Fine-rayed pigtoe, Purple cat’s paw and spectaclecase are just a few of the amusing names given to mussels in Appalachia, one of the continent’s oldest, most biologically diverse mountain ecosystems. What’s troubling is how they, along with dozens of other sensitive freshwater species—including darters and dace—are living in streams where, because of mountaintop-removal mining, water-quality measurements have exceeded toxicity and acidity thresholds thousands of times since 1985. And the high levels were not contained to areas around the mines, as previously thought, posing a more serious and widespread threat to more than 50 endangered species, according to a peer-reviewed study published in PLOS One. Defenders of Wildlife’s Center for Conservation Innovation (CCI) and SkyTruth combined water-quality data with satellite imagery of mountaintop removal to estimate the full extent of the degradation.

“This research really emphasizes the interconnectedness of ecosystems and how distant human activity can have ripple effects that aren’t immediately apparent,” says Mike Evans, senior data scientist at CCI, which worked with SkyTruth to combine three decades of water-quality data with satellite imagery. “Being able to assess impacts at a landscape scale opens a completely new door for conservation.” 

Ripple Effects Globe for Winter 2022 Magazine
Kevin Gill/Flickr

One of the most destructive forms of mining, mountaintop removal clear cuts forests and blasts apart summits, rather than tunneling into the earth to reach the coal seams below. Some of the dirt and rock is replaced later but much of it gets pushed into valley streams, damaging water quality. It still continues in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. 

“This research expands the ability for state and federal agencies to make better decisions that directly affect vulnerable people and wildlife,” says Evans. “We hope they will use the study’s results to improve the protection of species and provide a more rigorous scientific standard for mine permitting going forward by representing “best-available science,” the legal standard required under the Endangered Species Act.” 

Comprising less than 5% of the global population at 370 million, Indigenous people—often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged—own, live on or use 25% of the world’s land, safeguarding 80% of its remaining biodiversity. Some of the most biologically important lands and waters remain intact thanks to their stewardship. Their knowledge and expertise on how to adapt and reduce risks from climate change and natural disasters are considered vital. –The World Bank, 2021

More Articles From This Issue

Connected by Culture 

Scientists refer to the diversity of life on Earth as biodiversity, which usually means the diversity of species, genes and habitats. In this essay, a prominent ecologist delves into a fourth area that has been almost entirely overlooked: cultural diversity. He explains that passing down learned skills and knowledge also provides species with ways to stay resilient that can help them adapt to a changing world.

Bringing Back a Big Cat

Some 20 million acres of rugged forest land in central Arizona and New Mexico stretches as far north as the Grand Canyon and covers more territory than some conservation areas in Central America and South America. It also has an abundance of whitetail deer, one of the jaguar’s favorite prey. Scientists say the region could support 100 or more jaguars.

Snake River Dams Must Go

At the mouth of the Columbia River, endangered southern resident orcas gather in early spring hoping to gorge on chinook. The endangered fish—the largest of the West Coast salmon—comprise the majority of the diet of these endangered marine mammals, which often awe tourists and residents when they appear in Puget Sound off Seattle.
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