Category Archives: Science

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.

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

It’s the Habitat: What’s happening to our Frogs

In the mid-1990s, children in Minnesota were horrified to find the frogs they were catching had missing legs, horror-movie features, extra legs, and missing eyes. After that, these misshapen critters started showing up seemingly everywhere across the U.S., less so in Canada.

This past November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of the 10-year study of amphibians, 48,081 individuals representing 32 species of frogs and toads at 462 wetland sites. Its purpose was to address “the broad spatial distribution and temporal dynamics of amphibian abnormalities that have hindered efforts to understand the extent of the problem.”

one leg frog

Amphibians are the most imperiled class of vertebrates on earth. Amphibian Ark, a coalition of conservationists, estimates that 165 species have gone extinct in recent years. Malformations and mortality rates seem to be on the increase. Their permeable skin and shell-less eggs make them extremely vulnerable to the environment, and because they never venture far from home, they’re close to perfect bio-indicators of local conditions.

Various reasons for their decline have been suggested, but people have fastened on climate change, ultraviolet radiation seeping through the thinning ozone layer and damaging the molecular structure of just about everything.

The FWS study actually turned up surprisingly few abnormalities: only two per cent when the results were averaged over the U.S.; only 22 cases of extra limbs .6 per cent of all the abnormalities recorded;  and one-third of the 675 collection events yielded no abnormal amphibians at all.

Two per cent or fewer abnormalities is considered within a normal range. Malformations can result from predation and parasites. Even dragon flies nibble on frog larvae.

However the hot spots—the Mississippi Valley, the Central Valley in California and south-central and eastern Alaska—revealed serious abnormalities, shortened or odd-shaped limbs and missing eyes, at rates close to 40 per cent in some years, other years nothing. (Bravo for this long-range survey: a smaller sampling might have come to wildly different conclusions.)

Garden furnitureBut there’s a codicil: all the sites studied were in U.S., refuges where amphibians are provided protection from man-caused environmental stressors—except of course ultraviolet radiation and climate change. So the study doesn’t tell us why exactly amphibians are doing so poorly in less pristine environments.

One of the chief causes of malformations and high levels of death in amphibians, although it doesn’t explain all the cases, is the parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, or flukes. This flat worm, after reproducing asexually in snails, dispels 40 to 1,000 larvae every night per snail. Once released, they head straight for a frog, toad or salamander where they target their limbs, forming cysts there, obstructing their growth, sometimes causing their deaths or simply rendering them lame and more susceptible to predators.

The infected amphibians are eaten by birds (especially herons), which then become the second home for the flukes, and a place where they sexually reproduce. Their eggs are expelled in the bird’s feces, which if they land in water, they hatch and seek out snails, burrowing into their shells and setting up home again. R. ondatrae thrive in algae- rich farm ponds, so the increase in amphibian mortality may be related to an increase in nutrients.

Garden furniture 2The Canadian Journal of Zoology reports that infected amphibians have been found along the migratory flyways in the U.S., as you might expect given that the dispersal agents are birds, but curiously enough, the flyways in Canada haven’t turned up infected amphibian populations—a mystery for a future gap analysis. (This is not to suggest that R. ondatrae aren’t found in Canada, they are.)

A recent study in Illinois connected the decline in amphibians to the invasive European buckthorn, now evident in two thirds of the U.S. This rampaging ornamental plant releases a compound that is toxic to amphibian embryos, killing off populations of Western chorus frogs and the African clawed frog in particular, but it is also suspected in the high mortality rates of other amphibians.

A Canadian study has drawn a line between pesticide use and amphibian mortality. In Minnesota, a field study has linked UVB penetration in a pond to a depth of 10 cm. and the percentage of malformed frogs there, but light penetration in water is affected by shading from trees and aquatic plants, and by the amount and quality of dissolved organic carbon. So UVB doesn’t rank very high as a cause of amphibian mortality. However it could be acting on natural and manmade compounds that then make them toxic to frogs. The potential combination of biological, physical and chemical substances is limitless.

Garden hoseIt’s useful to know that amphibians are doing more or less O.K. in pristine environments like U.S. refuges. By inference, we’re left with contaminated environments, squashing them under our tires, interactions with invasive species, chemicals, nutrient runoff, any or all combinations of these factors plus outright habitat destruction as the real stressors. We can deal with these issues at the local level, unlike climate change.

Too often climate change induces a paralyzing stupor; it makes us feel bad and block us from taking on the challenges we should be fighting. For frogs everything is local. These critters don’t have enough room, and we too often mess with what room they do have. We can stop that.

Localized Hotspots drive Continental Geography of Abnormal Amphibians in U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Mari K. Reeves, Plos One;jsessionid=3F631910F949681EE6E7DE18549F0331

Ribeiroia ondatrae causes limb abnormalities in a Canadian amphibian community, C.D. Roberts, T.E. Dickinson, Department of Biology, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology

USGS, Science for a Changing World. Malformed Frogs in Minnesota: An update

Frog Deformities: North Temperate Lakes: Long Term Ecological Research from Lakeland Times, John Bates

legless frog photo credit: Scientific American, USFWS/Fred Pinkey

Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

It hasn’t gone away. The muzzling of scientists by the Harper administration continues to represent a scandalous challenge to Canadian democracy. Good news though: the abuses have been solidly documented in a survey of federal scientists, and in a report to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who as a result, has launched a formal investigation.

scaly branchTo recap some well-know cases: Nature published “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011”, an article by Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick that documented a hole two million kilometres wide that allows harmful ultraviolet radiation to escape. When a journalist contacted the federal media relations rep for an interview with the author (as protocol calls for) a spokesperson wrote back, “While the interview cannot be granted, we are able to provide additional information on the paper…you may attribute these responses to Dr. David Tarasick.” These “responses” however did not originate with the author but instead with the assistant deputy minister. The bureaucrats only relented in their walling off of the author two weeks later, after the media had moved on to other stories.

Case number two: Environment Canada scientists attending a Montreal conference, International Polar Year 2012, were shadowed by media relations contacts who sat in and recorded their interviews. If approached by a journalist, the scientists were required to brush them off, referring them instead to a media person. This is the sort of practice one would expect in Russia.

Case number three: University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler were provided with a package of scripted answers to expected questions from journalists on the subject of their paper on contaminated areas around oil sands developments.

Bark Dec 7, 2013

These are hardly isolated cases as has been made abundantly clear in a survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and conducted by the Environics Research Group. The scientists surveyed included those with responsibilities for the safety of our food, water, drugs and health products, the air, environment, children’s toys, scientific innovation and the economy.

“Faced with a department decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 86 percent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department,” reads the report.

Half the scientists surveyed reported being aware of actual cases in which the environment or the health of Canadians has been compromised as a result of political interference with their scientific work. Twenty-four per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Sixty two per cent think the best climate change science has not been translated into policies.

(U.S. scientists endure nothing like this; they have only to make clear that when they speak, they are not necessarily representing their government’s position.)

Last March, Canada’s information commissioner launched an official investigation into the muzzling issue based on a 26-page report with 100 pages of appendices detailing cases, internal government documents, information requests, interviews with former and current federal public servants, journalists, non-profit organizations and university professors. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic provided the document, which charges that current practices constitute a breach of the Access to Information Act.

If Commissioner Suzanne Legault agrees, she could “facilitate a solution”, which might involve mediation, or worst/best case, refer the matter to the Federal Court of Canada.

Commissioners report directly to parliament, free of the restraints of party politics, or so goes the theory, but all their power in tied up in influencing people. Their reports typically become the subject of hand-wringing editorials and that’s about it. If they’re especially good at getting heard, they might get blown off like the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The Harper administration is used to scathing reports; this is the same government that seems so nonplussed about having been found in contempt of parliament.

Sumack Dec 7, 2013

Imposing a clogged artery between scientists and the media; insisting that scientists be shadowed by media flacks; denying them permission to speak about their already published work; supplying senior-bureaucrat talking points for media interviews; insisting co-authors on federal research projects submit to the same soviet-style restrictions as federal scientists; and delaying, delaying, delaying, these media management practices seem curiously off-tempo with the speed of light exchanges on the wide open Internet.

But actually, the feds media protocol fits perfectly with the larger phenomena of seemingly huge piles of data accumulating in the ether while fewer and fewer people seem to have the authority to tell us what it all means. They’ve been laid off.

The Harper government seems particularly keen on constraining the climate change wonks from messing up its plans, but something else is going on. This particular administration is diminishing the authority with which science speaks — all that independent, peer-reviewed, evidence-based, cautious, heavy-on-the-qualifiers thinking of those conscientious people who always did their homework and got good marks in school.  Reducing scientists to squeaky wheels and whiners slots them as a special interest group with an agenda, and one that can be tossed off to appease their base.

Sometimes of course the best-laid political operative’s plans go astray. Muzzling the scientists when added to Canada’s knuckle-dragging performance on the climate change file has made us an easy target in the XL Pipeline debate south of the border. We’re iconic bad guys now with not a whole lot of credibility.

If we can describe federal scientists as canaries in the coal mine, part of the warning system in a political culture determined to stream-out evidence-based analysis, then we must be the frog in the pot, cooking so slowly we won’t know we’re intellectually compromised until it’s over.

The Bill Chill: A survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

Muzzling Scientists: A Threat to Democracy

Stop Muzzling Scientists: A petition

What on Earth Do We Think We’re Doing? Adventures in Saving the Critters

Last week I wrote about the abject failure of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to enact the Endangered Species Act. A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report. But maybe this failure—because other jurisdictions may be experiencing the same difficulty, even if they might be doing a better job of it—points to a larger failure. Instead of saving critters we could be just managing extinction.

A wonderful book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem looks at whether or not our conservation efforts are simply a way of atoning for messing up the planet.

Caring for the planet may not be the same thing as doing it any good.

Mooallem is wryly funny, authoritative, forgiving, undogmatic; and seriously thoughtful about our pathetic absurdities, exposing the fine line we cross between making fools of ourselves and being heroes.

Don River

“We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms.”

We have our favourite charismatic alpha faunas, like polar bears. We’re tranquillizing them, and then delivering them by helicopter, swinging in a net from a cable to some place far away from Churchill, Manitoba, (self-proclaimed capital of the polar bear world.)

“Making polar bears dependent on us for their very survival in such a hands-on way can feel like just as much a defeat as letting them die out. It would mean conceding that their ecosystem is irreparably broken, and that we have to be responsible for them in perpetuity.

“In Florida, manatees were huddling around coastal power plants, warming themselves in the outflowing plumes of hot water, and volunteers were kayaking into the Gulf of Mexico to ladle out seas turtles that were floating belly-up, stunned by the cold, then rushing them to triage centers and bundling them into blankets.”

Whooping cranes are being trained to follow ultralights along a migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida. At great expense and effort a few hardy volunteers head upwards in their flying machines, a Cessna acting as a spotter followed by a large entourage of motor homes. It takes weeks and weeks to do this and close to perfect weather conditions.

“Wild cranes can fly the entire migration in as little as a week, swirling up to eight or ten thousand feet on columns of rising, warm air and coasting for miles, the ultralights can’t keep up with birds at such altitudes and must stay closer to the ground, forcing the birds to flap the whole way.”

We’re  teaching birds how to fly, badly.

Once the whoopers get to Florida, they go shopping, to the dismay of their handlers. “In a world of Costco regional distribution centers and Krispy Kreme drive-thrus, we are asking them to block it all out, to see the Wal-mart retention pond as a slum instead of a providential new form of habitat in a changing world, and to see the corn piling up outside an ethanol plant not as food but as a ‘waste product.’”


Our herculean efforts to save particular species are supposed to be saving the hangers-on, the also-rans, the ecosystem that supports them, but in many cases the habitat is just gone. So simply leaving it alone won’t cut it either.

We would have to look back 12,000 years to the Pleistocene era, before humans slaughtered the big mammals with a Clovis point on their spears to find all the keystone alpha species resting comfortably atop of the food chain. Since then we have been trying a “Pleistocene rewind.” Since then we have been at the mercy of “environmental generational amnesia,” our tendency to calibrate our standards of what’s environmentally acceptable to how we saw things in our childhood. But if you measure declining environmental health from only one generation to the next, it doesn’t look as bad as it really is.

“There are calls to stop blanket vilification of invasive plants, to accept that weeds are not going away, and to realize that they can be parts of equally bio-diverse ‘blended’ ecosystems rather than only blights on the ‘native’ ecosystems we feel such nostalgia for.”

Mooallem seems to be aiming for getting our outrage right and then sitting back and accepting the inevitable, that we’re not getting anywhere.

But how can we not think that by carefully capturing a wasp with a glass and a dry cleaner’s cardboard and then releasing it outside, that we’re both, wasp and human, better for it?  Yes, we seriously messed up the planet but we sincerely want to atone for this. Anyway, what the alternative?

Wild Ones is a great storybook apart from being an exploration of our deepest humanity.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, Penguin Books, New York.

To see a polar bear be transported by helicopter, watch:!/videos/player/wild-polar-bear-release

Shadow Boxing with the Climate Change Deniers or What’s Wrong with the U.N. Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change

Scientific American has come out swinging against the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its massive authoritative report, six years in the making. The complaints, described in an October 2013 editorial, “Fiddling While the World Warms” concern the fact that much of its research is dead on arrival, while the latest alarming findings (for example, on the thawing of Arctic permafrost with implications for a massive spill of greenhouse gases, and the speeded-up melting of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic with huge implications for sea level rise) came after the Report’s two-year lead time.

The failing is the result of the Panel’s laborious review process, the fact that it waits to bundle all its findings together for a common release date, which means pertinence gets lost and the latest findings don’t make it into the bundle at all.

The editorial also points out that the Panel’s climate models have also been outclassed by more exacting versions coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These have predicted more storms of greater severity.

Garden channel wetlands

The better way would be to include a more effective use of yes, the Internet! The Panel should be shoveling research out the portal as it passes muster and deal with the full-throated responses when they can have some impact, or be dismissed.

IPCC seems to be shadow boxing with climate change deniers, in the hope that they can be won over with more “certain” science, with scientific findings that are painstakingly graded according to degrees of certainty, the IPCC way. But the dynamics are all wrong.

Climate change deniers, like evolution aren’t Holocaust deniers, aren’t interested in authoritative arguments. They’re drunk on the power of no. How wonderful it must be to see climate change scientists struggling to explain why they revised (in reality, reverted to an earlier projection) the lower end of their expected warming range from 2 degrees Celsius to 1.5 C., half a degree. (The upper limit remains unchanged at 4.5 C.) This change represents a slight increase in the degree of uncertainty associated with these numbers, and changes nothing in the big picture. No such comparable conscientious attention to the research can be expected from the deniers.

Science has fallen on hard times. Like music lessons, it’s one of the first to get booted out of budgets. Studying hard, getting good marks in peer reviews, publishing in prestigious journals, writing excellent grant applications gets less and less respect. The circumstances differ between Canada and the U.S., but the net result is not many people, including scientists, seem to want their children to grow up to be scientists when instead they could go into the investment business or make laptop presentations on new potentially billion dollar apps to venture capitalists in Starbucks.

Science is leaching esteem because arguments swirling around in the popular media are given equal weight, from the most authoritative to the wacky.  The media go looking for second opinions to give their subjects context, lend an air of impartiality and pander to the reflective oppositionist out there. This is great for policy makers who really really really don’t want to scale the steep slope that must be crossed to deal with climate change.

But back to the U.N. document on climate change. Unfortunately all the refinements to the projections don’t provide a shred of advice on how that slope might be scaled.

Fortunately, UNESCO has stepped up to the challenge of providing good policy advice.  More on this in a later blog.

The Scientific American editorial referred to here is called “Fiddling While the World Warms”, one of its 10.2013 columns. It is available somewhere at, but access is restricted to registrants.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Report can be found at