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

Seed Bank

Death Valley 4/8/16
Flowers are desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), pebble pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia), golden evening primrose (Camissonia brevipes), desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), showy gilia (Gilia cana triceps) to mention a few. 
Soil seed bank, to be precise. These are flowers in Death Valley, many of which are annuals, germinating from seeds in a rare year when rains are sufficient. Look up "Superbloom." The seeds have been in the soil for years, waiting for the right rains to come. 
The Soil Seed Bank is the repository of seeds in the leaf litter, soil surface, or soil layer. They are like a bank in that they are available for germination in a landscape that has failed to produce seeds in one growing season or more. This failure can happen in times of drought, fire, landslide, floods, hail, human disturbance. The seeds in the seed bank may germinate when favorable conditions return, restoring the historic array of species. That is, as long as the seeds remain viable over the course of the unfavorable conditions.
Seed banks are found wherever plants, animals, wind or other vectors deposit seeds: in the black prairie soils, the bottom of lakes, the muck in swamps, bogs, and marshes, dunes, badland soils, and even permafrost. Some species of seed may be viable for decades, even centuries. In 2012, Russian scientists regenerated Silene stenophylla (narrow-leaved campion, a plant found in Siberia and northern Japan) from a 32,000-year-old late Pleistocene seed that had been buried in the permafrost. Although this specimen wasn't regenerated from a seed, it indicates a potential for ancient germplasm in ice-age seed repositories. 
Some of the seeds in our modern soils may have a very long viability in the seed bank. In 1879, botanist William Beal put seeds from 20 species in glass bottles and buried them 20 inches deep. Every 5, 10, or 20 years scientists have dug up a bottle of his seeds to see which ones germinate. In 1980 they were able to germinate moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and common mallow (Malva neglecta), over 100 years after their burial. 
So, the natural cycles of disturbance may play within these time limits, but we are not convinced that anthropogenic disturbances play by the rules. Like the story of the Romanov family, we have the alarming capacity to eliminate a whole lineage in one dark night.

Hell Creek Formation

Hell Creek Formation badlands below the red line, Ludlow Formation Badlands above the red line. 
Photo 10/4/06 in Corson County, SD.

Of moving-pictures fame, the Hell Creek formation is a series of greyish, mostly bedded, freshwater claystone, siltstone, mudstones, and sandstones and lesser amounts of lignite. Notice the rust-colored rocks in the foreground. In our travels, that has been a telltale marker of the HCF. It was deposited during the Cretaceous period at the end of the Mesozoic Era. It contains sedimentary features such as siderite nodules, mud cracks, raindrop impressions, ripple marks, and bird and animal tracks. It has produced many excellent and renowned dinosaur skeletons, including Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. 
The Ludlow formation is of more recent origin and lies on top of the Hell Creek formation and dates to the early Paleogene (Tertiary) period at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. Much like the Hell Creek formation, it is composed of bedded claystones, siltstones, mudstones, and sandstones interlayered with lignite. It is distinguished from the Hell Creek formation by the persistence of lignite and a brownish hue.
The fossil is likely to be a fragment of a Triceratops shield, with what appear to be the blood vessel tracks. There are innumerable Triceratops fragments scattered across the Hell Creek Formation. Ultimately, the species was the victim of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event, wherein three-quarters of the earth's plant and animal species went extinct in a very short period of time, including almost all dinosaurs, many marine invertebrates, many land animals, and many angiosperms. Current theory holds that it was caused by a celestial Doomsday Machine, a meteor that hit the Yucatan Peninsula with the force of 100 million atomic bombs, incinerating terrestrial life with an infared radiation pulse, dusting the planet in iridium, shrouding it in darkness and sulfuric acid aerosols, and plunging it into an impact winter. 
Should have sold while they had a chance.

Ground Nest

Photo 9/28/06, Corson County. SD

This is probably a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) nest. It's made out of Artemisia cana sticks, in an isolated location, no closer than 1.43 miles from any human habitations. No bones, feathers, or other signs of activity at the time of the photo. 
No surprise. In the early 1900's, North Dakota was referred to as the "ferruginous-rough-leg state" because of the abundance of the species. At that time North Dakota had vast, unbroken prairie, ideal Ferruginous Hawk habitat. The hawk thrives in expansive, open, arid grasslands and shrub-steppe communities. 
But that was then. A century of agricultural, residential, and commercial development has degraded their habitat. Thus, their numbers have declined across their range. 
Here are some details: Ferruginous Hawks are very susceptible to agricultural or human disturbance. They will select nest sites to avoid human habitation, avoid nesting within 0.7 mile of an occupied building, and may be less productive in areas with disturbance, or may abandon nests if disturbed too often by human activity. Historically, nests were most often ground nests on grassy overlooks in native prairie, less often in trees or rocks, occasionally in peripheral, isolated trees. More recently, due to pressures from predators, their nesting preferences have become isolated trees, haystacks, and power line towers.
This preference for large, unbroken habitats suggests that Ferruginous Hawk is an interior species. Interior species are adversely affected by highly fragmented habitats and prefer the interior of large, unbroken, relatively undisturbed habitats. Here is a quote from the USDA:
"Fragmentation of a landscape reduces the area of original habitat and increases the total lineal feet of edge, favoring species that inhabit edges at the expense of interior species that require large continuous patches. Ecologists, such as Wilcox and Murphy, believe that habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis." 

Extinction crisis. That's for another day. Should I live to see it.

Bullion Butte, ND

Southwestern Billings County, ND. Photo 6/3/03; Penstemon albidus in the foreground

There be better buttes but this be a butte.

This is a 3350-foot tall butte, rising about 1000 feet above the Little Missouri River which is 1.5 miles to the northeast. The cliffs along the rim of the butte are about 120 feet high. Prairie Falcons nest in the rocky rim and the overhangs and caves have sheltered mountain lions. The winds get strong up high on the prairie, nothing holds them back.

This butte is one of several dozen prominent buttes in the western Dakotas (Thunder, Sentinel, Square, Round Top, Haystack, Castle Rock...). They are the product of differential erosion, where erosion occurs at differing rates in a unit of land due to varying hardnesses of the surface material. The harder material that remains while the rest of the softer surface material erodes away is called a caprock. The landform that is created by the caprock is called a butte, a reminder of the elevated plateau that once was.

Climbing to the summit of Bullion Butte in low hanging clouds and a cold mist, one might expect to discover a lost world of Titanotheres, Oreodonts, and Entelodonts peacefully grazing on the short grasses as a giant meteorite streaks overhead towards Chesapeake Bay. No, not today. But, these summits have some unique plant species generally not found on the surrounding plains that may be relicts of the pre-Pleistocene Ice Age landscape, the elevated plateau. One species is Phlox alyssifolia. The sideslopes, scree, and talus surrounding the butte have thousands of specimens. But it is not found on the surrounding plains. It is thought that the species had a wider distribution on the elevated landscape that was eroded away. These remaining populations are relict populations, like the buttes, reminders of what once was.