Monthly Archives: April 2014

Saving the Experimental Lakes Area: the Real Ups and Downs

2 MallardsOn April 1st, the deal to save the Experimental Lakes Area, Canada’s world-renowned, whole-lake laboratory was finally signed after two years of nail-biting negotiations. The parties included the federal government, which wanted to divest itself of the complex; the Ontario government, which agreed to come up with the necessary two million dollars a year; Manitoba, which promised a lesser amount; and the non-profit, International Institute for Sustainable Development, which will operate the facility.

The Experimental Lakes Area, its 58 lakes and watersheds in northwestern Ontario, is hugely important to freshwater research in Canada and the world. This was ably demonstrated by the huge public and international scientific effort to “Save ELA” that was mounted over the fed’s obstinate refusal to continue providing the meager two million dollars a year needed to keep this one-of-a-kind research centre open. Harper’s government announced its emphatic decision to close the facility in 2012, and only grudgingly in 2013 did it bend a little to consider handing over its management to a new operator. But the deadline of March 30, 2014 was firm and negotiations went right down to the wire.

ELA Lake isotopesHow has the ELA fared over the two years it has had a gun to its head? What has been lost and won, and what is its future?

Thankfully, the ELA lives to fight another day and presumably produce important research to rank with its past achievements, groundbreaking work on the effects of acid rain, phosphorus loading, algae, and mercury pollution.

The institute is hoping to expand the scope of the research that will be conducted at the ELA, now that the facility is no longer restricted to conform to the mandate of Oceans and Fisheries Canada (DFO). It plans to take up new causes such as terrestrial manipulations and clean water technology. Also on the drawing board or to be continued are studies on micro-pollutants, the impact of climate change on hydrologic cycles, endocrine disruptors, microbial silver nano-particles, and mercury levels following the closures of coal-fired energy stations.

map ELAThe ELA has lost its dedicated staff, international stars in the world of freshwater research. This was the team painstakingly recruited by founder David Schindler from all over the world. By 2012, only 18 of the possible 28 positions at the facility were filled, but those who remained should have been given a lifeline to stay on, given that negotiations between the feds and the IISD were underway.

To date, the institute has recruited only about a third of the scientists it had at its peak, and no new whole-lake experiments have been initiated since 2012. On-going projects suffered and access was limited as DFO maintained very strict control over the facility, and cancelled fully funded operating projects for no apparent reason.

The ELA is undergoing a metamorphosis as it moves away from being a public science program under the auspices of the Government of Canada, meaning the scientists who will eventually be hired won’t be public servants. In the same vein, the ELA is not eligible for grants from either Oceans and Fisheries Canada or the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

The long tortuous process of negotiations also reflected this metamorphosis, as the institute was concerned to lay a path for an open data research policy and to ensure that the highly complex issues around liability, past and future were squared away.

“The combination of applied research capability and a policy think tank creates exciting opportunities to traverse the science-policy divide,” said Scott Vaughan, president and CEO of the IISD. “Together, IISD and ELA will be positioned to offer ground-truthed, policy-relevant advice on numerous emerging questions such as the impact of mercury from coal-fired electricity generating plants, the impact of micro-pollutants and the impact of climate change on hydrologic cycles.”

Of particular importance to the institute, the ELA had to be spared the necessity of applying for and getting permits to conduct each and every one of its research projects. That necessitated Oceans and Fisheries Canada having a mechanism to provide something of a blanket approval for research that involves the release of contaminants into lakes under controlled conditions.

Unfortunately the mechanism that the government came up with could be applied equally to industry, allowing the Minister to issue blanket approvals to polluters. This great gaping breach in the Fisheries Act severely undermines evidence-based analyses on a case-by-case basis. And because it is a regulation, it is being introduced without any discussion in parliament, the groundwork having been laid in the fed’s 2012 omnibus budget bill. This change is supposed to be reflected in the Canada Gazette this week, which suggests that ELA is providing the cover for a change that might be very controversial if it was a stand-alone measure.

We’ve seen this movie before. DFO’s powers have been watered down or assigned to the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Board, both via Memorandums of Understanding. I’ve covered these issues in previous blogs: February 19th and March 12th.

“What real-world research can tell us about the human impact on the natural environment is indispensible to putting the human relationship with this planet on a sustainable footing,” said Vaughan. “IISD looks forward to preparing a new science research program for the ELA later in 2014, with inputs from scientists as well as partnerships with local communities, and a commitment to an open and transparent program.”

The ELA is of incalculable importance to the health of Canadians and its scientific community. The battle for its survival was when most of us woke up to Harper’s antipathy to science.

CBC News: Experimental Lakes Area Research Stations Officially Saved

Save ELA

Reeves Report: Rebuilding Science Team at ELA a Tough Task

Putting climate change in its cosmic context

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth KolbertLook Both

The sixth extinction referred to in the title  is of course the extinction Homo sapiens are bringing about through the agency of climate change. Situating our extinction in a cosmic context sets an entirely different tone from say, the panic engendered by the recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is grown-up time. Take in the very big picture.

Setting the sixth extinction in its cosmic context tells you that the temperature change predicted for the next 100 years is similar to the range experienced during the last Ice Age, which left much of Canada buried under miles of ice. But as Kobert points out, while our “anthropocene epoch” is spewing carbon that took millions to years to bury, the temperature is changing ten times faster than it did at the end of the glaciation period.

Working through the devastation wrought by other cataclysmic events provides the perfect backdrop for understanding the implications of acidifying our oceans. Here’s a possibly incomplete list of what will be affected: metabolism of all kinds; enzyme activity; protein function; the availability of key nutrients like iron and nitrogen; how light passes through water; the passage of sound waves, making the oceans noisier; increased growth of toxic algae; photosynthesis; the reduction of carbonate ions, which hampers calcification; how compounds are formed by dissolving metals in ways that could be poisonous; and turning water corrosive. This is basic chemistry.

tout est possibleThe anthropocene epoch probably won’t be as bad as the day the asteroid hit earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period but we’re reaching into the bottom of all possible bad days to make the comparison.

“On an ordinary day sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid six miles wide collided with the earth, releasing 100 megatons of TNT, or more than a million times of the most powerful H-bombs ever tested. Debris, including iridium from the pulverized asteroid, spread around the globe. Day turned into night and temperatures plunged. A mass extinction ensued.”

Kolbert is not simply shoveling our environmental failings into a great pile (as I have done here.) She is making long strings of connecting dots. As the planet warms the critters of the world will attempt to move north or up the slope. Any species that can’t cope with temperature variation is doomed: that would include most of what now live in the tropics. The huge diversity of tropical species that co-exist in complex interdependencies typically live within very short thermal and spatial ranges and they ultimately depend upon constancy. Well they’ll be gone.

The ones that do manage to move up the hill in search of cooler temperatures, they’ll be  invasives and not welcome anywhere, and if they do get to the top they’ll have lots of company because there is less space at the top than at the bottom.

Elizabeth Kolbert, 6th ExtinctionMost species can’t move of course because our settlements are in the way, and the reserves we carved out at great cost to protect our charismatic species will be useless in the face of all pervasive climate change.

Where species aren’t killed outright, fragmented communities will survive and that means just a slower way of dying. Small environmental communities mean small populations of individual species, and small populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Changes in land use affect air circulation so it is possible that if the Amazonian rain forests dry up or are cut down or die of some pestilence on a large enough scale, there may actually be no more rain.

For all the terrible evidence, this book doesn’t lash out at the pernicious obstinacy of our governments, or at our prestigious capacity to deny the facts staring us in the face or lament that the poor are bearing the brunt of our profligate use of fossil fuels. Instead Kolbert paints a picture of climate change as the (almost) inevitable result of our resourcefulness and our throwing arm. Other primates can’t play baseball or tennis or throw spears.*

Evidence is mounting that H. sapiens, emerging from east Africa 20,000 years evolved into “overkillers”, hunting down species, especially mega fauna at a rate that exceeded the prey’s ability to reproduce, so no evolutionary advantage possible. Getting big is a wonderful escape from predators (except from the likes of us) but it comes with the baggage of months or years in gestation.

The disappearance of the giant herbivores changed the landscape. They weren’t there to chew up the forests, which caused a build up of fuel, which caused fires, which favoured fire-tolerant plants—these would be grasslands that favoured upright runners with projectiles.

We did the same thing to Neanderthals and Denisovans except we had sex with them first. Neanderthals had good-sized brains, but they never got the hang of throwing things. That left them in dangerous proximity to the animals they were trying to bring down.

Kolbert makes the point that given all this killing, on so many continents and the number of species we’ve managed to finish off, you could argue that the anthropocene epoch began in the middle of the last Ice Age.

Kolbert concludes by describing our often-pathetic attempts to save the critters, lovingly tending to their needs, applying a lot of science to understanding their inner functioning. It is what makes us human, just as much as drilling oil wells.

Climate change will leave its own geologic traces, as will river diversions, monoculture farming, ocean acidification and the great spike in methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“One hundred million years from now, all the great works of man will be compressed within a layer of sediment.”

The writing is so wonderfully wry, you want to squeal with pleasure at times, which seems entirely inappropriate given its message. But there it is. Human beings can hold two opposing ideas in their minds simultaneously and live to fight another day. It would be nice if we could call God into action to fix this place but it is really up to us.

* Scientific American ran an intriguing article on how well our anatomy is adapted to hunting in its April, 2014 issue. A flexible, taller waist allowed our ancestors to release a great store of torque power as they threw a spear. A less twisted upper arm bone and sideways-facing shoulder enabled humans to hurl with great accuracy and speed but compromised their ability to climb trees.  A long thumb and strong wrist provided a powerful grip. We also excelled at understanding social cues and could hunt in concert.

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Correction: A correction has been made in the preceding blog concerning the Fair Elections Act. This is regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers from Elections Canada to the office of the Director of Prosecutions. See the third to last paragraph. My apologies.

Why the Fair Elections Act is Bad for the Environment

Hockey SticksHarry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer for B.C. and author of a recent report on voting, testified before a parliamentary committee that 520,000 people might lose their right to vote under the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23. The impact this will have on those who have been disenfranchised has been lost so far in the loud condemnation of the bill as has the effect this will have on the environment.

Increasingly nature is dependent upon our protection. A tree is not simply a tree. Its health depends on the quality of the soil, the air, the water and the room we provide it in which to grow. It’s home to thousands of species from the bugs in the ground to nesting birds and the predators who steal the eggs from the nests, all of which have to be safeguarded within a policy framework.

This is a deceptively simple idea. To see the world this way you have to be truly engaged with your political and natural environment. Nature used to be considered an imposing backdrop that could absorb the abuses that people threw at it. We had dominion over it back then, although we rarely took any actual responsibility for our actions.

Sumack, Blue SkyFinding a fix for climate change and habitat destruction will require buy-in from a lot of people—assuming we ever get around to actually doing anything about them—because protecting the environment is going to cost us.

Disenfranchisement encourages political disengagement and passivity, reducing the disenfranchised to mere taxpayers and consumers. A person who has been deprived of the right to vote doesn’t have any responsibility for what the government does. Even if this government or any government, were to attempt to do something serious about climate change, without buy-in it would fail.

Critics of the Fair Elections Act have identified students and First Nations as two groups who are particularly vulnerable to being disenfranchised by this bill. Young people don’t need any encouragement not to vote. They’re engaged in their preferred social media silos, busily establishing their online communities, worried sick about jobs and as a result are less attached to places and the politics of those places. The doorbell doesn’t work, home phones are archaic, and who reads mail? But if they don’t engage politically, they’re unlikely to feel a degree of ownership or engagement for problems facing the environment. They’ll stay stuck in the ether complaining about the mess, instead of grappling with what to do about it.

Two lumpsAnd disenfranchising First Nations is a seriously bad idea. It might look tempting to a government bent on removing all possible impediments to ramming through development proposals in the North. Just sayin’. But it could have grave consequences.

Unlike many young people, First Nation communities have a deep attachment to the places where they live but at the same time they feel estranged from Canadian institutions. This is not a good basis for cooperation on issues to do with managing the environment, and disenfranchisement will only weaken the threads on which negotiations depend, on such things as the Arctic and pipeline routes.

Of course not getting the signals straight on the environment is a layer on top of the moral reasons why disenfranchising First Nations by erecting cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles to their voting is appalling. They only got that right as recently as 1960, when Prime Minister Diefenbaker saw to it that they could vote without losing their treaty rights.

It looks like almost 60% of Afghanistan citizens voted in recent elections, risking violence, possible death at the hands of the Taliban who threatened to blow up their polling stations. Oh the heart-rending irony of it, if Canadians are going to sink back into their comfortable chairs and view the world through a flat screen until this particular kerfuffle passes.

The Harper government proposes treating Election Canada in much the same way as it has the Department of Oceans and Fisheries: reducing its authority by breaking up its responsibilities. (DFO is having its powers to protect fish signed over to the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Commission. I’ve covered these issues in previous blogs: “Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again,” March 3rd, 2014; and “Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda,” February 2nd, 2014.)

The Fair Elections Act would have Elections Canada’s investigative powers assigned to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which answers to the cabinet.  Both Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and Yves Cote, commissioner of elections agree that this move would impede investigations and compromise the commissioner’s independence. In testimony to a parliamentary committee, the commissioner said this would slow down investigations, create communication problems and goes against the principles established by regulatory bodies such as the Canada Revenue Agency, the Competition Bureau and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Harper government is also putting an end to the use of the voter identification card as a legitimate means of establishing one’s address, a necessary condition for voting; 400,000 people used it as part of a pilot program in 2011. When you put this up against some of the bill’s 39 so-called legitimate means of establishing one’s identity such as a letter from someone who works in a soup kitchen, this is crazy. Harper wants to invalidate a communication piece from Elections Canada to voters in favour of a long list of other identification forms that have nothing to do with elections or voting.

The Fair Elections Act is a very daring reworking of Canadian democracy. It is of a piece with the Harper government’s prorogation of parliament, its omnibus bills, limiting debate in parliamentary committees, invoking closure and the sort of behaviour that got it found in contempt of parliament, the only government in the Commonwealth ever to be so humiliated.

Everything You Need to Know about the Fair Elections Act, Globe and Mail

Don’t Undermine Elections Canada, National Post, “We the undersigned…”

Andrew Coyne: The Tories were Right to be Nervous. Marc Mayrand shredded their Fair Elections Act almost line by line, Andrew Coyne, March 11, 2014,

“We Believe this Act will Prove to be Deeply Damaging to Electoral Integrity within Canada” We the undersigned… March 19,2014

Current Voter Identification

CBC News: Do you have the Right ID to Cast a Ballot in a Federal Election? Laura Payton, March 29, 2014,

Huff Post Politics, April 7, 2014, Fair Elections Act: Public Prosecutor Not Consulted on Planned New Role

CTV News, Elections Commissioner Wants Power to Compel Testimony from Witnesses, April 2, 2014,

Correction: A correction has been made regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers in the third to last paragraph. My regrets.

The Intelligence of Chickens and the Great Chain of Being

Rushing waterThe February issue of Scientific American includes a delightful article by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski on the intelligence of a creature we usually encounter at the supermarket: featherless, cut in pieces, lying prostrate on a Styrofoam tray and covered with a slick sheet of cellophane. By now, we’re used to the idea that the critters out there are way more intelligent and social than we used to give them credit for, but chickens?

If we’re going to credit chickens with social awareness, cunning, a language and complicated dating behaviour, then this is the definite proof that the Great Chain of Being rather than stretching up to heaven is lying dangled on the ground in a great heap.

But to return to chickens: it has been known for some time that the natural chicken world is rather harem-like with an alpha rooster maintaining order over his “girls” by showing off what a good provider he is. His courtship strategy involves swinging his wattles from side to side and bobbing up and down over a food source while saying “doc doc”. Should his rivals seem inclined to move in on his intended, he will peck them.

From there, things can get complicated as was discovered by Carolynn L. Smith, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia. The male who has been sidelined by the alpha rooster can still get the girl if he can perform the bobbing dance convincingly while omitting the accompanying “doc doc” sound—that would attract the attention of Mr. Big and his pecks.

Sinkhole(We know of other avian strategies to undermine the dominance of the alpha male. A young red-winged blackbird will take advantage of his feminine-like absence of colouring to move in on an older male’s territory. This ploy is not unknown to humans of course. Literature is full of tales of men disguising themselves, sometimes as women, to get past the gate.)

Nicholas and Elsie Collias of the University of California correlated 24 different chicken calls to distinct events/crises/opportunities in a chicken’s life, events such as a new food source, flying predators, ground predators, rivals, love interests, threats to offspring and so on.

Scientifically establishing the connection between these momentous events and their corresponding millisecond chicken sounds proved more difficult until the advent of audio and 3-D video recorders and high-resolution television sets. Using these tools, Chris Evans and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia created a virtual reality for these birds including virtual companions and virtual predators, and then recorded the chickens’ responses. Think of this as a Truman Show for birds.

Carolyn L. Smith clinched it when she came up with a contraption made up of the hooks and cups she cut off from bras (black only) that she used to fashion backpacks for her chickens. Called Chicken Big Boy 2.0, she used them to record all the fleeting sounds her chickens made and link them to events. That’s how she stumbled upon a purpose for the rooster’s wattle that had baffled other researchers. It exaggerates his head shaking, female alluring, come-and-get-my-food behaviour.

The research team concluded that these chicken sounds did in fact constitute a language of sorts that was understood and acted upon by other chickens. Even more surprisingly, they tailored their communications to particular audiences. A rooster might raise an alarm if his sweetie was in danger, but remain silent if the danger, an eagle say, might threaten his rival. Lying by omission is definitely a higher order of malfeasance than pecking some guy’s backside, while screaming, “Die, you feathered dick head!”

Similarly, mom chickens exercised discretion about sounding an alarm depending upon whether or not they had chicks about, saving their vocal chords for when it matters.

However, Joanne Edgar at the University of Bristol in England discovered something like the opposite when she discovered that a mother hen becomes distressed at seeing her chicks exhibiting signs of distress, even in cases when there wasn’t actually any cause for it. This is an example of empathy, as well as getting all worked up about nothing.

Further research conducted by Giorgio Vallortigara at the University of Trento in Italy has indicated that young chicks can distinguish numbers and grasp elementary geometry. Given a triangle with two sides, the chicks could mentally supply the missing side. What evolutionary value this might have, is not explained, but perhaps the evolutionary value of triangles to us humans still remains to be explained.

If these researchers had presented their findings at a European university in the Middle Ages, they would have been burned at the stake, not simply because their ideas would have seemed outlandish, but because they would have been regarded as deeply heretical, guilty of spreading egregious falsehoods about the Great Chain of Being.

StepsThe Great Chain of Being has its origins in the works of Plato and Socrates around 400 BC before Christianity grabbed on to it. It assigned a place in a hierarchical order to every being in the universe beginning at the bottom with stones and metals before proceeding upwards through plants, animals, humans, and angels, all the way to the highest perch occupied by God. The higher up the chain, the more noble and intelligent, more “spirit” and less “matter” one had. And every one of these divisions would have its own sub-orders, and sub-orders within them: lots of stuff for monks to quibble about.

The highest order of birds were birds of prey, hawks and owls, followed by vultures and crows, then worm-eating birds such as robins and ending with seed-eating birds such as our poor fried, roasted, poached, breaded and Saran-wrapped chickens.

Challenging these rankings, such as ascribing a form of intelligence to chickens, or actually even thinking about this, was received as telling lies about God. It led to disorder that reverberated along the chain. Shakespeare’s King Lear was mad, which reflected a disorder in the state, which was a function of a child ruling a father and subjects ruling a king, which also found expression in disturbances in the heavens, meteoric disturbances. We understand these references to be metaphors now but in the Middle Ages, they were taken much more literally.

The Great Chain of Being is so deeply ground into our brains that it didn’t have to be cited directly to justify the subjugation of one order by a higher order. The domestication, captivity of, and cruelty to animals just seemed like the natural order of things. The same rationale was applied to slavery and the subjugation of women and on it went. This explains why the theory of evolution was so threatening. It suggested that beings weren’t fixed on the rung of a ladder, and that they had once been something else before being what they are now.

The chain is long-ago stuff we no longer “believe” in, but it’s still stuck inside us and can be yanked back into consciousness whenever it suits our designs. Until science comes to the rescue and pushes it back down again.

Wikipedia, The Truman Show, 1998

Virtual Chicken Experiments Solve Mystery of Why Roosters have Wattle

Scientific American: Brainy Bird, by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski, February, 2014

Wikipedia: Great Chain of Being