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 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/what-is-the-fair-elections-act/article17648947/#dashboard/follows/

Don’t Undermine Elections Canada, National Post, “We the undersigned…”http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/03/11/dont-undermine-elections-canada/

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, http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/03/11/dont-undermine-elections-canada/

“We Believe this Act will Prove to be Deeply Damaging to Electoral Integrity within Canada” We the undersigned… March 19,2014 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/letter/article17561359/#dashboard/follows/

Current Voter Identification http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=vot&dir=ids&document=index&lang=e#one

CBC News: Do you have the Right ID to Cast a Ballot in a Federal Election? Laura Payton, March 29, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/do-you-have-the-right-id-to-cast-a-ballot-in-a-federal-election-1.2590173

Huff Post Politics, April 7, 2014, Fair Elections Act: Public Prosecutor Not Consulted on Planned New Role http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/04/06/fair-elections-act-public-prosecutor-brian-saunders_n_5101083.html

CTV News, Elections Commissioner Wants Power to Compel Testimony from Witnesses, April 2, 2014, http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/elections-commissioner-wants-power-to-compel-testimony-from-witnesses-1.1756935

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truman_Show

Virtual Chicken Experiments Solve Mystery of Why Roosters have Wattle http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chickens-virtual-experiments-solve-mystery-of-why-roosters-have-wattles-video/

Scientific American: Brainy Bird, by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski, February, 2014 http://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa/2014/02-01/

Wikipedia: Great Chain of Being http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_chain_of_being

Is a plug in the St. Clair River really going to fix low water levels?

Stump with SnowYou may have got the impression from something you read  or heard recently that the U.S. government has decided to proceed with a fix for the Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay low water levels problem, but you might want to hold your applause. The United States Army Corps of Engineers has set aside a small amount in its 2014 budget, $50,000—lunch money—for some preliminary work leading up to a General Reevaluation Report on compensating works in the St. Clair River. This is a very narrow look at the water levels problem and Canada and the U.S. have not signed on to it.

Back in 2009, the scientific arm of the IJC, the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, the authors of the $17 million report on water levels, had advised against such an approach.  It “recommended that remedial measures not be undertaken at this time and that…the need for mitigative measures in the St. Clair River be examined as part of the comprehensive assessment of the future effects of climate change.”

This comment was contained in an interim report written before the IJC told the Study Board politely in future to keep its opinions to itself. Instead, the IJC advised the Board that it should “provide Governments and the public with extremely valuable information and insight to help form the basis for rational and scientifically-based decision making.” With that, the way was clear for the Commission to make its plug-in-the-St-Clair-River recommendation without contravening its own experts.

And so, last April, the Commission advised the U.S. and Canadian governments to investigate possibly restoring 10 inches of water to the middle Great Lakes by way of a structure in the St. Clair River. This was such slap in the face to the Study Board’s work that the U.S. section chair of the Commission, declined to sign on to the Advice document, the creature of her own agency.

Garden plants in snowThe Advice in my view places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue adaptive management,” wrote Lana Pollack. “The Advice may also raise false hopes that structures in the St. Clair River would be sufficient to resolve the suffering from low water levels in Michigan-Huron, while at the same time causing possible disruption downstream in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.”

The IJC sans Lana Pollack, wanted to finally put the dredging problem behind them—now made infinitely worse by record low water levels—a problem the general public seemed to think was responsible, and a problem that had been dragging on despite innumerable studies, plans, designs and approvals for more than half a century.

It would have been infinitely easier to have slowed down the river back in the ’60s when the major digging took place—before a new ecological and hydrological world had formed around the wound. But now in 2014, the big water-level agent is climate change and there are many stakeholders with legitimate interests in the status quo.

Besides being spooked by all the uncertainties association with climate change, the Study Board looked at the various scenarios for water restoration and saw big winners and losers: shipping and recreational boating in the middle Great Lakes would love it but there would possibly be flooding and erosion in the Chicago area; bureaucratic entanglements (the necessity for a bi-national entity comparable to the one for the St. Lawrence Seaway); and a diminished hydro-electric generation capacity but improved fish spawning habitat in the St. Mary’s River at the mouth of Lake Superior.

But the really tragic tradeoffs concerned the environment. Georgian Bay wetlands would benefit but “restoration structures would have significant adverse environmental impacts on the St. Clair River system, home to five listed species-at-risk (endangered or threatened) including lake sturgeon. Environmental laws of both Canada and the United States require that this unique habitat be protected.”

But here’s the crusher: relief for Georgian Bay wetlands would only be fleeting. Georgian Bay is being steadily drained drip-by-drip, 10 inches a century, by Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA), the gradual rebounding of the earth’s crust following the melting of glacial ice that weighed down the Great Lakes during the Ice Age.

“Restoration would temporarily help to counteract the effects of GIA and lowered water levels in Georgian Bay,” said the Study Board. “However, restoration of Lake Michigan-Huron levels would compound the effects of GIA in much of the densely populated southern portion of the upper Great Lakes. ”

GIA really comes into play when you consider the length of time an engineering project would take to get off the ground. The Study Board identified 20 years for planning, environmental reviews, regulatory approvals and design steps; plus 30 more years for a staged construction, which would allow the coastal areas to ease in gently to a rise in water levels. The Army Corps estimates the completion of its General Reevaluation Report and Final Environmental Impact Statement alone would take until 2025.

The IJC’s Advice to Government saw a greatly reduced timeline. “It is important to note that the full effects of these structures would not be immediate, but rather could take up to a decade to achieve the desired outcome, depending on hydrological conditions.” Ten years: another case of false hopes?

The good people of Georgian Bay sounded the alarm about low water levels years ago, committing considerable political capital and treasure to the problem. Georgian Bay wetlands are some of the most pristine and complex fresh water ecosystems in the world. But saving them, the little it is still possible to save, is going to take the hard incremental ongoing work of adaptive management. (See my October blog “Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO” for an explanation for what this means.) Waiting for the hydrological engineers to come up with a contraption probably isn’t going to deliver what we want.

The International Joint Commission’s Advice to Governments on the Recommendations of the International Upper Great Lakes Study, April 15th, 2013 http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/IUGLS-IJC-Report-Feb-12-2013-15-April-20132.pdf

Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012 http://www.iugls.org/Final_Reports

Decision Document Review Plan: St Clair River Compensating Works, St. Calir River (Michigan and Canada) General Reevaluation Report, May 2013 www.lre.usace.army.mil/Portals/69/docs/PPPM/PlanningandStudies/ApprovedReviewPlans/StClairComp.pdf

Two Stories about Wolves that Say a Lot about Us

We never seem to let up on wolves. They’ve been a wet nurse for Romulus and Remus, a sexual predator in Little Red Riding hood, but more often just cattle-rustling thieves. We’re still into mythmaking but now we’re spinning our tales from stuff we pick up from biology and ecology, stuff we find psychologically affirming. Where once we saw demons, now we see critters in need of rescuing. Two wolf stories recently in the news illustrate this point.

DM show shot 2This past February in the depths of one of the harshest winters in 20 odd years, Isabelle, a lone female left her enfeebled wolf pack on Isle Royale in Lake Superior and set off across an ice bridge for the mainland in search of a mate, maybe food. And there she died on the shores of Minnesota leaving behind on the island a pack comprised of six or seven adults, including possibly only one potential breeding-age female plus three pups, all that remains of a peak population of 50 wolves.

Seventeen years earlier, a solitary alpha-male had made the reverse journey from the mainland to the island where he took over a pack, drove another to extinction and eventually came to dominate the gene pool, resulting in debilitating back deformities affecting virtually all his descendents.

There is an operatic symmetry—especially when you consider the death—to these to and fro journeys across the ice, both in search of a mate. These are odysseys undertaken across a forbidding landscape, Canis lupus versions of a polar expedition. The alpha male succinctly delivers a story of male over-reach, genetic domination that comes at a terrible cost, aggression gone too far. Isabelle could be painted as a mate-desperate, getting-on-in-years female or maybe as a plucky girl not willing to settle for the same-old, damaged goods on her home turf.

The other prominent story, somewhat more familiar, has to do with the wolves of Yellowstone Park that has been recently revived with a highly engaging YouTube video “How Wolves Change Rivers” with 3,300,000 views. You really must see this.

Using time-lapse photography, the video paints a picture of a miraculous “terrestrial trophic cascade.” It tells the tale of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in 1990s, which has kept the elk population in check, which has allowed the vegetation to be recover from over grazing, which has corrected the erosion problems on the river banks, which has led to different, more satisfactory river courses.

This is a powerful story about redemption. A creature once thought to be a killing-for-killing’s-sake psychopath is reconstituted as keystone species masterminding the return to health of an entire ecosystem. And because we humans made this happened, we also have been redeemed.

DM snow shot 3But a fall from grace quickly followed. A fulsome article in Nature with the requisite scientific bells and whistles, an editorial in the New York Times, which rarely steps out of the world of people to discuss animals, and a blogger writing for the Ecological Society of America, all debunked the assertion that the reintroduction of wolves to the Park has delivered the benefits claimed for it. Our keystone/alpha species has been cast into ecological irrelevance—or maybe not.

Kristin Marshall, an ecologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle Washington told Nature that, “the predator was gone for at least 70 years. Removing it has changed the ecosystem in fundamental ways. Wolves did meaningfully structure the Yellowstone ecosystem a century ago, but that reintroducing them cannot restore the old arrangement.”

Recent research suggests that willow shrubs did not do well whether they were protected from elk grazing or not. Where the plants have done well is attributed to beavers, another keystone species, having raised the water table to counteract the effects of drought. And to the extent that the elk population has declined, the debunkers question whether this can be attributed entirely to wolves. Grizzly bears and hunting have also been thinning out the herds.

Two things are being questioned here: one, the facts on the ground in the case of the impact on particular plant species; and two, the “terrestrial trophic cascade”, that predators have a crucial impact on the behaviour of an ecosystem. This top-down theory replaced an earlier notion of a bottoms-up cascade, that the health of plants determines the entire food chain. And not to be left out, some researchers favour the guys in the middle, grasshoppers, herbivores, and beavers, all of which integrate influences from the top and the bottom.

Despite the holes punched in it, the top-down theory is still viable, at least some people think. As quoted in Nature, “James Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the fathers of the trophic-cascade idea, says that the evidence for cascades mediated by changes in animal behaviour rather than by changes in animal number is ‘thin’, at the moment — and that many of the effects that have been documented are spotty and badly need to be rigorously mapped out. Still, he adds, ‘When all is said and done, and everyone is dead 100 years from now, [the trophic cascade] will be closer to right.’”

So the Yellowstone wolf may not have been relegated to some ecological trash heap, quite. He has been caught up in a turf war among ecologists who have learned to resist the anthropomorphic projections the rest of us happily wallow in every time we watch some spectacular National Geographic or Planet Earth extravaganza, porn for nature lovers.

Animals just used to be there. Now as a result of our actions we are put in the position of saving them, especially clever, team players like wolves, who make other species strong by preying on the weak among them. However, it goes without saying, don’t try this at home.

Ecological Society of America: Wolves Take a Blow to Their Rep, March 11, 2014 http://www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-the-news/yellowstone-wolves-take-a-blow-to-their-rep/

Detroit Free Press: Lone Female Wolf Found Dead after Crossing Ice Bridge, February 26, 2014, http://www.freep.com/article/20140226/NEWS06/302260064/Michigan-wolf-population-Isle-Royale

YouTube Video: How Wolves Changes Rivers, by Sustainable Man, February 13, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q

New York Times: Is the Wolf a Real American Hero? March 10, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/opinion/is-the-wolf-a-real-american-hero.html?_r=0

Nature: Rethinking Predators: Legend of the Wolf, March 7, 2014 http://www.nature.com/news/rethinking-predators-legend-of-the-wolf-1.14841

Photography: Doug McKenzie

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/

Blow-Your-Mind Citizen Science Projects versus Keeping a Cottage Diary

The brave new world of citizen scientists is one of the more extraordinary outgrowths of web-based, app-based communications. The data flow generated by smart phones, webcams, telescopes, drones, robotic rovers, remotely operated submersibles and satellites is more than the scientists—those who still have jobs—can handle, and so they’ve gone trolling for enthusiasts to bring some rudimentary order to the gobs of stuff flowing out of their devices.

split branchSo if you’re yearning for more face time with your laptop, try out some of the classy citizen science websites out there complete with fancy graphics, National Geographic-quality photographs, tutorials, blogs, discussion groups and professional ad copy, but don’t be fooled. They’re advertising the Joe jobs of every science project—observing, transcribing, measuring, making lists and counting—nothing wrong with that!

Check into http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/projects.html: definitely one of more awe-inspiring sites and read about Galaxy Zoo Quench where 1600 people peered back in time to when the Universe was less than half its present age and applied their “pattern-recognition skills” to complete 120,000 classifications of 3002 post-quenched (snuffed out) galaxies plus 3002 control galaxies as captured by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Hubble Space Telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.  Phase Two is now underway.

But do heights make you giddy? How about joining a mid-ocean, mapping expedition via webcam videos? Mapping Seafloor Geology at Endeavour Ridge is compiling bathymetric data sets (underwater maps) to better understand the area’s dynamic geological history. By correlating geological features with select animals, you will contribute to an understanding of species distribution in one of the most extreme habitats on earth.

Sumach against snowHow about digging into climate change? Transcribe Arctic and worldwide weather observations recorded in ships’ logs going back to the mid-19th century. These will establish some useful baselines on which scientists can build their climate model projections to improve our understanding of past and future environmental conditions.

If history is your thing, you can dive into the Ancient Lives Project and transcribe and interpret thousand-year-old texts using an ancient alphabet keyboard. Your digital transcriptions will then be crunched together with other computer and human touches to turn them into intelligible scripts and later published in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series.

These sorts of project might provide a break from Monopoly and gin rummy at the cottage when it is too buggy to go outside.

If you want to collect your own data, check out some new apps being developed, some of which are mentioned in this Scientific American article at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/8-apps-that-turn-citizens-into-scientists/ There’s a secchi dish app that enables mariners to participate in a global study of phytoplankton. This sort of data could throw some light on climate change impacts on the bottom of the food chain.

If you want to turn your kids into science bugs, try out mobile and web-based tools for data collection, for example the Marine Debris Tracker (self explanatory) and Project NOAH, www.mindleaptech.com/apps/science/project-noah/ a resource for nature exploration and documentation, for sharing sightings and helping to identify plants and animals and their locations. This could be useful for any number of (your choice of) missions.

Say you want to plant milkweed for the decimated monarch butterflies. Assuming you could find a nursery to supply you with seeds, you could get a movement going and record your plots using NOAH’s GPS coordinates.

The danger is you will end up poking at and being disappointed by the less-than-adequate intuitive functions of your app. Come to think of it, you don’t actually need a hand-held recording device to plant milkweed, you need a shovel. Just do it, in the company of someone you know in the real world in place on a member of online community or an avatar.

If you want to be a citizen of the great outdoors, think local. Take a look at http://www.citizenscientists.ca/Citizen_Scientists.html a volunteer, not-for-profit group that focuses on ecological monitoring, environmental training and education. They follow a government certified protocol to monitor stream health at various sites. SOLEC, State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference recognized their strong commitment to improving the environment within the Great Lakes Basin with an award in 2011.

One of the oldest and most well-established citizen science projects is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 113th year, with over 500 local chapters, it is committed to grassroots conservation action.

The really big NASA-type citizen science projects look fascinating but Darwin got by with a notebook, a magnifying glass, a ruler and a pencil or two, the real tools of engagement. And if you thinking legacies, who’s to say your coffee-stained, yellowed science diary left on a cottage shelf under some old bird books won’t outlive the huge datasets captured in some time-sensitive software?

The act of observing makes you observant. Taking notes anchors you in a time and space. Writing a diary leaves a trail of engagements that give a person a life meaning and shape. If it was good enough for Darwin…