Boing Boing 

Inviting all Eco-Futurists to Bioneers, Oct 17-19/Marin, with Kim Stanley Robinson


Josh writes, "Boing Boing readers and Eco-Futurists are invited to the 25th Annual Bioneers Summit Conference in Marin, CA, October 17-19. Enter BOING4BIONEERS at check out for an exclusive 25% discount!"

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Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books to be adapted for TV

The books, which are among the best science fiction ever written, have been picked up by Game of Thrones co-producer Vince Gerardis, which bodes very well for the adaptation.

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The limits of animal life on Tatooine

Maggie Koerth-Baker on why the megafauna of George Lucas' parched desert world makes no sense. It's not the dry heat that's the problem; it's the food supply.Read the rest

The revenge of the lawn

Author Mark Dery charts America's ecocidal obsession with nice grassRead the rest

Australian government to dump 3,000,000 cubic meters of dredged sea-bottom on the Great Barrier Reef


In December, the Australian government approved a plan by India's Adani Group to expand a coal port, and now the government's given the go-ahead to dump the 3,000,000 cubic meters of muck that will be dredged for the project onto the struggling Great Barrier Reef. The GBR, which is a World Heritage Site, is already officially classed in "poor" health, and the ocean floor around it will now be smothered with vast amounts of waste, destroying fragile habitats and crippling a key player in the world's ocean ecology. The Australian government says that the reef will not suffer as a result, but independent scientists who investigated the question firmly disagree.

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What Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon have in common



"North Rim Grand Canyon Cape Royal," for Shutterstock by Erik Harrison.

Mount Everest isn't the only natural wonder experiencing a ridiculous increase in tourism --and, with it, trash, ecological damage, and risk. At the Arizona Republic, Brandon Loomis writes about the massive increases in athletic backcountry tourism at the Grand Canyon. It's easy to see the similarities to previous stories you've read about crowds of hikers on Everest. Just last month, Loomis writes, 224 rim-to-rim hikers — people who march down one side of the canyon and back up the other in a day, a vertical change of 10,000 feet — converged on a rest area all at once.

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One of the last known photos of the Formosan Clouded Leopard is a picture of a vest

It's a nice-looking vest, but it does make a rather strong point about humans' role in animal extinctions. The Formosan Clouded Leopard was one of the animals declared extinct in 2013.

Everything you wanted to know about eel farming, but were afraid to ask

At Buzzfeed (Yes, Buzzfeed. Yes, I know.) Peter Andrey Smith has written a fascinating, long-form story about the American/Asian eel industry, eel life cycles, and where your sushi roll really comes from. Turns out, like pandas, eels don't breed well in captivity. So, in order for farmers in Japan, Korea, and China to raise eels for markets in both Asia and the U.S., they first have to get a hold of large quantities of sort-of preteen eels, known as elvers. The elvers come from Maine, where a pound of the live creatures can fetch thousands of dollars and elver dealers engage in turf battles and drive around with Glocks in their pickup trucks.

Town swallowed by sinkhole

Bayou Corne, Louisiana is being swallowed by a massive sinkhole. Yes, the whole town. OK, it is a small town. But it's definitely a massive industrial disaster. Tim Murphy reports for Mother Jones.

Blue Lagoon dyed black

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NewImageThis stunning lake at Harpur Hill in the East Midlands of England is just begging you to dive in, no? Problem is, the quarry pool, known as the Blue Lagoon, has a pH level comparable to bleach and is teeming with garbage and dead animals. The bright blue hue (and the high pH) comes from the quarry stone. Signs warning visitors not to take a dip didn't work, so now the High Peak Borough Council recently dyed the water black. "It's not pretty any more," local business owner Rachel Thomas told the BBC. "They don't think they're on holiday in the Bahamas any more, they know they're in Harpur Hill."

Hot pink slugs

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This fantastically pink slug, Triboniophorus aff. graeffei, is only found on Mount Kaputar, a mountaintop in New South Wales, Australia. According to scientists, the slugs and several other strange species are from the days when this region was a damp rainforest. When Mount Kaputar erupted 17 million years ago, it preserved a very unusual ecosystem. "A series of volcanos and millions of years of erosion have carved a dramatic landscape at Mount Kaputar National Park, creating a fascinating world with some very colourful locals," writes the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service on its Facebook page. More info in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Thanks, Gabe Adiv!)

Ancient forest off the coast of Alabama

Sixty feet under the Gulf of Mexico lie the remains of an 50,000-year-old forest. Diver and photographer Ben Raines took some amazing photos of the site and sent samples of the trees — which still look like trees — to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for radiocarbon dating. You can see sap in a cross-section of the wood and, when it's cut, Raines says it still smells like fresh cypress.

Ant wars: Battle of the invasive species

There's a war on in America, pitting invasive ant against invasive ant in a fight to the finish. It's sort of like Alien vs. Predator, in a way, because whoever wins ... we lose. Argentine ants (the reigning champions) have wiped out native ant species in many of the environments they've invaded over the years, affecting the survival of other animals that used to feed on those ants. Worse, they have a fondness for certain agricultural pests, like aphids. In places with lots of Argentine ants, aphids do very well — and plants do worse.

But now the Argentines are facing a serious challenge in the form of Asian needle ants, another invasive species that — for reasons nobody really understands — have suddenly gone from minor player to major threat in the last decade. The big downside to Asian needle ants: They sting. They sting us. And, right now, it looks like they're winning.

John Roach tells the story at NBC News. But you can get a good idea of what this matchup looks like by checking out the work of insect photographer Alex Wild. That's his picture above, showing an Argentine ant on the left and an Asian needle ant on the right.

If you give a mouse a parachute ...

Humans brought the brown tree snake to Guam about 60 years ago. Since then, the reptiles have slithered their way across the island — devouring whole bird species as they went. The snakes are such a threat to bird life on Guam that authorities have decided to resort to drastic measures. Beginning later this spring, they'll drop an armada of painkiller-spiked dead mice onto the island. One tiny parachute per mouse. The hope is that snakes will eat the mice and OD on painkillers. This is not a joke.

Being too cute is hurting the slender loris

Slender lorises are adorable, squirrel-faced primates with huge, sad-looking eyes. Sadly, their cuteness is working against them as poachers have started capturing them for an illegal pet trade and wildlife photographers have taken to capturing and harassing the poor things. Eye-damaging spotlights, sharp, prodding sticks, and people who scoop you up in your usual stomping grounds only to dump you miles away from home — it's hard out there for a slender loris.

Open source ecology explained

Tristan sez, "Open Source Ecology founder Marcin Jakubowski and the OSE team explain the philosophy behind their work and the open source movement as a whole. We're always looking for remote collaborators to pick up and run with our designs. If you're interested in building or improving on our work, please visit the OSE wiki."

Open Source Philosophy. (Thanks, Tristan!)

How monoculture farming changes biodiversity

This image, taken by artist David Liittschwager shows the plants and animals collected in a square meter of South African public park over the course of 24 hours.

This image, from National Public Radio, illustrates the plants and animals found over the course of two nights and three days in an Iowa cornfield.

Robert Krulwich has a fascinating piece about the ways food systems affect ecological systems. How efficient is too efficient?

Via On Earth

How Phoenix is becoming more like Minneapolis (and vice versa)

We talk a lot about chain stores and the way their proliferation takes away the individual character of American cities, replacing it with a homogenized urban landscape of Wal-Marts, malls, and Applebees*. But some scientists think businesses and buildings aren't the only thing making our cities look more alike.

The ecology of cities could be homogenizing, as well — everything from the plants that grow there, to the number and density of ponds and creeks, to the bacteria and fungi that live in the soils. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explains why ecologists think cities are becoming more alike, and what it means if they're right. The really interesting bit: The effects aren't all uniformly bad.

“Americans just have some certain preferences for the way residential settlements ought to look,” Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., recently told me. Over the course of the last century, we’ve developed those preferences and started applying them to a wide variety of natural landscapes, shifting all places — whether desert, forest or prairie — closer to the norm. Since the 1950s, for example, Phoenix has been remade into a much wetter place that more closely resembles the pond-dotted ecosystem of the Northeast. Sharon Hall, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, said, “The Phoenix metro area contains on the order of 1,000 lakes today, when previously there were none.” Meanwhile, naturally moist Minneapolis is becoming drier as developers fill in wetlands.

Why does any of this matter to anyone who’s not an urban ecologist? “If 20 percent of urban areas are covered with impervious surfaces,” says Groffman, “then that also means that 80 percent is natural surface.” Whatever is going on in that 80 percent of the country’s urban space — as Groffman puts it, “the natural processes happening in neighborhoods” — has a large, cumulative ecological effect.

Read the rest of the story at The New York Times Magazine

*Or, possibly, Applebeeses.

Image: Taken by Ben Schumin, used via CC.

HOW TO: Fish in the desert

In the United Arab Emirates, a freshwater lake has appeared in the middle of the desert. The oasis is beautiful and full of life, and it's risen 35 feet since 2011. It's also probably accidentally man-made.

Hydrologists believe the lake formed from recycled drinking water (and toilet water). The nearby city of Al Ain pumps in desalinated sea water, uses it for drinking and flushing the toilet, cleans it in a sewage treatment plant, and then re-uses it to water plants. All of that water ends up in the soil and, at the lake site, it comes back up.

The water is clean, writes Ari Daniel Shapiro at NPR. Don't worry about that. Instead, the major side-effect of the lake is change, as scientists watch the desert ecosystem that used to exist on the site decline, and a new one rise to take its place. It's a great story that shows how complicated discussions about ecology can be. On the one hand, you're losing something valuable. At least in this one spot. On the other hand, you're definitely gaining something valuable, too.

"With every species that we lose, it's like rolling the dice. The whole ecosystem could crash down," Howarth says.

But Clark, with the U.S. Geological Survey, says he's not so worried about the desert ecosystem. He says the lake is tiny compared to the vast amount of desert in this part of the world. "If I look through the binoculars, there's, like, seven different kinds of herons. There's greater cormorants. There's ferruginous ducks, which are another very rare worldwide species," Clark says. "There's about 15 of them out here."

This year, three types of birds bred at this lake. They've never been able to breed before in the United Arab Emirates. But this lake, and the others like it, have changed all that. There are fish appearing in these lakes as well. Fish eggs cling to the feet and legs of the herons. So as the birds shuttle between old and new lakes, the eggs fall off and hatch. That's how you get fish in a desert.

Read the full story at NPR

Image: fish, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wattsdave's photostream

Scenes from "Petrochemical America"

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Over at my sister-in-law Heather Sparks's new Science Sparks Art tumblog, selections from Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's book Petrochemical America, a collection of Misrach's photos and Orff's "ecological atlas" documenting Louisiana's "Chemical Corridor," aka "Cancer Alley." Above, Taft, Louisana's Holy Rosary Cemetery purchased by Dow Chemical. Petrochemical America

Recreating the sound of early 20th-century America

Naturalist Aldo Leopold took such detailed notes of the sounds he heard in 1930s Wisconsin — particularly bird calls — that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been able to recreate what the environment sounded like back then. At least, what it sounded like around Aldo Leopold's house. His notes, and the recreated sound, are allowing scientists to learn more about species migration and how industrialization has changed ecology.

The grisly business of buffalo bones

By this point in your lives, most of you are by no doubt aware of the massive slaughter of buffalo that happened in the United States in the late 19th century. Across the plains, thousands of buffalo were killed every week during a brief period where the hides of these animals could fetch upwards of $10 a pop. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so it's hard for me to say what that's worth today. But we know from the context that even when the value of buffalo hides dropped to $1 each, the business of killing and skinning buffalo was still considered a damned fine living.)

You might think that the business ended there, with dead, skinned buffalo left to rot on the prairie. And you're sort of right. But, in a story at Bloomberg News, Tim Heffernan explains that, a few years later, those dead buffalo created another boom and bust industry—the bone collection business.

Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.

... And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.

... By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.

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Epic American drought gets worse in key farm states, after hottest month on record

This does not bode well for food prices: the Plains states where corn and soybeans are produced in greatest quantities are receiving the worst of excessive drought conditions, in the wake of the hottest month ever recorded in the US. Welcome to the new Dust Bowl?

Attack of the zombie maples

Last month, I spent several days in Harvard Forest, 3500 acres of woods dedicated to scientific research. The forest is home to dozens of research projects, some short-term, others stretching over decades.

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What's your diameter breast height?

Scientists measure trees for a wide variety of reasons. When I visited the Harvard Forest last week, I measured them as part of studying carbon sequestration by plants. But you can't just go out into the woods with any old tape measure and expect to collect some significant data.

That's because where you measure the tree matters. If you want to compare the diameters of two trees, you have to make sure you're measuring them in the same place. If you measured one tree at the wide base and the other further up the trunk, where trees usually get narrower, the comparison wouldn't mean much.

That's where diameter breast height (DBH) comes in. It's a way of standardizing the measuring process.

As the name implies, DBH is meant to be a diameter measurement of a tree trunk taken at, roughly, breast height on an adult. Of course, where exactly "adult breast height" is varies greatly from person to person. So DBH has been set to a standard height—1.4 meters in the United States.

In a research forest, you'll often see some kind of marker on the trees showing where this official "breast hight" is, so people can quickly move through the woods, taking diameter measurements, without having to measure vertically on each tree. In some cases, DBH is marked with yellow spray paint. In others, metal bands. These metal bands actually help measure diameter, too. Set with springs, the bands expand as the tree does, so all researchers have to is measure the distance between two dots on the band and see how far apart the dots have moved since last time.

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Climbing a rickety stair to the top of the forest

Seventy-one feet above the Harvard Forest, you can stand on a plywood platform attached to a slightly swaying tower of metal scaffolding, and look out over miles of hemlock groves. On the ground, the trees are massive—trunks reaching up and up and up. From the top of the tower, though, the view feels a bit like hanging out in a Christmas Tree farm. All you see are the friendly, conical tops.

The Hemlock Eddy Flux Tower is one of four research towers in the Harvard Forest. Since 2001, data collection systems on the top of this tower have measured carbon dioxide, water vapor, and wind currents. These measurements are made five times every second.

Thanks to this system, we now know that even a relatively old forest like this can still capture and store a decent amount of carbon dioxide. The hemlocks around the tower are pushing 230. That's not terribly old by tree standards, but it's old for this part of North America—most of which was once clear cut. It's also old enough to challenge some previously held conventional wisdom about what kinds of forests are best for carbon sequestration. Previously, scientists thought only young forests, where the trees were still growing rapidly, did that job very well. Sites like the Hemlock Tower have shown a different story.

Also: It's rather terrifying to climb. The tower lives, it is not stationary. A network of steel cables keep it from toppling over, but you can still feel it tilting one way and then the other underneath you. And, at every landing on the stairs, there's a precarious little gap you have to step over. I took my camera with me in one hand as I made the ascent. About partway up, the filming quality takes a notable turn for the worse as I found myself clinging a bit more tightly to the hand rails. How's that for an awesome tool of science?

Video Link

Earth Ponds

Ponds can be used for swimming, wildlife magnets, irrigation, iceskating, fire protection, water gardening, landscaping, and fishing. You can build your own pond in your backyard, farm, or wherever.

Tim Matson is the established guru of building ponds with an earth-seal, rather than with a plastic or concrete lining. For 30 years he's been creating, advising, and collecting knowledge about pond-making. His classic Earth Ponds (2nd ed.) is the basic how-to, and comes with a DVD. It supplies the needed lessons in siting a pond, building it, maintaining it, enjoying it, and also restoring old ponds. This is not your average how-to; it's beautifully written and a joy to read. If you find the basics to your liking and need more, Matson has an updated Sourcebook with plenty of resources, and an illustrated encyclopedia of pond variations and building techniques. Finally, Matson has a helpful website with more videos and sources.

--KK

Earth Ponds: The Country Pond Maker's Guide to Building, Maintenance and Restoration

 
Tim Matson, 1982, 152 pages


$18

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Dispatches from Harvard Forest

I'm currently attending the Marine Biological Laboratory's 10-day science journalism fellowship. As part of that, I get to do some hands-on science experiments and get a better perspective on how the work of science is done and how data is collected.

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How past land use affects the current landscape

Do you see how the ground level is higher on the left-hand side of this photo? To the right of the stone wall, the ground distinctly drops by a foot or more.

That wall is more than 200 years old. It marks the border between what was once a plowed field (on the left) and grazing pasture (on the right). Today, this site is woodland—part of the Harvard Forest, the most-studied forest in the world. But for generations, this land was farmed by Jonathan Sanderson and his descendants. And, even two centuries later, you can still see the way different uses of the land changed the land.

For instance, the ground level is higher on the left because plowed fields erode more easily. This site is on a slight slope. Water runs downhill, toward the right hand corner of the photo. As it did that, it carried bits of plowed field along with it—sediment that washed up against the stone wall and stayed there. Over many years, the effect changed the level of the land.

This isn't necessarily a catastrophic thing. But it is change. I spent last weekend in the Harvard Forest, participating in science in a hands-on way as part of the Marine Biological Laboratory's science journalism fellowship. One of the things I learned during my stint in the forest: The past ain't past. History is recorded in geology and ecology as surely as it's recorded in books. Very cool stuff!

Scientific research in a forest

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the Harvard Forest—the most-studied forest in the world. It's an interesting place, with a complicated history. Originally forest, it was clear-cut in the decades following European settlement. By 1830, less than 90% of this part of Massachusetts had any forest left. But that trend had already begun to reverse itself by 1850, spurred by urbanization and cheaper, more-efficient farming in the "West" (i.e., Ohio).

What is now the Harvard Forest was farmland for many years. Then it was used for tree plantations. Then it became forest again, studied first by Harvard University's forestry program in the early 20th century, and then by ecologists and other environmental scientists beginning in the 1980s. Today, these 3,500 acres are home to dozens of individual studies and long-term, interdisciplinary projects led by scientists from more than 15 universities and institutions.

This particular study, led by Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, is studying the nitrogen and carbon cycles of forests, and how those cycles are affected by rising soil temperatures. They're trying to understand how climate change will affect the growth of wild plants, and how it will affect those plants' ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. I'll get more in-depth on this study later. Right now, I thought that this site offered a really great view of what a research forest looks like—it's a chance to see detail-oriented science and wild nature interacting and overlapping.

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