Friday, December 27, 2013

Two Views of Recent (2000-2012) Forest Fires in the American Southwest

Imaging and recording forest fire extent serves a number of important roles in forest ecology and is also very useful for planning vacations!  (Don't plan to camp in a recently burned forest)  There are now two ways of mapping recent fire locations.
The USFS ForWarn Forest Change Assessment Viewer (FCAV) can visualize fires that burned from 2000-2012 using the Fire Perimeter Layer.
 The Global Forest Change map (GFC) (Hansen et al) is a new tool that shows global forest extent (green),  deforestation (red), and aforestation (blue) and reforestation (purple).  In the high-resolution image above, one can match USFS fire perimeters to the actual burn scars, as well as visualize total forest extent.  Beetle die-off is apparently not apparent in this view.

But why isn't the 2011 Horseshoe Two fire visible? This large stand-replacement fire burned more than 70% of the Chiricahua mountains (look for a green tear-drop shape near the Southern edge of the map above).  It is clearly visible as a red blob in the USFS image, but not in the Global Forest Change map.   It is clearly visible on Landsat images:
Image source.

Zoomed in images show the disparity:

 The USFS viewer shows the entire range as burned area.

But hardly any forest loss is recorded on the GFC map.  Why??

Perhaps the discrepancy is due to burn severity?  Fires do not burn evenly across a landscape, and many regions within a burn perimeter may be only lightly or moderately burned.  

Here is the Horseshoe Two fire burn severity map, clearly showing large areas of high and moderate intensity fire within the burn perimeter:


An important note about the colors shades on the GFC map:  they indicate the percent forest (defined as vegetation over 5m) per grid cell.

This view of the Rodeo-Chediski (2002) fire shows different shades of red, and green.  No regrowth is apparent.

Zooming in all the way to individual pixels shows the different shades.  Assuming the forest loss shades are proportional to the initial forest cover shades, the lightest red colors indicate areas that were 75-100% forest (and now are not forest or are 0-25% forest), the light grey-red indicates areas that were 50-75% forest (and now are not forest or are 0-25% forest), the darker grey-red indicates areas that were 25-50% forest (and now are not forest or are 0-25% forest), and black  indicates areas that are (and continue to be) 0-25% forest.  

What about the 2002 Biscuit fire in the Klamath-Siskyou region....
Purple in the GFC map above may indicate some regrowth (and/or replanting) in the 10 years following the fire.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

New Science of Predator Control: Unexpected (emergent) Outcomes

Predator control has been based on the simplistic thinking that fewer lions or wolves would mean more deer and elk.  Therefore, many states promote over-hunting predators.  Interestingly, recent research from Washington State University's Dr. Wielgus and coworkers has reversed conventional wisdom: "Heavy hunting can result in higher overall density of cougars, increased predation on game, and more frequent conflicts with people -- in short, the exact opposite of what was intended." (quoted in National Geographic, Dec. 2013 "Cougars Make a Comeback")

A Range Overlap of the Pinyon Pines in central AZ

In which mountain range could one find three different U.S. Pinon Pine species (P. cembroides, P. edulis, and P. monophylla)?

Trick question!

Surprisingly, not a major mountain range, but the low hills surround Aravaipa Canyon.  This area may be an important biogeographical linkage between the sky island mountain ranges to the south, dominated by Mexican Pinyon (Pinus cembroides) and the larger mountains to the north, dominated by Pinus edulis.  Pinus monophylla is more of a Colorado plateau and California mountain species, but with weird disjunct populations as far South and East as the Florida mountains near Deming, NM!  

Specimen collection data from SEINet.

BEFORE and AFTER views of the proposed Rosemont Mine

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Rosemont Mine was released Nov. 29th.  In addition to containing thousands of pages detailing the effects of this open pit copper mine on the ecology of the Santa Rita mountains, the report also contains a number of simulated "before-and-after" images of the mine.  

This view shows the Santa Rita mountains as they appear today.

This view shows the Santa Rita mountains after the Rosemont open-pit mine ("preferred alternative").

This is another view of the Santa Rita mountains as they appear today.

This is the same view after the construction of the Rosemont open pit mine ("barrel alternative").

This satellite image shows the site of the proposed Rosemont mine, situated in undisturbed rolling hills on National Forest land.  Grasslands on south- and west-facing slopes give way to oak woodlands on north- and east-facing slopes.  This view is about 5 miles on a side.

This satellite image (taken at the same scale) shows the nearby Sierrita Mine sprawling over the foothills of the Sierrita mountains.  The proposed Rosemont mine would not cover the entire footprint of the gargantuan Sierrita Mine because of the proposed use of compressed tailings piles.  However, in both mines, the main  "pit" is about a mile on a side.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Important Point about Grazing-based Land Restoration

"Allan Savory's holistic resource management [was described] as a "promising option," even though there is no science to back up claims about intensive grazing schemes.  The truth is that grasslands are relatively arid environments, and livestock don't make the grass grow: rain does.  And rain doesn't follow the hoof."
--Jeff Burgess, reader response in the November/December 2013 Nature Conservancy magazine

Addendum:  read this comprehensive response to Allan Savory's claims, or this recent direct rebuttal:

The Savory Method can not green deserts or reverse climate change, Briske, David D., Bestelmeyer Brandon T., Brown Joel R.,Fuhlendorf Samuel D., and H. Polley Wayne , Rangelands, Volume 35, Issue 5, p.72-74, (2013)

and this follow-up:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rosemont Mine and the Scientific Method

In today's Arizona Star Opinion Section, Dr. Ostercamp discusses recent hydrologic research about whether the proposed Rosemont Mine would affect surrounding groundwater levels, and how much.

The upshot?  "More research is needed."  A classic scientific result that, in this case, sides with environmentalists' opposition to the proposed copper mine.  I was interested that this result shows how science often works differently from how most people think. Instead of generating facts to aid society's decisions, normal science (and scientists) thrive on ambiguity, controversy, and the unknowability of the world.

I believe that science, as a human institution, should work this way.  I am deeply suspicious of any scientific field with easy answers and a "97% consensus".  Scientific culture harnesses the creativity, jealousy, and competition inherent in human nature when it is most controversial, when there are a plurality of opinions and accusations.  When I hear that, for example, climate change researchers are united behind the IPCC report, I worry that the incentive structure of that field of science has become corrupted; instead of working to prove each other wrong in order to gain fame and fortune, they have all jumped on the same bandwagon to champion their cause.

In the same way that monopolies are bad for capitalism, unified "consensus statements" are bad for science.  This is not to say that I disagree with the IPCC's conclusions.  In the same way that a monopoly might act in society's interest, the IPCC may well be acting in our best interests.  But without dissent and opposing voices there is no guarantee.  Of course, one might argue that monopolies can be efficient; scientific consensus is necessary to accept what we know and move on.  I agree that arguments and democracy are very inefficient and often only result in stalemate, acrimony, and confusion.  Perhaps the "best" way of running an economy or the scientific method is ultimately a political decision?  

Politically, science (as I have described it in the first and second paragraphs) often argues for the status quo, because any change is inherently unknowable and the amount or "further research" needed is infinite; we can never comprehend everything.  So, in its current manifestation, science plays into the hands of industry when industrial processes are already ongoing: this is why Monsanto's fight for GMOs to be labelled "generally recognized as safe" and widely disseminated is so important.  Science would have argued for limitless further testing if GMOs were acknowledged to be a legitimately novel subject of study.  Conversely, science plays into the hands of environmentalists whenever new industrial projects are proposed.  In the case of the proposed Rosemont Mine, scientists would need to comprehensively understand the geology, hydrology, ecology, and meteorology of the entire Santa Rita mountains, if not the county and beyond, before being able to pass judgement on the effects of the mine.

But what about situations where environmentalists and industry would like to work together to advance some project for the good of society?  For example, thinning projects on national forests are badly needed prevent continuing damage to watersheds and ecosystems, as well as human life and property.  But what can science say about the best way to thin forests?  "Further research is needed..."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Best Public Lands GIS

There are no perfect web viewers for ecological and public land GIS.

ProtectedPlanet is an open-source platform that has the most comprehensive map of special protected areas for the whole world.  In the US, highlights include BLM Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), USFS Research Natural Areas, Special Botanical Areas, etc. has the best index of free online topo maps, and their database is searchable for mountain ranges and peaks (Google often can't find geographic features).

SEINet is fast becoming the most comprehensive botanical specimen map database in the world, with new collections constantly expanding their coverage.

Wundermap has many useful features, including a better display of, for example, USGS's Stream Gauge Network, as well as weather and sea surface temperature.

I'm still trying to decide if the Forest Service's ForWarn system, or their Disturbance Mapper, is a better way to view forest fire, insect infestation, and phenology data.  Both are slow and clunky as of this writing.

As reported in the Arizona Daily Star, desert Bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the Catalina Mountains yesterday after a nearly 15 year absence. The Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee has been working on the project for a number of years and has conducted public outreach to explain and defend the program. This is one of dozens of projects conducted across the state and the southwest.  Habitat structures are built by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society Volunteers:
   While some have questioned whether the project will be a success, there are many who think it is worth a try.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Living with Fire in Northern New Mexico: Fire, Forests, and Communities

Dr. Bob Parmenter presented data from some of our post-Las Conchas fire recovery monitoring.  Craig Allen gave two talks about culture and climate change over the last ~1,000 years.

Slides and videos from the presentations have not been posted yet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

New Yorker article fails to fact-check

A recent article in the New Yorker magazine features a profile of a the Climate Company, which offers individualized weather prediction services to farmers.  Unfortunately, the article makes a number of unfounded or vague assertions, and in some places is so boosterish of the new company that it veers into puff piece journalism.

A balanced review of the company's claims would better serve readers, and a more in-depth review of the science might help explain why.

For example, the article by Michael Specter, claims that

"If you are trying to decide whether to take an umbrella to work, the National Weather Service provides the kind of information you need. But the data, often taken from readings at local airports, are nearly useless for anyone who needs to gauge constantly changing conditions in the soil and the atmosphere."

But the NWS does offer zip-code specific weather readings and predictions.   While it would be great to have even better location-specific data, such a monitoring system is yet to be implemented.

"One of the company’s principal sources is Nexrad, or Next Generation Radar, a network of a hundred and fifty-nine Doppler radar stations operated by the National Weather Service. Using data from the system, the Climate Corporation creates moisture and precipitation maps so precise that in some cases a farmer can determine whether the field on one side of a road is wetter than the field on the other side. "

All private companies use NWS radar and satellite information, and are limited by the resolution of this data.  The highest resolution data available is 4 km grid boxes.  

According to local meteorologists, it is not possible to distinguish accumulating precipitation at smaller scales without installing individual weather stations on either side of the road.

"Soil type and quality can vary widely within a county, and even within a single farm field."

This quote is used to imply that the Climate Company has such intra-field soil data, but cannot account for every possible difference in soil texture.  It uses NRCS soil survey data compiled in the 1960's and 1970's for every county in the U.S.  

On their webpage, requests farmers fill in their specific soil type.  There is no high-tech substitute for good old-fashioned soil testing.  

The article also features such gee-whiz promotional quotes as "the algorithm divides the country into nearly half a million plots, then generates ten thousand daily weather scenarios for each of them... It matched that information with reports from two million locations that the National Weather Service scans regularly with Doppler radar."

Again, I spoke to several practicing meteorologists who were not sure how these absurdly large and contradictory numbers were computed.  Their best guess was that is counting the same location more than once, for each radar beam, or that they are counting different layers in the atmosphere as different "locations."  

Alternately, these discrepancies may be misquotes on the part of the author that were not picked up by New Yorker fact checkers.   

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cremation is a major source of black carbon

Original Press Release.  News article.  Burning is central to human life, and many human after-lifes.  Unfortunately, smoldering fires release soot and toxic compounds which degrade air quality, accelerate snow melt, and warm the climate.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Four of my Favorite Characteristic New Mexico Shrubs

Chilopsis linearis, Desert Willow.  In landscaping, this large-flowered shrub will flower for almost half the year.  It is a dependable riparian tree that can survive in washes that are too hot and dry for cottonwood.

Forestiera pubescens.  New Mexico Privet.  Native shrub in the Olive family can form thickets at the base of canyon walls and along upper benches above rivers.  Birds prize the berries almost as much as the non-native Russian Olive.

Lycium pallidum.  Pale Wolfberry.  Lyciums are widespread in the Southwestern deserts, and Lycium pallidum is the most widespread.  Goji berries are Lycium barbarum (nonnative), and Lycium pallidum has been cultivated for its fruit for 1,000s of years.  The trumpet-shaped flowers attract Sphyngid Hawkmoths and Hummingbirds.  

Robinia neomexicana.  New Mexico Robinia, Fabaceae.  Despite its rapacious thorns, this plant made my list for its tenacity and abundance across a range of habitats.  From riparian area in the South to Ponderosa hillsides in the North, Robinia provides abundant pink blossoms and herbaceous cover. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What does a natural forest fire look like in the Southwest?

What is "natural"?  Ecologists use the range of natural variability to define proper functioning condition (PFC) or minimally disturbed condition (MDC), etc (in the jargon of ecologists -- basically, what was it like before we mucked it up?)  The question is surprisingly hard to answer.

Tom Swetnam has been quoted drawing a distinction between burn severity (high-intensity burns are natural) and extent (but high-severity burns across large landscapes are not natural).  These statements are part of an ongoing debate that, like many debates in ecology, may be dependent on local factors.  

In Arizona, Dr. Wally Covington became famous for championing open park-like Ponderosa forests.  Indeed, many landscapes are dominated by frequent low-intensity grass fires that clear out underbrush and young trees.  But at longer time scales it seems equally clear that these same forests can catastrophically burn.  This has been pointed out by Dr. Baker's work in Arizona, and by Dr. Grant Meyer in Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.  More evidence is not hard to find.  For example, a study of the geomorphology of the Rio Cebolla river in the Jemez Mountains noted extensive sediments with large burned logs indicative of high severity fire in what must have been extensive headwater areas. 

Dendrochronologists  often focus on the last 1,000 years, whereas geomorphologists have a much larger picture, often spanning not just this interglacial, but also the last several ice ages.  (CF Great Basin Riparian Ecosystems by Miller and Chambers et al)

Fires are transformative, but both more and less impactful than commonly thought.  They accelerate and are accelerated by climate change.  Most large fires are not as bad as news reports indicate -- they are bananzas for wildlife and fire-dependent trees and shrubs like aspen and oak.

Most "megafires" aren't really managed with a full suppression strategy, but a containment strategy -- still not 'let-burn' but pretty close.  Unfortunately, suppression and containment efforts can be as damaging as fire.  

Whether or not fires are natural, the inevitable question is raised as to whether humans can restore the environment better or faster than natural succession would?  This is a loaded question, because of the salvage logging controversy.  One logger expressed confusion about why thinning before a fire is justified, but salvage logging after isn't.  But either may be ineffective in preventing the next conflagration.  If ERC is high enough and there is enough ventilation, anything will burn, even the Olympic Peninsula rainforest! (Cf Dr. Gavin's ESA talk)

Friday, September 27, 2013

History and Philosophy of Science

The current AGW debate (new 2013 IPCC report versus skeptical community embodied in NIPCC and mirrors the dynamic described in Leviathan and the Vacuum pump: two groups of men, both claiming to create knowledge and decide what is true for the rest of society.  One is composed of men of authority and credentials, the other composed of coffee-shop debaters and home-experimentalists.  In the 1600's,  the powerful men created knowledge to bolster the monarchy, while they feared the upstart debaters as crypto-revolutionaries.  Today, powerful scientists create knowledge to create societal demand for their power and knowledge, while they fear the "deniers".

(I first read Leviathan and the Vacuum Pump (about Hobbes' and Boyle's argument) in a History of Science course with Dr. Andre Wakefield at the Clarement Colleges.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Staying Realistic About Prescribed Burns

"In my 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service, I've worked on a number of prescribed burns.  In recent years they have become a popular thing to do.  In the flurry of burning stuff, the question we need to ask is not, "how many acres should be burned? But rather, "did the burn have the desired effect?" If the fire was to remove fuels and burn dead logs, did it replace that heavy fuel with waist-high weeds, brush and grasses -- more dangerous flash fuels?

Fire can be an excellent tool, but I think there are other tools that better manage certain public lands.  There are some places that are too valuable to risk a blackened landscape."
-Bob Damson response in The Nature Conservancy's September/October 2013 magazine.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Under-reported Stable Fire, Jemez Mountains New Mexico

We have been getting some smoke the past couple weeks from an under-reported fire, about 5 miles West of Jemez Springs.  The Stable Fire was started by a lightening storm on Stable Mesa.  From radio traffic, it sounds like the Forest Service is using the fire as an opportunity to introduce low-intensity controlled burns (= forest restoration) to a few hundred acres of forest around the fire.  More info.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Friday, July 12, 2013

Regolith and Quarternary Sedimentology: questions to infer paleogeomorphology and paleoclimate

This image was taken along Las Huertas creek, near the village of Placitas.  Note the lack of developed soil horizons: the top layers appear to be unconsolidated colluvial debris.   Perhaps the sandstone layers below the Juniper roots are paleo-sand dunes?  What then might the different colors indicate?

This image and the following were taken along La Jencia creek, deeply incised into Pleistecene and Holocene sediments in the San Lorenzo Spring quandrangle west of Socorro, NM.    The layers exposed along the creek channel show darker clay and/or organic-enriched layers that may have formed from swamps and/or backwaters along paleochannels.
Screenshot of the Quandrangle geological map, with a red dot on La Jencia creek showing the location of the photos.
This exposure reveals an unconformity in the left-center that may be due to in-filling of a paleo channel?  Does this images show an actual unconformity, with deposition, then erosion, then deposition? Or was there continuous deposition? Why is there banding of light and dark material in such regular layers?  How were these layers laid down?  Does the fact that they were deposited indicate an aggrading landscape, perhaps controlled by climate-influenced sediment supply??

This photos shows a close-up of a tiny (5-foot long) layer of darker clay, clearly deposited in a concavity.  Note the coarser sediment deposited below it and the finer sediment above.  How old are these layers?  How do geologists infer the direction of paleoflow?  Why aren't there fossils?

Surface geology maps of the area offer confusing clues to interpreting these buried layers.  The geological map for the quandrangle to the North of San Lorenzo Springs (the Silver Creek quandrangle) shows paleochannel flows on the surface, as well as relictual dunes from some point in the Quarternary.  Why are the paleochannel flows going every which way?  Was this whole valley a closed basin, and if so, would that explain the aggradation, independent of sediment supply?  Why is this stream downcutting so rapidly today?  What are the implications for the future?

Riparian Restoration Quandary

Plants along rivers face a basic quandary: the closer to the channel they grow, the more water they have.  But, closer to the channel, there is more disturbance from flooding.

  • Is this a healthy/unhealthy stream bank?
  • Is it in need of restoration?

It has:
  • invasive species
  • sparse vegetation
  • obviously eroding banks....

It might be important to ask: What is bankfull here? 

It might also be important to know that this is actually a dry wash, photographed after the first rain in 9 looks grazed, and it is grazed.  By a herd of native Elk, forced out of the uplands by the worst drought in 50 years.

We have to be careful to set our ecological expectations to the history of natural disturbance and the reality of a changing climate.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gaillardia grandiflora

Photomicrograph of an Asteraceae stigma with yellow pollen grains attached.
From this website.

Friday, July 05, 2013

La Jencia Flash Flood!

Moving at about 5 miles per hour (as judged by floating tumbleweed), the front of the flood (visible here with lots of foamy flotsam) made a roaring sound easily audible at the ranch house.  The brunt of the thunderstorm had passed more than half an hour previous.  Based on cross sections of this reach, the flood was only about 30cm deep, and represented a flow of approximately 50 CFS.  This amount of water may be "bankfull": the bank-side sedges were underwater, the willow got their feet wet, and no major channel geomorphic changes occurred. 

Advancing front of flash flood.

 The next day.

 Flooding along old channel where side canyon empties in.  This channel was abandoned in 2009 when the creek cut through a meander bend.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Record Wildfire Risk in Jemez Mountains, June 2013

Energy Release Component (ERC) measures the available energy of a forest fire.  The number represents the potential heat release, based on the dryness and amount of fuels present.  An updated (as of 6/27/2013) chart shows that, even compared to previous drought years, this year's ERC continues to hit record levels. 

It is worth noting that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the Las Conchas fire, which burned more than 44,000 acres in 13 hours, or about an acre a second!  The blue line for 2011 shows that the ERC during that time was only 80-90% of current ERC values.  The Las Conchas fire burned so explosively that fuels were preheated and vaporized ahead of the actual fire front.  These superheated gasses then burned several hundred feet above the canopy fire.  Under such conditions, there may not be "defensible space," as all-metal structures in the middle of clearings were destroyed by the burning gases.