Friday, January 22, 2010

Rethinking Invasive Species

Some find all this thrilling: Florida has become an open-air zoo, richer in species than ever before. To others, it's the harbinger of a new and depressingly undifferentiated age, when the old biological borders begin to fade and everyplace starts to look like every other. Ecologists have even given it a name: the Homogecene.

"Florida was underwater not too long ago and it will be again soon. Global warming is gonna fix this problem."

Burkhard Bilger, The Natural World, “Swamp Things,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2009, p. 80

Read more:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Global Fire Trends and Consequences

In the modern age, the Anthropocene, global biogeochemical cycles are skewed by the massed action of almost 7 billion human beings. Chief among these forcings is the burning of both fossil and modern biomass. The burning of crops and forest by humans can be viewed on a global scale with imagery from NASA's Earth Observatory. Some of the fires viewed by NASA's satellites are due to natural causes, some are due to human causes, and many are a combination of human land use practices and natural causes.

Fires in the Amazon have increased to 2007. The good news is that since then the fires seem to have decreased, possibly as a result of lowered Soy and Beef prices.

A number of sources have recently discussed melting glaciers in the Himalayas, probably due to a combination of global temperature increase and soot (carbon particulate) from burning.

Africa has some of the most pronounced anthropogenic burning, although it is debatable whether much of the semi-arid regions would burn naturally. Interestingly, the Sahel is also reported to be "greening" since the droughts of the 1970's. I was first alerted to changes taking place in the Sahel by a short article from the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources. Now, I read in The Nation, an article by Mark Hertsgaard about farmers in Burkina Faso who have let trees grow in their fields (because of changes in government regulations that let them own trees on their land) to increase the productivity of their crops. However, after reading this, and other, sources, I'm still having trouble understanding farming practices in the region, specifically in regards to reconciling the massive burning evident from MODIS with the greening described in the articles.

Australia has also recently been afflicted by catastrophic wildfires caused by a combination of extreme drought and heat waves.

Soot is near the upper right corner of this diagram from C.A. Masiello, “New directions in black carbon organic geochemistry,” Marine Chemistry 92, no. 1-4 (December 1, 2004): 201-213.
Ironically, pyrolysis, or the incomplete combustion of biomass to create charcoal or biochar, is now touted as a possible technology to increase crop productivity by simultaneously sequestering carbon. Not as currently practiced, though.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ecohydrology of Wet Semi-Arid Climates versus Dry Semi-Arid Climates

Semi-arid climates are exquisitely balanced on a range of ecosystem properties. Most famously, these savanna ecosystems, which border the truly arid deserts, are susceptible to desertification. Ecologists say that they have a bimodal stability: they can exist in two very different states, either grassland or shrubland, and small changes in land management and climate can 'flip' them from one to the other. In Huxman, T.E. et al. Ecohydrological Implications of Woody Plant Encroachment. Ecology, 308-319 (2005) ecohydrology researchers hypothesize that the response of semi-arid ecosystems differs between wet semi-arid sites and dry semi-arid sites, with subtle, yet important differences between them if they flip from grassland to shrubland.:

"The relative contribution of T to ET will increase for systems dominated by woody plants as compared to those dominated by nonwoody plants in more mesic climate zones, with the opposite effect in semi arid systems. Four zones can be delimitated where changes in the T/E T are likely to occur. In Area 1, there is little change in T/ET because leaf area remains about the same and ET is dominated by E from large expanses of bare ground. In Area 2, E increases substantially in woody plant systems as a result of the loss of herbaceous cover in intercanopy spaces. Area 3 is a transition zone (no further changes in T are being caused b woody plants, and herbaceous vegetation still dominates intercanopy spaces). In Area 4, differences in T/ET are due to increased T by shrubs (shrubs are using ‘‘extra’’ water that, in a grassland system, would become groundwater recharge)."

Monday, January 04, 2010

the Virtual Environmentalist

Or as the computer scientist and visual artist Jonathan Harris puts it, "Instead of fleeing to the forest, we must find the humanity in the machine and learn to love it. If we decide humanity does not yet exist there in the ways we expect, then we must create it.”

idea: death of environmentalism versus Paul Hawkens Blessed Unrest : How the largest social movement in history...

"The trouble with the future," said the American humorist Arnold H. Glasow, "is that it usually arrives before we’re ready for it."

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Radical, Idealist, or Realist?

The environmental movement is made up of radicals, idealists, and realists. Let's briefly examine each type:

Radicals seek fundamental change of the system. They believe environmental goals cannot be realized without deep socio-economic-political changes, and thus tend to be anti-corporate. Winning individual short-term battles is less important to them than changing the world in the long term. Many feel that the ends justify the means. The best radicals suppress emotion to implement their strategy.

Idealists are usually altruistic. They view the world from a very moral and/or ethical perspective, with individual responsibility and example paramount. They are emotionally involved and believe the ends never justify the means.

Realists view the world as a poker game--the cards are dealt and you do the best you can with your hand. Their actions focus on the short term. Although they believe the ends can often justify the means, they prefer to work within the system. They can live with trade-offs and do not seek radical change, if for no other reason than they see it as unobtainable.

Some examples may help to clarify these categories. Earth First! was founded by radicals and is now dominated by idealists. The Sierra Club has a membership of idealists and a staff of realists. Greenpeace is idealistic with some radical tendencies but not to the extent of the Sea Shepherd Society.

To stretch the “boat-rocking” analogy, realists want to help steer the boat, however small the change of course; idealists would rather the boat not move at all if it doesn't turn far enough in the right direction; and radicals would just as soon capsize the boat."

From Andy Kerr

See also a more in-depth analysis of activist types.

Friday, January 01, 2010

observations of a future world

there are apartment complexes (eg Columbus, OH) that have no recycling options, and people do not care. recycling programs have more potential for growth (people throw out enormous amounts of usuable goods and material), but will only increase if there is more incentive to do so.

Currently, it is cheaper to battle environmentalists, dig giant mines in the ground, mash up the rock, and smelt it than it is to pay people for used cans.

people value material goods and conveniences. Any meaningful climate change bill would have to increase the cost of energy and curtail some conveniences, hence it will not be pleasant.

our government will continue to walk the line between coercion and co-option. the tools at the disposal of institutions will continue to outstrip those of the individual. Our society will become more hegemonic, while at the same time providing just enough benefits to convince a plurality of people to cooperate. "just barely good enough, but also the best of many bad choices". meaningful constitutional reform is unlikely: we're stuck with the system and the contingent choices that built it.

some drugs will be legalized, challenges like restoring watersheds may be realized through hard work, schools will be reformed and optimized, health care will have to become more efficient (and cooptive), climate change will continue, aquafers will dry up, forests will burn, new dustbowls will form, money will not always be available to fix the mounting landscape and society-wide environmental woes. toxic pollutants will still be regulated. Species will go extinct, ecosystems will be transformed and homogenized to early-successional, weed-dominated. Opportunities to nip these problems in the bud will be ignored in favor of after-the-fact amelioration. Instead of cutting emisions, we will build levies and canals.

Ecosystem carbon calculus will be used, and ignored. [move beyond shock despair mourning] People will react to the destruction of the saguaro forest with emotion and quick fixes or lines in the sand will be attempted, but what I want to know is what these changes really mean for ecosystems. Will we have to introduce cows to lower the risk of catastrophic fire?

rivers in the southwest will dry up. The Rio Grande's cottonwood Bosque will burn, and the hillsides will be converted to creosote. More people will utilize rain catchment and solar panels. Water may be privatized. (??whatever that means. everyone will buy it at the store)

What are the important issues in restoring watersheds? The science is already known. The difficulties involve marshaling multiple stakeholders (herding cats) to make individually-small, collectively-large actions. Groups like quivira will be important in articulating a positive vision, as will reactive groups like EarthJustice in protecting basic decency. Groups like the Wildlands network also articulate a positive vision, but it is harder to see how humans fit into their landscape.

the future world will be messier, with more going on in a complex matrix. Reality and Virtual will become harder to tell apart, even as more and more make the switch from the former to the latter. How could it get more virtual? when people don't know where paper comes from, or the water from their tap?? Cell phones were a big step, the ability to not see "the clown in the plaza" or the gorilla on the steps. We are already trained by civilization to read signs (signals) rather than observe the world directly. This continuous "reading" will undermine our ability to appreciate the given world and confine us to a new screen-lit virtual, which will rapidly expand in complexity and intrigue to accomodate us.

Genetic engineering will not be contained in time, and weird mutant Sphynx will wander a quasi-post-apocalyptic world.