Monday, June 04, 2018

Environmental Forensics

Anasazi Indian petroglyph. 
"Every contact leaves a trace." Those are the words of French criminologist, Dr. Edmund Locard, regarded as a pioneer in forensic science. Regarding a criminal, Locard stated, "Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him." Fingerprints, footprints, hair, fibers, scratches, broken glass, all of these are factual evidence, however trace they may be.  A prized piece of evidence is the fingerprint. Like DNA, each human has a unique print, a unique pattern of arches, loops, and whorls. Get a good fingerprint at a crime scene and you have identified a criminal.
There are traces of human contact in the desert southwest. There, the Anasazi Indians marked their dwellings. Some marks were fingerprints impressed in the mud chinking, others were red and white handprints slapped on high rock walls. One mark that appears regularly across the barren, silent landscape is a single whorl, carved in stone or painted onto rocks.
Today, there are green lawns in this desert landscape, apparently a sign of wealth and prosperity, but closer inspection reveals that the lawn is sprayed with a water-based green paint. Lawn dye. Grass paint. Who would have thought? From all appearances, it is a lush, prosperous lawn, but that is not the case.  
This leads to a realization: When we measure the condition of the landscape, it is valuable to compare the current wildlife condition, its population and range, to that which existed in pre-settlement days, what is sometimes called Pre-Columbian North America. This means that we need to look at what we see and what we don't see. 
What we see: Looking across the vast agricultural landscape today, the wealth of mammal and bird stock may lead one to conclude that the current condition is a thriving animal community, vigorous, teeming, healthy. But, upon closer inspection, we find that the fauna is dominated by domestic and introduced animals. In the United States, for example, there are about 95 million cattle, 68 million pigs, 5 million sheep, 9 billion chickens, 230 million turkeys, and, we might add, 120 million housecats and 90 million dogs. This list does not include the millions of Norway rats, city-dwelling mammals that appear to have assumed the role of a keystone species in the current commercial ecosystem and which are now quite able, through natural selection and the wonders of a sturdy western diet and untreated hormonal waste, to attain to the size of a healthy newborn human. We assume that the breast meat accounts for most of this weight. Nor do we mention concentrated animal feeding operations used to raise these animals. 
What we don't see: The majority of the original North American herds and flocks are, in comparative reality, extinct. In a previous blog we tallied some of the Pre-Columbian herds and flocks. The archetypal example is the American bison. Numbering some 40 million animals, it once had a range of 4,500,000 square miles, from Mexico into northern Canada, the Great Basin Desert to the Appalachian Mountains. Today, 500,000 bison occupy about 55,000 square miles, about 1.2% of the original range, all of which is in preserves, ranches, and other confined space, and "in no place express the full range of ecological and social values of previous times" (Sanderson, et. al, 2008). This map is from Willliam Hornaday's The Extermination of the American Bison, published in 1889. The whorls of colored lines show the gradual collapse of the herd. At its nadir, only 541 bison remained. This was not natural selection at work. 
Similar maps can be presented for hundreds of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants that have experienced an extreme reduction in population and range over the past 250 years.
There is a lesson in this: Just because a plant is green does not mean it is thriving. The same is true with natural ecosystems. Just because it is green or because it is teeming with animals does not mean it is thriving. The abundance of vegetation or animals alone does not indicate the actual condition of the landscape.
This becomes a pattern. As bison are a component of a herd, the herd is a component of an ecosystem. Thus, as falls the bison, so falls the prairie. Similar maps can be presented for many ecosystems that have experienced an extreme reduction in range over the past 250 years. Tallgrass prairie, prairie potholes, Great Lakes alvars, Oregon wet prairies, California vernal pools. It is difficult to project that the commercial ecosystems that have displaced the native ecosystems will escape the same retraction of range, given that they depend upon natural resources in one way or another. This concentric line pattern has become our collective fingerprint, the anthropogenic signature.
Meanwhile, research led by scientists at the University of Wyoming showed a 2% reduction in the size of trophy horns and antlers for 14 species of big game in North America. The study attributes this to hunting selection for trophy male animals (Monteith, et. al., 2013). While considering that fact, we are confronted with a complication: in certain parts of the United States, the illegal taking of wildlife now equals or exceeds the number of animals taken legally (Musgrave, et. al., 1993). This is not natural selection at work.
So this proves to be a volatile mixture. The ability to degrade our environment coupled with the willingness to break laws governing our environment, both man-made and natural, results in a precipitous decline of individuals, groups, and systems. That is to say, as a species, we have left our fingerprint: A series of concentric rings around an empty space. 

Musgrave, Ruth S., Sara Parker, Miriam Wolok. 1993. The Status of Poaching in the United States - Are We Protecting Our Wildlife? Natural Resources Journal. 
Monteith, Kevin L.,  Ryan A. Long  Vernon C. Bleich  James R. Heffelfinger  Paul R. Krausman R. Terry Bowyer. 2013. Effects of harvest, culture, and climate on trends in size of horn‐like structures in trophy ungulates. Wildlife Monographs.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Teepee Grass Exclosure, Little Missouri National Grasslands, ND. Photo 9/15/08.Exclosures are plots of land that have barriers that prevent certain species from entering the plot. In western North America, the excluded species are usually domestic grazing animals such as cattle, horses, and sheep. In scientific studies, an exclosure is established as a baseline to which the rest of the surrounding landscape can be compared. This, in turn, shows the effects of grazing or browsing animals upon the environment. In centuries past, the barriers were made of stones and wood but this changed with the invention and mass production of barbed wire in the late 1800's. 
There are many exclosures in western North America. Some examples: The Lamar Exclosure is in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, east of the Lamar Ranger Station on the north side of Lamar Valley. Established in 1957 to restrict shrub browsing by elk and pronghorn antelope, the exclosure saw an increase in diversity, size, and range of shrub species over the decades. Today, the exclosure contains a grove of quaking aspen; only aspen seedlings are found outside of the exclosure. This aspen suppression is attributed to herbivory, the browsing of elk. Then there is the Quinn exclosure, southwest of Quinn, South Dakota on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. It was set on a north-facing side slope in mixed-grass prairie. Today, the exclosure hosts a thicket of chokecherry, plum, green ash, buffaloberry and other shrubs while outside of the exclosure, where cattle graze, grasses and forbs dominate and few shrubs are found. The Flagstaff Exclosure is on the Lewis and Clark National Forest south of Checkerboard, Montana, in the Castle Mountains. Dense tufts of rough fescue comprise 50% of the cover in this exclosure while outside of the exclosure, where cattle graze, rough fescue comprises only 6% of the cover. This is a recurring theme. 
Originally, North America was open range. Herds of wild animals were free to migrate. In the late 1800's, the bison and other ungulates were virtually exterminated and replaced with European cattle. The cattle occupied the bison niche and, at first, were free to migrate like the bison. However, as farming operations were established, cattle encroached on the farms and ate the crops. Disputes arose. Farmers and cattlemen fought over land rights. This gave rise to the need for fencing to exclude the cattle. Wood and stones were scarce and expensive, so the relatively inexpensive, newly invented barbed wire was strung across the open range. This conflict simmered for years and many of you may recall that it boiled over on the set of the movie Oklahoma when a brutal fistfight erupted between farmers and cowmen, a grisly spectacle made all the more horrific as the bystanders - women, children, and the elderly - heartened the brawlers with festive music and dancing. 
This land is my land. 
They sang:

The farmer and the cowman should be friends.

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.

They should, but would not. Now, this fight was not sanctioned by any athletic federation and, as a result, there was no boxing ring. There are three ropes around a boxing ring, much like the wires on a barbed wire fence, however, there are no barbs on the ropes and none are electrified at this time. Why the ropes? A newcomer to the spectacle might reason that the purpose of the ring is to prevent the boxers from escaping and beating up the people in the audience. Another might reason that it is to keep the audience from storming the ring and beating up the contestants, much like European soccer. So the fans debate: Which directional movement do the ropes prevent, into the ring or out of the ring?  
This helps us to understand where the Louisiana Territory settlement went wrong. Which directional movement do fences prevent? Originally, fences were strung to exclude grazing animals, preventing animals from assaulting the croplands. But this changed with the expansion of agricultural lands; fences were strung to include grazing animals, both wild an domestic. In the case of wild animals, especially bison and pronghorn antelope, they were always included or confined to a relatively small, relatively wild preserve, which prevented humans from assaulting the animals. Thus, the function of the barrier inverted, from exclusion to inclusion, reversing flow like the mighty Chicago River. This has created a plethora of rural zoos across the globe, caged wildlife zones, animal enclaves, where wild animals are not free to migrate and, at best, are managed much like cattle, manually rotated from pasture to pasture or culled when they escape or exceed grazing capacity. 
Those three exclosures shown in the photos, they are exclosures within exclosures, really, and they have demonstrated that the animals in the greater exclosure are exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. In recent decades, we have observed the ascent of another species that has rapidly exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, expanding its range, population, and consumption at an unsustainable rate, eliminating other species and habitats and degrading ecosystem health. It ranges across all barriers, is found in every partition. We would propose an enclosure for this species, to allow recovery of the remnant ecology and free range of wild animals, but it owns the patent for the barbed wire and we would expect that the species, finding itself competing within a confined space, would resort to blows.

Friday, April 13, 2018


Flock of Sandhill Cranes at Rowe Sanctuary, on the Platte River in Nebraska. April 8, 2018
Dawn, erupting. This morning there were about 70,000 cranes in the flock. At the peak of this migration, there were 650,000 cranes at the sanctuary. This breezy, chilly morning, they were roosting in the river, standing idly on sandbars and sandy shallows squawking to one another. 
About an hour after sunrise, the birds at the western end broke ranks and flew. This initiated a wave of bird flight that washed over the entire flock of roosting birds, covering 8,000 feet in two minutes. You can watch it here
This may remind one of an Esther Williams water ballet or a college football card stunt. Maybe it can explain how it is possible that elderly knitters can form a mob and proceed to burn down an entire business district and loot all the appliance stores. Like these cranes, at dusk, they settle into their wingback chairs and knit until dawn. 
This is how that can be: Regarding great works of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright once stated, "Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." This is true in the case of the individual crane - or any bird, mammal, fish, reptile, amphibian, insect, or plant, for that matter. They are all at the intersection of science and art, a sweet spot, electrifying the mind and heart.  
A mob emerging.
(© Daily Herald Archive)
But once 70,000 individual cranes are aloft, the individual cranes vanish, subsumed into the flock. They cohere, become a unit, and this becomes another entity, a new creature with 70,000 organs. Confined in space, with discreet boundaries, and moving in unison, it behaves like a mile-long cobra, a sprinting cheetah, a Shastriya Nritya dancer, or a seething mob of Molotov cocktail-throwing octogenarians.
This is called Emergence. This organismic property of flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals, and swarms of insects is a property that is not shared with the individual members of the group. It arises or emerges from the interaction of the members. This is one of those constructs where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Here, the added energy is from interactions between the parts. 
As the science goes, the members of the flock, herd, school, or swarm follow certain rules, namely, Separation, Cohesion, and Alignment. 
Separation: They keep a certain distance from one another, like birds on a wire or passengers on a plane flight. 
Cohesion: At the same time, they steer toward the average position of their neighbors, keeping a certain closeness to one another, which maintains boundaries and group identity. This we are able to perceive, it is ostensive. 
Alignment: Each moves in the same average direction. 
Following these rules of interaction, the result is an elevated state, a higher being, the organic shape that moves across the sky like a giant flying snake. In turn, this electrifies humans, who, in turn, feverishly churn out photographs, paintings, and grandiose prose. 
Emergent beings were once common in North America. On April 18, 1804, near the confluence of Corvus (American) Creek and the Missouri River, south of Oacoma, South Dakota, an electrified Merriwether Lewis stood on high ground and wrote these words:

This plane extends with the same bredth from the creek below to the distance of near three miles above parrallel with the river, and is intirely occupyed by the burrows of the barking squril hertefore discribed; this anamal appears here in infinite numbers, and the shortness and virdue [verdure] of grass gave the plain the appearance throughout it's whole extent of beatifull bowlinggreen in fine order...a great number of wolves of the small kind, halks and some pole-cats were to be seen...The surrounding country had been birnt about a month before and young grass had now sprung up to hight of 4 Inches presenting the live green of the spring. this senery already rich pleasing and beatiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be compreed at one view to amount to 3000.

A great naturalist, not a spelling bee champion. The numbers vary, but it is estimated that, prior to European settlement, North America had forty million bison, forty million pronghorn antelope, ten million elk, two million bighorn sheep, one billion prairie dogs, billions of Passenger Pigeons. Today, there are a half-million bison, one million antelope, one million elk, seventy-thousand bighorn sheep, twenty million prairie dogs, and no Passenger Pigeons. Similar sharp declines can be shown for American Golden Plover, Red Knot, Sage Grouse, fifteen bat species, wolverines, fishers, pine martens, grizzlies, wolves, and many more. 
Imperiled species, thousands of them, are listed with various environmental organizations - Red List, Working List, Natural Heritage Inventory, Endangered Species List. But we find no Emergents on any of these lists. No mention of threatened or extinct herds, flocks, schools, swarms. Resource agencies may refer to "herd management" but rarely does it consider emergent properties. Lowered expectations, apparently. This is not a surprise; when Lewis scanned the horizon, there were no fences, roads, cities, transmission lines, dams, livestock, or croplands to thwart herd, school, swarm, or flock behavior. Emergence hadn't been obstructed.  
So it is, as the Sandhill Crane habitat shrinks, and flock behavior is restricted, we don't expect to see the Sandhill Crane Flock make any Red List. Poor folks, they don't have a union and management sure doesn't seem to care.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Cumulative Effects

Pipeline and road scars. Western ND. Aerial photograph from Google Earth. 
The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40, Chapter V, Part 1508.7 defines "cumulative impact" as "the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions...Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time."

The above photo displays the cumulative effect of a dozen ground-disturbing projects upon a 60-acre parcel of mixed-grass prairie in western North Dakota over the course of 70 years. It is likely that, as each project came up for consideration, someone determined that the action would have a minor impact on the landscape. But in aggregate, the twelve projects resulted in a major impact upon the landscape; persistent scars indicate widespread habitat degradation, corridors for invasive species, erosion, failed prairie regeneration, loss of biodiversity, loss of species, loss of original ecosystem components, loss of original ecosystem characteristics, and so forth.

This may bring to mind a tragedy in New York City, 1933.

That year, a 50-foot tall gigantic, semi-humanoid gorilla scaled the Empire State Building and took on modern civilization, swinging his powerful arms at the sky. Four Curtiss F8C-5/O2C-1 Helldivers, a 1920's Marine Corps biplane, swarmed the prehistoric ape and fired upon him with their .303-caliber Lewis guns, two fixed forward firing guns and one flexible rear cockpit gun. While the .303-caliber bullet was designed to kill humans, against a simian of that size, each bullet would be proportional to a .038-caliber bullet fired at a six-foot man. That's about the width of a mechanical pencil lead.

This is impractical. A war fought with mechanical pencil lead would take hundreds of years to wage, reducing, by comparison, the wars between the Kings of England and the Kings of France to a mere border skirmish, and risking, in theory, a rapid descent into world peace. To overcome this handicap, Kong was assaulted by four biplanes with a total of 12 Lewis guns for nearly three minutes, firing their guns in seventeen one-second bursts. As many as 170 rounds of ammunition may have penetrated his shimmering latex and rabbit-fur hide. One bullet alone wouldn't kill him, but the cumulative effect of 170 rounds had a significant, lethal impact. Bleeding badly, Kong tumbled from the spire and landed at the intersection of 5th Avenue and West 33rd Street, where a drug store and hair styling salon stand today.

Thus, cumulative effects are like biplanes swarming King Kong. One project alone may not carry enough firepower to adversely impact an ecosystem or population. But dozens, hundreds, or thousands of these projects may have enough collective firepower to have a significant lethal impact. The population or ecosystem may hemorrhage, weaken, and tumble to its death.

This collectivism can be hard to see. Sometimes an assessment that determines that a given project will have no significant impacts may be compiled in ignorance, without awareness of previous, current, or future projects that impact the same area. Some may say that this would be as if the four F8C pilots did not know of each other's existence, but the analogy falls apart when one realizes that pilots didn't set out to wound Kong, extract some essential bodily fluids, then let him heal up, rather, they intended to kill Kong.

Well, this leads us into a protracted debate about our legacy of unintended and unanticipated consequences, that we just can't know every past, present, and future impact around us, nor can we know the sum total of these impacts - a sum that is growing daily and is significantly greater than the sum of its parts - but with a long history of battling beasts to extinction, we have to wonder if it's beauty that is killing the beasts or if our beauty is only skin deep.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Point of Failure

Nurse Log. Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, WA. Photo Taken 9/4/15.

Trees growing out of trees. That old, dead tree lying on the ground that supports the newer trees is called a Nurse Log, as in, it nurses the young trees until they can stand on their own. Many old trees started out as young trees growing out of old trees.

The wheel, the pulley, the inclined plane, screw, wedge, lever, these were early machines. In the beginning, they were simple, made of wood, stone, or raw metals. Today, machines are usually elaborate complexes or systems of these simple machines. An example would be a jet engine.

In a system or machine, there are points at which failure can occur. Some points are more prone to failure than others and some points are more critical than others. Some points of failure will stop the entire machine. These are called Single Points of Failure. This is an undesirable state; such a machine is highly vulnerable to total system failure. Imagine a jet engine flywheel breaking apart and slicing through the hydraulic lines while cruising at 40,000 feet.

The ideal is to create redundancies, that is, to duplicate critical functions within the machine. That way, if one function fails, a duplicate function takes over and the machine can continue to operate. That is one reason a passenger jet has multiple engines. This is important while travelling eight miles high.

It is also important on the ground. To understand this, we must consider the experience of the mythical Jedediah Clampett. According to the legend, when he discovered crude oil on his property in Limestone Tennessee, it came to the surface under its own power. A small hole punched in the ground by an errant bullet provided relief to the pressurized oil trapped underground. Why, it flowed out of the hole like water from a garden hose and the bubbling crude made old Jed a millionaire.

At that point in time, his machine for oil extraction was no more than a shovel. A shovel is a simple machine, just a wooden handle, a pin, and a blade. It acts as a wedge and lever. Each is a Single Point of Failure. One of those breaks and the tool is useless and Jed is unable to gather any oil. He tosses the handle into the woods, drops to his knees, scoops the oil with a flat rock, and gently eases back into the Stone Age.

Today, it is unusual to find an oil field that pours from the ground under artesian pressures. Most of the new oil is found at the margins of extractability: in shale, sand, offshore, deepwater. A shovel will not do. It requires an exceedingly complex machine, a myriad of pipes, valves, gauges, wires, alarms, switches, and sensors. The possible points of failure become innumerable. The Single Points of Failure also increase, requiring a complex arrangement of redundant functions. However, this increases the risk of total system failure and a calamity. In the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there were numerous points at which failure occurred - a blowout preventer, two mechanical valves, one battery, one gas alarm, a defective switch, and human oversight - all of which conspired to create a total system failure. Eleven lives were lost, 4.9 million barrels of crude poured into the Gulf of Mexico, and 52,590 tons of mangled metal settled to the bottom of the Gulf. This was just one machine. The planet is littered with millions of broken machines; in landfills, backyards, war zones, junkyards, garages, parking lots, sealed in concrete bunkers, ravines, at the bottom of the sea, tumbling in earth orbit. What to do?

A tree is a machine. A large tree functions as a water pump, oxygen generator, carbon sink, weather moderator, fog filter, windbreak, birdhouse, soil stabilizer, food source, to name a few. As with other machines, at some point, it experiences a total system failure, whether it's from drought, insects, lightning, windthrow, climate shift, fungus, landslide, overshading, hydrologic changes. Add them up and there are millions of failure points in a tree. Yet these provide opportunities for other living things. Spring ephemerals take advantage of fall leaf failure and prosper in the abundant spring sunlight. Microorganisms on forest floor take advantage of needle failure and turn them into nutrients. Campers take advantage of branch failure and roast marshmallows. Insects and birds take advantage when the whole tree fails and build apartments. Other trees take advantage of a fallen tree and drop their seeds into the rotting carcass where they germinate and thrive. Trees grow out of failed trees. This machine is designed to fail.

Fail as they may, we have searched the newspapers and it is very difficult to find accounts of massive explosions, tragic loss of life and limb, toxic chemical spill, or power grid failure associated with the death of a tree, despite millions of them occurring every year since the late Carboniferous period.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Minimum Viable Population

Distribution of Prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) in a portion of Ransom County, ND. 
Map from a 2008 report. 
This is a federally threatened species. In a given year, there may be 10-20,000 specimens in existence, distributed across 45 counties. This is a drastic decline from pre-settlement populations, which enjoyed vast expanses of tallgrass prairie habitat. Today, that habitat is one of the rarest in North America.

While 10-20,000 plants in 45 counties may sound like a lot, it is not. Here is why: Species have what are called Minimum Viable Populations (MVP), or extinction thresholds. These are population numbers below which they spiral into extinction. Below this threshold, the effects of inbreeding, loss of genetic variability, or loss of mating opportunities are fatal to the population. They go extinct.

There have been attempts to establish a universal MVP; in the 1980's it was suggested that at least 50 individuals were needed to prevent inbreeding and 500 individuals were needed to prevent genetic drift. Genetic drift is the change in frequency of a particular gene variant, which can be devastating if that frequency is a decline or loss of frequency. Which is to say, a loss of genetic diversity, a capacity to express traits that may be needed in a given environment. This is called a shrinking gene pool. 

But those threshold numbers, while somewhat useful, are persistently impractical because reproductive rates, existing genetic diversity, and habitat requirements vary from species to species. Consider: Those of us who have been ushered into the Space Age are aware that we are now able to look back at ourselves from a distant vantage point. A nighttime view from 223 miles above the earth shows the arrangement of human populations, bright, lighted clusters of humans with dark, somewhat vacant gaps in between. This satellite view is of the middle of North America. 

As you may have noticed, the populations of Platanthera praeclara, and in fact, most other species, are arranged in a similar way. Rather than being evenly or regularly distributed across the landscape, populations are usually clustered in nodes or centers with gaps of relatively unpopulated land in between. The entire network of lights or population clusters in a given region may be likened to a metapopulation. The arrangement of clusters is largely driven by habitat suitability. For humans, that is rivers, fertile valleys, groundwater, wind protection, coffee shops, trails. 

Removing a population cluster removes their genetic material from the metapopulation. This may be insignificant if there are enough individuals remaining in the metapopulation that contain the same genetic material. But removing many more populations will increase the risk that vital genetic material is removed from the entire metapopulation. Thus, most people understand that the total number of species must be maintained at a high level. 

However, here is where the total numbers can mislead, as in 10-20,000 orchids or 370 black-footed ferrets or 25,000 Red Knots. Back to the satellite photo. Suppose the metapopulation in the photo is 20,000 people. What would happen if all of those remaining populations were cut off from one another, if you removed the corridors between populations, the roads, rivers, railroads, and air routes? The breeding population would be reduced to the population of the city, in this scenario, maybe no more than 1000 people. The population would become like the inhabitants of a walled city surrounded by siege engines. This forces consanguineous marriage, prohibits the exchange of genetic material with outside populations, creating a community much like the royal families of ancient times. Gigantic jaws, cartoon character hands, flowerpot-shaped heads. In this scenario, the effective population is not the metapopulation, it is the individual population cluster. They are restricted to their own shallow, stagnant gene pool, sluggish, in a torpor, each generation less fit than the last. As the catapults fling blighted cattle over the walls, the inhabitants of the besieged city succumb to plague, infertility, reproductive failure, and loss of mates. Extinction approaches on fused feet. 

The lesson? This teaches us that it is not enough to consider total population numbers, it is necessary to consider the access one population has to another. This means corridors - suitable habitat patches connecting populations - are essential in maintaining an MVP.

In the end, the niches are filled, the city is reinhabited, and soon there is a bustling metropolis teeming with cane toads, mongoose, brown tree snakes, Norway rats, Asian carp, feral pigs, water hyacinth, and a broad spectrum of strip malls. At the moment, humans appear to have the genetic diversity needed to adapt to these threats. In the meantime, however, the orchids, ferrets, and Knots cannot interpret aerial photography; they have no idea what approaches their city walls.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Carbon Fingerprint

Lignite Coal.
Decaying blocks of black coal along the bank of the Missouri River, McKenzie County, ND. Photo 7/15/13

This coal is from a geologic stratum called the Sentinel Butte Formation. Lignite is a soft, brownish coal with fewer calories and more moisture than other coals, making it an intermediary between peat and bituminous or anthracite coal. The Sentinel Butte Formation is from the late Paleocene Epoch in the early Cenozoic Era. This epoch began after the C-T extinction event, which marked the extinction of dinosaurs and the advent of mammals. It is old. 
It has been observed that that plains Indians did not burn much of this coal, nor did the Corps of Discovery as they sailed by these bluffs two hundred years ago. It was in 1804 that William Clark remarked that the coal was of "inferior quality." Their fuel of choice was firewood cut from the cottonwood, ash, elm, and juniper trees that were plentiful along the Missouri River. This is for good reason. The smokes of hickory, mesquite, apple, alder, cherry and other woods have long been popular flavorings in grilled foods, but we have yet to see any food products on the market that advertise "Natural Coal Smoke Flavor", nor do we expect to see any in the near future. The hapless homesteaders did make use of the lignite, perhaps out of the desperation of the times, and by 1939, at the height of the Great Depression, there were some 309 mines operating in North Dakota. But today there are only six coal mines out there and two of those produce oxidized lignite, not for burning. None for food. 
The distinction between coal smoke and wood smoke goes beyond successful backyard bar-b-ques. While coal and wood both originate as plant matter and terminate as fuel, the antiquity of the plant matter accounts for a significant difference in the chemistry of the fuel, a distinct carbon fingerprint. Here is how it works: Humans have a symbiotic relationship with plants. We produce carbon dioxide as waste matter, plants consume carbon dioxide as food. Carbon comes in about 15 sizes, called isotopes. Three are naturally found on earth: C12, C13, and C14. The latter is a radioactive isotope, unstable, formed by cosmic radiation, ultimately decaying into an isotope of Nitrogen. This is a slow deterioration; the half-life of C14 is 5,730 years.
While living, plants incorporate carbon in their tissues and the balance of carbon isotopes in their tissues reflects the balance of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere. When a plant dies, they no longer take in carbon and the carbon that remains in their tissues is fixed, set. From this point, the unstable C14 continues to decay, slowly depleting the dead tissues of C14.  
In the short term, what this means is, when a dead cottonwood limb is thrown into a campfire, and the wind shifts and casts the plume of campfire smoke over the campers, they are inhaling smoke almost fully stocked with busy, buzzing, radioactive C14 atoms. Only a few atoms have been lost to decay. However, when a chunk of Paleocene coal is thrown into a campfire, and the wind shifts and the smoke descends upon the ashen, hacking campers, they inhale a lighter, decadent smoke, one depleted of C14 atoms.
In the mid-term, the empirical evidence is there has been a dramatic increase in carbon in the earth's atmosphere. Currently, we are above 400 ppm. That's a 100% increase since the ice age and a level 25% higher than anything for the past 400,000 years. Where is all that smoke coming from?
The answer is in the chemistry of the carbon. The atmospheric carbon, while increasing in quantity, has been steadily decreasing in C14 in the past century; it is being depleted of C14. This could not be from the burning of firewood or rain forests, grassland or forest fires, or burning other plant matter of recent origin. These would produce smoke that has nearly the full stock of C14, which would not deplete the atmosphere of C14. This must be from the combustion of carbon sources that are depleted in C14. Ancient plant matter has lost its C14 through radioactive decay. Their combustion products lack C14 and thereby deplete the atmosphere of C14. This is the source of the smoke. This is what is called "fossil fuel." Coal, natural gas, petroleum. Old plant matter.
Ah, the smoking gun.
In the long-term, it is estimated that there are over one trillion tons of extractable coal reserves on earth, which would last 150 years at present consumption rates. At the same time, combustion of these reserves in that time frame would contribute to a novel set of environmental conditions on earth. As Foster (2017) states, "Humanity's fossil-fuel use, if unabated, risks taking us, by the middle of the twenty-first century, to values of CO2 not seen since the early Eocene...If CO2 continues to rise further into the twenty-third century, then the associated large increase in radiative forcing, and how the Earth system would respond, would likely be without geological precedent in the last half a billion years."
Without precedent. At which point, all trees may be ancient plant matter, food may grill spontaneously, coal-flavored dishes may be standard fare, and visibility would be reduced to a few smoggy meters. Let us cough. This remodeled earth will have a brand new look, but with a decidedly retro feel. We will name our new home Venus.

Gavin Foster et al. Future climate forcing potentially without precedent in the last 420 million years. Nature Communication. April 2017.

M. S. Baxter and A. Walton. A Theoretical Approach to the Suess Effect. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A. Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Vol. 318, No. 1533 (Aug. 11, 1970), pp. 213-230

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Altered Stream Flow

Sand Shiner. A small fish found in muddy badlands streams. This is from Horse Creek in western McKenzie County, ND. Photo taken 8/11/15.
A few decades ago, there was some debate about the number of words for snow used by inhabitants of the Arctic regions. Some said that Eskimos had 100 words for snow. This would not be a surprise, were it to be true. In English, there are many words for frozen precipitation: snow, sleet, hail, rime. There are three kinds of lava: pahoehoe, aa, and pillow. There are numerous kinds of wetlands: swamp, bog, fen, marsh, shrub-carr, peatland. Our natural world becomes subdivided. Sometimes this can be exploited. At one time there were just a few types of chocolates available, now there are thousands. Almond chocolate, sea-salt chocolate, orange chocolate, mushroom chocolate, beef-flavored chocolate, chocolate McLiver and so forth. The point is, once a person studies something for a few years, that person begins to see distinctions between what had at one time been considered identical objects. This is what perception does to us.

It is the same with fish: They can be salt-water, fresh water, benthic, pelagic. Benthic: at the lowest level of a body of water. Pelagic: at the upper layers of a body of water. Their eggs have distinctions, too. They can be buoyant or can sink. Their buoyancy varies based on "egg specific gravities that tune the egg buoyancy to create specific vertical distributions for each local population" (Sundby 2015). What that means is, the eggs are designed to linger in a water level that is optimum for their development. For some, that's suspended at a particular level in the water column, others are at or near the bottom. Some eggs are adhesive, sticking to objects in the water, often in the benthic zone. Some eggs come in masses and others are single. So we have variables of adhesiveness, buoyancy, and mass. There are other variations, like fish who lay their eggs on beaches or mud, fish that build nests, fish that are mouth brooders and this is quickly getting out of hand and we are running out of words.

This is the story: Around the world, many species of fish are disappearing. Some of these are from the mid-continental rivers and streams in North America. Here is a list of six imperiled fish species from these waters:

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow (Hybognathus amarus) – Endangered
Bluntnose Shiner (Notropis simus) – Endangered
Arkansas River Shiner (Notropis girardi) – Threatened
Rio Grande Shiner (Notropis jemzanus) – near Threatened 
Plains Minnow (Hybognathus placitus) – Presently numerous but in serious decline
Speckled Chub (Macrhybopsis aestivalis) – Substantial long-term decline

There are other species in the same waterways that are not currently imperiled. Why is this?

What the six imperiled species have in common is each one of them produces non-adhesive, semi-buoyant eggs. They are members of what is called a "semibuoyant egg reproductive guild." The buoyancy is sufficient that the egg remains suspended in turbulent or flowing waters of rivers. It is in this buoyant, pelagic state that the egg develops to maturity. Were the eggs of these species to sink to the bottom, they would settle into sediment and die. This is to say that the eggs are dependent upon a river current for success. How much river current?

The eggs take 1-2 days to hatch and the newly hatched larvae must be in suspension for several more days where they "swim up" and develop their gas bladder and absorb their yolk sac. Thus, as they are developing, the eggs and larvae depend upon a current that can keep them in suspension for 3-5 days. Being carried for 3-5 days in a current will transport the eggs a distance downstream that depends upon the flow rate of the river. A conservative drift rate of 3 km/hour would transport the eggs "72-144 km before hatching. Developing protolarvae could be transported an additional 216 km during the swim-up stage" (Platania 1998). Thus, the eggs and larvae would need a total of 288-360 km or 179-224 miles of contiguous moving water.

Therein lies the answer. When dams were placed along the rivers that these species inhabited- Upper Pecos, Middle Pecos, Middle Rio Grande, Arkansas - they often broke the length of free-flowing river into segments less than 179 miles. Long stretches of the river are now behind impoundments and there, the water is nearly still. Any semi-buoyant, non-adhesive eggs that enter the impoundment will stall out, sink down through the pelagic zone to the benthic zone, settle into the sediment, and die. Other alterations in natural stream flow patterns have also thwarted the reproductive success of these species. It is no surprise then, that fish with non-buoyant and adhesive eggs, those that are successful in the benthic zone, thrive.

We are looking for a word that describes the alteration of natural habitats with semi-permanent and non-responsible schemes that randomly endanger species in an offhand way.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Spring Ephemeral

That's large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), from the Chequamegon National Forest, in Price County, WI. Photo 5/11/07.

One way or another, most life on earth depends upon light from the sun. Over the course of a year, a tremendous amount of solar energy reaches the earth’s atmosphere – many times the amount energy used by the human race in a year. Of that, about one-third is reflected back into space and one-half is absorbed at the earth’s surface. 
Lately, there is a lot of energy being poured into the conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Solar panels. Their useful life is about 30 years and then they become waste. It is estimated that Japan will produce 10,000 tons of solar panel waste in the year 2020. Recently, the production of solar panels in California produced about 5,000 tons of contaminated sludge and water per year. It is estimated that the human race will produce 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. Some electronic waste is burned to recover valuable minerals but the smoke is highly toxic. Most of the electronic waste in the US is stacked in garages and closets, pausing before it enters what is called the "trash stream", which, from where we stand, looks an awful lot like an actual stream with actual dead fish that is emptying into an actual dying ocean. 
Meanwhile, at the earth's surface, plants capture solar energy and, through photosynthesis, convert the light into sugar, which is then used for tissues, structure, growth, and reproduction. Solar panels. A leaf has a useful life of no more than a few years, in the case of evergreen species. Deciduous leaves are good for less than one year. Once their useful life is over, they become waste. The leaves turn shocking hues of red, orange, yellow which stun and bemaze onlookers, flutter to the ground, are dismantled cell-by-cell by trillions of unpaid organisms, and are completely reabsorbed into this thing called an ecosystem, enriching the soil, enabling growth of yet more plants. 
Light is life. Plants will orient their leaves and stems toward the light, following the sun across the sky and jockeying for patches of sunlight that have slipped through the forest canopy. In temperate latitudes, when those deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, it exposes the forest floor to the sun’s rays. When spring returns and the sun rises higher in the sky, daylight and soil temperatures increase and snowmelt moistens the soil. Trees and shrubs break out of their winter dormancy. But before the light and temperature are sufficient for trees and shrubs to leaf out and cast shadows all over the forest floor, a special group of plants lying beneath the leaf litter reanimate and emerge, taking advantage of the open canopy and bounty of sunlight. Found in North America, Russia, and Japan, these are called spring ephemerals.
Plants are like shift workers; different species are active at different times of the year. Spring ephemerals work best in cooler temperatures, those found in the early spring. The spring shift. They photosynthesize at high rates and absorb water efficiently when the soil temperatures are low, when most deciduous trees and shrubs are just beginning to move sap and produce leaves. Thus, while many other plants take an entire growing season to produce leaves, flower, set seed and go dormant, spring ephemerals are able to accomplish this in a matter of 6 to 8 weeks.
After these weeks pass, spring ephemerals have stored enough carbohydrates for the next growing season. By then, soil temperatures have become intolerably warm for these species. This signals the end of their shift. Their flowers fade, leaves wither, nutrients are recycled from stems and leaves, and seeds are set. Just as the rest of the forest is leafing out and gearing up for a busy summer of solar alchemy, the summer shift, spring ephemerals are retiring for the season, spending the remainder of the summer in a dormant state. They disappear from view. Where there were once carpets of trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), there is a shaded forest floor beneath a dense canopy of trees and shrubs.
What a life. No punch clock. No boss. No litigation. No indentured servitude, remediation, arbitrators, hazardous materials, safety violations, labor riots, lockouts, sick leave, hostile takeovers, unfunded mandates. No maintenance schedule, failure points, recalls, noxious fumes, spaghetti code, obsolescence, incompatibility. And no patents. This technology is free for the taking.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Alien invasive species.

Glacier National Park. Baring Falls. Photo 8/15/12.
A pristine creek at the time of this writing.
Most people seem to know about invasive species and the damage that they can do to an ecosystem. Alien invasive species are organisms that are introduced into a foreign ecosystem, usually at a great distance from their native ecosystem, usually from another continent. That's the alien part. The invasive part is that they rapidly invade, populate, and exclude other species in the new territory. Some may refer to them as exotic species. Some may refer to them as noxious weeds, but some noxious weeds are native plants that have been branded as undesirable because of economics, cultural norms, or ignorance. 
Why the fuss? - after all, they are just plants.
It is like this: A kid on holiday goes overseas and picks up a microbe. Easy enough to do. But he has no immunity to this one; his immune system has never seen it before. He returns home and goes back to school. He starts to cough. Next, all the kids start to cough. Then the teachers start to cough. The principal gets a cough. Nobody has immunity to the microbe and it runs amok. So the school sends everybody home and locks the doors. Quarantine. Police tape. Face masks. At home, their bodies work long and hard to develop an adequate immune response. But some immune systems are not strong, fast, or educated enough. The microbe wins. The body loses. Enough losses and the school is shut down for good.
It's this way with AIS. Introduce a foreign organism into an ecosystem and there may be no defense against it, in this case, no predators, parasites, weather patterns that would check its advance, weaken or kill it. So it runs amok. If it continues to dominate and exclude the native species, the original ecosystem may be damaged, no longer be recognizable, or it may be gone for good.
A prime example of this is salt cedar, or tamarisk (Tamarix sp.), brought to North America from the Middle East in the 1800's, which has invaded riparian areas in the American southwest, making the native southwestern riparian area one of the rarest ecosystems in the US. Guns, bombs, napalm won't stop it. It's a phreatophyte, driving roots to extreme depths to take up water, so much so, that they are consuming 2-4.5 million acre-feet of water per year, enough for 20 million people for one year. Other threatened ecosystems are northeastern forests (garlic mustard), southern waterways (water hyacinth, nutria), Great Lakes (gobi, zebra mussel, Asian carp), southeastern forests (Kudzu), Yellowstone Lake (lake trout), glaciated northern forests (alien invasive earthworms (yes)). It's a long list.
But AIS isn't always plants, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects; lately, we have come to know it can involve tiny species invisible to the naked eye. That kid who suffered wasn't eaten by an escaped lion. So too, ecosystems can be brought to the brink by alien, invasive microbes. You may be familiar with some of these in North America: Dutch Elm Disease (American elm), Whirling Disease (trout and salmon), White-nose Syndrome (bats), and Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (fish). And then there is Didymosphenia geminata, known as Didymo, an AIS diatomic algae expanding and bullying its way into clear streams around the world - North America, Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand. Apparently, it was introduced on the soles of waders worn by globe-trotting trout fishermen. Even in its native habitat, North America and Europe, it has exploded and expanded its range. Some research indicates that this is a result of climate change.
Still, some folks think that all the fuss about AIS is unfounded, reasoning that nature has been moving species around for eons and that everything is a non-native species at one time or another, there is no need to worry, the earth accommodates them all. True, but we are moving hundreds of millions of airline passengers at hundreds of miles per hour and hundreds of millions of those metal shipping containers across the oceans every year. Is that the background species migration rate? And we have to ask, if this is no big deal, do these folks get vaccinated before they travel overseas?

Monday, January 01, 2018

Fires to Date

This is fire.
Photo 8/26/12 near Fairmont Hot Springs, MT. 

Probably from the Mustang Complex Fire along the Montana-Idaho border. It burned 332,000 acres or 518 square miles, about twice the size of Chicago or 2000 times bigger than Disneyland, which may have a thrilling, all-ages amusement ride involving fire and Bambi, but we are not certain. 

It is the end of the year and this is a good time to review the list of the wildfire acres in the US for the past 58 years (data from the National Interagency Fire Center).

You will note that the past year was the third worst fire season in US history. And you will note that the average acreages have about doubled since the 1960's and the top ten fire seasons have occurred since 2000. 

*** Update: Since this was posted on January 1st, the final numbers for the 2017 fire season came in and it proved to be the second-worst fire season on record, surpassing the 10 million acre mark for the second time. *** 

Plot this on a graph, describe the slope of the line, and see where it leads you in say, 20 years, at which time you may reminisce about the days when you didn't camp in fireproof tents.

Spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Photo 7/24/04, Cook County, MN
Meat tenderizer. 

These are carnivorous plants, inhabiting fens, bogs and peatlands in the northern latitudes. Pretty as they may be, these peatlands are killing fields. Insects are attracted to a sweet mucilage secreted by the glandular hairs on the sundew leaf. The hairs are thigmonastic, that is, they move in response to touch or vibration. The hairs converge on the struggling insect. The musilage contains enzymes: chitinase, esterase, peroxidase, phosphatase, protease. The mucilage secretion is stimulated by specific molecules. A quote from Matusikova 2005: "The reaction of sundew leaves depends on the molecular nature of the inducer applied." And from Gallie 1997, regarding pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), another carnivorous plant found in fens and bogs: "Hydrolase expression is induced upon perception of the appropriate chemical signal."
This is to say, the glistening tentacles of sundew respond to touch and the chemistry of the insect that lands on them, inducing the plant to produce enzymes and to curl the tentacles around the insect. 
The purpose of all of this is to convert the insect into digestible material for the plant, enabling it to live in a nutrient-poor habitat, such as bogs are. 
Yes, like a cold fog, death creeps across the sodden moor. 
That is not all. These northern bogs have two other carnivorous plants. Pitcher plant traps insects in a leafy vase filled with rainwater and enzymes. The vase is lined with sharp spikes, like concertina wire, preventing any escape. Bladderwort (Utricularia) has a submerged bladder under negative pressure that has a trap door and a lever. A water flea or mosquito larvae that touch the lever open the trap door, sucking it into the bladder within tenths of a second. Once again, it is bathed in digestive enzymes. 
The insect dies within 15 minutes, and it is safe to say that these are the most horrifying 15 minutes of his brief, hapless life, as the powerful enzymes attack his defenseless, softening body and reduce it to a soupy meal. 
We are pleased that insects do not scream, at least in a range heard by humans.…/ar…/PMC158611/pdf/1151461.pdf