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
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
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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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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.
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.
This 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."
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!)
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.
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."
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
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.
*Or, possibly, Applebeeses.
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.
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
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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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.Read the rest
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.
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?
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.
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.Read the rest
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!
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.