Monthly Archives: January 2014

Plants and Climate Change: The Story is Getting Very Complicated

Since we started worrying about climate change and the pileup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists have turned their attention to how exactly plants breathe in the stuff. As a result, studies and reports are raining down upon us. The studies are not necessarily contradictory as difficult to place in their relative importance. We haven’t got a good grip on how these innumerable findings fit together because behind every one, there’s a “yes, but…”

Fallen treeThis risks confusion but better to learn up on these findings as they unfold so we have something to fight back with, should someone claim that what’s good for the tar sands is good for trees. So here are a few intriguing ideas that have turned up lately.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide differently depending on the season, drawing in their breath in the spring and summer when they are growing and exhaling slowly over the course of the fall and winter. As a result there is more CO2 in the atmosphere during the  winter than in the summer.

The last 50 years have seen this trend grow more pronounced. Heather Graven, a post-doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been graphing these seasonal variations, and it looks like the jagged edge of a saw. As CO2 has increased (from 315 parts per million to 400 parts per million over five decades) plants have been gobbling up more of the stuff. The net effect: more and bigger plants, fueled by longer growing seasons, more CO2, and a warming planet.

Branches against the snowYes, but this new carbon-fueled growth may be finite. Another study, this one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asserts that there are limits to how much carbon dioxide a plant or plants can absorb. “Global warming of four degrees Celsius will result in the earth’s land vegetation becoming dominated by negative effects, such as ‘moisture stress’, caused by plant cells getting too little water.” This means that despite the anticipated growth in plants, both in their number and size, the environment won’t be able to support them particularly well.

From Wikipedia: “Moisture stress occurs when the water in a plant’s cells is reduced to less than normal levels. This can occur because of a lack of water in the plant’s root zone, higher rates of transpiration than the rate of moisture uptake by the roots. Moisture stress is more strongly related to water potential than it is to water content.” (Wikipedia has good definitions for these as well.)

Yes, but if this new extra carbon-dioxide-fueled growth has its limits, what do you make of the finding that big mature trees continue to grow i.e. pack on carbon dioxide into old age and are in fact better consumers than adolescent trees?

Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Three River California says, “The trees that are adding the most mass are the biggest ones, and that holds pretty much everywhere on earth that we looked.”

This finding, as reported in Nature challenges the long held theory that growth plateaus as trees mature. But Stephenson and his colleagues found, after studying data related to 673,046 trees and 403 species, that “the largest trees gained the most mass each year in 97% of the species, capitalizing on their additional leaves and adding more girth high in the sky.” Old trees may have tired, less efficient leaves than younger trees but because they have more of them, they net out ahead of the kids.

Yes, but all this growth may not be good for us after all at least in the Arctic. Increases in vegetation are evident and measurable from outer space, especially in the Boreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. Shrubs trap snow that would otherwise blow away, providing an insulating blanket for the tundra that as a result is experiencing a greater rate of decomposition and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide. The Boreal forest, one third of which has a floor of permafrost, is now under threat of warming with gigantic consequences for how much CO2 will end up in the atmosphere.

tree with broken limbIn another respect, these invading, northward-bound shrubs are bad because they detract from the reflectivity of the snowy plains. Two Dartmouth scientists claim that snowy treeless, shrub-less fields offer greater climate change benefits than an equivalent stand of trees; snow reflects solar energy back into space, the albedo reflectivity effect, whereas dark leafy substances absorb it.

“In some cases, the cooling influence of albedo can equal and surpass the climatic benefits of carbon sequestration from forest growth,” says postdoctoral fellow David A. Lutz and professor of environmental studies and Richard B. Howarth in a paper presented to the American Geophysical Union. They suggest that countries such as Canada with large expanses of snowy barren areas should be given a climate credit for these areas in international negotiations around global warming.

Let’s start a conversation about this. I would love to hear from people who know more than I do.

Tree Growth Never Slows:

Swinging Co2 Levels Show the Earth is Breathing More Deeply:

Plants Could Stop Being the Brake on Global Warming:

Dartmouth Study Finds that Logging, Deforestration may Better Serve Climate in Some Areas.

Learning to live with our water levels, whatever they are, and be happy

Georgian Bayers may have dodged a bullet for now. Ice cover, a significant determinant of lake levels (as well as summer water temperatures and spring plankton blooms) should reach 57-62% across the Great Lakes by February say GLERL scientists (Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories.) This is slightly above the long-term average. Last year ice cover came in at 38.4%.

Nelly with big stickThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts all the Great Lakes except Huron-Michigan will reach their average water levels or exceed them this summer, but a wide swath of uncertainty still remains.

The turn around poses special problems for shoreline communities. They’re now up against the reality that water levels go up as well as down and this can happen fast. (Of course fluctuations are a given, we know this, but much of the lobbying for doing something about low water levels has focused on low and lower water levels.)

Sadly, the upswing this year, doesn’t change the fundamentals of climate change; the Great Lakes are evaporating at a greater rate than we would like.

Shoreline communities around the world are the hardest hit as people and critters have always chosen homesteading on the edges of waterways.  Entire mini societies and species face complete annihilation.  That is not true of communities on the Great Lakes, but a radically refashioned shoreline is pitting nature against us for prime and shifting real estate.

The up-and-downness of it all poses serious dilemmas for higher levels of government considering bailouts for these communities. What’s normal? Are 100-year storms going to show up every couple of years? Given the extent of climate change, who should be compensated and who should fend for themselves? It will take the wisdom of Solomon to thread our way through short-term thinking and dodge the loudest screamers and false prophets to figure out where to slap down our billions. (I’m hoping the long-anticipated Council of Great Lakes Region’s economic study will throw some light on this.)

Winter puddleAnd don’t think for a second that the restoration of water levels/St. Clair River project that the International Joint Commission recommended to the Canadian and U.S. governments will address the fallout from climate change. It is meant to compensate for what drained away via dredging in the ’60s.

In an excellent report by UNESCO on learning to live with climate change, the authors warned against such boutique projects. “Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” Let’s hope the federal governments who are expected to come up with a response to the recommendations of the International Joint Commission keep their sights firmly on climate change.

The big questions are, what is the quality of our environment, our economy, our water supply, and how can we fix what’s ailing. Through the prism of adapting to climate change, we can address questions we should have asked ages ago, infrastructure questions as well as local questions such as, is it possible for a dock to coexist with an encroaching wetland—seeing as the old wetland is now a meadow?

Grey rock w snowGovernments and think tanks are jumping into adaptive management but their attempts seem  soporifically bureaucratic. It’s still early days. Success will depend on innovation and big thinking, but just as importantly it will come from ordinary folks figuring out how to run their lives and businesses in a testier world. This could be a job creator. Yes we badly need engineers and lots of money, but also small, incremental, artisanal, locally made solutions, and millions of cut-and-paste proposals.

IJC Adaptive Management Plan: Building Collaboration Across the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence System:

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters:

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments:

Council of the Great Lakes Region: the economic study should be released early this year.

Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories:

The Closing of the Science Libraries, its Media Coverage and the Government’s Spin

On December 5th, The Winnipeg Free Press ran a story that described scientists and marine consultants rushing to the library at the Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba to haul away materials slated for landfill.

Winter RobinNorth/South Consultants, who specialize in field research and environmental assessments for government and corporate clients, drove up with several vehicles including a flatbed truck. “Old environmental impact statements done for past projects were at the top of the rescue list, in part because they offer baseline data on such things as fish populations and toxicology as well as novel methods to do proper assessments, said one scientist who used the library frequently. ”

On January 3rd, The Huffington Post ran, “How the Harper Government Committed a Knowledge Massacre”. This was quickly followed by the C.B.C.’s “Fisheries and Oceans Library Closings Called Loss to Science.” and the Globe & Mail’s “Purge of Canada’s Fisheries Libraries Called Historic Loss Scientists Say.”

Margaret Munro, national science writer for Post Media News, actually broke the story about the closing and consolidation of federal science libraries back in April. She quoted scientists and academics explaining their profound misgivings that historically valuable documents would be kept, and that only duplicates and so-called “grey material” would be culled and the remainder digitized.

“Information destruction unworthy of a democracy,” said Peter Wells, an ocean pollution expert, Dalhousie University. Eric Mills, a specialist historian of marine sciences at Dalhousie called it a “disaster.”  “It could make fisheries science a lot less effective,” said Jennifer Hubbard, a science historian, Ryerson University.

Broken TreeAs described in Munro’s story, the libraries contained one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of information on fisheries, aquatic sciences and nautical sciences, reports detailing the DDT pollution that wiped out young salmon in New Brunswick in ‘50s; vivid descriptions of native fisheries and the huge cod stocks of the past; 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s; not to mention baseline data so essential to understanding changes in our environment.

Here’s how this sad saga started. A secret federal government document, “Strategic and Operating Review” (made available through an access to information request by Postmedia) laid out cuts of $79.3 million to the Department of Oceans and Fisheries’ (DFO) for 2014/15, on top of cuts totalling $17.2 million in the previous two years. These included cuts to library services and the consolidation of its programs at four locations. “Main activities include culling materials in the closed libraries or shipping them to the two locations, and culling materials to make room for collections from the closed locations.” Projected savings: $443,000. No mention of digitizing the collections.

In response to the dust up resulting from this story, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea issued a press release about “serious misinformation about the consolidation of DFO libraries.”

“It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually used…In 2011, over 95% of the total documents provided to users were provided digitally…All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department…Duplicate materials, including books, from the libraries being consolidated were offered to other libraries and third parties if they wanted them. They were also offered to the DFO staff on site at the library, then offered to the general public, and finally were recycled in a “green” fashion if there were no takers. It is absolutely false to insinuate that any books were burnt.”

Minister Shea reveals a rather skewed idea of science libraries.  Of course ordinary tax-payers are unlikely to use them, but that doesn’t reflect on their value. Sadly, culling collections is a necessary evil and integral part of library science, but it requires great care, human resources, knowledge of the particular subject matter and time, which are inconsistent with culling in great haste to save money. And digitizing collections is not inexpensive or clear cut either. (The Canadian Library Association has expressed some concerns about digitizing and the future of Canadian libraries in general.)

Also, limiting a collection to what is copyrighted seems overly restrictive. I assume the Canadian government wouldn’t have the copyright to the 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s for example.

Libraries are invaluable. Their holding, cataloguing and retrieval of the bits and pieces of our past, especially when these scraps in and of themselves aren’t particularly pertinent, is crucial to our understanding of an issue. In the Winnipeg account, some baseline data would appear to have been “saved”, but no one other than the guys with the flatbed truck would know where to find it or what exactly the scavenged papers contain; moreover, the value of their haul is diminished simply because it is no longer the property of a public institution and readily available for peer review.

The library story is one more to add to the pile of Harper’s-assault-on-science stories, one more to add to the muzzling of Canadian scientists, the cancelling of the long form census, the trampling of climate science, the shutting of the Environmental Lakes Area, the draconian gutting of departments and on and on. Thank you, you dedicated Harper watcher bloggers and web masters for keeping these issues alive.

But why hasn’t the library closing story penetrated beyond the science sections and into the realm of general public discourse? (An exception: The Fifth Estate did a piece called “Silence of the Labs.”) Does the library story sound too much like a rant from the usual pointy-headed wets? Is it too squishy: he said, she said? Or does the traditional press think the larger “we” don’t care. Perhaps we don’t. Or perhaps the neglect of the story is just another example of the beleaguered and desperate paucity of the press these days.

There is more at work here than Harper government’s relentless drive for efficiencies. Money for communication officers to police the discourse between scientists and journalists, prisons and to promote the War of 1812 ($28 million) isn’t lacking.

The closing of science libraries is not the sort of issue that bites you in the neck, but the effects, especially when you bundle it with all the other closures, cancellations, and mangling going on, will eventually impact the quality of our lives and our health, not to mention our democracy. That’s under threat now.

Closure of Fisheries Libraries called a Disaster for Science by Margaret Munro.

Secret Memo Casts Doubt on Feds’ Claims for Science Library Closures

DFO Press Release re closure of libraries

Scientists go fishing for old documents

Nation’s Library Advocate Raises Questions about Federal ‘Culling’

Asian Carp: is it too late to keep them out? A major report on the options

They might be here or they might not be here just yet: Asian carp, the silver and bighead kind, 60 lb. monsters that can suck up 10% of their body weight in a day, stealing food from other fish.  They could fundamentally change the aquatic character of the Great Lakes.

Jumping Asian CarpLast spring, a single water sample taken from Lake Michigan showed detectible remnants (environmental DNA) of silver carp. Subsequent samplings turned up nothing. It may have travelled to Lake Michigan attached to a boat, or a bird, having eaten a carp may have defecated in the lake, or indeed this may have been evidence of a really bad fish now in the Great Lakes.

If it did signify a real fish, it may have come to the Great Lakes via the Chicago Area Waterways Systems, (CAWS), five waterways, 128 miles long, connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. However in a recently released white paper, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said emphatically, “There is no evidence that Asian carp are bypassing the [electric barriers in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.] Nor is there any indication that Asian carp are in the vicinity of the barriers. The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan.”

But given the findings of this same white paper, this isn’t particularly reassuring. It found that fish are being transported across the electrical barrier via “vessel-induced residual flows” created by barges. The recess area between two barges provides the dominant transport mechanism. Of the 72 samples taken, 44 included at least one school of fish passing through the barrier; and of this group of 44, 61% saw multiple fish slipping by. Research is ongoing.

asian-carp_face2(If silver and bighead carp get here, they may likely find a comfortable home. Last October Lisa Borre reported on a finding of grass carp in the Sandusky River, a Lake Erie tributary: only one-year old but with the potential to become spawning adults. Analysis revealed they were native to the river.)

The potential invasion by this really bad fish is the subject of a widely-anticipated study of what might be done to stop them. Issued on Monday by the Great Lakes and Interbasin Mississippi River Study (GLMRIS), it delineates eight options for reducing the risks posed by 13 aquatic nuisance species (ANS) including silver and bighead carp, for either the Mississippi watershed or the Great Lakes. The threat of invasives goes both ways. Which of the eight proposals is chosen is the prerogative of U.S. lawmakers; the study does not provide recommendations.

Here is a brief description of Plan 5, the Cadillac option, the most expensive at $18,389,000,000, not including annual costs.

It would address the risks posed by all thirteen ANS.  It would include nonstructural measures such as the removal of nuisance species, chemical control, controlled waterway use, inspection and cleaning of watercraft before and after entry to a water way. (These are common to all the options.) This part of the plan could be implemented immediately.

Plan 5 would provide a physical barrier between the water bodies at four locations in CAWS. To remedy the stagnant and other water quality impacts at the barriers, three of these locations would see treatment plans installed that would take Lake Michigan water, treat it and discharge it into CAWS. Water quality in Lake Michigan would see a definite uptick as sewer and storm water flows would be confined to CAWS. To address the risk of flooding two new reservoirs and conveyance tunnels would be built.

Whatever the plan and whatever the costs, a successful outcome is not assured. Prevention is regarded as the best defense, but as the GLMRIS authors make clear, “‘prevent’ means the reduction of risk to the maximum extent possible, because it may not be technologically feasible to achieve an absolute solution.”

Furthermore, aquatic pathways exist along the entire 1,500-miles between the basins, and these aren’t addressed by the engineering marvels proposed for CAWS.  And then there are the non-aquatic methods of crossing the watersheds including waterfowl migration, fishing, accidental and unregulated fish stocking.

Costs and timing pose real stumbling blocks. The cheapest option, Plan 2, wouldn’t include any water regulating structures or barriers, would only keep out five ANS not including Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and would cost 68 million. From there, the Plans go all the way up to almost $18.5 billion.

Plan 5 would take 25 years to complete, that means bighead and silver carp wouldn’t be dealt with until 25 years had passed, and the clock hasn’t started ticking yet, which leaves us relying on the fine tuning of the existing electrical barriers that USACE is researching now.

Scientists take comfort in the fact that we know so much more about Asian carp than we used to. And no one doubts there is a great deal at stake. Still, we’re getting awfully close to replacing discussions of how to keep them out with how to control them once they’re with us.

The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study:

Summary of Fish-Barge Interaction Research and Fixed Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) Sampling at the Electric Dispersal Barrier in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Asian Carps Reproducing Naturally in Great Lakes Tributary by Lisa Borre

Asian Carp face-2: photographer Kate Gardinr; Jumping Asian Carp: photographer

What’s Coming at the Bufflehead and a Year-End Wrap Up

Happy New Year Everybody.

Coming to this blog this winter and spring:

Water levels in the middle Great Lakes, in particular the expected U.S. and Canadian governments’ response to the International Joint Commission‘s recommendations, possibly the most important development in the decades-long effort to address the decline in water levels. Also expected soon is a report from the Council of the Great Lakes Region on the economic impact of lower water levels. This should provide a handy way to quantify what is at stake.

Bull rushes snowIn the meantime, you might want to check out three blogs on water levels in the archive that are as current now as they were a few months ago: October 28th; November 6th; and December 4th.

Birds and other critters, including Asian carp, with again, an emphasis on what the studies show. If you missed my blogs the first time round, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written on frogs, ravens and crows, wolves and moose. And don’t miss my review of Jon Mooallem’s excellent book on our all-too-human, funny, heroic/pathetic efforts to save the critters we love, sometimes at the expense of critters we love a little less. Check out these postings on Oct 28th; November 6th and 20th; and December 18th.

Science and politics: not a healthy mix due to cutbacks and ideological meddling, but alas the situation is worsening as the federal government’s reach is expanding to include other targets. This is truly alarming stuff. Stay tuned. If you feel the need to catch up on the muzzling of Canadian scientists or find out exactly how badly served species at risk are by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, check out the postings on October 28th; November 13th and December 11th.

snow capped sumackBut let’s not start the year on a sour note. Scientists and environmental groups, writers and ordinary folks are doing some excellent work tracking government shortfalls while looking after the animals. Our knowledge base is exploding and with it our sensitivity to, and our daunting appreciation for all that we might have to do to give the natural world a fighting chance.

The Bufflehead will resume its regular weekly postings on January 8th, 2014

Cheers everybody