It’s beginning to run dry.

Related: EPA Grants to Drought-Stricken Southwest Tribes Total $43 Million

Or look at Lake Mead, the largest body of water in Arizona: It’s just 39 percent full, the lowest it has ever been, thanks to the prolonged drought in the Southwest. This crisis may soon spread into other areas of the U.S. when local waterways can no longer replenish their resources to meet our growing demand, The Water Project reports.

Photo: kennejima, Flickr

Lake Mead

Population Growth

It took the entire history of humankind for the population to reach 1 billion around 1810, according to Yale University. Just 120 years later, this doubled to 2 billion people, then 4 billion in 1975. It’s risen to 5.8 billion today. It’s expected to rise 7.5 percent to 303.4 million in the United States in 2015. And the human population will increase by 1 billion people in the next decade.

Overpopulation is the elephant in the room when it comes to reporting climate change: It’s rarely reported as associated with the increasing consumption of the earth’s resources that drives climate change, species extinction, stress on water supplies, conflicts, and many other ills. Yet it is such a pressing issue, it may emerge in 2015.

iStockphoto

Ice-Free Arctic

Climate change is affecting the Arctic region faster and to a greater extent than anywhere else. According to the Fifth Assessment Physical Report by the International Panel on Climate Change scientists, the region is the warmest it has been in 40,000 years, with summer sea ice in decline since 1979. Some estimates project an ice-free Arctic Ocean as early as the summer of 2015.

Photo: NOAA

Emerging Health Issues

Environmental health issues such as overpopulation, air pollution, food shortages, natural disasters, water contamination and exposure to toxic substances will increase challenges to human health. Climate change, by enabling diseases and species carrying them to flourish in places they previously could not, helps spread and exacerbate these health problems. 

iStockphoto