Category Archives: Science

Saving the Pollinators: What Ontario could face if it takes on the Pesticide Companies

In his most recent annual report, Gord Miller, the environmental commissioner of Ontario recommended that, “the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment undertake monitoring to determine the prevalence and effects of neonicotinoids in soil, waterways and wild plants.”

Sumack, Blue SkyWith 25% of the global pesticide market, neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world. Developed as an alternative to aerial spraying, they are mostly applied as a seed treatment where they diffuse throughout the plant including its sap, pollen and nectar. They are suspected of playing a role in the decline of pollinators such as honey bees along with other stressors such as parasites, habitat degradation, decreased resource diversity, climate change and invasive species.

The European Union banned “neonics” as they are popularly known, some time ago in some but not all agricultural applications. These rulings have been challenged repeatedly, but various courts have upheld the bans, falling back on the precautionary principle in the face of often confusing data and the lack of consistent protocols in determining the impacts, sub-lethal and chronic impacts for example, on pollinators.

“New research on neonicotinoids is being published at an astounding rate, demonstrating an overwhelming level of concern within the scientific community. While much of this research initially focused on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, serious issues are being raised surrounding the broader ecological implications of neonicotinoid use,” writes the Commissioner.

An issue that pits manufacturers of a pesticide with a huge reach and the agri-business (87% of the world’s major crops are dependent upon pollinators) against scientific and lay communities with deeply held concerns about its effects on food and the environment represents a very high level of intellectual warfare.

There’s a pattern to this kind of warfare: manufacturers insisting upon the harmlessness of their products buttressed by their own research and litigious and public relation campaigns; highly competitive food producers; funding-strapped, over-worked, over-stretched, publicly-supported scientists; government agencies and their tangled bureaucracies adjudicating these warring parties based on evidence that doesn’t line up or they can’t understand; journalists who rely on press releases; a tax-weary skeptical public; and governments that won’t or can’t or think they shouldn’t be protecting environmental interests in the face of galloping expertise that always exceeds their grasp.

FungiGiven these hazards, Ontario can expect to run into some heavy weather if it attempts to seriously challenge the role of neonics. In 2013, The European Environment Agency published a thoroughly documented account of its exhaustive struggles concerning the neonicotinoid Gaucho® as part of a series called Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation. All the players including Bayer the pesticide manufacturer, publicly supported scientists, the beekeeping community, and various EU food-related agencies participated.

Honeybees have been aptly described as bio-warning systems, but they’re actually environments in microcosm, super-organisms, with many moving, highly engineered parts that together amount to a complex community. And all this complexity had to be captured in the EU research.

Difficulties arose at the outset. Researchers could not agree on what dosage was harmful to bees and there were many categories of harm, the fall-down-dead type and sub-lethal and chronic effects that impacted the bees’ physiology and immune system, effects that might become lethal over time or make the colony more prone to diseases.

As it turned out, extraordinarily minute quantities of neonics were causing problems for bees including memory loss and learning, interference with foraging, reduced reproduction and queen production, impaired immune function and increased susceptibility to pathogens. And depending upon the role the bees played and their age their exposure differed. Nectar and pollen stored and then fed to the young enlarged its effects. And effects differed among colonies that bore surprisingly varied genetic signatures.

Bayer had conducted pre-approval studies of the effect of Gaucho® on aphids, which it claimed were ten times more sensitive than honeybees. Other researchers were astonished by this “extrapolative assumption.” Aphids only showed effects in the short term while bees were repeatedly ingesting Gaucho® over the long term.

For Bayer, the gold standard was field and semi-field tests, even though the variables were seemingly infinite and uncontrollable. For this reason the publicly funded scientists preferred laboratory tests, where all the various factors could be held constant.

The publicly funded scientists felt their scientific integrity challenged by Bayer. One stated, “I personally received a letter from Bayer threatening me with a lawsuit for defamation. The letter, written by Bayer’s lawyers, warned of both judicial action and financial reparations.” As well, this researcher’s supervisor was pressed to use his influence with the researcher to modify his conversations with the press, pressure that was resisted.

The challenges continued. After years of work, a scientist suddenly found himself removed from the file. A researcher had his funded project on imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Gaucho® cancelled after much work had been done on it. Bee experts found themselves outnumbered by non-experts on decision-making committees. At one point, the Commission of Toxic Products came out with a decision in favour of Bayer without consulting its own Honeybee Working Group. To make its decision seem more palatable, the agency reframed the purpose of the study as determining whether Gaucho® was responsible for all honeybee deaths in all of France, a ludicrous assumption.

Beekeepers felt the heat as well. Bayer took three of their representatives to court accusing them of discrediting Gaucho®. Fortunately, the courts found against the company, with one judge reprimanding the plaintiff for attempting to intimidate the defendants.

WeedsBy Bayer’s own admission Gaucho® persisted in the soil (188 plus or minus 25 days) longer than the European Union allowable threshold of three months. It cropped in untreated plants. Bees infected with both a particular pathogen and Gaucho® showed higher mortality rates than bees affect by either one.

Long term, seed dressing may prove to be less efficacious than a topical application. Because it exerts a constant pressure on natural selection, it increases the likelihood of the plant becoming resistant. It’s a preventative measure applied whether needed or not, much like the misuse of antibiotics with possibly equally negative results.

What happens on farmers’ fields of course doesn’t stay on farmers’ fields.“Troubling questions are being raised about the broader environmental effects of these pesticides. Only a small portion of the active substance is taken up in seed-treated crops, and the rest enters the environment. This is of concern because neonicotinoids are not only persistent in soil and water, but are also water soluble and highly mobile within ecosystems, ” writes the Commissioner.

Among the lessons learned from the EU experience is, obviously that you can’t rely on insecticide companies or industry to get at the truth, but neither can you reply on environmental groups that are great at setting off bio-alarms, but may pick their agendas to further their survival as organizations. The really wobbly link is public scientists whose existence might be as precarious as the honeybees. These are the people we should be worried about.

Join me in conversation on Twitter @PennyPepperell

Managing New Challenges: Annual Report 2013/2014, Environmental Commissioner of Ontariohttp://www.eco.on.ca/index.php/en_US/pubs/annual-reports-and-supplements/2014-managing-new-challenges

Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation, “Chapter 16 seed-dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees,”, European Environment Agency http://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/neonicotinoid-pesticides-are-a-huge

Macro Ubiquitous Microbeads: Plastics in the Great Lakes

My mother got by with a little hand cream and a stub of lipstick. My under-the-sink-cupboard on the other hand is filled with bygone elixirs, some of which —body washes and exfoliates, toothpastes, deodorants and hand cleaners—are responsible for washing tiny microplastics, less than 5mm in diameter, down the drain and right through our waste management systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified 2,000 products containing tiny polyethylene and polypropylene pellets with soft abrasive properties, little scrubbers that make our skin glow and whiten our teeth, but cause internal blockages, dehydration and death in the fish and birds that eat them.

Microplastics can also alter the heat retention and light reflection properties of our beaches. Worst of all, pollutants such as DDT, PAHs and PCBs glom on to them, building to super high concentrations as they work their way up the food chain.

Flog

New York’s Attorney General estimates that his state flushes 19 tons of microbeads down the drain every year. California shreds 38 tons. Researchers have found on average eight pieces per small fish in Lake Erie, 20 pieces per medium fish and 44 per cormorant.

 (Something else to worry about: sunscreens contain nanoparticles, in particular titanium dioxide, (TiO2), that filter out ultraviolet rays but usually come coated with silica or alumina. When these substances hit the water, the coating dissolves allowing sunlight and oxygen to transform TiO2 into hydrogen peroxide or H2O2. H2O2 can inhibit the growth of phytoplankton—it’s an antiseptic after all. This is the finding first published in Environmental Science & Technology, and recently picked up by Scientific American. David Sánchez-Quiles of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies lead the study.)

According to a recent scientific paper, the first to take a serious look at microbeads in the Great Lakes, by Dr. Sherri Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, the lakes are awash in this stuff. Concentrations range from an insignificant 450 beads per square kilometer to over 466,000 near urban areas such as Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo. Lake Erie accounts for 90% of all the plastic debris found in the Great Lakes, with two samples of the 21 taken accounting for 85% of the total.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative has put its full weight behind this issue, doing a clever end run round the cumbersome regulatory process by convincing some cosmetic manufacturers to phase out microplastics. To date, here’s list of who’s on board: Beiersdorf (no set date); Colgate-Palmolive (by the end of 2014); Johnson & Johnson (by the end of 2015); L’Oreal (no set date); Proctor & Gamble (by the end of 2017); Unilever (by the end of 2015).  Aveda and Lush have ceased using microplastics altogether.

As well as addressing the industry directly, the Cities Initiative is asking some pointed questions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: what if anything is it doing about it; what research is it conducting into the impact on human and ecosystem health, and what steps is it doing to clean it the mess.

Personal care lobbyist strike a win

Sultan's SlipperThe beauty industry is fighting back. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, dedicated to a planet free of plastic pollution and sponsors of the Great Lakes study, Illinois passed an almost useless microbead bill thanks to the efforts of beauty industry lobbyists. They ensured that “biodegradable” plastics escaped regulation. But these so-called biodegradable plastics  aren’t in fact biodegradable except under very particular conditions such as industrial composts, certainly not in water bodies. Using similarly twisted language, the law is meant to apply to solid plastics that “retain their defined shape,” again, a misrepresentation of how plastic actually behaves. It gets smaller in the wild, becoming more digestible and dangerous while still retaining its molecular structure.

In the final indignity, the law exempts “over the counter drugs” from censure, “drugs” such as whitening toothpastes, aromatherapy, acne scrubs, wrinkle-reducing products, dandruff shampoo and moisturizing cleansers. And the bill concludes by leaving most of the levers in the hands of the industry.

More bad news: California just saw its proposed microbead bill go down to defeat by one vote. But New York, Michigan, and Ohio are moving ahead with legislation and Wisconsin is studying the issue. Let’s see what happens.

Canada isn’t on board yet
Canada hasn’t got a file on this. Leona Aglukkaq, Environment Canada minister identified the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as the appropriate vehicle for regulating this substance. But she added that “this is a plastic waste management/disposal issue” and therefore the purview of the provinces. This is a cop- out. Still on the federal front, NDP member Brian Masse, is working on a private member’s bill to address this subject.

Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change is studying plastics in the Great Lakes despite the federal government being responsible for their regulation. Results are expected this winter according to Peter Helm, a senior research scientist with the Ontario government.

If only there was a way to stop wild and crazy ideas like polishing our skin with microbeads from taking hold. Instead we reduced to mopping up the consequences, redrafting international treaties, relying on near hopeless private members’ bills, and pleading with cosmetic companies to change their ingredients. We’re struggling to reclaim ground we shouldn’t have lost in the first place.

The personal care business is not at risk here. Despite the fact that their products are completely unnecessary, we’re not likely to get over our quasi-addiction to them. And given the infinitely inventive capacities of this sector, I expect they could keep their lotions and potions within some well-thought-out environmentally friendly parameters and still make plenty of money. In the meantime, they could also choose not to follow in the footsteps of the tobacco industry.

Join me, PennyPepperell on Twitter for a conversation

Dr. Sherri A Mason: Bio and paper on microbeads http://www.fredonia.edu/chemistry/faculty/mason.asp

Sunscreen Floods Oceans as Warmer Waters Boost Tourism
Climate Wire, September 2, 2014, Scientific American
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sunscreen-floods-oceans-as-warmer-waters-boost-tourism

Ottawa Citizen, Marie-Danielle Smith, August 17. 2014
Environmentalists draw a bead on microplastics
http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/environmentalists-drawing-a-bead-on-microplastics

Great Lakes & St. Lawrence River Cities Initiative
Microplastics in the great Lakes and St. Lawrence River
http://www.glslcities.org/initiatives/microplastics.cfm

5 Gyres publishes first scientific paper on Plastic Pollution in the Great Lakes
Masses of Plastic Particles found in Great Lakes, October 28, 2014 blog post by Stiv Wilson
http://5gyres.org/posts/2013/10/28/5_gyres_publishes_first_scientific_paper_on_plastic_pollution_in_the_great_lakes

How Climate Change Became Un-American

American FlagSuddenly, we seem to have entered a new phase in climate change. Tipping points, which a short time ago lay ahead of us, if not comfortably ahead, are now either staring us in the face or passed us by. The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting away, one among many, setting in motion irrevocable changes in sea levels. An El Niño event, building across the west coast of South America now threatens to spread warmer than normal temperatures across the equatorial East Pacific region, bringing devastating droughts to Australia and floods to the southern U.S. And still, Republican politicians feel the need to pledge allegiance to the non-existence of climate change.

Sociologists, pollsters and psychologists have been bearing down on the phenomenon in the hope of discovering why the U.S, the lead country for climate science, is also where skepticism is most prevalent, and why concern for the effects of climate change has been sliding downwards as knowledge about it has increased.

The role of the U.S. is crucial. Not only because it spews out 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, but because of its economic and cultural hegemony. Canada can attest to that. The Harper government insists Canada won’t/can’t/shouldn’t work harder than the U.S. to lower fossil fuel emissions. It also happens to provide a convenient cover for not facing the implications of our home grown, petro-economy.

Living in DenialIn Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, author Kari Marie Norgaard breaks down climate change denial into three forms: outright skepticism; interpretative denial (sort of accepting it but reinterpreting its consequences); and the mushier, more pervasive denial, which is worked in with passivity, guilt, and helplessness.

The U.S. ranks around the bottom globally for acceptance of climate change. The well documented, richly funded efforts by the fossil fuel industry, in league with conservative think tanks, to deeply massage the American psyche have been hugely successful because climate change grates on Americans in all the wrong ways .

“What to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed,” writes Norgaard. “Whether something is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern. Our social environment provides us with what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore.”

Climate change is too pervasive, too needing of collective action to jive with Americans’ heightened sense of individualism and their distrust of government and institutions—the flip side of their can-do attitude. Climate change is un-American. It runs counter to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, so ignored it.

Something that is likely to make you feel powerless should be avoided. The more climate change info out there, the less personal responsibility is felt, hence concern drops.

Norgaard argues that Americans, (she is one by the way) while disengaged politically compared to other advanced nationalities and ignorant of the mechanics of government, do perceive climate change as a function of weak government action. They just can’t see a way around it. American exceptionalism essentially blocks discussion of alternatives.

Inaction around climate change also flows from the poor standing of science in American political decision-making. Despite the high regard in which American science is held around the world, the American public has proved receptive to the idea that science is just another institution to be skeptical about. (They haven’t bought into evolution either.)

tree against skyThe misinformation-climate-change denial-campaign, just like the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer campaign aimes to stay clear of evidence-based everything. Winning arguments isn’t the objective, just sowing doubt. There is always another side, goes the thinking and so the American media find a debunker for “balance” what reporters in other countries might view as a case of straight reporting. Human survival gets reduced to a political issue; this, when there is more scientific evidence in support of climate change than any other contemporary scientific discovery argues Norgaard.

Of course there are great and compelling reasons why climate change gets a yawn. We’ve normalized it. We’ve allowed environmental disasters into our worldview. There are limits to how long we can maintain a level of anxiety appropriate to the level of threat we face, especially one that isn’t knocking us down right now.

The problem created by fossil fuels at least in its outline, is easy to understand, but the solutions aren’t. What exactly would the consequences of reducing carbon emissions by 60% over the next 50 years look like?

But now the fight has left the phantom boxing ring where the scientists and the deniers who have been squaring off since the 1980s. Because floods, droughts and wildfires are no longer far-off problems, governors of some affected U.S. states (Maryland, New York and Washington) are bearing down on climate change damage and pointing accurately to its causes. Nine northeastern states and California have adopted cap-and-trade policies. Eight states have passed legislation calling for a reduction in carbon emissions, according to the New York Times.

The paper quotes California Governor Jerry Brown as saying that his state “is at the epicenter of the impact of climate change. We have to adapt because the climate is changing. There’s no doubt that the evidence has been strong for quite a while, and it is getting stronger. We have to get other states and other nations on a similar path forward and that is enormously difficult because it requires different political values, to unite around this one challenge of making a sustainable future.”

The insurance industry, not noted for getting lost in esoteric, ivory tower discussions is seeing the damage, estimating its costs and pointing fingers—and their lawyers—at those responsible for insuring that homes and infrastructure are built for the future.

“Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. is suing Chicago for failing to prevent flooding related to climate change in what experts say could be a landmark case that accelerates local efforts to grapple with the impacts of climbing temperatures, ” reports E&E News.

Now that climate change has arrived on U.S. shores, the nomenclature has gotta change. The shrill skeptics have already muted their language somewhat if not their message. But it doesn’t really matter. Events have passed them by.

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard, The MIT Press

E & E News: Insurance Company Sues Ill. Cities for Climate Damage http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059999532

New York Times: In California, Climate Issues Moved to Fore By Governor, Tuesday, May 20th, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/us/politics/in-california-climate-issues-moved-to-fore-by-governor.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

The Science of Shakespeare: A Many Splendored Thing

Science of Shakespear_Canadian-cover_2A review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe

Think of London in 1600, a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s canon, as a mash up of Canada circa 1967 (Expo, Trudeau, a blasting economy, and lots of kids with hardly anything to worry about) and contemporary Palo Alto, the app startup incubator of the world. Throbbing with British bravado, the sinking of the Armada, religious freedom, explorations of the New World, 1600 was a time when princes, ruffians and pickpockets equally enjoyed bear baiting (an appallingly sadistic sport) and flowery poetry.

This was when the distinctions between religion, astronomy, astrology and magic were fluid; when “science” wasn’t science yet; when adventurous thinkers were pulling away from ancient ideas and increasingly relying on mathematics and observation.

In November 1572, when Shakespeare was eight, a supernova, a massive dying star shone in the sky for months, shaking up the idea of immutable heavenly spheres. It signaled the slow death of magical thinking and the birth of paradigm-shaking revelations: the distinction between electricity and magnetism; the law of inertia; the magnetic pull of Earth; the theory of lenses; Galileo’s telescopic discoveries (born the same year as WS); the laws of planetary motion; the law of hydrostatic pressure; and the law behind the swinging of a pendulum.

How curious then that scholars came so late to considering if and how this scientific exuberance might have found its way into Shakespeare’s plays. This is the subject of an excellent book, by Dan Falk. It’s a scholarly guide to some of the best thinking —and a refutation of some of the more loony ideas— about Shakespeare’s canon and the “science” of his times.

The science-bard link was first made by Peter Usher, an astronomer, in a paper he presented at a conference in Toronto in 1997, which he followed up with a book, Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, in 2010. He claimed that “Hamlet” was actually a gigantic face-off between the Ptolemaic and heliocentric/Copernican concepts of the Earth’s place in the universe, whether it be at the centre where the Ancients had put it, or farther out, a mere planet rotating around the sun.

Tree with hole“Perhaps the biggest riddle of the time was whether the universe was small, comfortable and human-centered—or whether, as a handful of bold thinkers had suggested, it was enormous, with mankind a mere speck and our planet, on a cosmic scale, little more than a dot,” writes Falk. “No wonder Hamlet sees ‘this goodly frame the earth’ as nothing more than a ‘congregation of vapours’, ‘a sterile promontory.’”

The scholarly community was prepared to buyin to this notion at least a little, but as for the more radical picture, that Hamlet was actually a secret allegorical code that Shakespeare had created with the idea of dodging the (non-existent) religious police,  well as one Harvard prof put it, Shakespeare doesn’t do allegories.

At the opposite end of the argument, it now seems absurd to suppose that Shakespeare, living within a few cramped dank city blocks of the world’s greatest pre-telescope astronomers, socializing as he did up and down and sideways across society as only celebrity entertainers could do, wouldn’t work in some scientific fervor into his plays. And this view seems to have won out, according to Falk.

The Science of Shakespeare is your time machine to a deeper appreciation of the plays and the history of science, especially regarding Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the book that moved Earth away from the centre of the God-created galaxy. Fortunately, the book stays away from the aggressive fact-twisting that imbues the attempts by the lunatic fringe to prove Shakespeare misogynistic or anti-Semitic or a literary fraud or something else that suits the temper of our times. Falk’s book is definitely a cut above all that.

But back to “Hamlet”, Falk does draw lines between specific references in the play to contemporary people and events. “Yond same star that’s westward from the pole” in the opening scene probably referred to the supernova of WS’s childhood. Hamlet’s pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were names plucked from a list on a 1590 engraving of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the greatest of the pre-telescopic astronomers. (Tycho is thought to have been the model for Prospero in the “Tempest.”)

More telling is Hamlet describing himself as the king of infinite space. “Infinite” applied to “space” was new. It’s his fussing over his role in the psychic and cosmic abyss that has kept “Hamlet” at the forefront of Shakespeare’s plays.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut just as “Hamlet” looks forward, “Macbeth” looks back to an older world of magic and witches. Falk describes them, these vectors of bad magic/science, as something of a national obsession. Witches could be male or female but they were usually described as old women, elderly, helpless, crippled, wrinkled, hairy-lipped, squinty-eyed, squeaky-voiced and with a scolding tongue. Their most intense persecution coincided with the scientific revolution, as people joined their need for vengeance with scraps of emerging science.

“Magnetism seems almost tailor-made for mystical interpretations…The very idea of magnetic forces ‘seemed to open the possibility of telepathy, magical healing and action at a distance.’ For example, if someone was injured by the use of a weapon, it made sense to apply the healing ointment not only to the wound, but also to the weapon; after all, if magnetic forces could affect planetary orbits, might not vital spirits readily traverse the short distance between weapon and wound?”

The same arguments for why you should read this book hold for why you should read Shakespeare. Because you need a rest from thinking bad thoughts about the ultimate legacy that human beings will leave the planet. Because understanding how the Copernican worldview picked us up and put us down in a different place throws some useful light on how we have “received” evolution, the last time we were reminded that our specialness is only relative.

I remember someone from my university days exclaiming that it was remarkable what WS could write, considering he didn’t have the benefit of modern psychology.  She got it backwards of course. We can’t know what Shakespeare thought, but we think we know what kings among others think, because Shakespeare convinced us of it.

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, by Dan Falk, published by Goose Lane in Canada and Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press in the U.S.

Author photo by Sara Desjardins Photography

 

 

 

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 http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/experimental-lakes-area-research-station-officially-saved-1.2594161

Save ELA http://saveela.org/

Reeves Report: Rebuilding Science Team at ELA a Tough Task http://thereevesreport.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/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.

Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again, an environmental journalist gets sacked, and PostMedia does something truly outrageous.

river bank ice 1Since my Feb 19th blog about the National Energy Board being poised to assume responsibilities for fish and fish habitat, I’ve learned that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is doing much the same thing, that is, it has signalled its intention to take over the protection of fish from the Federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO).

If this were an isolated event in an otherwise healthy approach to the environment, one might be tempted to chalk it up to rational planning, but environmental protections are involved in a multi-vehicle car crash right now, and this is yet another insidious example of how deep and wide Harper’s assault on science really is.

Other dismaying events, this one involving the private sector: PostMedia cut loose Mike de Souza, one of Canada’s outstanding environmental reporters,  when the media company took a truncheon to its Ottawa Bureau. This quickly followed a devastating article by Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar in the Vancouver Observer on a cozy deal PostMedia had struck with the petroleum industry to promote the primacy of energy (read fossil fuels) through all its media outlets. So count that as two dismaying events.

Now for the details.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has signaled its intention to assume powers under the Fisheries Act according to a CNSC and DFO Memorandum: Arrangements of this kind used to be described as conflicts of interest. But this one is touted as adding “clarity and consistency to decision-making” and “improving the efficiency and effectiveness of regulatory reviews” for nuclear facilities, uranium mines and mills.

Snow man with dog 2This conflation of environment/industry processes means fish have lost an advocate. Any clarity arising from this arrangement (but not transparency obviously) comes from burying  protections for fish in inter-office memos. And this handover is only one step away: DFO only retains its authority “until such time as CNSC is prescribed the person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Act authorizations.”

PostMedia, the Petroleum Industry and Mike de Souza: No one would position PostMedia in the left/liberal-leaning side of the spectrum, nonetheless its reporting on the environment has included the breaking of important stories, and leading the pack of responsible reporters was Mike de Souza.

De Souza’s employment ended abruptly on February 4th, when PostMedia announced the downsizing of its Ottawa Bureau and the melding of its remaining operations with that of the Ottawa Citizen. Reporters Andrea Hill and Tobi Cohen were also let go.

These firings happened to coincide with the Vancouver Observer publishing a stunning story about a collaboration between PostMedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to “bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation.” Was this timing a coincidence?

According to a power point presentation explaining the deal, the National Post’s publisher Douglas Kelly promises his paper will “undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”

How can any reasonable person be expected to not see this deal as contaminating the independence of the paper’s and PostMedia’s editorial content? It goes well beyond the usual project placement/advertising/marketing agreement that a party might strike with the advertising department of a newspaper.

We need more journalists and fewer media hacks. We need real journalists, whatever the political stripe of their employers.

Speaking of political stripes, pushing the environment, the economy and science through the funnel of resource-based development isn’t necessarily a natural for conservatives. Those great looming right-wing figures, Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich were both strong believers in supporting basic science and lots of it. This, plus other well–argued insights can be found in “The Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back,” an excellent article by Dak T. de Kerckhove in ipolitics.

“In the global context, it certainly appears that Canada was better positioned for innovation before the arrival of the Harper government. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Reports measure a country’s ability to provide a fertile ground for innovation. Canada was in the top ten of most categories in 2001 — and in third place in the overall measure of ‘Growth Competitive Index’. In the past few years we’ve slid out of the top ten and, in specific categories like ‘Quality of Scientific Research Institutions’, have seen a freefall from fourth place in 2008 to 16th in 2013. To make matters worse, last year we were ranked 27th for our ‘Capacity for Innovation’. By international standards, we’re increasingly failing to foster that fertile environment for innovation.”

De Kerchove’s point is that even within traditional, conservative, economy-minded terms of reference, Harper is not handling the science and environment files very well. These are keystone sectors, that would spawn wealth and well-being given some consistent support. If we took care of them, they would take care of us.

Memorandum of Understanding: Fisheries and Oceans and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Dec 16, 2013 http://www.nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/acts-and-regulations/memorandums-of-understanding/mou-cnsc-fisheries-oceans.cfm

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, PostMedia 2012 Energy Channel Sponsorship: Positioning Canada at the Forefront of EnergyCopy of CAPP- PostMedia Board Presentationhttp://prezi.com/8zap67vqchv5/copy-of-capp-postmedia-board-presentation-highlights/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy

Vancouver Observer: February 4th, 2014, Presentation Suggests Intimate Relationship between PostMedia and Oil Industry Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar http://www.vancouverobserver.com/news/postmedia-prezi-reveals-intimate-relationship-oil-industry-lays-de-souza

Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back http://www.ipolitics.ca/2014/02/25/the-harper-approach-to-science-is-holding-us-back/