Noise, Wildfires, and Disruptive Timings of Life Cycles are Looming Environmental Threats, Warns UNEP Report 
noise pollution
Ho Chi Minh City street traffic. The city is one of many that have surpassed acceptable noise levels.

Urban noise pollution, wildfires, and disruptions of life cycles in natural systems are all growing environmental problems with ecological consequences that require greater attention, according to the new Frontier Report published Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The fourth edition of the report, ‘Noises, Blazes and Mismatches: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern’, was released days before the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), to start on 28 February – 2 March. 

The report was first published in 2016 with an alert to the growing risk of zoonotic diseases, four years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Frontiers Report identifies and offers solutions to three environmental issues that merit attention and action from governments and the public at large,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. 

“Urban noise pollution, wildfires and phenological shifts – the three topics of this Frontiers report – are issues that highlight the urgent need to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.”

Urban noise pollution is a growing public health menace 

Algiers is another city where the noise levels have surpassed acceptable levels.

Acceptable noise levels have been surpassed worldwide – in Algiers, Bangkok, Damascus, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Islamabad, and New York, and more. 

Additionally, one in five EU citizens are affected by the growing public health menace of noise pollution, which already contributes 12,000 premature deaths and almost 50,000 new cases of ischemic heart disease  each year in the European Union. 

Unwanted, prolonged and high-level sounds from road traffic, railways, or leisure activities impair human health and wellbeing – with issues including chronic annoyance and sleep disturbance. This can result in severe heart diseases and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, hearing impairment, and poorer mental health. 

Most vulnerable to noise pollution are the very young and the elderly, as well as marginalized communities near high traffic roads and industrial areas, and those far from green spaces. 

It is also a threat to animals, altering the communication and behavior of various species of birds, insects, and amphibians. 

The Frontiers report has called for urban planners to reduce noise at the source; invest in alternative mobility; and create urban infrastructure that creates positive soundscapes such as tree belts, green walls, green roofs, and more green spaces overall in cities.  

Positive examples include London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone, Berlin’s new cycle lanes on wide roads, and Egypt’s national plan to combat noise

Climate change disrupts natural rhythms in plants and animals 

The monarch butterfly’s migration is delayed as a result of climate change, impacting its natural rhythm.

Climate change has increasingly pushed plants and animals out of sync with their natural rhythms, causing interacting species to work off-balanced with each other, or no longer at the same rate. 

Plants and animals in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems use temperature, day-length, or rainfall as cues for when to unfold leaves or flower, bear fruit, breed, nestle, pollinate, or transform in other ways. Phenology is the timing of these recurring life cycle stages that are driven by environmental forces and interacting species in ecosystems. 

However, as a result of climate change, these timings are becoming increasingly disrupted, such as when plants shift life cycles faster than the herbivores that consume them. 

Long-distance migratory species are particularly vulnerable to phenological changes, as climate cues that trigger migration may no longer accurately predict the conditions at their destination and resting sites along the way. 

For example, the 6-day delayed migration of the Eastern Monarch butterfly has impacted their breeding and access to food, and the resilience of the overall species is weakened as a result, impacting other parts of an interconnected ecosystem. 

Crops and commercially important marine species may also shift in their natural rhythms, creating additional challenges for food production that already occur as a result of climate change and COVID-19. 

The report proposes further research be conducted to understand the implications of these phenological mismatches, as well as maintaining suitable habitats and ecological connectivity, strengthening biological diversity, and above all, limiting the rate of global warming by reducing CO2 emissions.

Chief UNEP Scientist Andrea Hinwood


“All governments and all countries need to consider their environmental impacts and they all certainly need to consider the multiple health activities which impact ecosystems and biodiversity and subsequently health,” said Chief UNEP Scientist Andrea Hinwood during a launch of the report.

“All of the actions that will make a difference in terms of protecting the resilience of our ecosystems ultimately protect us because we’re protecting against climate change.”

Wildfires projected to get worse 

Forest wildfires have gotten worse in recent years, with climate change prompting hotter temperatures and drier conditions.

Dangerous wildfire weather conditions are projected to become more frequent, more intense, and more severe, including in areas previously affected by fires. 

This is the result of climate change, including hotter temperatures and drier conditions with more frequent droughts. Intense wildfires can trigger thunderstorms in smoke flumes, generating lightning that ignites other fires beyond the original fire – a hazardous feedback loop.

Already an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface – an area about the size of the entire European Union – has burned each year, between 2002 and 2016. 

In addition, an estimated 67% of annual global area burned by all types of fires, including wildfires, was on the African continent. 

Long-term effects on human health extend beyond those fighting wildfires, evacuated, or suffering losses. 

Downwind settlements, sometimes thousands of kilometers from the source, are still vulnerable to health consequences from fires, especially those with pre-existing illnesses, women, children, elderly and the poor.

Maarten Kappelle, Head of Thematic Assessments at UNEP

The report calls for greater investment in reducing the risks of wildfires; development of prevention and response management approaches to wildfires that address vulnerable, rural, traditional, and indigenous communities; and further refinements in remote sensing, including satellites, radar, and lightning detection. 

“To manage wildfires more successfully, we must take measures that would prevent them from becoming uncontrollable,” said Maarten Kappelle, Head of Thematic Assessments at UNEP.

Image Credits: tph567/Flickr, hyde/Flickr, Paul VanDerWerf/Flickr, UNEP, Project LM/Flickr.

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