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It's Hard for Plants to Sprout in Drought

Wed, 11/18/2015 - 10:51am

Written by Renee Curry, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Student in the Graduate Degree Program of Ecology

Drought impacts all of us, even those who have not even stepped foot on a farm or a ranch. All over the media, there have been stories about the four-year crippling drought in California. There have been widespread wildfires, decreased food production and severe water restrictions in the state of California. Severe droughts such as this California drought, as well as the drought that occurred in the U.S. Great Plains from 2010-2012, are predicted to occur more frequently due to global climate change.

Motivation

Droughts that occur in the U.S. Great Plains are of great interest to me due to my family history. My mother’s family homesteaded in Oklahoma and farms winter wheat, while my father’s family grows seed corn and soybeans in southeastern South Dakota.  I am the 6th generation of my father’s family to work on the farm that my ancestors homesteaded near the Missouri River in 1861. Given my family background,  my dissertation research focuses on the evaluating the impacts of drought on numerous grassland and crop sites in the U.S. Great Plains.  It is my hope that my research will further our understanding of drought to help farmers and ranchers with the tough decisions when it comes to drought mitigation and drought response. The life of a farmer is already unpredictable due to the weather. It does make you wonder how much farmers will be impacted when certain extreme weather events such as droughts will be more commonplace with the changing climate.

What is Drought?

According to the leading institution of drought research, the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center, drought originates from the lack of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or longer), which results in water shortages for a variety of users such as humans, wildlife and crops.  There are a variety of significant economic, social and environmental stresses that can worsen or improve drought.  This flow chart focuses on the drought impacts to agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and the negative impacts on end-users, such as farmers, ranchers, tourists and municipal water utilities [1].

Impacts of 2012 Drought

The 2012 severe drought in the Great Plains and Midwest cost the nation approximately $35 billion dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, which made this drought more extensive than any other drought since the 1950s. The 2012 drought rapidly increased in severity from June to July and continued into August. The timing of the increased drought severity in early July coincided with the most important time for crop development, especially for corn.  Severe or greater drought in 2012 impacted 67 percent of cattle production and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production. The 2012 drought resulted in decreased amounts of corn and soybean, higher prices for corn and soybeans, and higher prices and reduced amount of hay and pasture for cattle in 2013.

I recently had a conversation with my father about the 2012 drought and its impact on our family farm in southeastern South Dakota. He mentioned that it was the first time in the last 35 years that ZERO seed corn grew on the non-irrigated land and that they had to pump a significant amount of water from the Missouri River (which costs money) to irrigate the remaining corn and soybean fields. However, in other areas where the climate is much drier (less rainfall) such as the western regions of the Great Plains, there is no such water source available. As a result, irrigation is NOT a viable option.

Drought Mitigation Techniques

The United States Natural Resource Conservation Service details specific techniques that farmers and ranchers can utilize to mitigate drought impacts. This report suggests that farmers can mitigate drought impacts by minimizing tillage, altering planting dates, keeping soil covered, killing off the cover crops before planting the primary production crop, and injecting fertilizer so that it does come into contact with more soil moisture. Ranchers can mitigate drought impacts by having a drought plan in place before it occurs, not overgrazing, having alternative feeds and forages, improving water resources and culling herds.

I recently had a conversation with a family friend who is a farmer and rancher in central South Dakota. I asked, “What are you already doing to prepare for drought?” He responded that given that they do live in a fairly dry climate and do not have access to irrigation water, drought is just a way of life for them.  In a non-drought year, he feeds wheat to the cattle but if a drought does occur (for example, the 2012 drought) the cattle feed on natural growing grass instead of wheat. He went on to further explain that they always have a three-year supply of grass for the cattle to eat if a drought does occur.  While I found this rather fascinating, I then wondered what will happen if the droughts become so extreme that there isn’t enough grass to feed their cattle?

After this conversation, I then attended the American’s Grassland Conference. This conference brought together scientists, farmers, ranchers and policy experts to discuss issues related to the North American grasslands. I had an opportunity to tour the Pawnee Grasslands in Northeast Colorado with the local US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and was able to interact with local ranchers. This particular region receives so little precipitation that grazing cattle is more economically feasible than growing crops. As we learned on this tour, utilizing the correct cattle grazing techniques is essential when attempting to mitigate future drought risk. These particular ranchers that work with the USDA-ARS herd their cattle into different pastures over time to ensure that the grass can grow back at a healthy rate. It has been proven that grass that only has light or moderate grazing often show less mortality due to drought than grass that has been heavily grazed prior to drought [2].


Learning about cattle grazing techniques with scientists from the US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and local ranchers in the Pawnee Grassland in Northeast Colorado.

Conclusion

Drought is just the way of life for many farmers and ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains. Increasing our understanding of how different plants respond to drought is necessary in order to better inform farmers (when and what to plant) and ranchers (when and how much to graze). Certain questions still exist given that we are expecting more frequent, severe droughts to occur with the changing climate.  Are the current techniques utilized by farmers and ranchers enough to mitigate future, more severe droughts? In the example of the farmer/rancher in central South Dakota, what will they feed their cattle if drought causes both the wheat and grass production to fail? Drought is an important topic for me given that both sides of my family farm. We have to remain optimistic that our way of life on the farm will be sustainable in the future to carry on the dreams of our ancestors. As my grandfather was quoted in a South Dakota magazine, “South Dakota is a land of infinite opportunities.”

References:

[1]  Kellner O and Niyogi D. 2014. Assessing drought vulnerability ofagricultural production systems in context of the 2012 drought. J Anim Sci 92:2811–22.   Link: https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/pdfs/92/7/2811

[2]  D.D. Briske, J.D. Derner, D.G. Milchunas, K.W. Tate, 2011. An evidence-based assessment of prescribed grazing practices. Conservation Benefits of Rangeland Practices: Assessment, Recommendations, and Knowledge Gaps, United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, DC, pp. 21–74. Link: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1045796.pdf.

Have We Already Moved On to Climate Plan B?

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 10:37am

Written by John Field, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering, CSU.

After two decades of failed efforts to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the worst of climate change may now depend on carbon-negative biofuels and other uncertain technological fixes.

It has been more than a century since a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenious predicted that increases in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would warm the surface of the Earth through the greenhouse effect. Such an increase in atmospheric CO2 due to the cumulative effects of humans burning fossil fuels and clearing land was first observed in 1960, and over the next several decades climate science emerged as an important research discipline. By the 1980s consensus was building within the scientific community that climate change was a threat, and the issue came to broader public awareness thanks to the efforts of civic-minded scientists like James Hansen and Stephen Schneider. Recognizing the global nature of the issue and the need for international cooperation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations in 1988 to advise the world’s governments on the state of scientific knowledge around climate change.

Since then the IPCC has periodically released reports compiling the best science on quantifying the greenhouse effect, understanding its implications for human societies and natural ecosystems, and exploring how we might respond to the issue. These reports typically contain stern warnings about the dangers of climate change coupled with upbeat assessments of our ability to reduce our emissions and mitigate the problem. Assessment Report 2 (AR2), published in 1995, warned that “entire unique cultures might be obliterated” due to “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, but noted that “a carefully selected portfolio of national and international responses of actions aimed at mitigation, adaptation and improvement of knowledge can reduce the risks.”  That optimistic tone continued in subsequent reports: AR4 in 2007 reported that the cost of reducing emissions “corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points” and most recently, a follow-up conference to AR5 noted that “the additional investment required to transition to clean energy can be a small fraction” of our overall investments in the energy sector.

However, anyone familiar with the data knows that we have largely failed to heed these warnings, and total emissions of CO2 and other greenhouses gases have been consistent with worst-case scenarios. So how then does the IPCC continue to deliver optimistic projections after decades of accelerating—rather than falling—emissions? In part, it now assumes that the world economy can shift to renewable energy sources much more quickly than was previously though possible. The optimistic projections also rely heavily on this machine, and others like it:

That photo is from a corn ethanol facility in Illinois where the CO2 gas by-product of ethanol fermentation is being compressed to extremely high pressures and injected into geological formations deep underground for permanent storage.  Compressing and storing CO2 underground is known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a technology widely pursued by the coal industry as a way to stay alive in an age of GHG regulations and carbon taxes. When applied to CO2 derived from the production of biofuels or power from plant matter, you get Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS. The idea is that plants sucked up CO2 from the atmosphere during their growth, and that storing the CO2 resulting from fermenting or burning those plants is a form of “negative emissions”, a net transfer of carbon out of the atmosphere into underground storage (with a whole bunch of caveats around how those plants were grown and how much energy was used in the process). 

The graphic below highlights just how pervasive BECCS is becoming in IPCC’s future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Those scenarios (left) that avoid the worst effects of climate change and limit surface temperature increase to <2°C (i.e., those in blue and green) are usually associated with scaling up BECCS over the next century to the point that it provides 10-30% of all human energy demands (right), in the same ballpark as natural gas currently does.  In effect, the latest IPCC projections continue to get to an optimistic result through assumptions that we will be able to transition to a carbon-free energy system much more quickly than previously assumed, and that BECCS and other negative emissions technologies will be widely deployed and correct for any overshoot.  That’s a tall order for technologies that have never before been deployed at large scale!

Now if reading this makes you a bit uncomfortable, you’re not the only one. Two scientists have recently cried foul on the IPCC process through editorial letters in the world’s most prominent scientific journals. In May of this year Oliver Geden, a German climate scientist and civil servant, took the group to task for giving in to political ‘pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science’ and peddling ‘false optimism’ based on ‘dubious concepts’ such as negative emissions technologies. He writes in the journal Nature:

Climate researchers who advise policy-makers feel that they have two options: be pragmatic or be ignored… The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2 °C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense. Advisers who shy away from say­ing so squander their scientific reputations and public trust in climate research.

Similarly, just last month English climate scientist Kevin Anderson wrote in Nature Geoscience (nice summary here) to point out that the IPCC projections are full of errors and overly optimistic assumptions resulting in ‘incremental escapism’ and ‘deus ex machina’ solutions, declaring:

As scientists, we must… combat the almost global-scale cognitive dissonance in acknowledging [our work’s] quantitative implications. Yet, so far, we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis…

Those are powerful critiques, with language much more forceful and direct than we often hear from the scientific community. 

Now is a conflicted time for many of the scientists doing work on these topics. My own research focuses on the caveats around how to sustainably produce plant material at large scale from various sources that would be required for a scale-up of BECCS. It’s exciting to think that someday this work might have relevance in the fight against climate change, and I hope that continued funding allows us to develop practical, sustainable solutions in this area. But at the same time, I hope that if these technological fixes ever become a reality it’s because we collectively make a conscious choice to do so, not because false optimism backed us into a corner. 

Interested in learning more about BECCS and how they might play into future emissions scenarios? Check out these excellent pieces by Brad Plumer at Vox or Chris Mooney at the Washington Post. 

Can the Courts Speak for the Bees?

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 9:35am

Written by Mike Angstadt, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD candidate, Department of Political Science, CSU.
While federal courts often seem insulated from the outside world and cloaked in strict rules, some tiny outsiders are beginning to enter the rarefied buildings. In recent years, honeybees have found their way into federal courts and captured the attention of federal judges. Rather than appearing as actual swarms of bees, they have arrived through a flurry of papers and arguments. However, these honeybee-related lawsuits are fascinating; in particular, a 2015 case illustrates the important role that courts can play in setting environmental policy.

Currently, species are being lost at a rate estimated to exceed the historical extinction rate by 1,000-10,000 times. Many threatened and endangered species perform functions that are valuable to our modern society, and among them, pollinators are paramount. Wild pollinators, as well as their domesticated counterparts (including honeybees), support agricultural production by pollinating crops that farmers and industries depend upon. In particular, honeybees facilitate pollination and crop production for many valuable crops; some, including almonds, depend entirely upon honeybees. Accordingly, economists estimate that honeybees contribute as much as $14 billion dollars per year of value to US crop production.

So, what's all the buzz about? Well, habitat loss and other factors have caused populations of native pollinators to decline, and have heightened the importance of honeybees in crop pollination. However, honeybees are also struggling. In recent winters, as many as one-third of honeybee colonies have collapsed. A combination of multiple factors, including stress, parasites, and pesticides is likely responsible for these collapses, and so a complex approach will be needed to maintain honeybee populations. As one step in this effort, conservation groups and environmental lawyers have begun swarming the courts.

Of the many tools available to conservation groups, courts may be among the least familiar to most of us. However, even though court cases are often highly technical and filled with legalese (who says "heretofore," anyway?), their power as conservation tools can't be overstated. For decades, environmental lawyers have used courts to advance their interests and address pressing conservation issues. To provide just a few examples, environmental lawsuits have: blocked construction of a power plant in a scenic stretch of New York's Hudson River, temporarily halted construction of an entire dam to protect an endangered fish species, and required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. All those "heretofores" have some heft! Recognizing the power of the courts and the plight of the bees, groups representing the honeybee industry filed a lawsuit in 2013 that sought to protect honeybees from another pesticide that they viewed as harmful.

In Pollinator Stewardship Council v. EPA, the groups drew upon a law known as FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), which requires new pesticides to be approved and registered by the EPA before they can be sold, as a way to evaluate their safety. The groups argued that the EPA had registered a new pesticide, known as sulfoxaflor, even though they felt that insufficient data had demonstrated its safety for bees. After some very technical analysis (here's the full opinion), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with the pollinator groups. Last month, the court ordered the EPA to rescind its registration of sulfoxaflor until additional information can be gathered regarding its safety.

In one sense, the case illustrates just how specific the legal questions are that federal courts often consider. At the same time, it shows how these very specific considerations can have huge impacts for environmental issues and environmental health. By considering whether specific registration procedures were followed for a single pesticide, the court blocked that pesticide from entering the market, and also brought considerable media attention to the issue of honeybee decline. Finally, it seems that the judges hearing the case were aware of these broader implications. For instance, when justifying its decision, the court emphasized "the precariousness of bee populations." It also emphasized the need to consider how pesticides affect the health of the overall hive, not just individual bees.

Currently, we are facing numerous, complicated environmental challenges in addition to pollinator decline. To address these, we will need informed, thoughtful participation from all corners of government, science, and industry. In demonstrating its ability to digest the broad issue of honeybee decline and apply it to their specific legal question, the 9th Circuit highlights the potential for courts to make important contributions to 21st-century conservation. For those of us who research courts and environmental law, this prospect helps to take some of the sting out of reading all that legalese!

Finding the Lost World: ruminations on the past and (bleak) future of a fascinating ecosystem

Wed, 10/14/2015 - 3:58pm

Written by Patricia Salerno, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, CSU.

I kept staring down, impatiently waiting for the clouds to clear and the wondrous Auyan to appear. Well, it did. And there we were, flying right on top of billions-year-old erosive ruins, staring down on this gigantic King of the Great Savannah. Now, under the full moon, it stares down on me to remind me who is the ruler of these lands.”*

Towering over the vast lowlands, flattop mountains such as Auyan rise taller than the highest skyscrapers in the world. Dozens of these mountains dot the expansive shrublands and tropical forests of northeastern South America, yet the looming threats forecast a bleak and uncertain future for their conservation. These mountains known as tepuis, or "houses of the gods" in the local Pemon language, are hard to describe in words or portray in pictures, but their magnificent presence leaves no doubt as to why they are sacred lands to the indigenous. This majestic world full of cliff-dwelling gods and truly unique ecosystems – and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites – runs the risk of being lost for good if we don’t change the way these lands are being managed.

Though you may not be aware, you have probably been exposed to the grandeur of this region before; perhaps by learning about the tallest waterfall on earth, Angel Falls, or by watching Disney’s movie Up, or from reading or watching remakes of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Lost World is a perfect description of the tepui ecosystem; not because of the existence of dinosaurs lost in time as the novel portrays, but because these islands are lost in our collective knowledge, frozen in time in the advancement of research and science, forgotten and ignored by policy and conservation management, and highly threatened because of illegal mining and global climate change. But before I touch on these issues, let me describe to you what makes this Lost World so fascinating.

Unlike a mountain chain uplift – such as the Rockies and the Alps – caused by the collision of tectonic plates, tepuis were formed by hundreds of millions of years of erosive cycles that slowly yet persistently broke apart a once enormous high-altitude plateau known as the Guiana Shield. Located in Northern South America, the summits are one of the most ancient exposed surfaces on earth and harbor hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. Most unique species are often found on a single summit…. and in some cases, these summits can be as small as 2 square miles!

Many interesting ecological and evolutionary phenomena are directly related to distinctive summit climate and ecology. For example, although rains are very frequent, water never accumulates because it quickly escapes to the lowlands through billion-year-old erosive canals. Thus, permanent bodies of water like rivers and ponds are scarce if not absent. This affects animals such as amphibians, which are in constant need of water to avoid desiccation through their permeable skins. As a consequence, most summit frog species have adapted to seek shelter in pitcher plants, which keep standing water for much longer than the rockface.

Another unique evolutionary phenomenon on these flattop summits is the occurrence of carnivory in many different plant groups. Because soils are constantly eroding, and no new soil depositions occur – other than the slow decomposition of organic material – nitrogen, an essential compound for life, is in short supply. Normally, plants obtain nitrogen from the soil through their root systems. However, on the soil-scarce tepuis, many plants have independently evolved the ability to digest insects and other small animals in order to obtain enough nitrogen to survive. This adaptation appears to be a common evolutionary solution to nutrient-poor soils on the summits, and has resulted in an accumulation of unique species in these ecosystems.

Animals and plants unique to the tepuis are highly threatened by rising global temperatures and climate change. One overall trend that scientists have observed so far is that temperatures are increasing faster than most organisms can adapt, thus resulting in either shifts of distributions or extinction of species rather than adaptation to new climates. As an example, butterflies in the Alps have been shown to move upwards in altitude, maintaining their preferred climatic tolerances as temperatures rise. Moreover, as temperate regions become warmer, tropical species expand their ranges, which for example has resulted in an increase in tropical diseases in North America.

The species that are adapted to the summits of the flattop mountains are faced with a very bleak future. They, unlike lowland species, cannot move to higher elevations, so changing climate will force them to adapt to warmer and drier conditions at an implausibly fast rate. Futhermore, they will also face competition from historically lowland-dwellers that will now seek cooler temperatures as the lowlands also become too warm and too dry for their taste. In short, all these unique summit species have one of two choices: adapt or die, though most likely the latter.

The uniqueness of this ecosystem is not restricted to the summits. The lowlands and foothills also have plant and animal species, as well as human cultures found nowhere else on earth. The Pemon people, who inhabit these lands, currently represent some of the most isolated and pristine indigenous cultures left on earth. Most tribes still retain ancient traditions, languages, and religious beliefs. They believe the mountains are the houses of gods, and the keepers of the souls of the dead, the mawari. They believe people that mistreat dogs cannot enter heaven, and that jaguars are the dogs of the mawari, making them sacred and never a hunting target, unless you wish the spirits of the dead to be against you.

The respectful practices and beliefs of the Pemon people towards their natural environment have allowed this populated yet isolated area to remain largely pristine and untouched. In fact, the Pemon people never ascended to the mountain summits until tourism breached the area. They never hunted except as a means of survival, and they never killed any top predators such as large cats. However, in recent years, excessive and uncontrolled tourism to summits of the most accessible mountains, and more importantly an exponential increase in illegal gold mining in their territories, have generated an imbalance and a delicate situation for the tribes and the ecosystem alike. The Pemon are now being exploited by the miners, and the ecosystem is rapidly and permanently being destroyed by highly destructive mining practices, destroying both the Pemon’s possibilities for subsisting in this now contaminated and depleted environment, as well as threatening all the unique species found there.

Even though these areas are all “protected” by national park or reserve status, negligence of local authorities as well as almost complete lack of funding for parks have resulted in extreme mismanagement and exploitation of both the environment and the communities. The lost world has rarely been a prominent component of collective or scientific knowledge, or a priority for conservation. But unless we make this effort now, it will be too late to save the ecosystem from rising temperatures, hunting, and uncontrolled tourism, or to protect the people and their culture from the abuse associated with illegal mining. The cultural and environmental uniqueness of this region is rapidly disappearing before we actually know what’s there, and before we can rightly appreciate it. Unless efficient conservation policies, climate change research, and indigenous tribe protection is immediately and effectively implemented for the preservation of biodiversity and culture, Conan Doyle’s Lost World will be truly lost for future generations.

*Excerpt from one of my journal entries from my first expedition to this region, 2009.

Photo captions:

1. Angel Falls, Venezuela.

2. Example of a barren summit landscape, Auyan, Venezuela.

3. Summit frog, Tepuihyla edelcae, inside a pitcher plant, Brocchinia.

4. Alexander, local guide and native Pemon, Venezuela.

5. "Great Savannah" mountains and lowlands, Venezuela.

Managing degradation in East African rangelands

Wed, 07/15/2015 - 9:26am

Written by Jason Sicerly, 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.

Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to improve the well-being of herders in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of East Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa often receive contradictory recommendations on how to address land degradation through changing grazing management.

Herders in the region face difficult challenges from frequent droughts, population pressure, conflict over land, livestock disease, and restricted pasture access. In some areas, overgrazing results in land degradation, which when severe compromises pasture productivity and can cause massive soil erosion (Figure 1). Not only are these problems of deathly seriousness to herders in the region, but poverty, conflict, and food insecurity in these drylands cripple development and threaten the stability of regional governments, triggering millions in international support, each and every year. Considering this long list of problems, how highly should changing grazing management to prevent or reverse rangeland degradation be prioritized in general, and where should degradation be a top priority?

Over the previous century, most observers considered overgrazing to be nearly universal, along with its consequences in terms of degradation (soil erosion, shrub invasions, reduced pasture quality).1 Progress in rangeland ecology in the 1980s and 1990s led to a new paradigm which held that the role of grazing in degradation is strongly affected by climatic conditions;2 this work continues to be confirmed by recent research.3

First, degradation is usually much more severe in more productive rangelands, such as the Borana Plateau in southern Ethiopia (Figure 1). In savannas receiving moderate rainfall (e.g., ~600 mm yr-1 in Borana) herders can maintain a high density of cattle, over-taxing grasses and compacting soils, especially if the land is not periodically rested from grazing. When the growth of grasses is reduced, woody shrubs can gain a foothold and eventually dominate the area. Since cattle generally need grass, invasion of shrubs inedible to cows threatens the production of milk, the main food for most pastoralists and a critical source of income and protein-rich nutrition. On soils prone to erosion, bare soil beneath shrubs is vulnerable to sometimes shocking losses of topsoil (Figure 1) and sedimentation of waterways. The switch from a more grassy to a more woody savanna is difficult (but not impossible) to reverse, through bush clearing, prescribed burning, and herding livestock that prefer to browse woody plants, namely goats and camels.

Yet in other rangelands, even heavy grazing can have little effect. For example, in the drier savannas of Turkana County in northern Kenya (~400 mm yr-1), not far from Borana, livestock do not appreciably affect the growth or condition of rangeland vegetation.2 In addition, rainfall is more variable in drier areas, so much so that dry rangelands can change in random and chaotic ways, depending on how much rain falls, where, on which day. Herders must move their livestock frequently, the animals spend little time in any given place, and the land is rested until the next flush of green growth sometime in the future. For all of these reasons, grazing often has little impact over and above rainfall in dry rangelands, meaning that grazing is unlikely to cause of degradation.

Rangeland ecologists describe the difference between the wetter (Borana) and drier savannas (Turkana) in terms of their system dynamics.2 In wetter rangelands, termed ‘equilibrium’ systems, grazing (and other management) can strongly affect the condition of the vegetation, and therefore also the soil. In contrast, since rainfall is the primary control over the condition of drier rangelands, these are termed ‘disequilibrium’ systems. The significance of the difference is that wetter, more productive, equilibrium systems are generally more sensitive to grazing-induced degradation, while grazing does not often cause degradation in drier, less productive, disequilibrium systems.3

Certainly, though, dry rangelands can become degraded by overgrazing. Whether or not degradation occurs depends on many factors, one of the most critical being the local systems and rules for organizing who grazes which animals where, at what time of year, and for how long. Site-specific conditions (soils, plant species, location) can also be significant. Most ecologists agree that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes of herders always causing degradation, and herders never causing degradation.4 Both under- and over-estimating the role of grazing in degradation will likely confound effective rangeland management.

Should governments and NGOs therefore prioritize degradation more highly in rangelands with higher rainfall? Absolutely, at least in general. These productive lands are not only more ecologically vulnerable to degradation, they are often more densely populated, further exacerbating the risk of degradation. Meanwhile, attempts to change grazing practices in drier rangelands to improve the condition of vegetation and soils can generally be expected to accomplish little. Moreover, the financial resources used could be devoted to addressing more relevant and pressing issues.

However, all wetter savannas and all drier savannas do not respond identically to grazing and other management,3 and many of the problems in rangelands can be traced to other factors.5 Shrub encroachment, in particular, does not purely result from grazing, but is also accelerated by fire suppression, global increases in temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and decreasing populations of shrub-browsing wildlife, all of which shift the competitive balance in favor of shrubs over grasses. The relative strength of each of these factors in driving rangeland degradation remains a matter of controversial debate.

In response, rangeland ecologists and their collaborators in the social sciences and conservation are building networks to monitor how rangelands are changing, where they are improving versus degrading, and assessing the mechanisms driving these changes. Some of the key efforts globally include GEOGLAM RAPP, the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, and those of our Livestock Systems and Environment team at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and colleagues other centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These efforts benefit from integrating a variety of methodologies including field-based measures, herder and community interviews, mathematical modelling, airborne sensors, and satellite-based remote sensing to drive rangeland science toward reliable, actionable information on the extent and severity of degradation in rangelands, and where degradation can and should be actively combated through supporting herders to reduce the impact of grazing on vulnerable rangelands.

Figure 1. Wetter, ‘equilibrium’, savanna in Borana Zone, southern Ethiopia. Left: in good condition due to protection from wet-season grazing as a dry-season forage reserve, and  Right: in poor condition due to open access grazing, shrub encroachment, and major soil erosion (note large gullies). In both photos, most shrubs had been selectively cut in recent years. Photos taken less than 300 m from one another. Photo credit: Jason Sircely.

 

1Lamprey, R. 1983. Pastoralism yesterday and today: The over-grazing problem. Pages 643–666 in Bouliere, F., ed. Tropical Savannas, Vol 13, Ecosystems of the World. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

2Ellis, J. and D. Swift. 1988. Stability of African pastoral ecosystems: alternative paradigms and implications for development. Journal of Range Management 41:450–59.

3von Wehrden, H., J. Hanspach, P. Kaczensky, J. Fischer, and K. Wesche. 2012. Global assessment of the nonequilibrium concept in rangelands. Ecological Applications 22:393–99

4Reid, R. 2012. Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

5D’Odorico, P., A. Bhattachan, K. Davis, S. Ravi, C. Runyan. 2013. Global desertification: drivers and feedbacks. Advances in Water Resources 51:326–44

 

 

Conservation Biologists Have a Powerful New Ally

Wed, 06/24/2015 - 12:17pm

Written by Philip Cafaro, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and 2014-2015 Resident Fellow for the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University.

Pope Francis may be the most popular leader on the world stage today. Given that popularity, conservation biologists should especially welcome his recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home (2015). While the world’s media have focused on the Pope’s statements regarding climate change, Laudato Si’ provides a powerful analysis and call to action on a wide range of environmental issues. In fact chapter one, detailing current ecological problems, devotes about twice as much space to biodiversity loss as it does to climate change.

Throughout his encyclical, Francis insists that humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature can and should involve love and appreciation, gratitude and care. A techno-managerial approach to the world is insufficient, in part because by itself it is "unable to set limits" to humanity's demands on nature. As he says in the introduction:

11. ... If we approach nature and the environment without [an] openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

According to Pope Francis, the biodiversity crisis is a moral crisis. His analysis is worth quoting at length, not least for the clarity with which he links an underdeveloped environmental ethics with an overdeveloped Economy:

32. The earth’s resources are … being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs …

33. It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority becomes extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Conservation biologists of a secular bent may ground our sense of other species’ intrinsic value in their own nature and evolutionary history, immanently, rather than in a transcendent deity (Wilson 2007, Rolston 2011). Nevertheless, most of us share the Pope’s sense that extinction is a great moral wrong committed against other species and future human generations. His emphasis on the moral aspects of conservation should encourage conservation scientists to discuss them as well.

As the section on biodiversity loss continues, Francis connects these moral judgments to specific policy proposals. He explains the need for more protected areas where the primary focus is on biodiversity preservation rather than economic exploitation (paragraph 37). He discusses the conservation value of biological corridors linking such protected areas (35) and clearly explains the difference between tree plantations and primary forests (39). Further on, he reminds readers that like individual species, natural communities hold both instrumental and intrinsic values that we should appreciate and preserve (140). In lines that read as if they could have been written by E.O. Wilson, the Pope insists on the importance of the little things that run the world and on the human costs of overdevelopment and loss of connection to wild nature:

34. It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. … nowadays, [the] intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.

Note the Pope's awareness of how human impacts can lead to a vicious circle that makes it harder to leave nature alone, pulling us further into an Anthropocene epoch of increased ugliness and diminished diversity. In Francis’ view, excessive human intervention in the natural world doesn’t just lead to negative consequences—it is itself a negative aspect of current human societies. We don’t just need better interventions in wild nature, we also need fewer interventions, and more respect for the complex, beautiful world that God has created and nature has evolved over the aeons.

Laudato Si’ goes on to clearly identify the driving cause of biodiversity loss and our other global environmental problems: an economic system out of control, not focused on providing sufficient goods for people to live good lives, but devoted to the relentless and ever more intensive commodification of all aspects of nature, in service to ever more consumption. Here the Pope, for all his idealism, demonstrates a more realistic understanding of the powers blocking the creation of ecologically sustainable societies than many environmentalists. Minor reforms to this system, even major efficiency improvements within it, will never allow us to solve our environmental problems, Francis avers. Partly, this is because:

191. … environmental protection cannot be as­sured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safe­guarded or promoted by market forces. Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of na­ture, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodi­versity is considered at most a deposit of eco­nomic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.

What is needed is no less than the taming of modern industrial capitalism: harnessing the Economy in service to higher goals, rather than letting it pursue its own logic of growth at any cost and in the process run roughshod over wild nature and human beings alike (Daly 2015). This is not to forego human development, Francis insists; it is instead its prerequisite, in a crowded world with limited resources. In this context, the Pope invites his readers to rethink what we mean by development and to consider whether sometimes “less is more,” particularly regarding resource use among the wealthy:

192. … a path of productive devel­opment, which is more creative and better direct­ed, could correct the present disparity between excessive technological investment in consump­tion and insufficient investment in resolving ur­gent problems facing the human family. It could generate sensible and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, and it could also im­prove the energy efficiency of cities. … Such cre­ativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life. On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial.

193. In any event, if in some cases sustaina­ble development were to involve new forms of growth, in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many dec­ades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even re­tracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to ex­perience healthy growth. …

Precisely here, in its willingness to consider setting limits to economic growth, the Pope’s encyclical has provoked criticism from pro-business commentators around the world (Brooks 2015). The guardians of the global capitalist status quo expect world leaders to occasionally pay lip service to combatting climate change or preserving endangered species. But to question the goodness of growth is to question the real god that humanity bows down to in our times. Nevertheless, Francis asks his readers to rethink their most fundamental priorities in search of a truer understanding of the purpose of the Economy:

194. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change models of global develop­ment; this will entail a responsible reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications. It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the en­vironment with progress. Halfway measures sim­ply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be consid­ered progress. ...

Of all the lessons conservation biologists might take away from Laudato Si’, this willingness to engage in fundamental socio-economic critique might be the most important. For the Pope is right: the Economy and its most powerful actors, multinational corporations, must be tamed in order for conservation to succeed—difficult and daunting as such a goal might seem. Otherwise, they will surely tame and displace the wild world that conservation biologists seek to preserve.

Again and again, the Pope returns to the notion of limits: limits to how much people should consume (paragraphs 27, 161); limits to how much we should modify natural and cultural landscapes (106, 143); limits to how much wealth and how many possessions we need to truly be happy (220ff.). As one representative passage puts it: “The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society …” (116). And further on: “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious tradi­tions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. …  Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer” (222-223).

These words get to the heart of Pope Francis’ message. An appreciation of limits is not a hindrance to human development, but its prerequisite. Conversely the endless growth economy, grounded in greed, intemperance and ingratitude among individuals and on a relentless commodification and transformation of the natural world on the part of businesses, will inevitably undermine both human and non-human flourishing (Dilworth 2009). No amount of efficiency improvements or techno-fixes can save nature, or us, in the absence of love and appreciation and a willingness to forego the pursuit of “more.”  

If we can develop ideals of human development that include an appreciation for what we have and a sense that “enough is enough,” human beings can pursue our own flourishing while also acknowledging limits: even embracing them, as proof of our love for our fellow men and women and for the natural world (Alexander 2015). If we can do this, we can leave forests standing and coral reefs thriving, and avoid adding the evil of mass extinction as an indelible stain on the story of our career on Earth. But not otherwise. Laudato Si’ offers hope that humanity can indeed take the nobler path. Conservation biologists would do well to study and, where justified, advocate for Pope Francis’ bold suggestions regarding the way forward.

References

Alexander S. 2015. Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits. Simplicity Institute.

Brooks D. 2015. Fracking and the Franciscans. The New York Times, 23 June 2015.

Daly H. 2015. From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy. Edward Elgar.

Dilworth C. 2009. Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press.

Francis. 2015. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home [English language version]. The Vatican.

Rolston H. 2011. A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth. Routledge.

Wilson E. O. 2007. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W.W. Norton.

Making small changes to how we manage wildlife can have major benefits to wildlife communities

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 10:58am

Written by Travis Gallo, 2014-2015 Sustainaiblity Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.

Altering natural areas to benefit economically important wildlife, such as deer and elk, has been underway for centuries. Game management is widespread across the globe – from tree reductions in the United States to increase grasses and plants that deer and elk prefer to eat, to burning moorlands in Scotland to increase open areas for game birds – yet their effects on non-targeted animals and natural communities are poorly understood. For decades, this game management model has assumed that measures benefiting hunted species also positively affect all wildlife in the area. However, there is little evidence to support this notion. We found remarkably few studies that directly evaluated the effect of game management on non-targeted wildlife. Decisions based primarily on a single-species generally target a small subset of the animal community. With species going extinct at alarming rates, it is critical that we re-evaluate that assumption and investigate how land management decisions are impacting all wildlife – not just economically important species.

Here in Colorado, pinyon-juniper woodlands have been the objects of efforts to covert woodlands into grazing lands for livestock and big game species for the last half century. Pinyon-juniper woodlands are the third largest vegetative community in the United States – covering over 40 million hectares. These woodlands offer valuable resources – supplying food and shelter for woodland-dependent wildlife, food and fuel for humans, and forage for livestock. However, both pinyon and juniper trees have been expanding into grasslands and shrublands for the past 150 years, and the removal of these woodlands has been a major focus of wildlife managers and ranchers throughout the Western United States. The mechanisms driving the increase of pinyon-juniper woodlands are not well known, but may include long-term recovery from past natural disturbances, Holocene range expansion, livestock grazing, fire exclusion, and/or the effects of climatic change and rising atmospheric CO2 Tree-reduction efforts have been applied to a large amount of public lands for the last 50 years, and future tree-reduction efforts are expected to increase as managers are tasked with multiple objectives – including fire prevention and enhancing wildlife habitat in areas of increasing urbanization and energy development. With the increase in human-induced pressures on wildlife and the increase demand for more land management activities, it is imperative that we understand the effects of habitat manipulation efforts on the entire animal community that resides in the area.

We have been investigating the long-term and short-term effects of pinyon-juniper removal designed to benefit mule deer, an economically important game species in the western United States, on non-target animal communities in the Piceance Basin in Northwest Colorado. We want to know, is the best practice to remove these woodlands?  If we do, what happens to the other animals living in the forest?  How does displacing some of those other animals affect the rest of the ecosystem?

Our preliminary results suggest that the reduction of pinyon and juniper trees catalyzes a long-term change from dense pinyon-juniper forest to sagebrush scrub, consequently changing the wildlife that uses these areas. For example, woodland preferring birds like the black-throated gray warblers are rarely found in cleared sites, whereas shrubland birds like the green-tailed towhee have become common. We also found that particular wildlife groups were influenced by specific vegetative characteristics, and these characteristics could easily be maintained or created by land managers. For example, bark-gleaning birds (birds who hunt for insects up and down the trunks of trees) were more likely to use undisturbed woodlands, and tree diameter had the greatest positive influence on the probability of these birds occurring at a site. Therefore, using forest-clearing techniques that retain some large standing trees may reduce the negative impacts on bark gleaning birds.

This is just one example of how single-species management can have unintended consequences for other animals that reside in the same area. But, by understanding both the short and long-term consequences of these practices and making small changes to how we manage land, we can enhance our ability to protect and restore the biodiversity of natural communities. Given the broad and increasing impact of human activities on biodiversity, advancing our understanding of the costs and benefits of single-species management for other species of concern should be a priority for land managers and society. A large percentage of the earth’s surface has been altered through land management, and whether ecosystems can recover their natural arrangement after substantial human-disturbance remains one of the critical questions facing ecologists.

You can follow Travis Gallo and the Liba Pejchar lab on Twitter - @mellamorooster (Travis) and @thelibalab (Liba Pejchar Lab). You can also read more about Travis’ research and interests at his website.

Figure 1. The Cathedral Bluffs, Garfield County, Colorado.

Figure 2. Mule deer doe and fawns using a cleared area of pinyon-juniper forest.

Figure 3. Black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens), a common woodland bird found in the Piceance Basin, Colorado.

Figure 4. Green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus), a common shrubland bird found in the Piceance Basin, Colorado.

The Secret Lives of Outdoor Cats

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 9:57am

Written by Ashley Gramza, 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate for the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

If there are two things that most Americans have in common, it is a love of wildlife and the environment. Although many Americans are aware of the negative effects of development and habitat destruction on wildlife, few people realize the negative effects that outdoor pet cats have on wildlife and that wildlife have on outdoor cats.

Domestic cats are originally native to North Africa and the Near East but now have a global distribution due to their close association with human pets. They are also the most popular pet in the world. In the United States, outdoor cats represent an introduced predator that was released by humans. Furthermore, cats can have detrimental effects on the local ecosystem. Cats can eat local wildlife above and beyond what similar-sized local predators such as foxes and raccoons eat. This can then lead to lower numbers of wildlife such as small mammals and birds. Cats may also take food away from local predators. For example, cats eating small mammals and birds equates to less food for hawks, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons.

Cats may also introduce new diseases to an area. About 10 years ago, three endangered Florida panthers died from feline leukemia virus that they likely contracted from eating an infected domestic cat. Since Florida panthers are a regional subspecies of mountain lions, this disease could potentially spread to mountain lions in other places if the disease is present in the outdoor cat population. Luckily cats can be vaccinated against feline leukemia.

Conversely, outdoor cats also face a variety of risks when they go outdoors. Cats can become food for local predators such as red foxes, mountain lions, coyotes, and hawks. Outdoor cats can also be hit by cars or injured by dogs and other cats. Cats can also get diseases such as rabies from local wildlife or other outdoor cats. Rabies can then be transmitted to owners, and this disease is very costly to treat. Both cat scratch disease and plague can also be transmitted to humans and can be deadly to both humans and cats.         

Although the risks are many and outdoor cats are almost everywhere, it is uncertain what risks cats actually face or inflict in many areas. Because of this, myself and other researchers at Colorado State University are cataloging the various risks that are associated with outdoor pet cats and their interactions with wildlife near Boulder, CO. To do this, we tracked outdoor pet cat movement with GPS backpacks and used cameras to determine how far cats roamed into natural areas. We also tested cats for a number of diseases and collected wildlife prey that cats brought home. The goal of our research was to inform residents about the local risks that cats face and the effects cats may have on the local ecosystem so that owners can make informed decisions about allowing their cats outdoors. Another goal of this research was to understand public opinions about outdoor pet cats and use this information to create communication programs aimed at reducing the risks related to cats spending time outdoors.

The negative effects of cats are completely reversible and you can help!  Here are some of the ways you can keep both cats and wildlife safe and healthy:

2) Restrict your cats' outdoor activity.  Having cats that stay indoors eliminates all outdoor risks, but you can also use outdoor cat enclosures or restrict your cats' outdoor activities in other easy ways such as making sure your cat is always supervised when outdoors. For more information on how to buy or build your own cat enclosures visit HERE.

2) Spay and neuter your cats to reduce unwanted cats in the area. Many local humane societies offer low cost services for those who qualify.

3) Regularly vaccinate your cat to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

4) Adopt a cat from your local animal shelter to give an unwanted cat a home.

 

 

Breathing Fire: Tackling wildfires and health under a changing climate

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 2:04pm

Written by Emily Fischer, Sheryl Magzamen, Jeff Pierce, Monique Rocca, and John Volckens; Principal Investigators of Wildfires, Air Quality, Climate and Health a 2014-2015 SoGES Global Challenges Research Team.

Those of us living in the western US are familiar with wildfire smoke.  Several months ago, a member of our SoGES Global Challenge Research Team (GCRT) was telling his mother that our team was researching the health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke.  Her response was, “let me guess, it’s bad for you!”  Of course, she is right (mom is always right), but it turns out this issue is complicated.  There are are many open questions related to wildfire smoke, health and climate: Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion?  How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of smoke exposure?  How might wildfires change in the future?  Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure?  In this post, we discuss why we need to answer these questions.

Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion?

The World Health Organization has determined that air pollution is currently the world’s largest single environmental health risk, estimated to result in 7 million deaths annually. Specifically, fine particulate air pollution (particulate matter, PM) has been identified as contributing to lung disease, heart attacks and strokes.  Wildfires are a very large source of summertime fine PM to the western US. On an annual basis, wildfire emissions account for about 10 - 40% of total fine PM emissions to the atmosphere. But are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from pollution from cars or power plants? 

Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gases (e.g. carbon monoxide and thousands of organic species) and PM. Particulate matter is a major concern because it tends to be more strongly correlated with health effects than other species.  The peer-reviewed literature on public health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure (citations: ~80) is much smaller compared  to research on general health effects of PM (citations: ~17,000) and human-generated (also called anthropogenic) PM such as diesel exhaust (citations: ~3,100). Consistent with health effects of human-generated pollution exposure, wildfire smoke exposure is associated with respiratory symptoms in vulnerable populations, such as children with asthma and patients with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Though studies on health effects of wildfire PM are methodologically comparable to those conducted on anthropogenic PM, several key findings indicate important key differences between the two types of exposure.                  

First, recent research on health effects of ambient PM has demonstrated that PM toxicity is a result of a complex interaction of particle size range, geography, source, and season. As health effects of human-generated PM (e.g. fossil-fuel combustion) have been studied primarily, it is unclear whether wildfire PM would have the same levels of toxicity.  Second, it is unclear if anthropogenic PM and wildfire PM affect the same systems of the human body. Currently, PM-health research tends to focus on the cardiovascular effects of PM. However, several epidemiological studies have suggested that PM exposure from wildfire smoke is associated with respiratory, but not cardiovascular, morbidity. Animal models have demonstrated that wildfire PM is more toxic compared to equal doses of non-wildfire PM, and specifically target the lungs. In contrast, post-plume periods are associated with increased cardiovascular hospital admissions. Finally, a fundamental question in environmental epidemiology is understanding health effects of acute, high-doses of exposure (from a wildfire, for instance) compared to chronic, lower levels of exposure (from domestic wood burning).

How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of exposure?

State and local agencies in charge of advising residents of poor air quality require accurate predictions of wildfire smoke concentrations (as far in advance as possible).  Smoke forecasts are challenging for several reasons.  (1) At best, smoke forecasts can only be as good as the underlying wind forecasts predicted by weather models.  As weather predictions deteriorate forward in time, smoke forecasts will as well.  (2) Fires in the western US often occur in mountainous regions where wind predictions are challenging due to channeling through valleys.  (3) The spread and intensity of the fire must be predicted, especially for longer smoke forecasts.  Spread and intensity forecasts require accurate information on the weather, the vegetation, and firefighting, and each includes uncertainties.  (4) Smoke plume rise due to the heat of the fire must be accurately predicted.  Hot fires may loft plumes away from the surface, and details of the atmosphere affect this rise as well.  Thus, any uncertainties in the weather and fire spread/intensity will manifest itself as uncertainties in plume rise.

In light of these uncertainties, many agencies are developing and using smoke forecast tools.  A popular tool among many decision-making agencies is the BlueSky smoke prediction tool developed by the US Forest Service. You can look at the current smoke forecasts from BlueSky for various regions of the US here.  One of the goals of our SoGES GCRT is to evaluate and improve BlueSky and other wildfire prediction tools.

How might wildfires change in the future?

The area burned by wildfires in the western US has increased in recent decades, and modeling efforts consistently suggest that fire activity will continue to increase dramatically over the next century.  However, these predictions have uncertainties. Many factors determine how wildfire occurrence has and will change, including the onset of snow melt, precipitation throughout the year, temperature, winds, humidity, vegetation, and human intervention (more details on this in the next question).  All but this last factor depend on climate models for future predictions, and different models and different greenhouse-gas scenarios lead to different forecasts of these variables.  Thus, the variability in future wildfire predictions is substantial.  One of the objectives of our SoGES GCRT is to use a suite of climate models to determine what trends in wildfires seem to be robust across the various climate predictions.

Photo caption: From NRC 2011: Projected change in area burned for 1°C increase in global average temperature.

Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure?

Beyond influencing climate change, there are two major ways in which humans can directly affect wildfires and smoke exposure .  The first is involves how we develop our built environment along the urban-wildland interface.  By building homes in and near forests at risk for wildfires, the folks who will live in these homes are not only at risk for wildfire smoke exposure, but may risk property loss!

The second way humans directly influence wildfires and smoke is through land management practices such as prescribed burning, forest thinning, and underbrush clearing.  Such activities have the potential to reduce the spread rate, severity and, sometimes the occurrence of wildfires. As a consequence, these treatments may help to reduce smoke emissions and human health impacts during wildfires.  On the other hand, the ecological appropriateness of such treatments varies greatly by ecosystem type.  Further, while mechanical forest treatments have negligible air quality impacts, prescribed fire substitutes limited and somewhat controllable air quality impacts over many burn periods for potentially severe and unplanned air quality events.  The health tradeoffs of wildfires versus prescribed fires have not been extensively evaluated. Our GCRT is investigating how these various wildfire-mitigation approaches may impact wildfires and air quality.

Photo caption from first image: Wildfire smoke from the High Park Fire (June, 2012) obscuring the sun over Fort Collins, CO.

 

Infectious diseases in polar bears and their impact on population health

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 3:59pm

Written by Anna Fagre, 2014-2015 Sustainabiltiy Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Professional Veterinary Medicine Program.

As a poster child of the Arctic, polar bears have been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the media due to documented loss of the sea ice habitat. What does this mean for polar bears? Loss of sea ice limits the ability of the bears to access marine mammal prey and range over long distances. Other implications for sea ice loss include increased frequency of long-distance swims (Durner et al. 2012), reduced body condition, lower survival rates, and declines in abundance (Regehr et al. 2007; Rode et al. 2010; Bromaghin et al. 2015) which may lead to immunosuppression.  Another potential threat that is less easily examined but being more frequently studied as of late is the effect of environmental contaminants on the polar bears’ immune systems. These factors have led to projections by some scientists that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears may be gone by the year 2100 (Amstrup et al. 2008).

Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a multidisciplinary and trans-institutional team whose main goal is examining the health of polar bear subpopulations and factors influencing it. My primary role in this process has been conducting a systematic literature review examining all available studies on the presence of infectious disease in polar bear subpopulations worldwide. This information was synthesized to determine whether or not infectious diseases are a true threat to polar bear subpopulations given their changing physical environment, increased interactions with novel species, and factors potentially contributing to immunosuppression.

In a nutshell, our literature review determined that most reports of infectious agents causing pathologic changes or mortality in polar bears occur in captivity, largely in geographic regions where polar bears do not historically thrive (e.g. equatorial zoos). The majority of information on infectious agents in free-ranging polar bears documents evidence of exposure to numerous viruses, parasites, and bacteria but very few studies correlate signs of illness or health impacts with these findings. Despite the paucity of information on infectious agents adversely affecting the health of polar bears, an even greater lack of knowledge exists surrounding the synergistic effects of infectious agents and environmental contaminants. Lie et al. (2004) have determined the presence of organochlorines in this species, and as such, the possibility of comorbidity effects is a very real one.

There are many challenges associated with collecting information on polar bears in the wild. First and foremost, they often travel alone and may range across areas of sea ice as large as 125,100 km2 (Ferguson et al. 1999). Procuring fresh and systematic samples requires intensive manpower and financial resources, as it is nearly uniformly performed aerially.  Otherwise, samples are often collected opportunistically from hunter-harvested carcasses rather than live animals and may be unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Infectious agents discovered associated with these carcasses are primarily incidental findings.

Approximately 57% of articles that fit our inclusion criteria were on parasitic findings in polar bears, many of these being enteric and nonpathologic. A more well-known event among researchers focusing on Arctic megafauna was that of a rabid polar bear shot by hunters when it was seen dragging its hindlegs (Taylor et al. 1991). However, this is relatively isolated information, in that not many other reports describe infectious agents causing pathology in free-ranging bears. Worth noting is that many of the infectious agents reviewed are zoonotic, meaning they possess the capability to be passed between man and animal. The significance of these agents to polar bear health was unclear, but it may put those at risk that ingest polar bear meat, such as indigenous natives. Already familiar to many of you ecologists and conservationists, funding in these fields is increasingly more difficult to obtain, though often more readily available when diseases of interest have impacts on human health or may pose an economic burden. The work of this team is solely focused on polar bear conservation, rather than taking into account zoonotic infections contracted from the consumption of polar bears.

In a broader scope, the individuals that I have been collaborating with on this project have taught me a lot and I feel incredibly lucky to have learned from them. I have gotten to work with wildlife biologists, epidemiologists, pathologists, and veterinarians from federal agencies and universities both here in Colorado and in Alaska. In Alaska, they have been routinely sampling the polar bear population since 1985, looking at specific health parameters in bloodwork and for evidence of exposure to infectious diseases.

Another study published by this team at the same time our literature review was submitted was on the concept of defining wildlife health (Patyk et al. 2015). Utilizing the Delphi approach, multiple expert opinions were taken into consideration in determining the most important threats to the species and also in defining specific metrics for determining the health of polar bear subpopulations. In turn, changes in these parameters may be more easily monitored. Not surprisingly, the largest threat to polar bears as determined by this Delphi model is climate change.

Efforts to quantify health metrics and specific threats on which to focus on as we move forward will hopefully allow for more streamlined collaboration and study design. Many different groups study polar bears, as nineteen subpopulations exist in five countries: US (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. Recent research identified a pattern of recent directional gene flow north towards the Canadian archipelago, which is likely to be one of the last regions in the Arctic to be affected by global warming and thus function as a long-term refugium for polar bears (Peacock et al., 2015). Clearly, the future of this species heavily relies on interdisciplinary and international collaboration as well as increased funding for their research efforts.

While the circumpolar population projection for these animals may appear grim, the climate-induced loss of sea ice habitat can be stopped, and possibly reversed, by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Knowledge and awareness surrounding climate change and species losses gives us the power to educate others on its very real and devastating effects. More information on polar bear conservation may be found below:

 

References

Amstrup, S. C., Marcot, B.G., and Douglas, D.C. 2008. A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears. Pages 213-268 in E. T. DeWeaver, C. M. Bitz, and L.-B. Tremblay, editors. Arctic sea ice decline: Observations, projections, mechanisms, and Implications. Geophysical Monograph Series 180. American Geophysical Union, Washington, D. C.

Bromaghin, J., McDonald, T., Stirling, I., Derocher, A., Richardson, E., Regehr, E., Douglas, D.,  Durner, G., Atwood, T., and Amstrup, S. 2015. Polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: population decline and stabilization in the 2000’s. Ecological Applications 25:634-651.

Durner, G., J. Whiteman, H. Harlow, Amstrup, S.P., Regehr, E., and Ben-David, M. 2011. Consequences of long-distance swimming and travel over deep-water pack ice for a female polar bear during a year of extreme sea ice retreat. Polar Biology 34:975-984.

Ferguson, S.H., Taylor, M.K., Born, E.W., Rosing-Asvid, A., and Messier, F. 1999. Determinants of home range size for polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Ecology Letters 2:311-318.

Lie, E., Larsen, H.J., Larsen, S., Johansen, G.M., Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., et al. 2004. Does high organochlorine (OC) exposure impair the resistance to infection in polar bears (Ursus maritimus)? Part I: Effect of OCs on the humoral immunity. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 67:555-582.  

Patyk, K.A., Duncan, C., Nol, P., Sonne, C., Laidre, K., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Establishing a definition of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) health: a guide to research and management activities. Science of the Total Environment 514:371-378.

Peacock, E., Sonsthagen, S.A., Obbard, M.E., Boltunov, A., Regehr, E.V., Ovsyanikov, N., et al. 2015. Implications of the circumpolar genetic structure of polar bears for their conservation in a rapidly warming climate. PloS one 10:e112021.

Regehr, E. V., Lunn, N. J., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2007. Effects of earlier sea ice breakup on survival and population size of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:2673-2683.

Rode, K. D., Amstrup, S.C., and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Reduced body size and cub recruitment in polar bears associated with sea ice decline. Ecological Applications 20:768-782.

Taylor, M., Elkin, B., Maier, N., and Bradley, M. 1991. Observation of a polar bear with rabies. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 27: 337-339.

Photo credit: United State Geological Survey

Scientific Expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Amazon, the Río Marañón

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 4:39pm

Written by Natelie Kramer Anderson, 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow.

This summer I will take part in a scientific expedition to the Río Marañón in Peru to collect baseline data on a river that although currently free-flowing has 20 proposed mega dam sites for hydroelectric dams, two of which have already been approved.

The Río Marañón begins in the Andes Mountains, is the mainstem source of the Amazon River and cuts through a canyon twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Mega dam projects on this river will greatly impact the ecological and societal health of the Amazon Basin, both in the Andean headwaters, and in fertile Amazonian floodplains. These mega dam projects are primarily being built to power Peruvian coal mines and for energy export.

The mission is to collect a baseline pre-development data set of critical river health parameters potentially impacted by hydropower development, while video documenting our 30-day raft voyage. We are doing so that we can evaluate the impacts that large mega dam projects have on the natural environment and under-represented communities who depend on the river. Understanding these impacts is necessary in order to make informed decisions about whether or not to build large dams. Do the benefits of the hydropower outweigh its impacts?  Is it wise to build a society that depends on these large dams? Is the economical cost from the degradation of ocean and Amazonian fisheries worth it?

To learn more about the expedition go to: http://www.maranonproject.org/
To learn about the dams and controversy on the Río Marañón: http://lab.org.uk/peru-el-maranon-the-environment-communities-and-rivers-be-damned
To learn more about Pink River Dolphins in the Amazon: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/weirdest-dolphin-talk?source=relatedvideo
Proposed dams on the Rio Maranon. Currently there are none.

Is there a science to decision making?

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 4:07pm

Written by David M. Martin, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

Tell me how you got to work today. Did you drive, walk, bike, or commute on public transit?  What route did you take? Were you running late or on-time? What was the weather like outside? Did you take the scenic route? On the way, were you in a peaceful or agitated mood?

If you answer my questions, then I can predict all the different ways you may travel from home to work on any given day! The beauty of getting to this result stems from a 50-year old mathematical science known as decision analysis

The quest to understand what it is that makes us take one course of action (in other words, “decision”) over another is the foundation of decision analysis. We presume that many alternative decisions can be organized and ranked if we can extract adequate information to mathematically evaluate its components and assign values to them. So, if you answered my questions about your possible work routes today, then I could give you a reasonably good route to take to work. If weather conditions change, then that would change how each route would rank and I may recommend another route as the better option for the day. Sounds simple, right?  In reality, it’s complicated.

Simple methods for decision making are credited to Plato (later Aristotle) and Ben Franklin. Today, the methods are highly technical. Major scholarly contributions and terminology (see word cloud) to decision analysis came out of the post-World War II era of business and military analytics. These techniques are currently being used and re-envisioned in integrated applications to technology, sustainability, and natural resource management. 

A paper recently published in the Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis explains how to effectively locate aesthetically “undesirable” facilities like landfills in urban cities. Methods that informed this problem included simulating alternative facility locations and predicting how they performed with traffic, flood, population, aesthetics, air pollution, and biodiversity issues. From an original list of 14 facility locations, the decision analysis found two preferred sites for decision makers to base decisions from.1

A classic but less recent example is from a landscape planning study in the Peaks Branch watershed in Dallas, Texas. In the 1980s, suburban sprawl encroached the Peaks Branch waterway and questions arose about how to manage for potential floods. Previous designs only accounted for five year flood events and new flood prevention alternatives were proposed to address this problem (see map). Alternative management actions for new waterway designs required estimating project costs, aesthetic values, understanding neighborhood acceptance to the decisions, identifying where people or structures could be relocated, evaluating legal obstacles for the decisions, and a slew of other criteria. Like the facility location example, many criteria are subjective and very difficult to estimate. Decision analysis helped to organize and evaluate all the information that was needed to make an informed decision on which waterway design was a better compromise for both flood prevention and societal needs.2

You see, there is a science to decision making and we should embrace its benefits and weaknesses. I like to think of it as a way of providing more information to decision makers than what they had before the analysis. In this way, better informed decision can be made.

References:

1Francesca Abastante and others (2014) Addressing the location of undesirable facilities through the dominance-based rough set approach. Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis, Vol 21, pp. 3-23.

2Ambrose Goicoechea and others (1982) Multiobjective analysis with engineering and business applications. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Further Reading:

Ralph L. Keeney  (1982) Decision analysis: an overview.  Operations Research, Vol. 30, No. 5, pp. 803-838.

Daniel Kahneman and others (2013) Thinking: the new science of decision-making, problem-solving, and prediction. Harper Perennial.

Learn more about David and his quest to better inform decisions via his website

Sustainability for All: Including Children and Youth in Disaster Risk Reduction Activities

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 4:30pm

Writen by Jennifer Tobin-Gurley, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, Director of Research and Engagement at the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis and PhD Candidate from the Department of Sociology.

On March 14-18, 2015, I watched, along with millions of other observers globally, as world leaders and key stakeholders gathered in Sendai, Japan for the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (UN-WCDRR). During this event representatives from 186 UN Member States collectively agreed on a new global disaster plan titled the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The plan, which builds on and extends the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action, reflects on progress made over the past decade and outlines priorities and partnerships for addressing disaster risk over the next fifteen years.1 This framework represents one of three major UN environmental policy developments occurring in 2015; the other two include long-term agreements on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals.2 These collaborative advancements have brought together many interdisciplinary panels of academics, practitioners, and government representatives to create solutions to some of our most pressing global problems. But why do these initiatives – and the interconnection between them – matter so much? Some scholars3 argue that it is imperative that disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainability not be seen as three separate processes, but rather as intimately related social issues that should be addressed together to create common goals to “improve society and build a better future.”

In the past decade, the lives of over 700,000 people have been lost, more than 1.4 million injured, 144 million displaced, and over 23 million have been made homeless as a result of a disaster.4 The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that of the approximately 1.8 billion people who have been affected by disaster, nearly half of them are children.5 It should be quite alarming to know that in the coming decades, experts estimate that climate related disasters could impact nearly 200 million children per year.6 Therefore, as we continue to make progress on plans for reducing disaster risk, it is imperative that we identify the challenges that young people face around the globe.

Children and youth are certainly among the most vulnerable to disasters given their lack of authority, age, physical limitations, and dependency on adults. Yet, they also have a tremendous capacity to create change and increase resilience in their communities. In recent years, there have been more and louder calls for the inclusion of young people in disaster risk reduction policy negotiations; this goal was reached at the Children & Youth Forum at the 2015 UN-WCDRR. In fact, the new Sendai Framework has formally established that “Children and youth are agents of change and should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction.”7

So how does this translate to practice locally? Here at Colorado State University (CSU), our research team at the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA) has partnered with academics and practitioners to explore the needs of children and youth in disasters. We have established numerous research projects and interventions explicitly designed to create spaces for youth engagement and capacity building.8

One of these projects is Youth Creating Disaster Recovery and Resilience (YCDR2). Over the past three years, I have acted as the Research Coordinator for the project. Professor Lori Peek and our team at CSU have joined Professor Robin Cox and her team at Royal Roads University to lead creative workshops with youth in disaster affected communities across Canada and the United States. The goals of YCDR2 are to:

  1. learn from youth about their disaster experiences;
  2. build upon existing theories of disaster recovery and resilience to include the needs and contributions of youth;
  3. to provide opportunities for youth to contribute their own ideas and experiences through peer-to-peer networking, creative workshops, and an online repository for creative story telling; and
  4. to encourage youth-led community engagement.

It is our hope that academics, practitioners, and youth will build on this project and that policy makers will use the information gleaned to develop disaster risk reduction plans that are for youth, with youth, and about youth.

So, as I contemplate the outcomes of the 2015 UN-WCDRR, I am reminded how important it is to understand the inequitable differences in ways that human populations prepare for, endure, and recover from extreme events around the globe. When we think about increasing sustainability, adaptation to climate change, and disaster risk reduction, are we doing enough to acknowledge that it is those with the smallest footprints who suffer the most? When we talk about sustainability, are we asking “sustainability for whom?” Are we overlooking the root problems of poverty and global inequality that disproportionately place children and youth in harms way? UNICEF, Plan International, and Save the Children have long been focusing on the needs of children around the globe, but isn’t time for the rest of us to follow suit? Because, as the old saying goes–We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, but borrowed it from our children.9

 

 

[1] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[2] Kelman, Ilan, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer. 2015. “Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. DOI 10.1007/s13753-015-0038-5

[3] Kelman, Ilan, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer. 2015. “Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. DOI 10.1007/s13753-015-0038-5, Pg 1.

[4] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[5] UNICEF. 2015.

[6] http://blogs.unicef.org/2015/03/10/disaster-risk-reduction-whats-at-stak...

[7] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Pg. 20. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[8] For more information about CDRA’s ongoing work with youth, please visit: http://disaster.colostate.edu/projects.aspx

[9] Unknown Author

 

Crop-based biofuels as a sustainable energy solution: The importance of life cycle assessment

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 1:23pm

Written by Nell Campbell, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

News flash: at a global scale we still are not doing a very good job reining in greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the increasingly well-established linkage between rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and climate changes that can be harmful to human societies and the environment. This is also despite expanding policy to mitigate climate change through greenhouse gas reductions. The most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working report released this past year underscores the lack of success reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with its greater emphasis on risk, vulnerability, and adaptation to impending climate change than previous reports.

Energy use is one of the ugly monsters at the base of this challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Non-renewable fuel use for energy—e.g. fossil fuels—has been long understood as a main contributor of the greenhouse gas CO2 to the atmosphere. However non-renewable energy use is so vital to economic growth and modern human societies that any changes in its use must confront an overwhelming array of other issues and topics: culture, policy, resource availability, societal development, environmental impacts, ethics—the list can go on.  Can energy use change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without stifling economic growth? This is a key question driving exploration and development of alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

I could hardly hope to tackle such a question in a single blog post! Instead I would like to take a ‘systems thinking’ tour through the small piece of this domain where I spend most of my time: biofuels. Specifically, biofuels created from agricultural crops, and their sustainability in terms of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions released to the atmosphere when fuel is burned for energy.

I am an ecologist. My research sits somewhere between ecosystem ecology, which studies living organisms in the context of their non-living environment, and biogeochemistry, which—as suggested by breaking down the word—is focused on how biology, geology, and chemistry interact to determine global cycles of material such as carbon, nitrogen, and water. I am also a ‘modeler’, which means my efforts to understand how plants and soils—specifically in areas where bioenergy crops are grown—interact with the global carbon cycle are based almost entirely on running computer simulations. Think- experimenting on virtual ecosystems.

Given my background, it is perhaps not surprising that I see ‘sustainability’ as a concept that demands systems thinking. This comes from its basis on some tough questions. What does it mean to sustain? What is the purpose of sustainability as a goal? At the very least these questions are only given meaning when they are also given dimensions: sustaining what? where? how much? how long? for whom? 

To go just a bit further into systems thinking (bear with me), as an ecosystem ecologist and a modeler I further think that a logical goal of sustainability is to be an ‘emergent property’ of how human and natural systems interact. An emergent property is just a fancy way of saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, or that the system is doing something that cannot be predicted from looking at its individual pieces. For example, pumping blood is an emergent property of a heart that cannot be recreated by its individual cells, but only happens when cells are coordinated into a functioning whole. Emergent properties are important to people working with complex systems—from the engineer to the ecosystem ecologist to the social scientist—as they can come as a surprise and cause problems if they are either unaccounted or not noticed. A person might think a forest is healthy if they happen to be looking at the one tree unaffected by disease!

From this perspective, the question of whether or not an item or action is sustainable can only be answered by understanding what is happening with the system as a whole. More specifically on the topic of this post, the question of whether energy use can be sustainable in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions requires understanding the greenhouse gas emission impacts of fuel production systems in its entirety.

Agriculture is an area where systems thinking is natural. Agricultural producers have to consider all components of a productive system (e.g. climate, soils, crop nutrient and water demands) to sustain yields and soil fertility through time. What gets trickier is accounting for less direct drivers of agricultural production—the effect of policy incentives, for example, or the economic impact of changes in global demand for a crop due to widespread crop failure elsewhere. Also of concern is the sustainability of other ecosystem features, such as biodiversity, soil carbon storage, runoff water quality, etc. For crop-based biofuels these types of considerations are made even more important by the fact that agricultural lands also provide food and fiber for growing global populations. Productive lands are themselves a limited natural resource. In this context, can crop-based biofuels be a sustainable, renewable energy source that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use? As an added challenge, the answer might differ if you are asking society as a whole, versus an individual farmer looking to remain profitable.

A.B.

Figure 1. The theoretical basis of biofuels as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Plants extract carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, fixing that carbon into plant biomass that can then be used for energy (B). Ideally this results in less carbon emitted to the atmosphere than through the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (A), a carbon source that otherwise would have remained stored for geologically long periods of time. Adapted from a video submission to the 2012 IGERT video and poster competition.

In theory, at least, the answer to this question is ‘yes’ (Figure 1). There is widespread experimentation with crop types, varieties, and production methods supported by collaborations between academics, industry, and government agencies. Researchers are, for example, targeting biofuel crops on ‘marginal lands’ that aren’t as valuable for food production, and producers are learning how to grow new crops like switchgrass and Miscanthus—both highly productive grasses—aiming to grow these crops at large enough scales to support viable bioenergy industry. The question that still remains is whether the theory can be realized in practice when these crops are grown at industrial scales. Unfortunately, at the moment there the answer is much weaker (‘maybe’, and ‘it depends’, see the video linked above).

Given the push for solutions to the unsustainable use of non-renewable fuels, the need for greater certainty in these answers is strong and immediate from both governments and industry. Therefore my final piece of the ‘systems thinking’ tour to crop-based bioenergy is to introduce the one set of research methods specifically geared in this direction: life cycle assessment.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) methods are devoted to putting numbers to entire production systems. When I say ‘production system’, I mean everything involved in creating, transporting, and using a product like the fuel that runs a vehicle. LCAs are sometimes more figuratively referred to as an analysis from ‘cradle-to-grave’ (general), from ‘well-to-wheel’ (oil-based fuels), or from ‘field-to-wheel’ (crop-based biofuels). Figure 1 is a good visualization of the bread and butter of fuel LCAs, showing a simplified version of the supply chain that connects raw material (crude oil in A, crop harvest in B) to the final product (the same in both cases: vehicle fuel). LCA methods can put a single number on a gallon of fuel from different sources—say, oil, sunflower seed, and sugarcane—that expresses all greenhouse gas emissions released during the entire process of creating that gallon. Of course LCAs are always open to critique—many assumptions have to be made to put a number on something so complex, depending on data availability, and current understanding of direct and indirect impacts of the production system. This is the basis of standardization in LCA frameworks and approaches. However LCA results are powerful in their simplicity, particularly for evaluating, comparing, and especially communicating the full system impacts of different products and processes. In the case of biofuels, LCAs are a key component of evaluating the sustainability of different production practices, ultimately helping identify ones with the greatest potential to serve as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

It is unclear, as yet, whether crop-based bioenergy can lead to large-scale reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use. However there is clearly potential for crop-based bioenergy systems to offer part of a sustainable energy solution. Doing so just requires keeping a systems perspective…and having a few good life cycle assessment researchers on the team.

 

"Nature in the City" - a unique partnership to sustain urban open space in the City of Fort Collins

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 10:24am

Written by Liba Pejchar and Sarah Reed, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and principal investigators for Conservation Development Global Challenges Research Team.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Preserving open space in these expanding urban areas is critical for ensuring that both people and wildlife enjoy the benefits of nature. Fort Collins, Colorado is a microcosm of global urbanization trends; the number of city residents is projected to grow from 155,000 today to 240,000 by 2045. Single family homes and informal green spaces are being replaced by multi-family and mixed-use dwellings. As development densities increase, habitats for plants and animals and the ability for all residents to access open space close to where they live and work will be threatened unless citizens take action to ensure these areas are protected and restored. To address this concern and plan for the growing population, the City of Fort Collins launched the Nature in the City initiative in January 2014. The purpose of this initiative is to develop a 100-year vision to provide “a connected open space network accessible to the entire community that provides a variety of experiences and functional habitat for people, plants and wildlife.

To support this vision, our SoGES Global Challenges Research Team on Conservation Development has formed a unique collaboration with Fort Collins to conduct the first citywide assessment of biodiversity across public and private open space. We selected birds and butterflies as focal groups for this assessment because they are groups of species with which citizens interact on a daily basis, they provide important services (e.g., pollination), and they are likely to be responsive to interventions by the City and citizen groups to enhance their habitats. We identified 166 points throughout the City, stratified among diverse land uses ranging from formal City Parks and Natural Areas to informal neighborhood open spaces, urban farms, and community gardens. Two trained field technicians completed the baseline surveys from May to August 2014, documenting a remarkable 88 species of birds and 33 species of butterflies.

We found that land use had the greatest influence on birds and butterflies. The greatest diversity of bird species and the highest proportion of urban-avoiders (birds that are sensitive to human disturbance) were observed in public and private lands managed specifically for their conservation values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas), whereas the greatest numbers of butterfly species and proportions of native species were detected in City parks and urban farms. Some bird guilds (e.g., grassland specialists, ground nesters, urban avoiders) were also observed more frequently in larger patches of open space. From these findings, we selected a group of 10 birds and butterflies as indicator species. For the purposes of this project, we define an indicator species as a species that is relatively common in Fort Collins and whose presence or relative abundance is correlated with the richness or composition of the overall community; in other words, sites where indicator species are abundant are also sites that support a diversity of sensitive birds or native butterflies.

The results of this biodiversity survey, together with social and economic studies led by the City, are being used to guide implementation of a Strategic Plan, which includes policies and actions to ensure that high-quality natural spaces are preserved in our rapidly growing urban environment. One example of a policy outcome is to analyze the connectivity of open space in Fort Collins from a wildlife perspective, identifying core habitat areas, existing linkages, and places where connectivity could be protected or restored. City Council will consider adoption of the Nature in the City Strategic Plan at their March 17th meeting.

A second example of a policy outcome is the development of science-based design guidelines. These guidelines, which will serve as a reference for developers, private land owners and the city for decades to come, will include design options as varied as green roofs and living walls, community gardens, backyard habitat, courtyards and wetlands. Lindsay Ex, Senior Environmental Planner for the City of Fort Collins and Liba Pejchar, CSU assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology are co-leading a graduate seminar to evaluate these options using a triple bottom line approach – how do these options score according to ecological, social and economic values? – and how could we improve each design option to achieve greater sustainability? Eleven graduate students from diverse departments are enrolled in the course and are leading lively discussions, using the best available science, to answer these questions. The City and CSU’s institute for the Built Environment will use the students’ findings to craft the final handbook.

Our GCRT is thrilled to announce the next phase of our partnership with the City of Fort Collins and its residents. In summer 2015, we will launch a new citizen-science monitoring project that will broaden the representation of residents involved in Nature in the City and will assess the effects of alternative development patterns on wildlife over time. First, we will engage local scientific experts to conduct training sessions on birds and butterflies for citizen volunteers. Second, we will implement volunteer surveys at a subset of points surveyed in 2014. Finally, we will solicit proposals and offer small grants to citizen groups interested in enhancing bird and butterfly habitats in their neighborhoods or nearby public spaces. Together with our partners at the City and Wildlife Conservation Society, we seek to increase citizen engagement in Nature in the City and inspire collaborative stewardship to preserve and enhance natural areas. If you are interested in participating in this effort or would like more information, please contact our Research Coordinator, Cooper Farr (cooper.farr@rams.colostate.edu), for more information.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Western Meadowlark.

Image captions in order of appearance: Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 2. As our community transitions from a suburban to urban city and densities of housing and businesses increase, the goal of the Nature in the City initiative is to ensure that all residents have access to high-quality natural spaces close to where they live and work.

Figure 3. Distribution of natural open space within Fort Collins’ Growth Management Area (GMA) and monitoring survey locations (n=166) for the baseline ecological assessment of the Nature in the City initiative. The locations were stratified by land use, site area, and habitat type. Nine land uses were represented in the assessment, including City Parks, Natural Areas, Certified Natural Areas, residential open space, institutional open space, urban agriculture and community gardens, schools, trails, and ditches. Birds and butterflies were surveyed between May-August 2014, and vegetation cover and human activity were also recorded.

Figure 4. Land use had the greatest influence on the diversity and composition of bird and butterfly communities in Fort Collins.

Figure 5. Sensitive bird species were observed most often on public and private lands managed specifically for their natural resource values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas).

Keystone XL: Why the American debate over a Canadian pipeline hurts so good

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 4:07pm

Written by Megan Ruxton SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science.

Canada is getting awfully fed up with the U.S, and if the most polite people in the world are starting to get steamed, you know something big is going on.

The issue causing indigestion for our maple-endowed neighbors to the north is the glacier-like pace of any sort of resolution regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project of the Canadian energy company TransCanada, which would connect the oil sands of Alberta to refineries in the United States through a 1,179 mile pipeline. This pipeline would move an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil per day to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would then be routed through several other existing pipelines, carrying the Canadian crude to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast region.

Because the project would cross the Canada-U.S. border, TransCanada was required to apply for a Presidential Permit, which they initially did in 2008. As part of the permit process, the president delegates his or her authority to the Department of State, which is then responsible for making a decision based on a number of factors. One of the most pertinent of these is the need for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Protection Act in order to – as the name suggests – assess what, if any, impact a proposed project will have on the environment. In addition to this, the Department of State must also establish whether the project is part of the “national interest” – a term giving the connotation that the national interest is a well-known monolithic concept, rather than a vague and undefined term that can take into account everything from economic concerns to relationships between the U.S. and foreign nations to larger issues such as climate change.

Such divergent considerations set the scene for a political debate that is as American as Paleo-friendly apple pie. Unlike the more closed nature of environmental policymaking in Canada, the permeability of the American political system not only allows groups and individuals to express their views on an environmental policy, but as part of the EIS process, the agency in charge is required by law to respond to each and every comment that comes in. In this case, pipeline proponents argue for the inflow of more than just Canadian crude – also thousands of jobs and around $3.4 billion to bolster our sluggish economy; the pipeline also offers energy security by strengthening our energy relationship with Canada, our primary source of imported oil. Opponents of the pipeline question the legitimacy of yet another project that nurtures our dependence on fossil fuels, exacerbates the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in particular they question the rosy facts and figures coming from proponents regarding the purported boost to the national GDP, and the number of jobs created. President Obama has said he will only approve the pipeline if it does not “significantly exacerbate” climate change. The delays coming from the increasingly heated debate, now seven years running since the first permit request, have prompted the newly Republican-led Congress to pass bills in both the House and the Senate approving the pipeline, an attempt to bypass the Obama administration’s perceived attempts to stall the Presidential Permit process, bills which Obama has already said he will veto. What we have is a stand-off that could be considered monumental – if it wasn’t already a frequent occurrence in Washington.

The often unspoken irony of the current debate is the existence of the Alberta Clipper pipeline. Construction of the Alberta Clipper began in 2008 and became active in 2010, running from the oil sands of Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, transporting approximately 450,000 barrels per day. Being an international pipeline, the Alberta Clipper received the required Presidential Permit without ever being debated in Congress, and receiving barely any attention by the U.S. public. Several other pipelines crisscross the country (what Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has referred to as a “Mario Brother level of pipey-ness”), a mode of transportation oil companies find efficient and prefer over the increasingly expensive, dangerous and sometimes deadly method of truck and rail transportation.

The question then follows: Why has the Keystone XL become such a political kerfuffle? Following the entrance of environmentalists into the fray circa 2011, the Keystone XL pipeline became more than a question of governmental action, regardless of whether that action was considered an economic boon or an environmental hazard. It became a symbol of a much larger issue, a proxy debate over questions of oil sand extraction, climate change, and the impact of human activity on the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This technological issue, supported on both sides by scientific information, has become a political debate larger than the issue itself. The rhetoric on both sides continues to take hyperbole to its extreme, with the political Right claiming that if the US does not build Keystone XL, the terrorists win, and the political Left claiming that by building the pipeline, we will be contaminating our children.

Do these arguments seem a bit extreme for a pipeline less than 1,200 miles long connecting oil extraction sites to a system of other pipelines already moving Canadian crude across the country? Absolutely. Do they address the legitimate concerns held on both sides regarding the analysis and interpretation of the impacts this pipeline will have on the areas it goes through, as well as the United States as a whole? Not even close. Have environmentalists turned this into a battle against fossil fuels, even going so far as to join with the strangest of bedfellows, conservative ranchers in Nebraska? You’re darn tootin’. This is the political system in America, one that proves frustrating enough to fluster even the most patient Canuck, particularly those whose financial interests are at stake. A spokesman from TransCanada expressed his frustrations, saying, “The need for Keystone XL hasn’t changed. Our customers continue to remain behind it. We need a decision and we need the politics behind it to stop.” However, this is the form environmental and sustainability issues often take in the United States, thanks to the system that has been created, where individuals and groups can protest, litigate, and weigh in on the governmental actions that impact the environment. In his segment on the Keystone XL pipeline, Jon Stewart summed it up well: “This is what victory sometimes looks like in a democratic system.” A final decision on Keystone XL could be a long time coming, but such is its fate in an open, democratic process for environmental policymaking in the United States. Sometimes no progress means victory, not just for environmentalists, but for American democracy as well.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline (Source: TransCanada, at http://keystone-xl.com/keystone-xl-pipeline-overall-route-map/)

Figure 2. Canadian and U.S. Oil Pipelines (Source: Keystone XL Assessment)

Figure 3. Artistic rendering of a contaminated child.

Veering from the Recipe: Exploring the many flavors of Colorado’s place-based conservation initiatives

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 4:34pm

Written by Ch'aska Huayhuaca SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and the Center for Collaborative Conservation

In an interview last year, Carol Ekarius, director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, pointed out “most of our ecological problems, at this point in history, need collaboration to be solved.” Since the 1980s, we’ve been experiencing an era of increased collaboration and participation from new and diverse players. This collaborative ascension signaled growing discontent with the solutions and outcomes generated by both expensive lawsuits and remote bureaucracies. More recently, collaboration has become a strategic way to leverage scarce funds and resources, given a rapidly shifting political landscape and subsequent budget problems at the federal level.

In Colorado alone, we’ve documented almost 150 environmental collaboratives so far, and that’s a conservative estimate when considering that many have emerged and receded over the years.  These are not advocacy or activist groups, but coalitions of “strange bedfellows,” people who may have major ideological differences and who are representing diverse perspectives, acting collectively because it is in their common interest to do so.  They involve different combinations of citizens, government officials, resource managers, private sector interests, and non-profits. They’re tackling different kinds of resource issues, like forest and river health, wildlife migration and declining habitat, weeds and invasive species, water quality and quantity, cultural and natural heritage, and large landscape conservation.

They’re particularly interesting now because they buck national trends indicating a widening polarization of political ideologies on environmental issues. They appear as localized patches of purple on a landscape of starkly contrasting reds and blues when viewed at a larger political scale.

In digging around the literature on collaboration, there’s no shortage of prescriptive information out there on what works, lessons learned, and how to build successful collaboration. These often start out with the caveat: “…there are no recipes for collaboration,” or “what works in one place may not work in another,” but then they usually launch into a recipe for collaboration.  

If we acknowledged that there’s no boiler plate prescription for collaboration, then why aren’t we giving more attention to the diversity of collaborative initiatives out there? For example, what gives rise to the differences and idiosyncrasies between collaborative initiatives? More importantly, what are the implications of these differences for their outcomes?  My interest in this was piqued while conducting an inventory of groups in Colorado for the Center for Collaborative Conservation. Several questions about diversity leapt off the spreadsheet as I catalogued these groups. How do different resource issues drive different types of collaborative arrangements?  How does the way that a group structures and organizes itself affect its outcomes? And how does geography affect the assets that a collaborative has to work with?

For example, I noticed early on that there are relatively few examples of consensus-based collaboration coming from the oil and gas sector; however, there’s no shortage of community coalitions that have emerged responding to its impacts (for a discussion of these groups and the kind of work they do, see Boone, 2014). But there are only a handful of groups consisting of diverse interests trying to negotiate solutions and bridge divides. Meanwhile, there are upwards of 70 watershed groups and counting. Why do some resource issues invite more collective action than others?

Figure 1. A back-of-the-napkin assessment of how different natural
resource sectors are represneted by Colorado's collaborative initiatives.
Stay tuned for a more 'front-of-the-napkin' assessment!

Equally intriguing, when comparing Colorado’s collaboratives, is the wide range of organizational structures and arrangements across different kinds of collaboratives. Formality and rules figure highly as distinguishing characteristics—some groups can maintain themselves effectively for years as loose networks with no formal bylaws, thriving on trust and handshakes; others start off with enough rules to make your head spin. Of course, there’s no single right way to do it, it’s all about context. In talking to different groups, I’ve heard that some groups feel they couldn’t function without the consistency and structure that come with a sturdy set of bylaws; others argue that their ad hoc status keeps them together, that they would lose participants if they formalized.

Accomplishing conservation goals across physical, jurisdictional, and cultural boundaries is no small feat, and place-based, collaborative conservation efforts have been lauded as a more inclusive and adaptive way to meet trans-boundary challenges. Research has revealed key elements that make it work: trust and social capital, authority and legitimacy, engagement and empowerment, and so forth. But the resources that foster these elements are not evenly distributed across the landscape, which presents an interesting puzzle for place-based collaboratives. How do you leverage the unique assets you have within your borders to negotiate competing and sometimes conflicting demands on land, water, and wildlife?

Over the next several months I’ll be attempting to answer some of these questions as I tease out the nuances of Colorado’s collaborative initiatives, collecting local ‘recipes’ and lessons learned for making collaboration work in different places. The goal of the project is not to create a more inclusive recipe, or even a cookbook, but to shed more light on why ‘what works in one place may not work in another.’

Learn more about the Atlas of Collaborative Conservation project on our website: http://www.collaborativeconservation.org/atlas-collaborative-conservatio...

Boone, K. (2014). Where are we now: Socio-ecological risks and community responses to oil and gas development in Colorado (p. 44). Colorado Water Institute, Fort Collins, CO.

Sabatier, P. A., Focht, W., Lubell, M., Trachtenberg, Z., Vedlitz, A., & Matlock, M. (2005). Swimming upstream: Collaborative approaches to watershed management (p. 327). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

1 The history of resource management is the U.S. reflects big changes in how Americans perceive the relationship between people and nature. We have moved through several resource management eras, including the Era of Manifest Destiny (growth without much planning); the Progressive Era (the emergence of protected areas and ascension of bureaucratic authority over resource decisions); the New Deal Era (think big engineering projects and the emerging concept of multiple use); and the Environmental Era (a mix of rising environmental values, distrust of federal bureaucracies, and a whole lotta lawsuits). 

 

The Hunt for the Mysterious Carbon Sink

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 4:37pm

Written by Hannakaisa Lindqvist SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science

Good news: the Earth is becoming greener! This fact still strikes me and requires digesting every time. Globally, plants are growing more than they are dying. This is called the ‘carbon sink’ over land, because the growing plants are taking up increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it through photosynthesis. This leads to more biomass, i.e., plant material, on Earth. The truly intriguing thing is that we are still lacking a scientific consensus about the location and nature of this global carbon sink, and therefore cannot predict its behavior in the future: will the plants keep growing at this increasing rate, or not?

How do we even know that the mysterious sink exists? Forests are certainly not popping up in our backyards! The answer lies in carbon cycle math. Anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide are well-known carbon sources to the atmosphere: burning of fossil fuel and cement production led to 9.9±0.5 PgC (petagrams of carbon = 1015 g) emissions in 2013, and the emissions due to deforestation and other land use change were 0.9±0.5 PgC. Luckily for us, not all of this carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere. In 2013, oceans absorbed 27% of the emissions while 50% stayed in the atmosphere. Simple math leaves us with a residual sink of 23% – this is the work of the land sink, and means that on a global basis plants used this extra 2.5±0.9 PgC in photosynthesis for growing! However, the sources and sinks vary from year to year. Fig. 1 demonstrates how the land sink is paired with atmospheric increase of CO2: in some years, the plants absorb close to nothing, while in other years, plant uptake surpasses what is left in the atmosphere.

Figure 1. Temporal evolution of CO2 emissions and sinks. The land sink (green) is a residual of the sum of all sources minus the sum of the atmosphere and ocean sinks.

But where are we seeing this explosion in vegetation? This has been the hot potato, a true gold rush (or, more accurately, grant rush) of carbon cycle research for over a decade. The problem is not that the existence of the sink has eluded researchers but that the sink has been ‘discovered’ and relocated multiple times. For example, the sink has been located in North America, the Amazon, and in Europe. For a long time, the discussion was bouncing between two alternative major carbon sinks – boreal forests at high latitudes or rainforests in the tropics – until surprisingly, semi-arid regions in the Southern hemisphere were recently suggested as another potential carbon sink.

Perhaps a more important question than pinpointing the exact location of the sink is understanding the mechanism: why is there a net increase in plant biomass? At the moment, the plants are doing something we can’t: they suck in the carbon dioxide that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere and speed up the current rates of global warming with a contribution that might turn out unbearable. Wherever the sink is, we want to keep it! Moreover, we want to know if the sink is going to change in a changing climate, and how. For example, a sink in the tropics would likely be fueled by CO2 fertilization from the atmosphere, while a sink in the northern latitudes would likely be caused by forest regrowth or a northern expansion of the boreal forests. The significant difference is that some sinks are likely to become saturated while others won’t.

The challenge in locating the sink originates from the properties of the carbon dioxide gas itself. As this mesmerizing simulation shows, it is so well mixed and long-lived that local differences in its concentration are small, and do not necessarily tell anything about a local source or a sink because the gas may have been transported elsewhere. The search for sources and sinks is therefore a beautiful duet of carbon cycle models and measurements, where the model uses the measurements, prior assumptions, and atmospheric winds to backtrack the sources and sinks. The network of measurements has previously been too sparse for this pairing to work well enough but it is now expected to be revolutionized by the global CO2 measurements made by NASA satellite OCO-2, launched in July 2014. The mystery is about to be unveiled – it is only a matter of time.

Additional reading:

I have found the Global Carbon Budget extremely useful for up-to-date information on the different aspects of carbon cycle and a very good collection of data sources (figures, PowerPoints, videos, etc.): http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/

More about the OCO-2 satellite mission: https://oco.jpl.nasa.gov/

Art and Environment: An Innovative Field Course for Artists

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:37am

Written by Erika Osborne, SoGES 2014-2015 Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History

Artists are creators of culture. They are sponges of the world around them, regurgitating what they see and experience into forms that act as communication tools for the larger public. For professional artists, contemporary issues like climate change, land use and ecology are prominent playing fields for creation. The work produced by these artists is getting recognized in and outside of the field. It can be found on the covers of leading art magazines such as Art Forum and Art in America, and simultaneously in publications such as National Geographic and Sierra Magazine. Collectives have formed and the line between disciplines has dissolved to generate projects and endeavors that are hybrids of artistic practice, design, science and activism. The field is rich.

So, how does this filter into art education at the university level? It often doesn’t. The model of discipline-specific studio courses, coupled with the notion that the individual student is the sole originator of ideas, still rules the field. Only in the past 15 years have select art educators in a few institutions around the world began to teach environmentally minded studio courses that break this model. With a mind to more fully align my life practice with my teaching practice, I became one of those educators nearly 10 years ago. Through positions I held before accepting a job at Colorado State University in 2013, I taught courses with titles like Land Arts of the American West, Wilderness Studio, Place: Appalachia and Art and Environment. Some of these courses fell snugly into the traditional three credit hour, semester-long studio course and others required anywhere from 3 – 12 weeks working out in the field on a 24/7 basis.

This fall was my first attempt at running such a course at Colorado State University. With support from my department, I set forth planning an interdisciplinary, upper-division undergraduate and graduate level course designed to increase awareness for the interactivity of studio artists and the environment. The course was intended to be part studio and part seminar with the student objectives being: to better understand the field of environmental art and the practitioners working within that field, to develop constructive and aesthetic methods of interacting with the environment in their studio practice, to apply information gleaned from guest experts in various fields to their own work and methodology, to expand their formal vocabulary by engaging interdisciplinary practices while working side by side with peers from differing artistic backgrounds and levels of experience, and of course, to begin to engage the world as a stage for art making. 

Once the course went online, it was clear that it was highly desired. Very soon after registration began, there was an enrollment of 21 students (with a wait list of five) for what I titled, Art and Environment. These numbers are considered exceptionally high for any upper-level art course, not to mention an experimental course running for the first time. I had expected ten at most. Students from all areas of the art department enrolled – with participants from graphic design, sculpture, metals, ceramics, printmaking, painting and drawing.

The three course topics – Earth and Sky: The Micro and the Macro, Contemporary Environmental Issues: People and Place, and Sustainability: A Holistic Approach to Art Making provided the context for participants to gain knowledge from experts in various fields and apply that to their art making practices. Over the course of the semester, students participated in six field trips led by experts from other fields. We stargazed with Astronomer, Dr. Roger Culver and studied soils with SoGES director and soil scientist, Dr. Diana Wall . We explored the intersection of art and activism with the Fractivist, Shane Davis, and we studied fire and climate change in the High Park area with Dr. Monique Rocca. For the sustainability section of the course, we took a full-day field trip to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado to tour the most mature food forest in the United States with its founder and director Jerome Osentowski. Afterwards we visited the new Basalt Food Garden – a local park turned into a public permaculture site – with Stephanie Syson. Our time in Basalt was compared and contrasted with a tour, led by Patricia Conine, of the very different food-system preservation model found at the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation. In addition to the hands-on experience these field trips provided, students in the course read and discussed a comprehensive list of texts and gained exposure to artists working within the genre through a series of artist presentations - all of this giving them a broad range of knowledge to create work for the studio portion of the course.

The students consumed all that they encountered. For some, it sparked ways of working that questioned their use of materials. For example, a graduate student in metalworking started to question the mining practices associated with the metals he had been using. This led to deep research and product outcomes that began to address a more sustainable working practice, and one that examined its own use of raw material. For others, the course provided rich conceptual ground for the future development of their work. Undergraduate students in graphic design took issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing to heart and created a billboard design, stickers and various posters to express their concerns about the extraction method. This led to exploring the idea further through projects outside of Art and Environment.     

For all the students, the course deeply effected they way that they viewed their place in the world as artists. After expressing on many occasions that Art and Environment was “the best class we have ever taken”, or that “there needs to be more classes like this”, students would often describe how the ideas presented in the class had given them hope that art did in fact have a place in the larger environmental dialog. They began to see how their art making could work in tandem with science and policy to produce and promote solutions to problems affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. It gave them hope that art, indeed, has the potential to create lasting change.

Photo captions:

Photo #1: Graduate Student, Ben Isaiah creates a fanny pack for guerilla style mining reclaimation.

Photo #2: Tour of Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.

Photo #3: Tour of the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation.

Photo #4: Undergraduate Audrey Ancell explores the complexities of the intersection between nature and technology.

 

The Role of Compassion and Empathy in Science and Communication

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:36pm

Written by Grace Lloyd Miner SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

At a recent science communication training workshop, I noted in an informal discussion with colleagues my frustration with the frequently ‘political’ nature of my scientific discipline – agricultural science. I described how I could not go to a dinner party without being bombarded with questions (accusations?) regarding my opinions on topics such as conventional vs organic agriculture or genetically modified crops (GMOs). “Seemingly everyone is an expert on food and agriculture,” I complained. “There is no acknowledgement of any sort of specialized knowledge– if they disagree with you, they posit to have equal authority and understanding of the issues. It would be rare for someone to portend to be an expert in medical science if they had never studied medicine. Yet, everyone is an expert when it comes to plant breeding and crop production.”  Oftentimes, I admitted to them, my discussions with non-scientists are unproductive and strained. At best, they are carefully measured and civil. Only rarely is there significant and meaningful exchange.

I was startled by how strongly my colleagues resonated with my experience, and surprised to hear that this was a familiar situation for them as well. Of the three scientists present, all of them worked in fields where public sentiments and opinions run high (and are often polarized). One is an atmospheric scientist, working on topics related to climate change. Another works on questions surrounding fracking, while the third individual studies water and water policy. All of these friends shared my sentiments – science communication is not always as simple as excluding jargon and having a strong ‘elevator speech’ and it is clearly not always exclusively about our research or the data.  Our research disciplines cross into social, economic, and political realms that ‘animate’ individuals (and rightly so).

This conversation sparked a personal reflection on my methods of science communication, particularly, on how frequently I lack empathy and compassion towards viewpoints that are not my own. Cognitive empathy helps immensely in communication, as it seeks to understand how another individual thinks about particular issues.  Compassion, a synonym of empathy, is often equated with ‘pity.’ However, I am inspired by Krista Tippet’s recent call for a “linguistic resurrection” of this word [5]. In her linguistic exegesis of the word, she ascribes to it a multi-dimensional nature that includes kindness, curiosity without assumptions, empathy, generosity, and hospitality. She describes how our societal encounter with diversity in the 1960s resulted in the adoption of ‘tolerance’ as a core civic virtue. Tolerance connotes “allowing,” “indulging” and “enduring.” Tolerance has been my typical stance towards some of the opinions expressed in dinner party conversations. Tippet dubs compassion a ‘worthy successor’ of tolerance. Compassion, Tippet posits, is “so important when we are communicating big ideas,” to root our ideas in “space and time and flesh and blood – the color and complexity of life.”

In the past few months, I have attempted to incorporate empathy and compassion into my discussions, specifically those related to agricultural production, policy, and the research that I do. Instead of immediately referring individuals with contrasting opinions to read peer-reviewed literature like Peggy Lemaux’s “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues” (albeit a well-written and thorough paper), I have allowed myself to mull on the color and complexity of agriculture. What other issues, beyond the inherent safety of food, concern for personal health, and/or ecological sustainability, might be lingering behind the concerns frequently vocalized towards agricultural research and production?

Here are a few of the insights I have gained. Clearly, food is central in our lives. Agricultural systems are, in a poetic and literal sense, a reflection of how we choose to organize our society. Debates surrounding topics such as the method and scale of production systems and GMOs often have a more subtle and deep root - perhaps they are debates about to whom we choose to allot control of production, knowledge, and power. Biotechnology in agriculture has an impact on how we live. Biotechnology and economic patents bring questions of membership, power, freedom, and justice to the forefront of the conversation. Technology actively shapes the ecological, biological, and social landscape - the role of biotechnology in shaping our food system is substantial, and it should be a conversation that all individuals can be involved in.

Incorporating empathy into previously frustrating dinner party conversations has proved highly effective not only in improving communication, but also in identifying potential research questions and citizen concerns. For example, a recent conversation with one individual revealed that their concerns were rooted in a sense of ‘separation’ from knowledge of how their food is produced and processed. They felt that the production processes are obscured, and that this obscuration prevented them from acting responsibly in their food purchasing choices. This is useful information that I would not have gleaned if I merely inundated the individual with facts and data.

Yes, I believe agronomists and plant geneticists should contribute heavily to the discussion over the scales and technologies used to produce our food. I will continue to communicate the science I do, and my best understanding of key issues. For example, while I ardently support organic and local agriculture, I do not believe that labeling GMOs makes scientific sense [2, 6] or that there is anything inherently ‘better’ about the local scale, as “local-food systems are equally likely to be just or unjust, sustainable or unsustainable, secure or insecure... the outcomes produced by a food system are contextual…” [1].

However, I do not think scientists can ultimately be the only ones to make the decisions regarding our food production systems, because making one decision involves choosing against other values. For example, even as consensus rises in the scientific debate surrounding the environmental safety of GMOs, [2 - 4] the arguments surrounding the social and cultural sustainability of industrial production systems are a growing part of the current ideological conflict. I must let my research inform the discussion, but I must also listen attentively to discern other issues and concerns that my research cannot inform.

Effective science communication and dialogue often involve more than the ability to verbalize ideas succinctly and simply. An extension of empathy and compassion towards issues and sentiments that our research may or may not inform can greatly enhance the productivity of our science communication and reveal surprising research questions still needing to be pursued.  

References:

[1] Born, Branden, and Mark Purcell. "Avoiding the local trap scale and food systems in planning research." Journal of Planning Education and Research 26.2 (2006): 195-207.

[2] Byrne, P. D. Pendell, and G. Graff (2014). “Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” Colorado State University Extension Fact Sheet no 9.371. Retrieved from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09371.html

[3] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part I)." Plant Biology 59.1 (2008): 771.

[4] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part II)." Plant Biology 60.1 (2009): 511.

[5] Tippet, Krista. (2010, November). Krista Tippet: Reconnecting with Compassion [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/krista_tippett_reconnecting_with_compassion?language=en

[6] Specter, Michael. (2014, August). The Problem with G.M.O. Labels. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/problem-g-m-o-labels

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