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  • richardmitnick 3:15 pm on December 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Ecology, ,   

    From Nautilus: “The Men Who Planted Trees” 

    Nautilus

    Nautilus

    December 4, 2014
    By Anna Badkhen ILLUSTRATIONS BY SAM GREEN

    In West Africa, a model for worldwide conservation takes root.

    An hour before sunup the Bani River uncoils through the dark Sahel in bright silver curves, a reflection of a day not yet dawned, hardships not yet known, hopes not yet broken. Onto such a magical surface the Bozo fishermen of Sindaga shove off with bamboo poles and float downstream in redwood pirogues, one silent man per boat. The fishermen work standing up: solitary Paleolithic silhouettes keeping perfect balance against the river’s luminescence, each man one with his boat like some pelagic centaur, performing one of mankind’s oldest rites. They cast their diaphanous seines into the night. Handmade sinkers kiss the surface, pucker it lightly, drag the nets under.

    By the time daybreak trims burgundy the sparse savannah, the fishermen row their day’s first catch back to the village. In squat banco houses that crowd the river, the men take breakfast of rice and fish sauce. They patch up the nets while their wives and mothers sort the morning haul into giant wicker baskets and lug it to the nearest market town. After midday prayer, the men cast off again.

    Such has been their fishing schedule for centuries, aligned with the orderly procession across the West African sky of 26 sequential constellations. Each new star signifies the advent of a windy season, of weeks of life-giving drizzle or days of downpour, of merciless heat or relentless malarial mosquitoes dancing in humid nights. Each star announces the arrival of the blue-tinged Nile perch, of the short-striped daggers of clown killi, of the lunar disks of the Niger stingray, of the toothless garras that like to nibble the bare ankles of laundresses, and that, in the West, are used for pedicures in foot spas.

    Or so it used to be. Mali has been growing drier and hotter since the 1960s. For the past three decades, the weather has been chaotic, out of whack with the stars. The rainy season has been starting early or late or not arriving at all. Droughts throttle the land and wring dry the river. Flash floods wash away harvests and entire homesteads hand-slapped of rice straw and clay. Acres of deforested riverbank dry out and blow away, or collapse into the water. The fish run off schedule. “The river is becoming broken,” said Lasina Kayantau, a Sindaga elder.

    Their approach to saving the environment stems from the limbic understanding that they are an indivisible part of it.

    Kayantau received me on a late afternoon last November. I was researching a book and spent much of the year herding cattle with a family of Fulani cowboys, nomads forever chasing rain in the oceanic spaces of Africa’s margin lands. For a time, my hosts pastured their cows near Sindaga. Kayantau and I sat on a blue and yellow plastic mat under a mango tree outside his low adobe house. He was a heavyset man in his 60s, and he wore a soiled maroon boubou with yellow polka dots and, around his neck, a cell phone on a lanyard. One of his four wives, Kadija, sat on a low bamboo stool, propping up a toddler with her feet. Fishnets dangled from tree limbs and eaves. Ducks sidestepped discarded tackle. Kayantau turned to blink at the Bani. The river rippled in the slanted sun, blinked back.

    “The trees that kept mud from sliding into the river are gone,” Kayantau explained. “Now when it rains, mud slides into the river. The mud adds up, and one year, one day, there will be no river. But we are fishermen. This river is our life. It’s what we will leave our sons and grandsons. If the river is gone, how will they live? We had to do something.”

    So one morning last summer, Kayantau asked the hard, sunjerked men of Sindaga to leave their pirogues moored and stay ashore. He gathered the children and womenfolk. For five days, armed with hoes, sandaled, their soiled boubous flapping like giant wings in the thirsty wind, the 4,800 villagers—any man, woman, and child strong enough to work in the humid summer sun— bedded out 13,560 slim, two-foot-tall saplings of Acacia nilotica along the east bank of the Bani, downstream from the village. The idea, Kayantau told them, was simple: As the saplings grew into twisted, fissured trunks under dense thorny crowns, their roots would cinch the abrading topsoil of the desiccated seasonal swamplands and keep alluvial cut-banks from slumping into the river, preserving the watercourse for their descendants.

    The villagers worked for free. They became volunteer conservationists, planting back the bush.

    After a year of walking in the Sahel and speaking to ecologists in Africa and the West, I have come to see the villagers’ effort to persevere and preserve their ecosystem as a future model for conservation worldwide. People did not “arrive” in Africa the way we did on other continents: We were born here, and we evolved together with its ecosystems. Today, 70 percent of Malians live rurally. The Sindagans’ approach to saving their environment stems from necessity, from immemorial African traditions of husbanding nature, and from the limbic understanding that they are an indivisible part of it.

    r
    Morning on the Bani River: Mali’s Bozo fisher- men trace their ancestry to capricious man-eating water spirits and amphibians and may have been fishing the Bani River since the Neolithic.Anna Badkhen

    If you were to look at the Bani River from space, you would see that it sashays through a meandering band of a continental scale: a 1.1 million square-mile belt of pointillist ochre-green savannah that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, dividing the Sahara from the African tropics roughly along the 13th parallel. The Sahel.

    The most common tree in the Sahel is the acacia. First classified in 1773 by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, Acacia nilotica— known as thorn mimosa, scented thorn, Vachellia nilotica, or prickly acacia—splotches across the semiarid land. The lives of the tree and the people who are born, rest, plant, and die in its shade are deeply intertwined.

    Prickly acacia is a super plant. It can grow up to 65 feet tall, with a crown as wide. It thrives in poor, dry, and saline soils, adding three-quarters of an inch in diameter each year. It needs little rain. It is resistant to fire. By its fifth year it can produce up to 175,000 seeds annually, and although most of its seeds do not sprout when the pods drop, they still can germinate 15 years later. The seeds are rich in protein. Of all the acacias, the nilotica has one of the deepest rooting systems, up to nine feet, which means it can tap into relatively deep ground water. The horizontal spread of its lateral roots is 1.6 times greater than the umbrella span of its crown. Prickly acacias may stand two dozen feet apart but underground they clasp the soil together in a tight, resilient web. Along a river they create an indigenous natural revetment.

    Africans use prickly acacia’s seeds as food flavoring and dye, its glabrous bark for tea, its leaves as fodder and antibiotic, its sap to bind pigment to colored fabric, its twigs as toothbrushes, its thorns as awls, its inner bark and pods to tan leather. It is a nitrogen fixer, so grain yields are richer in its shade.

    But Sahel’s very texture is changing. Acacia scrublands are turning to infertile dustbowl. Red dunes grow where the 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta described lush orchards and fecund fields. Winter harmattan winds fill Bamako, the capital of Mali, with dust from the Sahara hundreds of miles away. Most people in Mali have never heard about climate change, but they can describe with scientific precision its symptoms: the hotter, stronger wind; the fickle rainfall; the disappearing forests. Last summer the rainy season arrived six weeks late. Around Sindaga, the fens that usually become rice paddies in June still lay bone-dry in early August. My Fulani hosts herded skeletal Zebu cattle through grassless pastures. The Bani at Sindaga was a tepid slow stream you could wade across, and there were no fish. In fact, in the last 40 years Mali has become 12 percent drier and about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

    The political unraveling echoes the steady and inexorable deterioration of the land itself, as if under Mali’s pustulating skin her very skeleton is creaking apart.

    A perfect storm of global and local factors is responsible for Mali’s environmental crisis: changing weather patterns; disastrous land management by French colonists; post-colonial explosion in population growth; overgrazing by expanding cattle herds; commercial farming and fishing. The people’s supreme dependency on the land does not mean that the 58 million people in the Sahel live in complete harmony with the environment. Like most men, they want the land to work for them, not vice versa. The deforestation speaks for itself.

    Between 1990 and 2005, droughts and human misuse killed 10 percent of Mali’s forests. Some trees were eaten during the famines, when crops failed and people survived on leaves and bark. Some quit on the waterless soil. Most were chopped down: Malians rely primarily on firewood for cooking, and a 2010 report from Mali’s agriculture ministry said that more than 500,000 hectares of forest are cleared for firewood and charcoal each year—and we are talking grown trees, not two-foot saplings. Today, only one-tenth of the country—about 12 million hectares—is forest.

    The fallout of this altered landscape extends beyond droughts and famines. In 2012, Mali weathered three successive coups and counter-coups and a simultaneous Tuareg uprising in the northern desert. Last year, it became 
the newest frontline of the global war on terror
 after Islamist
 fundamentalists
 linked to al Qaeda hijacked that
 rebellion; now
they are fighting 
against French-led United Nation
s troops backed by
the United States. Many analysts,
including Caitlin E.
Werrell at The Center
for Climate and Security, and the University of Michigan Islamic
 Studies historian Juan Cole,
consider the turmoil a facet of
desertification and link the jihad to the depletion of natural resources in one of the poorest countries on the world’s poorest continent. The political unraveling echoes the steady and inexorable deterioration of the land itself, as if under Mali’s pustulating skin her very skeleton is creaking apart.

    f

    Yet even after two centuries of centralized urban control of rural resources abraded the people’s relationship with the Earth, and even after the introduction of modern tools, weapons, and livestock vaccinations have enabled a voracious draining of the land, there still exists in Mali a level of conservation ethic that for millennia had prevented the people from destroying their environment. The central premise of that ethic stems from a myth.

    Most Malian traditions, explains Dr. Doulaye Konaté, president of the Association of African Historians, hold that natural resources are on lease to humans from gods, and that humans use the land according to their contract with the gods. Long after most Malians converted to Islam in the 19th century, spiritual leaders here continued to serve as interlocutors with the old divinities and doled out the permission to use the resources and the punishment for violating the restrictions, determining who could cut down a specific tree, hunt a particular animal, fish during a certain season. Many remain such guardians of the land to this day. And most Malians still populate waterways, the bush, the desert with powerful jinns that control these resources and penalize trespassers. Such beliefs imply an intimacy with the land, an attitude toward it not of ownership but of companionship.

    Over months of ambulations with the nomads, I camped alongside the Bani River, laundered my clothes in it, broke Ramadan fast with its tepid water, forded it, swam its anastomosing currents. I’d thought I knew it well. The Bozo at Sindaga wear it like skin. They have no school, no electricity, no sanitation, no source of income but what the river yields. They have an innate memory of their connectedness. They cannot afford to unweave what we call nature from their identities.

    Last summer, when Kayantau approached environmentalists in Djenné, the nearest big town about 10 miles upstream from Sindaga, he did not ask them to step in and save the river. He asked them to help the villagers remember, relearn, how to keep the river safe.

    He saw my raised eyebrows, smiled, and added, “Do not look at an old question with eyes of today.”

    The elder spoke to Hamma Ba, who oversees the directorate of fisheries at the district branch of Mali’s ministry of the environment. Ba also heads a tiny environmental nonprofit he founded a year ago with a $440,000 grant from the Global Climate Change Alliance, an agency the European Union established in 2007 to assist developing countries most affected by climate change. Ba’s nonprofit, which has a staff of five and goes by the French acronym AVDR, focuses on reforestation and education about climate change. Ba offered to donate to Sindaga some tree saplings to secure the crumbling shore if Kayantau rallied the villagers to do the planting. Thoughtful reintroduction of native species is being used to restore riparian ecology worldwide. Scientists credit the planting of sea-buckthorns along the banks of the Onggi River, which was dredged and diverted during the Mongolian gold rush of the 1990s, with that river’s improved flow through the Gobi Desert into Lake Ulaan. And in the U.S., the ongoing reforestation of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley by the Wetlands Reserve Program is creating a buffer around the wetlands that helps prevent soil degradation, provide habitat for wildlife, and reduce agricultural runoff into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Malian conservationists obsess about reforestation. It is the cornerstone of Mali’s national climate change policy: “We have a five-year program to reforest, starting in 2014. Millions of trees! All this made by people!” Ousmane Ag Rhissa, the minister of environment, told me.

    Planting trees, counting trees, and agroforestry are the focus of dozens of Malian non-governmental organizations, big and small, most of them funded by the European Union. Then there is the Great Green Wall, an 11-nation African project to erect a barrier of trees that, when or if completed, would measure more than 25 million acres from Dakar to Djibouti and prevent degradation of the soil, halt desertification. (An acre of trees may absorb between two and three tons of carbon dioxide per year—so the Great Green Wall may reduce global emissions by between 50 and 80 million tons.)

    Pan out from the flat adobes of Sindaga. Imagine: the fishermen and their families, contributors to the largest horticultural endeavor in human history.

    Ba acknowledges that a handful of villagers planting 13,560 acacias on 370 Sahelian acres cannot undo deforestation. His goals are much humbler—though, in a way, also much loftier: He hopes that conservation projects such as the one in Sindaga will remind rural Malians to be more responsible toward the erratic landscape of a changing planet.

    “You cannot protect nature if there is a separation between you and it,” says Ba. Something as simple as planting trees along a riverbank, he says, encourages the planters to thoughtfully reconnect with their environment. It allows them to re-imagine the potential of the Sahel, to see the possibility for a different, healthier landscape and a different relationship with it, and to see that they have the power to create both.

    When I visited the historian Konaté in Bamako, he told me, “There are many ways of protecting the environment, spiritual ways,” He saw my raised eyebrows, smiled, and added, “Do not look at an old question with eyes of today.”

    I remembered then a similar notion the writer Barry Lopez expressed in The Rediscovery of North America. To bridge the chasm between the ransacked landscape of the New World and the descendants of the Europeans who for centuries have exploited it, Lopez proposes inquiring of the land and its original inhabitants how best to coexist with it. “We are curious,” he writes in his short, forceful manifesto, “about indigenous systems of natural philosophy, how our own Western proposals might be answered by some bit of this local wisdom, an insight into how to conduct our life here so that it might be richer.”

    It is such gentle relearning, I think, that makes the men of Sindaga role models for modern Western environmentalists. Their effort to protect their ancestral fishing grounds comes at a time when scholars in the West are reassessing their own approach to conservation. The classic, divested strategy—most eloquently manifested in vast, unpopulated national parks—has outlived itself because it further demolishes the bonds that once existed between humans and the rest of the natural world. The Canadian writer J.B. MacKinnon writes that conservation’s “most fatal flaw, perhaps, has been to encourage the separation of people from nature: parks here, humans there, and there, and there.”

    What is necessary today, some conservationists propose, is a type of ecological restoration in which humans are everyday participants, immediately invested in nature because they understand themselves to be a part of it. We all should be planting back the bush—in our homes, communities, cities, parks. To do so, we can set our bearings by the fishers of Sindaga, who are remembering, faithfully and without fanfare, the ancient practice of nurturing their home ground. Our livelihood, too, depends on a intimate relationship with our environment.

    In November, scores of Fulani nomads en route from wet-season grazing grounds to the lush dry-season pastures around Djenné passed through Sindaga driving thousands of lyre-horned Zebus, sheep, and goats. My hosts and I were among them. The Fulani stayed on the Bani River for about a week, but that was all it took for their animals to strip the spindly twigs of prickly acacia of most of their sensitive bipinnate leaves. But after we moved on, the saplings—some with chewed-off tips, some with only one or two flecks of glaucous green surviving on the reddish stems— were still there, marking a sheer, hopeful grid along the Bani’s eastern bank just north of the village. Every few days Lasina Kayantau rode his scooter to check on the trees. One afternoon, I left the campground where my Fulani companions had stopped in a copse of thorn trees, and tagged along.

    It was odd to watch Kayantau’s sandaled, thick frame move through this imaginary future forest. His hands were flat, massive, shingly with callus, dry-cracked into grooves. Miniature maps of the Sahel. I tried to take pictures but couldn’t: Kayantau was simply too large, the shoots too small—too small for his figure; too small, it seemed, for that unforgiving, cauterized land.

    Kayantau showed me two of the five saplings he had planted himself. Scraggy, anemic twigs stuck out of trampled alluvium a few steps away from a dry gulch that, when it rains, dumps clayey mud into the river. Several other saplings were there, too. I don’t know how he could tell them apart.

    Kayantau stood over the seedlings, but when he spoke, he turned to the Bani, choppy and blindingly white in the 5 o’clock autumn sun.

    “I want to leave a mark,” he told the river. “After I die, I want the people in the village who elected me their elder to remember me. To say, Lasina, he did something. Lasina kept the river alive for our children.”

    See the full article here.

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    Welcome to Nautilus. We are delighted you joined us. We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives. Each month we choose a single topic. And each Thursday we publish a new chapter on that topic online. Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers. We follow the story wherever it leads us. Read our essays, investigative reports, and blogs. Fiction, too. Take in our games, videos, and graphic stories. Stop in for a minute, or an hour. Nautilus lets science spill over its usual borders. We are science, connected.

     
  • richardmitnick 8:46 am on December 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Ecology, ,   

    From NYT: “With Compromises, a Global Accord to Fight Climate Change Is in Sight” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 9, 2014
    CORAL DAVENPORT

    LIMA, Peru — Diplomats from 196 countries are closing in on the framework of a potentially historic deal that would for the first time commit every nation in the world to cutting its planet-warming fossil fuel emissions — but would still not be enough to stop the early impacts of global warming.

    The draft, now circulating among negotiators at a global climate summit meeting here, represents a fundamental breakthrough in the impasse that has plagued the United Nations for two decades as it has tried to forge a new treaty to counter global warming.

    But the key to the political success of the draft — and its main shortcoming, negotiators concede — is that it does not bind nations to a single, global benchmark for emissions reductions.

    p
    A coal-burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Officials meeting in Peru are working on a pact to curb global warming. Credit Martin Meissner/Associated Press

    Instead, the draft puts forward lower, more achievable, policy goals. Under the terms of the draft, every country will publicly commit to enacting its own plans to reduce emissions — with governments choosing their own targets, guided by their domestic politics, rather than by the amounts that scientists say are necessary.

    The idea is to reach a global deal to be signed by world leaders in Paris next year, incorporating 196 separate emissions pledges.

    “It’s a breakthrough, because it gives meaning to the idea that every country will make cuts,” said Yvo de Boer, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

    “But the great hopes for the process are also gone,” he added. “Many people are resigned,” he said, to the likelihood that even a historic new deal would not reduce greenhouse gas levels enough to keep the planet’s atmospheric temperature from rising 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

    That is the point at which, scientists say, it will become impossible to avoid the dangerous and costly early effects of climate change — such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme drought, food shortages and more violent storms.

    The Lima draft represents the input of all the negotiating countries, though there are still several major hurdles to work out. But even then, experts say, at best the new deal might be enough only to curb global warming by about half as much as scientists say is necessary.

    Until recently, the United States and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters, have been at the center of the impasse over a climate deal.

    Until this year, the United States had never arrived at the United Nations’ annual climate negotiations with a domestic policy to cut its own carbon emissions. Instead, it merely demanded that other nations cut their use of coal and gasoline, while promising that it would do so in the future.

    China, meanwhile, was the lead voice among nations demanding that developing economies should not be required to commit to any cuts.

    But in November, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced plans to reduce emissions, helping inject new life into the global climate talks.

    Negotiators here call the joint announcement between China and the United States the catalyst for the new draft, which, if approved at the climate summit meeting this week, would set the stage for a final deal to be signed by world leaders next year in Paris.

    In the United Nations’ first effort to enact a climate change treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the legally binding language of the agreement prescribed that the world’s largest economies make ambitious, specific emissions cuts — but it exempted developing nations. The United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty, effectively leaving it a failure.

    The Lima draft does not include Kyoto-style, top-down mandates that countries cut emissions by specific levels. Instead, it includes provisions requiring that all nations, rich and poor, commit to policies to mitigate their emissions. Countries that sign on to the deal will commit to announcing, by March, detailed, hard-numbers plans laying out how they will cut emissions after 2020.

    The draft that emerges this week “will look like a game of Mad Libs,” said one negotiator who was not authorized to speak publicly. Over the coming months, as countries put forth their emissions reduction pledges, the details of the final deal will be filled in.

    It is expected that many countries will miss that March deadline. Officials from India and other countries have said that they are unlikely to present a plan before June.

    In order to ensure that all countries are included in the deal, late announcers will get a pass. The point, United Nations officials say, is to ensure that the information exists to finalize a Paris deal by December 2015.

    Negotiators concede that the “each according to their abilities” approach is less than perfect — but that it represents what is achievable.

    “The reality of it is that nobody was able to come up with a different way of going about it that would actually get countries to participate and be in the agreement,” said Todd D. Stern, the lead American climate change negotiator. “You could write a paper, in theory, assigning a certain amount of emissions cuts to every country. That would get the reduction you need. But you wouldn’t get an agreement. We live in the real world. It’s not going to be perfect.”

    And there are still many hurdles ahead.

    While many major developing economies are now expected to follow China’s lead in preparing emissions plans, some countries remain wild cards. This year, the government of Australia repealed a landmark climate change law that taxed carbon pollution. Since then, its emissions have soared.

    “Australia is left without any viable policy to cut emissions,” said Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian opposition Green Party. “It’s going to drag its heels.”

    Money, as always, is a sticking point.

    The increasing likelihood that the planet’s atmosphere will warm past the 3.6 degree threshold, with or without a deal in Paris, is driving demands by vulnerable nations — particularly island states and African countries — that the industrialized world open up its wallet to pay for the damage incurred by its fossil fuel consumption. Under the terms of a 2009 climate change accord reached in Copenhagen, rich countries have agreed to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries adapt to the ravages of climate change. But a report this month by the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that the cost to poor countries of adapting to climate change could rise to as high as $300 billion annually — and vulnerable countries are stepping up their demands that more money be included in any final deal. Many vulnerable and developing countries insist that each country’s national pledge include not just a plan to cut emissions, but also money for adaptation.

    “The financing question will be one of the deepest divides,” said Jennifer Morgan, an expert in climate change negotiations with the World Resources Institute, a research organization.

    Another element to be hashed out by negotiators will be devising an international number-crunching system to monitor, verify and compare countries’ pledged emissions cuts.

    China has always balked at any outside monitoring of its major economic sectors, and is pushing back on proposals for rigorous outside scrutiny.

    Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that his country “always supports increasing transparency” but that the new reporting system should reflect “the reality that developing countries’ basic capacities in areas like national statistics and assessment are still insufficient.” He added that “developed countries should provide appropriate support to developing countries.”

    The United States has urged that a final deal not take the form of a legally binding treaty requiring Senate ratification, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol experience.

    But many countries continue to press for a legally binding deal.

    French officials have already given the yet-to-be-signed deal a working title: the “Paris Alliance.”

    The name, they say, is meant to signify that many different economies are working together, rather than complying with a single, top-down mandate.

    Edward Wong contributed reporting from Beijing.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:32 am on December 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NYT: “Study Gauges Plastic Levels in Oceans” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 10, 2014
    JOHN SCHWARTZ

    It is no secret that the world’s oceans are swimming with plastic debris — the first floating masses of trash were discovered in the 1990s. But researchers are starting to get a better sense of the size and scope of the problem.

    A study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, large and small, weighing 269,000 tons, could be found throughout the world’s oceans, even in the most remote reaches.

    p
    Plastic debris washed up on a beach in Azores, Portugal. Credit Marcus Eriksen

    The ships conducting the research traveled the seas collecting small bits of plastic with nets and estimated worldwide figures from their samples using computer models. The largest source of plastic by weight comes from discarded fishing nets and buoys, said Marcus Eriksen, the leader of the effort and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group that combines scientific research with antipollution activism.

    Dr. Eriksen suggested that an international program that paid fishing vessels for reclaimed nets could help address that issue. But that would do nothing to solve the problem of bottles, toothbrushes, bags, toys and other debris that float across the seas and gather at “gyres” where currents converge. The pieces of garbage collide against one another because of the currents and wave action, and sunlight makes them brittle, turning these floating junkyards into “shredders,” he said, producing smaller and smaller bits of plastic that spread far and wide.

    When the survey teams looked for plastics floating in the water that were the size of grains of sand, however, they were surprised to find far fewer samples than expected — one-hundredth as many particles as their models predicted. That, Dr. Eriksen said, suggests that the smaller bits may be swept deeper into the sea or consumed by marine organisms.

    The result echoed that of a paper published this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found a surprisingly low amount of small plastic debris. Those researchers estimated as much as 35,000 tons of the smaller debris were spread across the world’s oceans, but they had expected to find millions of tons.

    Andrés Cózar, a researcher from the University of Cadiz who headed that study, said in an email that he and Dr. Eriksen came to different conclusions about the amount of plastic afloat, but that “it is evident that there is too much plastic in the ocean,” adding, “The current model of management of plastic materials is (economically and ecologically) unsustainable.”

    The fact that the small plastics are disappearing is hardly good news. In fact, it could be far more troubling than the unsightly mess the plastics cause. Plastics attract and become coated with toxic substances like PCBs and other pollutants. Researchers are concerned that fish and other organisms that consume the plastics could reabsorb the toxic substances and pass them along to other predators when they are eaten.

    “Plastics are like a cocktail of contaminants floating around in the aquatic habitat,” said Chelsea M. Rochman, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “These contaminants may be magnifying up the food chain.”

    The ocean studies make an important contribution to the understanding of the floating waste problem, said Nancy Wallace, director of the marine debris program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Further research should look beyond the surface to test where the smaller plastic bits might have gone: into the deeper ocean depths, along the shoreline or settled on the seafloor. “It’s premature to say there is less plastic in the ocean than we thought,” she said. “There may just be less where we’re looking.”

    Dr. Eriksen said the scope of the problem makes floating garbage collection impractical. His group has had some success with campaigns to get manufacturers of health and beauty aids to stop using small scrubbing beads of plastic in their products.

    Manufacturers of other products, he said, must be urged to change their practices as well. “We’ve got to put some onus on producers,” he said. “If you make it, take it back, or make sure the ocean can deal with it in an environmentally harmless way.”

    Dr. Wallace agreed. “Unless we can stop the flow — turn off the tap of these pieces of debris going into the ocean all the time — we’re not going to be able to stop the problem.”

    The American Chemistry Council, which speaks for the plastics industries, issued a statement saying that its members “wholeheartedly agree that littered plastics of any kind do not belong in the marine environment,” and it cited industry efforts to combat the problem, including the 2011 Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter, which has led to 185 projects around the world.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:31 pm on December 1, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From astrobio.net: ” The emergence of modern sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, 2.6 million years ago” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Dec 1, 2014
    No Writer Credit
    Source Center for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Climate and Environment

    Four or five million years ago, the extent of sea ice cover in Arctic was much smaller than it is today. The maximum winter extent did not reach its current location until around 2.6 million years ago. This new knowledge can now be used to improve future climate models.

    ice
    Investigating Arctic sea ice. Photo: Thomas A. Brown and Simon T. Belt

    “We have not seen an ice free period in the Arctic Ocean for 2,6 million years. However, we may see it in our lifetime. The new IPCC report shows that the expanse of the Arctic ice cover has been quickly shrinking since the 70-ies, with 2012 being the year of the sea ice minimum”, says marine geologist Jochen Knies.

    In an international collaborative project, Jochen Knies has studied the trend in the sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. That was the last time the Earth experienced a long period with a climate that, on average, was warm before cold ice ages began to alternate with mild interglacials.

    “When we studied molecules from certain plant fossils preserved in sediments at the bottom of the ocean, we found that large expanses of the Arctic Ocean were free of sea ice until four million years ago,” Knies tells us.

    “Later, the sea ice gradually expanded from the very high Arctic before reaching, for the first time, what we now see as the boundary of the winter ice around 2.6 million years ago,” says Jochen Knies.

    s
    Satellite data reveal how the new record low Arctic sea ice extent, from Sept. 16, 2012, compares to the average minimum extent over the past 30 years (in yellow). Image: NASA

    The research is of great interest because present-day global warming is strongly tied to a shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. By the end of the present century, the Arctic Ocean seems likely to be completely free of sea ice, especially in summer.

    This may be of major significance for the entire planet ‘s climate system. Polar oceans, their temperature and salinity, are important drivers for world ocean circulation that distributes heat in the oceans. It also affects the heat distribution in the atmosphere. Trying to anticipate future changes in this finely tuned system, is a priority for climate researchers. For that they use climate modeling , which relies on good data.

    “Our results can be used as a tool in climate modelling to show us what kind of climate we can expect at the turn of the next century. There is no doubt that this will be one of many tools the UN Climate Panel will make use of, too. The extent of the ice in the Arctic has always been very uncertain but, through this work, we show how the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean developed before all the land-based ice masses in the Northern Hemisphere were established,” Jochen Knies explains.

    A deep well into the ocean floor northwest of Spitsbergen was the basis for this research. It was drilled as part of the International Ocean Drilling Programme, (IODP), to determine the age of the ocean-floor sediments in the area. Then, by analysing the sediments for chemical fossils made by certain microscopic plants that live in sea ice and the surrounding oceans, Knies and his co-workers were able to fingerprint the environmental conditions as they changed through time.

    m
    A microphotograph of sea-ice diatoms (Pleurosigma stuxbergii), which scientists study to describe the extent of sea ice in the Arctic. Photo: Thomas A. Brown and Simon T. Belt

    “One thing these layers of sediment enable us to do is to “read” when the sea ice reached that precise point,” Jochen Knies tells us.

    The scientists believe that the growth of sea ice until 2.6 million years ago was partly due to the considerable exhumation of the land masses in the circum-Arctic that occurred during this period. “Significant changes in altitudes above sea level in several parts of the Arctic, including Svalbard and Greenland, with build-up of ice on land, stimulated the distribution of the sea ice,” Jochen Knies says.

    “In addition, the opening of the Bering Strait between America and Russia and the closure of the Panama Canal in central America at the same time resulted in a huge supply of fresh water to the Arctic, which also led to the formation of more sea ice in the Arctic Ocean,” Jochen Knies adds.

    All the large ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere were formed around 2.6 million years ago.

    The results of this new study are published in Nature Communications.

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  • richardmitnick 5:27 pm on November 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Ecology, ,   

    From NYT: “Climate Change Threatens to Strip the Identity of Glacier National Park” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    NOV. 22, 2014
    MICHAEL WINES

    GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — What will they call this place once the glaciers are gone?

    g

    A century ago, this sweep of mountains on the Canadian border boasted some 150 ice sheets, many of them scores of feet thick, plastered across summits and tucked into rocky fissures high above parabolic valleys. Today, perhaps 25 survive.

    In 30 years, there may be none.

    A warming climate is melting Glacier’s glaciers, an icy retreat that promises to change not just tourists’ vistas, but also the mountains and everything around them.

    Streams fed by snowmelt are reaching peak spring flows weeks earlier than in the past, and low summer flows weeks before they used to. Some farmers who depend on irrigation in the parched days of late summer are no longer sure that enough water will be there. Bull trout, once pan-fried over anglers’ campfires, are now caught and released to protect a population that is shrinking as water temperatures rise.

    Many of the mom-and-pop ski areas that once peppered these mountains have closed. Increasingly, the season is not long enough, nor the snows heavy enough, to justify staying open.

    What is happening here is occurring, to greater or lesser extents, in mountains across the North American West. In the Colorado Rockies, the median date of snowmelt shifted two to three weeks earlier from 1978 to 2007. In Washington, the Cascades lost nearly a quarter of their snowpack from 1930 to 2007. Every year, British Columbia’s glaciers shed the equivalent of 10 percent of the Mississippi River’s flow because of melting.

    The retreat is not entirely due to man-made global warming, though scientists say that plays a major role. While the rate of melting has alternately sped up and slowed in lock step with decades-long climate cycles, it has risen steeply since about 1980.

    And while glaciers came and went millenniums ago, the changes this time are unfolding over a Rocky Mountain landscape of big cities, sprawling farms and growing industry. All depend on steady supplies of water, and in the American West, at least 80 percent of it comes from the mountains.

    “Glaciers are essentially a reservoir of water held back for decades, and they’re releasing that water in August when it’s hot, and streams otherwise might have low flows or no flows,” Daniel B. Fagre, a United States Geological Survey research ecologist, said in an interview. “As glaciers disappear, there will be a reduction in the water at the same time that demand is going up. I think we’re on the cusp of bigger changes.”

    But shrinking glaciers are only the visible symptom of much broader and more serious changes. “We’re a snow-driven ecosystem, and glaciers are just a part of that,” Dr. Fagre said. “The way the snow goes is the way our ecosystem goes.”

    Lately, the snows are not going well.

    Mountain snowpacks are shrinking. In recent decades, rising winter temperatures have increasingly changed snows to rain. Rising spring temperatures are melting the remaining snow faster.

    “Imagine turning on your faucet in your sink and all your water runs out in an hour’s time,” Thomas Painter, a research scientist and snow hydrologic expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in an interview. “Loss of snowpack earlier in the year compresses runoff into a shorter period of time.”

    Glaciers and year-round snowfields — accumulations of snow in colder locations, like shadowed mountainsides, that never fully melt — pick up the slack in summer. But they, too, are vanishing: In Glacier National Park, the number of days above 90 degrees has tripled since early last century, and the summertime span in which such hot days occur has almost doubled, to include all of July and most of August.

    Winters are warmer, too: A century ago, the last brutally cold day typically occurred around March 5. By last decade, it had receded to Feb. 15.

    Dr. Fagre, the park’s resident expert on snowpacks, glaciers and climate change, can see the changes firsthand. Grinnell Glacier, one of the park’s most studied ice sheets, feeds a frigid lake on the flanks of Mount Gould, more than 6,000 feet above sea level. “At the beginning, we had a 25-foot-high wall of ice that we were actually concerned about from a safety standpoint,” he said. “And now the entire glacier simply slopes into the water, with no wall of ice whatsoever.

    “All of that has melted just within the last 10 years.”

    At Clements Mountain, with a summit some 8,800 feet above sea level, what used to be a glacier is now a shrinking snowfield surrounded by 30- and 40-foot heaps of moraine, stones piled up by the ice as it pushed its way forward. One recent fall day, freshets of melted snow tumbled over rock ledges and down hills, past stands of Rocky Mountain firs.

    But that will change.

    “This snowfield will vanish,” Dr. Fagre said. “When that happens, this whole area will dry up a lot. A lot of these alpine gardens, so to speak, are sustained entirely by waterfalls and streams like this. And once this goes, then some of those plants will disappear.”

    For wildlife, Dr. Fagre said, the implications are almost too great to count. Frigid alpine streams may dry up, and cold-water fish and insects may grow scarce. Snowfall may decline, and fewer avalanches may open up clearings for wildlife or push felled trees into streams, creating trout habitats. Tree lines may creep up mountains, erasing open meadows that enable mountain goats to keep watch against mountain lions. A hummingbird that depends on glacial lilies for nectar may arrive in spring to find that the lilies have already blossomed.

    Trekking across what is left of the Clements snowfield, Dr. Fagre unexpectedly encountered a long-clawed paw print: from one of perhaps 300 wolverines said to remain in the lower 48 states. These solitary, ferocious animals have come back after trappers nearly eliminated them decades ago, but conservationists and federal wildlife experts are sharply at odds over whether rising temperatures imperil them.

    “Wolverines need deep snows to build their winter dens,” Dr. Fagre said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen to them.”

    For people, the future is somewhat clearer.

    Rising temperatures and early snowmelt make for warmer, drier summers as rivers shrink and soils dry out. That is already driving a steady increase in wildfires, including in the park, and disease and pest infestations in forests.

    But in the long term, the ramifications are more ominous than a mere rise in fires or dying trees.

    Moisture loss from early snowmelt is worsening a record hydrological drought on the Colorado River, which supplies water to about 40 million people from the Rockies to California and Mexico; by 2050, scientists estimate, the Colorado’s flow could drop by 10 percent to 30 percent.

    In the usually arid West, where reservoirs are vital, earlier and bigger snowmelt will disrupt the task of balancing water demand and supply. Experts anticipate an increase in disputes over water rights as a growing population competes for a shrinking resource. And farming, a major industry across much of the Rockies, will become even more of a gamble than fickle weather makes it.

    Indeed, complications have already surfaced. Dennis Iverson runs a 140-head cow-and-calf operation on several thousand acres about 25 miles northeast of Missoula, Mont. Five hundred acres are hayfield, irrigated with water from the Blackfoot River about one and a half miles away.

    Twenty years ago, the water flowed through an open ditch, and from the time the irrigation pumps were started on May 20, “we were able to irrigate the whole ranch,” he said. “There was always enough water, even to do some irrigating in July and August.”

    Now, Mr. Iverson starts the pumps on May 10, because a hotter spring has already dried out his pasture. The open irrigation ditch has been converted into an 8,000-foot underground pipe to prevent evaporation. “If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t even be getting water to the ranch,” he said. “There’s that much less water in the stream than there was 20 years ago.”

    See the full article, with slide show an d park map, here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:49 am on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Ecology, , ,   

    From Daily Galaxy: “Ancient Antarctica Lake Provides Clues to One of the Unsolved Mysteries of Early Earth” 

    Daily Galaxy
    The Daily Galaxy

    November 17, 2014
    via astrobiology.com and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

    While the extinction of the dinosaurs has largely been explained by the impact of a large meteorite, the crash of the stromatolites remains unsolved. “It’s one of the major questions in Earth history,” says Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution microbial ecologist Virginia Edgcomb.

    l

    The Antarctic discovery in an ancient lake in April of 2011 helped scientists better understand the conditions under which the Earth’s primitive life-forms thrived. “It’s like going back to early Earth,” said Dawn Sumner, a geobiologist at the University of California, Davis, describing her explorations of the eerie depths of East Antarctica’s Lake Untersee where Sumner and her colleagues, led by Dale Andersen of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., discovered otherworldly mounds of Photosynthetic microbial stromatolites.

    lake

    “The weather looks to be pretty good tomorrow, with clear skies and low winds, at least for Novo. Monday and Tuesday the weather may go down with 45 kt winds so we need to get the camp up as soon as possible….at least a few tents anyway. It will be great to get back to the lake, and everyone is pretty excited now.” Reports Dale Andersen of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif in his Field Report from Lake Untersee, Antarctica 15 November 2014.

    The stromatolites, built layer by layer by bacteria on the lake bottom, resemble similar structures that first appeared billions of years ago and remain in fossil form as one of the oldest widespread records of ancient life dating from 3 billion years ago or more, to understand how life got a foothold on Earth.

    more

    Lake Untersee is located at 71°20’S, 13°45’E in the Otto-von-Gruber-Gebirge (Gruber Mountains) of central Dronning Maud Land.The lake is 563 meters above sea level, with an area of 11.4 square kilometers and is the largest surface lake in East Antarctica.

    The purple-bluish mounds are composed of long, stringy cyanobacteria, ancient photosynthetic organisms. Similar to coral reef organisms, the bacteria takes decades to build each layer in Untersee’s icy waters, Sumner said, so the mounds may have taken thousands of years to accumulate.

    Today, stromatolites are found in only a few spots in the ocean, including off the western coast of Australia and in the Bahamas. They they have also been found thriving in freshwater environments, such as super-salty lakes high in the Andes and in a few of Antarctica’s other freshwater lakes.

    But scientists were stunned by the size and shape of the purplish stromatolite mounds built by Phormidium bacteria in Untersee’s extremely alkaline waters and high concentrations of dissolved methane, are unique reaching up to half a meter high, dotting the lake floor. “It totally blew us away,” Andersen said. “We had never seen anything like that.” The stromatolite mounds were found adjacent to smaller, pinnacle-shaped lumps made of another bacterial group, Leptolyngbya.

    “Everywhere else that we’ve looked you have a gradation between the structures,” like in bacterial mats sprawling around Yellowstone’s hot springs, she said. “There’s something very special about this particular example that’s allowing these large conical stromatolites to form.”

    The widespread disappearance of stromatolites, the earliest visible manifestation of life on Earth, may have been driven by single-celled organisms called foraminifera. Stromatolites (“layered rocks”) are structures made of calcium carbonate and shaped by the actions of photosynthetic cyanobacteria and other microbes that trapped and bound grains of coastal sediment into fine layers. They showed up in great abundance along shorelines all over the world about 3.5 billion years ago.

    “Stromatolites were one of the earliest examples of the intimate connection between biology—living things—and geology—the structure of the Earth itself,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) geobiologist Joan Bernhard.

    The growing bacterial community secreted sticky compounds that bound the sediment grains around themselves, creating a mineral “microfabric” that accumulated to become massive formations. Stromatolites dominated the scene for more than two billion years, until late in the Proterozoic Eon.

    “Then, around 1 billion years ago, their diversity and their fossil abundance begin to take a nosedive,” said Bernhard. All over the globe, over a period of millions of years, the layered formations that had been so abundant and diverse began to disappear. To paleontologists, their loss was almost as dramatic as the extinction of the dinosaurs millions of years later, although not as complete: Living stromatolites can still be found today, in limited and widely scattered locales, as if a few velociraptors still roamed in remote valleys.

    Just as puzzling is the sudden appearance in the fossil record of different formations called thrombolites (“clotted stones”). Like stromatolites, thrombolites are produced through the action of microbes on sediment and minerals. Unlike stromatolites, they are clumpy, rather than finely layered.

    It’s not known whether stromatolites became thrombolites, or whether thrombolites arose independently of the decline in strombolites. Hypotheses proposed to explain both include changes in ocean chemistry and the appearance of multicellular life forms that might have preyed on the microbes responsible for their structure.

    Bernhard and Edgcomb thought foraminifera might have played a role. Foraminifera (or “forams,” for short) are protists, the kingdom that includes amoeba, ciliates, and other groups formerly referred to as “protozoa.” They are abundant in modern-day oceanic sediments, where they use numerous slender projections called pseudopods to engulf prey, to move, and to continually explore their immediate environment. Despite their known ability to disturb modern sediments, their possible role in the loss of stromatolites and appearance of thrombolites had never been considered.

    The Woods Hole researchers examined modern stromatolites and thrombolites from Highborne Cay in the Bahamas for the presence of foraminifera. Using microscopic and rRNA sequencing techniques, they found forams in both kinds of structures. Thrombolites were home to a greater diversity of foraminifera and were especially rich in forams that secrete an organic sheath around themselves. These “thecate” foraminifera were probably the first kinds of forams to evolve, not long (in geologic terms) before stromatolites began to decline.

    “The timing of their appearance corresponds with the decline of layered stromatolites and the appearance of thrombolites in the fossil record,” said Edgcomb. “That lends support to the idea that it could have been forams that drove their evolution.”

    Next, Bernhard, Edgcomb, and postdoctoral investigator Anna McIntyre-Wressnig created an experimental scenario that mimicked what might have happened a billion years ago.

    “No one will ever be able to re-create the Proterozoic exactly, because life has evolved since then, but you do the best you can,” Edgcomb said.

    They started with chunks of modern-day stromatolites collected at Highborne Cay, and seeded them with foraminifera found in modern-day thrombolites. Then they waited to see what effect, if any, the added forams had on the stromatolites. After about six months, the finely layered arrangement characteristic of stromatolites had changed to a jumbled arrangement more like that of thrombolites. Even their fine structure, as revealed by CAT scans, resembled that of thrombolites collected from the wild. “The forams obliterated the microfabric,” said Bernhard.

    That result was intriguing, but it did not prove that the changes in the structure were due to the activities of the foraminifera. Just being brought into the lab might have caused the changes. But the researchers included a control in their experiment: They seeded foraminifera onto freshly-collected stromatolites as before, but also treated them with colchicine, a drug that prevented them from sending out pseudopods. “They’re held hostage,” said Bernhard. “They’re in there, but they can’t eat, they can’t move.”

    After about six months, the foraminifera were still present and alive—but the rock’s structure had not become more clotted like a thrombolite. It was still layered. The researchers concluded that active foraminifera can reshape the fabric of stromatolites and could have instigated the loss of those formations and the appearance of thrombolites.

    The findings, by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI); Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Connecticut; Harvard Medical School; and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment.

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  • richardmitnick 4:27 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Ecology, ,   

    From LBL: “As Temperatures Rise, Soil Will Relinquish Less Carbon to the Atmosphere Than Currently Predicted” 

    Berkeley Logo

    Berkeley Lab

    November 17, 2014
    Dan Krotz 510-486-4019

    New Berkeley Lab model quantifies interactions between soil microbes and their surroundings

    Here’s another reason to pay close attention to microbes: Current climate models probably overestimate the amount of carbon that will be released from soil into the atmosphere as global temperatures rise, according to research from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

    The findings are from a new computer model that explores the feedbacks between soil carbon and climate change. It’s the first such model to include several physiologically realistic representations of how soil microbes break down organic matter, a process that annually unleashes about ten times as much carbon into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. In contrast, today’s models include a simplistic representation of microbial behavior.

    The research is published Nov. 17 on the website of the journal Nature Climate Change.

    Based on their results, the Berkeley Lab scientists recommend that future Earth system models include a more nuanced and dynamic depiction of how soil microbes go about the business of degrading organic matter and freeing up carbon.

    This approach could help scientists more accurately predict what will happen to soil carbon as Earth’s climate changes. These predictions are especially important in vulnerable regions like the Arctic, which is expected to warm considerably this century, and which holds a vast amount of carbon in the tundra.

    “We know that microbes are the agents of change when it comes to decomposing organic matter. But the question is: How important is it to explicitly quantify complex microbial interactions in climate models?” says Jinyun Tang, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who conducted the research with fellow Berkeley Lab scientist William Riley.

    “We found that it makes a big difference,” Tang says. ”We showed that warming temperatures would return less soil carbon to the atmosphere than current models predict.”

    mod
    The complex and dynamic livelihood of soil microbes is captured in this schematic. For the first time, these processes are represented in a computer model that predicts the fate of soil carbon as temperatures rise. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

    Terrestrial ecosystems, such as the Arctic tundra and Amazon rainforest, contain a huge amount of carbon in organic matter such as decaying plant material. Thanks to soil microbes that break down organic matter, these ecosystems also contribute a huge amount of carbon to the atmosphere.

    al
    The soil above the Arctic Circle near Barrow, Alaska contains a tremendous amount of carbon. New research may help scientists better predict how much of this carbon will be released as the climate warms.

    Because soil is such a major player in the carbon cycle, even a small change in the amount of carbon it releases can have a big affect on atmospheric carbon concentrations. This dynamic implies that climate models should represent soil-carbon processes as accurately as possible.

    But here’s the problem: Numerous empirical experiments have shown that the ways in which soil microbes decompose organic matter, and respond to changes in temperature, vary over time and from place to place. This variability is not captured in today’s ecosystem models, however. Microbes are depicted statically. They respond instantaneously when they’re perturbed, and then revert back as if nothing happened.

    To better portray the variability of the microbial world, Tang and Riley developed a numerical model that quantifies the costs incurred by microbes to respire, grow, and consume energy. Their model accounts for internal physiology, such as the production of enzymes that help microbes break down organic matter. It includes external processes, such as the competition for these enzymes once they’re outside the microbe. Some enzymes adsorb onto mineral surfaces, which means they are not available to chew through organic matter. The model also includes competition between different microbial populations.

    Together, these interactions—from enzymes to minerals to populations­—represent microbial networks as ever-changing systems, much like what’s observed in experiments.

    The result? When the model was subjected to a 4 degrees Celsius change, it predicted more variable but weaker soil-carbon and climate feedbacks than current approaches.

    “There’s less carbon flux to the atmosphere in response to warming,” says Riley. “Our representation is more complex, which has benefits in that it’s likely more accurate. But it also has costs, in that the parameters used in the model need to be further studied and quantified.”

    Tang and Riley recommend more research be conducted on these microbial and mineral interactions. They also recommend that these features ultimately be included in next-generation Earth system models, such as the Department of Energy’s Accelerated Climate Modeling for Energy, or ACME.

    The research was supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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  • richardmitnick 3:14 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , Ecology   

    From NOVA: “The Quest for Everlasting Agriculture” 

    PBS NOVA

    NOVA

    05 Nov 2014
    Brooke Borel

    t’s a cycle nearly as old as human history. Plow, plant, harvest, and repeat. It worked for our ancestors, and it’s working for us now, though with ever more problems, from obliterating soil nutrients to encouraging erosion. And things may get worse in the future, too, when climate change threatens—whether through drowning or drought—to topple our food production system at the moment we’ll need it most: In less than 90 years, the world’s population could crest between 9 and 12 billion, and that will test the limits of farming.

    “Soil quality around the world has become degraded,” says Sieglinde Snapp, an agroecologist at Michigan State University. “So how are we going to feed more people with higher quality food? How will we provide more protein? And the big question is: how are we going to feed 9 billion in a sustainable way with degraded soil?”

    wh
    Modifying crops like wheat could help boost yields by extending the growing season.

    There are myriad possibilities. Among the options is raising the output of current farming techniques using genetic modification, specialized fungi, or precision agriculture. But another ambitious idea is to extend the growing season, which will involve rewriting much of the book of agriculture. In other words, if we were to redo the agricultural revolution today, what would it look like?

    For untold generations, farmers have plowed their fields and planted their crops in the spring, harvested them in the fall, and done it all over again the next year. But in the last several decades, agricultural experts have been experimenting with eliminating the spring planting by developing perennial crops, essentially revising thousands of years of selective breeding.

    To see how perennials could help, just visit a farm in the Midwest in the dead of winter. You’ll likely find fallow fields scattered with dead plants. Some of them may be covered in snow. But under the surface, the frozen soil has locked in key nutrients and water. When the spring thaw begins—but before it’s dry and pliable enough for planting the next season’s crops—the warming fields will begin to lose some of their moisture and nutrients, which end up draining into ditches, rivers, and streams or seeping into the atmosphere. From a farmer’s perspective, the combination of these soil changes, the longer days, and the springtime rains add up to a lost opportunity. If only they could start growing sooner.

    Which is why a relatively small group of scientists are developing year-round cereals and oilseeds, both key ingredients of the modern human diet. Most of these grains today are annuals, which complete a lifecycle once every year and must be replanted the next growing season. Depending on the farming method, the cycle may include tilling, sowing, and harvesting, which, when done regularly on the same plot of land, leeches nutrients from the soil and contributes to erosion. This system also requires more energy-intensive machines and materials, from fossil-fuel-burning farming equipment to synthetic fertilizers that push nitrogen back into over-taxed soil.

    Perennial crops, on the other hand, could survive for many seasons, axing the annual cycle and lessening farming’s wear-and-tear on the environment. Some varieties could also have longer, lusher root systems that would sink deeper into the ground, helping maintain soil health and curbing erosion. They could even help the plants survive a drought.

    Such a system would allow for longer growing seasons, too, taking advantage of the late autumn and early spring months when fields usually lay bare. Assuming that perennial crops produced the same amount as their annual counterparts—a big assumption—this would provide additional food each year from the same plot of land. A shift from annuals to perennials, or a mixture of both, could benefit both the environment and food security.

    “The way in which we currently grow grains is very similar to how we started growing grains a long, long time ago, and the ecosystem of agriculture has not changed much over that period of time,” says Timothy Crews, an ecologist and the research director at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where scientists have been studying perennial crops since the mid-1970s and actively breeding them since 2000. “We need to supplant purchased, high-energy inputs and mechanization inputs with ecological processes that achieve comparable or superior outcomes, which could build slow organic matter in cropping systems instead of maintaining or depleting it, which is what current agriculture does.”

    The trick, however, will be coaxing crops into simultaneously surviving year-round and growing plump and harvestable seeds. Plants, as we’ve discovered over the millennia, tend to prefer one or the other, not both. Though thanks to the work of Crews and a handful of enterprising scientists, that may be changing.

    Perennial Advances

    Agronomists and botanists have been trying to create perennial crops since at least the 1920s, when Russian scientists started a program to breed perennial wheat. But over the past ten to 15 years or so, the field has grown significantly, says Lee DeHaan, a plant geneticist at the Land Institute. This is partly because more research groups have taken up the idea and those labs have had a chance to mature. In October, one of the first dedicated scientific meetings on the topic attracted around 50 such researchers to Estes Park, Colorado to discuss breeding and management strategies.

    For perennial crop researchers, advances in genetics have given them an unprecedented level of understanding and control over their subjects. “If you consider the early Russian work, they were working very blindly,” DeHaan says. “They could make crosses and observe the plants, but they had no way to know the genes or chromosomes involved.”

    Today, there are two main approaches to breeding perennial crops, both of which require genetic tinkering. Both, too, are numbers games. The first is domestication, where plant breeders try to tame a wild perennial plant. This requires planting and observing thousands or tens of thousands of individual plants and then selecting those with the most promising characteristics—large seeds that hang onto the plant long enough for a harvest, for example, or ears that contain many seeds. The next step is to crossbreed these winners in an attempt to capture their positive traits in the next generation. Software that tracks which individual plants possess which traits—a tool that was unavailable to the Russian scientists in the 1920s—helps guide decisions on which offspring make it to the next round.

    sw
    Shuwen Wang, a perennial wheat breeder at the Land Institute, inspects a crossbred plant.

    Still, domestication is numbingly slow and difficult work. Wild perennials tend to drop their ripe seeds earlier than tame ones, a trait plant scientists call “shattering.” It’s advantageous for wild varieties to shatter because it allows their seeds to germinate when they’re ripest, but it’s useless to a farmer who wants those ripe seeds to stay on the plant until harvest. And while many wild perennials can easily survive multiple seasons, Crews says, it has been difficult to increase their yields and grain sizes to anywhere near those of annual crops.

    The second approach, and the more common one, is hybridization. Here, an annual crop is crossbred with a wild perennial counterpart in hopes that they will eventually produce a perennial crop. Hybridization offers a shortcut: annual varieties already contain the genetic recipe for high yields and big, harvestable seeds, and the wild perennials host the genetic code for longevity. Researchers can quickly identify genetic information that is linked to specific physical characteristics by using known stretches of genetic code called DNA markers. By snipping some tissue from a plant and extracting its DNA, breeders can see which genetic variations it inherited from its parents rather than waiting for the plant to grow and observing its traits, accelerating the breeding process.

    Unfortunately, hybrids are often sterile, and even if they do produce offspring, they don’t always pass on the desired traits. While a few offspring will be fertile, they can also be fragile. Sometimes hybrid embryos must be coddled in a lab in a process called “embryo rescue,” which involves growing them in special nutrients to ensure their growth. Even the most successful hybrids may then need to be cross-bred to bring them up to par.

    em
    A wheat embryo, sitting on the tip of the scalpel, is rescued from an immature hybrid seed.

    Researchers across the country are trying both approaches and testing their results in the field. The Land Institute, for example, is domesticating wild sunflowers and wheatgrass—a variety they’ve named “kernza”—and their scientists are also developing a hybrid perennial wheat. Snapp, the Michigan State agroecologist, and her team conduct field research on perennial wheat in Michigan, as well as on the naturally-occurring perennial pigeon pea, a legume and a source of high protein, in Tanzania and Malawi. Still others across the world are working on rice, sorghum, corn, and mustard plants that don’t have to be planted every year.

    Andrew Paterson, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia, is among the researchers working on hybrid sorghum perennials, including a project to cross an annual domesticated variety with a wild weedy sorghum called Johnson grass, which produces an extensive underground stem system called a rhizome. When the stems of a plant with rhizomes are cut, more grow in their place. Paterson points out that there are around nine or ten genetic variations known to be responsible for perennial characteristics like this in wild sorghum, and some of the same genes are also found in rice. That these two grains diverged from a common ancestor around 50 million years ago yet still retain such similar perennial genetic traits suggests that a wide range of crops which have distant common ancestors may also share the same features.

    “It looks like genetic control of perenniality is pretty similar in very different grain crops,” Paterson says. “So as we learn more about one, we learn more about all of them.”
    New Plantings

    Should researchers successfully develop perennial crops, it’ll be up to farmers to put them to work. Currently, philosophies differ on how crops should be planted in the future perennial landscape. The Land Institute envisions farmers sowing prairie-like fields with a mixture of perennials. And while this approach may help ward off pest insects and weeds, which more easily infiltrate a conventional field of a single crop, it complicates matters come harvest time. Currently, when a farmer cuts wheat, he knows he’s not going to be accidentally including corn in the harvest because each field grows a separate crop. Crews doesn’t think this will pose a significant challenge since the machinery to sort different seeds already exists, though it would likely need to be modified for this scenario.

    Paterson and others take the opposite view, suggesting that future perennial crops will simply be plugged into the current monoculture system, which would be easier to harvest with existing technology.

    Still others suggest a mosaic approach, which would include both monocultures and mixed fields as well as a combination of annuals and perennials. The idea is, in part, a practical one since large-scale monocultures already exist and probably aren’t going anywhere. “There’s corn and soybeans out there on millions of acres of Midwestern landscape. They’re not going away,” says Donald Wyse, an agroecologist at the University of Minnesota. Wyse oversees several projects that aim for year-round field coverage, including both perennials and annual winter crops, such as hazel nuts that could be swapped out with an annual summer crop. “It’s going to come down to what we can put in mixtures or in perennial monocultures,” he adds.

    wh
    Workers harvest crossbred wheat for analysis.

    To a degree, mosaics already exist, it just depends on the scale at which you look for them. Look out of the window the next time you’re in or flying over the Midwest. There, the farmland is a patchwork quilt interrupted by occasional stands of trees and shrubs. A mosaic that includes perennials could break farmland up even more, with smaller patches containing a wider variety of plants. These perennials might be grown on parts of a farmer’s field that are usually left unplanted, where they would provide both environmental and economic benefits. For example, Wyse says, some perennials could be not only food crops, but also oilseeds for making biofuels, forage for animal feed, and raw materials for other commercial products like cosmetics. If these perennials were planted around the edges of larger single-crop field, they could recreate, on a small scale, the region’s once extensive prairies while also giving farmers something to sell.

    “Deliberately planned landscapes like mosaics are the future, and perennial grains offers an option for mosaics that we don’t have now,” Snapp says. “Not all farmers can afford to have strips of prairie in their fields to provide sustainable grasses. It’s better to have practical options that also provide something they can sell or eat.”
    Making Space

    Regardless of how perennial fields will look—whether they’re blankets of monoculture, edible prairies, or a patchwork of both—we’ll still have to determine how they fit into our current food system. After all, we’ve been cooking and baking with many of the same grains for generations.

    In some places, we can glimpse this future. Kernza, the wheatgrass from the Land Institute, is already on limited menus. It’s in the pancake mix at Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, for example, which has been cooking around 50 pounds of the grain each season over the past two years. The Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas made a pilot batch of a kernza saison beer several years ago, and WheatFields, a nearby bakery, has been experimenting with kernza bread for the past five or so years.
    Breeding Preparation
    Wheatgrass heads are placed in paper bags during breeding to ensure pollen is only transferred between selected plants.

    The grain’s largest commercial debut is forthcoming from Patagonia Provisions, a cousin of the clothing company, which is rolling out a line of environmentally-conscious foods. According to director Birgit Cameron, the company is experimenting with kernza both as a whole grain and ground into flour, and they plan to have a product out within the next two years.

    So how does it taste? Most people who have cooked or brewed with it want to try more, as long as they can get their hands on supplies. (The grain has a much lower yield than annual crops.) “The kernza is popular—it’s very nutritious, it cooks well, and it has good protein content,” says Marshall Paulsen, the head chef at Birchwood Café. “I hope to keep cooking with it.”

    To move the crop, and others like it, from farms to more restaurants, bakeries, and breweries, however, will require a herculean shift not only in plant genetics and farming practices, but also in how grains are bought and sold. Our most common grains and oilseeds—wheat, corn, soybeans, oats, rice, and canola—are traded on the global commodities market, where prices fluctuate based on activity on various futures exchanges. Bringing a new crop into that system is virtually impossible because there is literally no button or bin for it in the grain elevator, says plant geneticist Stephen Jones, who heads, among other things, research on perennials at Washington State University.

    To explore another model, Jones opened the Bread Lab at WSU around three years ago to facilitate smaller local markets that will support new perennials and other crops that don’t fit into the current system. The lab has a resident baker as well as visiting chefs, brewers, and millers to experiment with new crop varieties. It also helps pair up different businesses to speed along commercialization.

    The Bread Lab model allows for more leeway in the distribution and use of perennial crops. The lab is growing, for example, a perennial wheat that has a blue-green tint inherited from its wild relatives. “It’s really pretty, but there’s no commodity stream for that,” says Colin Curwen-McAdam, a graduate student who works on plant breeding and genetics in Jones’s department. “If you’re working in the traditional commodity sense trying to make these commodity grains, now we have to put them in the commodity box, which makes your job even harder.”

    In a way, the Bread Lab is a microcosm of the perennial crop world. Everything there is up for grabs, from commodities markets to the crops themselves. “It’s a brand new crop type,” Curwen-McAdam says, “and it’s completely unwritten as to what that can be.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:57 am on November 1, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Ecology,   

    From Rutgers University: “New Frog Discovered Inhabiting I-95 Corridor from Connecticut to North Carolina” 

    Rutgers University
    Rutgers University

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014
    Robin Lally

    More than a half century after claims that a new frog species existed in New York and New Jersey were dismissed, a Rutgers researcher and team of scientists have proven that the frog is living in wetlands from Connecticut to North Carolina and are naming it after the ecologist who first noticed it.

    frog

    Photo: Brian Curry
    A new species of leopard frogs has been discovered inhabiting the I-95 corridor from Connecticut to North Carolina.

    “Even though he was clearly on to something, the claim Carl Kauffeld made in his 1937 paper fell short,” said Rutgers doctoral candidate Jeremy Feinberg. “We had the benefits of genetic testing and bioacoustic analysis that simply weren’t available to Kauffeld to prove that even though this frog might look like the two other leopard frogs in the area, it was actually a third and completely separate species.”

    In the paper, Cryptic Diversity in Metropolis: Confirmation of a New Leopard Frog Species from New York City and Surrounding Atlantic Coast Regions, published in PLOS ONE, Feinberg and a team of seven other researchers revealed the scientific name for the new species: Rana kauffeldi. The leopard frog, first encountered by Feinberg on Staten Island six years ago not far from the Statue of Liberty, will be commonly referred to as the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog.

    During his career, Kauffeld, who died in 1974 at age 63, worked as the director of the Staten Island Zoo and at the American Museum of Natural History. He wrote many books about amphibians and reptiles and is considered to have been an authority on the subject. Still, although Kauffeld’s research was initially recognized by some of his colleagues, Feinberg said Kauffeld faced considerable scrutiny and failed to gain any lasting support for his proposal.

    “After some discussion, we agreed that it just seemed right to name the species after Carl Kauffeld,” said Feinberg. “We wanted to acknowledge his work and give credit where we believe it was due even though it was nearly 80 years after the fact.”

    ck
    Ecologist Carl Kauffeld, who first noticed the new leopard frog more than a half century ago, will have the species named after him.

    Feinberg, the lead author, encountered the new species six years ago in one of the most developed, heavily populated areas in the world. Two years ago, he and scientists from Rutgers, UCLA, UC Davis, and The University of Alabama – who had worked together to show that this frog was a brand new species – made the initial announcement.

    Today, the new research paper, which also includes Joanna Burger, professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as scientists from UCLA,Yale, Louisiana State University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, completes that discovery. The paper has provided the critical evidence needed to formally describe and name the new frog and also presents information on the distribution, ecology, and conservation status of this species.

    Historically, the new frog was confused with two closely related species — including one to the north and one to the south — because it looks so similar. As a result, it was not noticed as a distinct species. But after Feinberg’s encounter in 2008, modern technology stepped in. Using molecular and bioacoustic techniques to examine the genetics and mating calls of leopard frogs from various parts of Northeast the scientists were able to positively determine that the frog found living in the marshes of Staten Island was, in fact, a new species that might also be hiding in ponds and wetlands beyond New York and New Jersey.

    The news, Feinberg said, became a call to arms to biologists, hobbyists and frog enthusiasts from Massachusetts to Virginia to go out, look, and listen in order to determine if the new frog – mint-gray to light olive green with medium to dark spots — could be found beyond the New York metropolitan area.

    jf
    Courtesy: Jeremy Feinberg
    Rutgers doctoral student Jeremy Feinberg first noticed the new leopard frog six years ago living in Staten Island near the Statue of Liberty.

    Over the last two years, many frog lovers, including some involved with the North American Amphibian Monitoring Project — a government project that observes frog habitats to determine if populations are declining – have provided crucial information about where the frogs are living, what they look like and how they sound. One volunteer, in fact, noticed the new species’ unusual and distinct ‘chuck’ call, and provided information that ultimately helped confirm populations of the new species in both Virginia and North Carolina.

    “If there is a single lesson to take from this study, it’s that those who love nature and want to conserve it need to shut down their computers, get outside and study the plants and animals in their own backyards,” said co-author Brad Shaffer, professor in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who described the discovery as biological detective work. Although fun and satisfying work, the goal is to protect the biodiversity of the planet, he said.

    Scientists say the fact that this new species – which brings the total number of leopard frogs in the world to 19 – remained under the radar in a highly populated area spanning eight east coast states and several major North American cities stretching 485 miles – is remarkable.

    “It is incredible and exciting that a new species of frog could be hiding in plain sight in New York City and existing from Connecticut to North Carolina,” said Burger, Feinberg’s advisor. “The process of recognizing, identifying and documenting a new species is long and arduous but it is important for our understanding of the wide ranging wildlife in urban as well as other environments.”

    See the full article here.

    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university and the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education. Rutgers is dedicated to teaching that meets the highest standards of excellence; to conducting research that breaks new ground; and to providing services, solutions, and clinical care that help individuals and the local, national, and global communities where they live.

    Founded in 1766, Rutgers teaches across the full educational spectrum: preschool to precollege; undergraduate to graduate; postdoctoral fellowships to residencies; and continuing education for professional and personal advancement.

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  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on October 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Ecology,   

    From livesience: “Telltale Signs of Life Could Be Deepest Yet” 

    Livescience

    October 24, 2014
    Becky Oskin

    Telltale signs of life have been discovered in rocks that were once 12 miles (20 kilometers) below Earth’s surface — some of the deepest chemical evidence for life ever found.

    life
    White aragonite veins on Washington’s San Juan Islands may contain evidence of deep microbial life.
    Credit: Philippa Stoddard

    Researchers found carbon isotopes in rocks on Washington state’s South Lopez Island that suggest the minerals grew from fluids flush with microbial methane. Methane from living creatures has distinct levels of carbon isotopes that distinguish it from methane gas that arises from rocks. (Isotopes are atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei.)

    In a calcium carbonate mineral called aragonite, the standard mix of carbon isotopes was radically shifted toward lighter carbon isotopes (by about 50 per mil, or parts per thousand). This ratio is characteristic of methane gas made by microorganisms, said Philippa Stoddard, an undergraduate student at Yale University who presented the research Tuesday (Oct. 21) at the Geological Society of America‘s annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. “These really light signals are only observed when you have biological processes,” she told Live Science.

    The pale aragonite veins cut through basalt rocks that sat offshore North America millions of years ago. The veins formed after the basalt was sucked into an ancient subduction zone, one that predated today’s Cascadia subduction zone. Two tectonic plates smash together at subduction zones, and one plate descends under the other, creating deep trenches.

    Methane gas supplied the carbon as aragonite crystallized in cracks in the basalt, and replaced pre-existing limestone. The researchers think that microbes produced the methane gas as a waste product.

    “We reason that you could have life deeper in subduction zones, because you have a lot of water embedded in those rocks, and the rocks stay cold longer as the [plate] comes down,” Stoddard said.

    But the South Lopez Island aragonite suggests the minerals formed under extreme conditions that push the limits of life on Earth. For example, temperatures reached more than 250 degrees Fahrenheit (122 degrees Celsius), above the stability limit for DNA, Stoddard said. However, the researchers think the higher pressures at these depths may have counterbalanced the effects of the heat. The rocks are now visible thanks to faulting, which pushed them back up to the surface.

    Stoddard and her collaborators plan to sample more of the aragonite and other rocks nearby, to gain a better understanding of where the fluids came from and pin down the temperatures at which the rocks formed.

    Methane seeps teeming with million of microbes are found on the seafloor offshore Washington and Oregon along the Cascadia subduction zone. And multicellular life has been documented in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth, and in South African mines 0.8 miles (1.3 km) deep. Researchers also have discovered microbes feasting on rocks within the oceanic crust itself.

    See the full article here.

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