Conservation & Environment

Could Increasing Climate Variability Usher In “The Age of the Mediocre Forest?”

Posted by on Jun 11, 2014 @ 10:45 am in Conservation | 0 comments

In 2001, when large numbers of red spruce trees began dying atop Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina, U.S Forest Service researchers stepped in to investigate. During the four years before the researchers’ arrival, unusual drought and abnormally high air temperatures combined with acid rain pollution and a rare outbreak of southern pine beetles to wreak havoc in those forests covering the tallest peak in the eastern United States.

Some red spruce trees survived through it all, providing a unique opportunity for the researchers to examine the differences between the live and the dead trees. As the significance of these differences became clear, the researchers formulated an idea that could redefine forest health and management in a world with increasing climate variability.

The researchers measured physical, chemical, and atmospheric characteristics to uncover variations between Mt. Mitchell’s unhealthy or “chronically stressed” red spruce trees—the slow-growing ones on drier sites with poor soils—and the previously healthy or “non-chronically stressed” trees.

Researchers used these results as a case study that explores the concept of inverse resilience—the possibility that trees growing under conditions of chronic, or long-term, environmental stress might better withstand acute, or short term, environmental disturbances and threats. Researchers have coined this scenario “The Age of the Mediocre Forest” to describe the endurance of less productive, yet potentially more resilient, chronically stressed trees.

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So Much Arctic Ice Has Melted, We Need a New Atlas

Posted by on Jun 10, 2014 @ 6:26 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

It used to be wars, Communism and colonialism that kept atlas illustrators on their toes. These days, though, their biggest headache is global warming.

For instance, when the National Geographic Atlas of the World is published this coming September, its renderings of the ice that caps the Arctic will be starkly different from those in the last edition, published in 2010, reports National Geographic. That reflects a disquieting long-term trend of around 12 percent Arctic ice loss per decade since the late 1970s—a pace that’s picked up since 2007. This comparison from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, although not the one used by National Geographic, should give a sense of how much skimpier that Arctic ice cover has gotten:



There’s another crucial metric: “multiyear ice,” which is ice that has survived at least two summers without melting. This older ice is a vital buttress against faster melting and the rising sea levels that would result. Typically three to four meters (10 to 13 feet) thick, multiyear ice is harder to melt and reflects more sunlight than new ice does, keeping solar heat from warming surrounding seas, which would accelerate melting all the more.

Not long ago, multiyear blanketed the Arctic. But that older ice has receded at a much brisker clip than the young, thinner ice. Now just 7 percent of Arctic ice is at least five years old, half of what it was in 2007, and a quarter of what it was in the late 1980s.

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Life on the Mississippi, Now

Posted by on Jun 10, 2014 @ 12:20 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

We’ve spent billions of dollars on dikes, locks, and levees in a vain attempt to subdue what Mark Twain called ‘that lawless stream.’ Is it time to let the river have its way?

Scientists say flooding along the Mississippi is getting markedly worse, in large part because of how we’ve engineered the system and developed the river’s environs. Levees cut the river off from floodplains that, left undisturbed, would often extend for miles. Construction in those lowlands means we can no longer use them for natural flood control. Navigation structures like wing dikes—rock jetties that run perpendicular to the banks, constricting the channel—make floodwaters more turbulent, slowing their flow and raising them higher.

Compounding the problem is global climate change, which has been linked to some of the Midwest’s increasingly extreme weather, including the intense rainstorms that farmers here call “toad stranglers.” Researchers predict that heat waves, flooding, and drought will only grow more pronounced: a 2013 report commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projected that along the Mississippi, north of its juncture with the Ohio River in Cairo, Illinois, the amount of land inundated by 100-year floods will grow by anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent by 2100. About 70 percent of that increase may be attributable to climate change.

How Grafton, IL, population roughly 700, survived more than a century’s worth of aggressive levee-building policies is something of a mystery. The absence of a levee has turned Grafton into an experiment in how more natural river management might work.

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‘Conclusive link’ between fracking, aquifer contamination found in Texas

Posted by on Jun 9, 2014 @ 4:27 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

Independent scientists who have reviewed a water analysis conducted by state authorities of a Texas resident’s drinking well say the chemical signatures found in the water may provide “the nation’s first conclusive link” between fracking operations and aquifer contamination.

Steve Lipsky said he has long believed that nearby hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale was to blame for the increasing amounts of methane and other chemicals in his drinking water. Since 2010, he says, growing amounts of methane have been seeping into the groundwater beneath his land — enough of it so that he can literally light the water coming out of his well on fire.

The company says there is no connection between the methane in Lipsky’s well and their drilling, but scientists shown the results from the water analysis — specifically one called an isotopic analysis — say the chemical composition shows they are an exact match to the gas being fracked at two nearby drilling sites — called Butler and the Teal — operated by Range Resources.

“The methane and ethane numbers from the Butler and Teal production are essentially exactly the same as from Lipsky’s water well,” said earth scientist Geoffrey Thyne of Wyoming, who reviewed the data for WFAA. “It tells me that the gas is the same, and that the gas in Lipsky’s water well was derived from the Barnett formation.”

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What To Do When You’re Dead: Science Edition

Posted by on Jun 9, 2014 @ 4:40 am in Conservation | 0 comments

Nobody really wants to think about their own mortality, but the cold truth is that sooner or later, it’s going to happen. Now, your personal beliefs on whether or not you will ascend to Heaven, reincarnate, or simply just be dead don’t really matter; you’re going to leave a body behind when you go. It has now become a custom to either pump dead bodies full of formaldehyde and seal them into a steel and concrete vault or be cremated and have the ashes just sit in an urn.

An increasing number of people are choosing to do more with their bodies after they are gone in an effort to be more eco-friendly, help advance scientific knowledge, or do something awesome that couldn’t be achieved in life.

Here are some of the coolest science-friendly options available:


Historic Federal Decision Finds West Virginia Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Companies Guilty of Damaging Streams

Posted by on Jun 8, 2014 @ 3:58 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

Believe it or not, no federal court in the U.S. had ever ruled that high conductivity discharges from coal mines were harmful to streams until this week.

Everything changed with a historic decision in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia that found two companies guilty of violating clean water protections. The decision was a result of a citizen lawsuit filed more than two years ago accusing mountaintop removal mines owned by Alex Energy and Elk Run Coal Co. contaminated waters in Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork with sulfate and other dissolved solids, adding toxicity to the ecosystem of aquatic creatures.

“Pollution such as the high conductivity discharges addressed in this litigation represents the steady degradation of streams that is stealing the future from generations to come,” Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said in a statement from the Sierra Club. “Passage of the Clean Water Act over 40 years ago was a wise and prescient recognition that waters of the US can support a healthy human population and economy only when those waters are healthy themselves.

“[The federal] court decision makes it clear that the integrity of our streams must be protected from the real danger of being destroyed by the millions of tiny cuts made by activities like the coal mining operations along Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork.”

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Oil Companies Are Still Using The Faulty Equipment That Caused The BP Oil Spill

Posted by on Jun 6, 2014 @ 11:20 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

The historic BP oil well explosion in April 2010 was not supposed to be so bad. If things had gone as planned, the offshore drilling rig’s last defense — a deep-sea mechanism called a “blowout preventer” — would have kicked in, sealing the drill pipe and short-circuiting the explosion, potentially preventing 11 deaths and 5 million barrels of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

But for reasons unknown, the blowout preventer malfunctioned, part of an array of errors that left behind the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, according to a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report released this week.
That report also said the same equipment is still widely-used in offshore drilling, and more needs to be done to make it safer.

“Although both regulators and the industry itself have made significant progress since the 2010 calamity, more must be done to ensure the correct functioning of blowout preventers and other safety-critical elements that protect workers and the environment from major offshore accidents,” CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement.

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Something is seriously wrong on the East Coast — and it’s killing the baby puffins

Posted by on Jun 5, 2014 @ 7:09 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

The new poster child for climate change had his coming-out party in June 2012, when Petey the puffin chick first went live into thousands of homes and schools all over the world. The “Puffin Cam” capturing baby Petey’s every chirp had been set up on Maine’s Seal Island by Stephen Kress, “The Puffin Man,” who founded the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin in 1973.

Puffins, whose orange bills and furrowed eyes make them look like penguins dressed as sad clowns, used to nest on many islands off the Maine coast, but 300 years of hunting for their meat, eggs, and feathers nearly wiped them out. Project Puffin transplanted young puffins from Newfoundland to several islands in Maine, and after years of effort the colonies were reestablished and the project became one of Audubon’s great success stories. By 2013, about 1,000 puffin pairs were nesting in Maine.

Puffin parents dote on their single chick, sheltering it in a two-foot burrow beneath rocky ledges and bringing it piles of small fish each day. But Kress soon noticed that something was wrong. Puffins dine primarily on hake and herring, two teardrop-shaped fish that have always been abundant in the Gulf of Maine. But Petey’s parents brought him mostly butterfish, which are shaped more like saucers.

Checking other nests, Krest discovered only 31 percent had successfully fledged. He saw dead chicks and piles of rotting butterfish everywhere. “That,” he says, “was the epiphany.” Why would the veteran puffin parents of Maine start bringing their chicks food they couldn’t swallow? Only because they had no choice. Herring and hake had dramatically declined in the waters surrounding Seal Island, and Kress had a pretty good idea why: The water was much too hot.

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California condor may have hatched in Zion National Park

Posted by on Jun 5, 2014 @ 2:31 am in Conservation | 0 comments

Zion National Park receives millions of visitors each year, but a recent arrival is drawing attention in wildlife conservation circles. Wildlife officials are a little reluctant to count the chick before they can see it, but they are reporting that a California condor has likely hatched in Utah’s most visited national park.

The announcement is based on the earlier courtship and more recent feeding behavior of a pair of condors in a remote canyon in the park.

“This is a significant milestone in the process of restoring a species to its historical habitat,” said Keith Day, a wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in a statement. “It proves that Utah still has suitable habitat for these magnificent birds and that the selection of the Arizona-Utah region for establishing a population was a valid choice.”

An experimental population of California condors was released in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona in 1996. It did not take long for the large raptors to head north to the canyon country of Zion National Park.

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CTNC Protects Jackson Knob Property on Blue Ridge Parkway

Posted by on Jun 4, 2014 @ 5:04 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

Conservation Trust for North Carolina recently purchased a 47-acre property on Jackson Knob in Mitchell County. The tract borders the Blue Ridge Parkway and other properties protected by CTNC at the Heffner Gap Overlook. With this land purchase, the Conservation Trust has now protected 53 properties along the Parkway, totaling 31,408 acres.

The Conservation Trust purchased the tract from CSX Transportation, Inc. with generous funding from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury. CTNC will transfer the property to the National Park Service for inclusion in the Parkway’s official boundary, expanding public access to conserved lands.

“Conservation of the Jackson Knob tract protects scenic views from several overlooks in a popular stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” said Mark Woods, Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent. “Protecting such high quality properties is essential to the Parkway’s long-term integrity.”


Fact Check: Does NC’s 2014 ‘fracking’ bill break a promise?

Posted by on Jun 4, 2014 @ 12:29 pm in Conservation | 3 comments

During last week’s debate over a bill that would modify North Carolina’s rules on “fracking” – on-shore natural gas exploration and drilling, if you prefer – opponents of the new proposal accused the bill’s backers, mainly Republicans, of going back on a promise made in 2012.

In particular, they said that lawmakers had pledged in 2012 to lift the fracking moratorium only after rules for drilling were in place. The 2014 bill, which was signed today, June 4, 2014, by the governor, essentially lifts the moratorium 60 days after the rules are made final, barring some legislative action. The measure is a departure from the normal rules-review process.

“This bill, as presented, breaks the promise that was made in 2012 to fully develop rules governing the practice of fracking,” Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said during the Senate debate.

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, made a statement, saying that the Republican-led majority was taking away an important safeguard. “One thing about what we promised was that we would keep a moratorium in place until the mining commission went through and developed all of their rules and brought them back in October 2014 – and its only May of 2014 – and then, at that point, the legislature would look at those rules and vote on them,” Carney said. “We are not honoring that commitment.”

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Study: Climate change may push hurricanes farther north, south

Posted by on Jun 3, 2014 @ 9:27 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

Study: Climate change may push hurricanes farther north, south

The hurricane season of 2014 just kicked off, and with two devastating storms wreaking havoc along the northeastern United States coast over the last few years, it’s no wonder everyone’s on edge.

We’re concerned about hurricanes becoming more frequent and intense, and about the worsening storm surge caused by a rise in sea levels. But flying under the radar is a fourth link between hurricanes and climate change: how climate change affects the location of hurricanes.

A new study led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University found that hurricanes have been shifting pole-ward at a rate of 30 to 40 miles per decade over the last 30 years.

Hurricanes are drifting toward the poles most likely due to an expansion of the Hadley Cell, a permanent atmospheric circulation feature that carries heat from the tropics to the Earth’s temperate zones.

It means they are moving closer to major population centers such as Washington, New York and Boston.

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The Mother of All Anti-Fracking Tools

Posted by on Jun 3, 2014 @ 8:43 am in Conservation | 0 comments

Mora County, New Mexico, a patchwork of prairie, foothills, and high peaks on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unemployment stands at 16 percent, county workers operate out of leaky temporary buildings, and the population density is so low—just two people per square mile—that the tiny community and its largest town, 300-person Wagon Mound, are still classified as frontier by state health officials.

In short, Mora isn’t the kind of place that comes to mind for a national showdown on fracking. But in April 2013, county commissioners took center stage in the fight by passing the Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance, which declared it illegal for companies to extract hydrocarbons anywhere in the county, making Mora the first in the U.S. to ban oil and gas drilling outright, on public and private land.

Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon followed. The county was sued in federal district court in Albuquerque late last year by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) and three local property owners. In January, a second suit was filed by Shell Western, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s sixth-largest oil company.

The likely outcome? Busy lawyers. But the suits could also set a nationwide precedent by settling an interesting argument: Does a community’s right to self-governance trump the rights of corporations?

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Young Forests Can Benefit Wildlife

Posted by on Jun 2, 2014 @ 3:56 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

It’s easy to think of forests as peaceful, unchanging places. In reality, this isn’t the case, because forests are much more dynamic than they may seem. In fact, the forests are shaped by change, and many forest ecosystems depend upon it.

In the aftermath of a major change, or disturbance, like wildfire or human clearing of land, hardy pioneer species like shrubs and grasses are the first to move back into the area, creating an open and highly productive patch of land known as early successional habitat, sometimes called young forests.

Early successional habitat comes in many forms, but what ties them together is change and disturbance. Early successional habitat is created and maintained by disturbance. Without it, the grasses, shrubs and young stands of trees that characterize early successional habitat will give way to older, denser forests, and the species that depend on these young habitats will no longer thrive.

Early successional habitat can have up to 20 times more fruit than mature forest, from species like blackberry and pokeweed, or even from sprouts of forest trees like dogwood or black cherry. Young birds learn to forage in these productive areas, which contain shrubs and abundant stump sprouts of trees that provide places to nest and hide from predators. Indigo buntings, bluebirds, bobwhites and chipping sparrows are just some of the bird species that favor early successional habitats.

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Local land trusts have saved 371,000 acres in North Carolina

Posted by on Jun 2, 2014 @ 5:28 am in Conservation | 0 comments

You may have heard of land trusts, you may even have a vague idea of what they do: save environmentally sensitive lands from development. That much is true. But you may also think that once that land is saved, it’s squirreled away, kept under lock and key and out of reach of the public. That part’s not true. With National Land Trust Day on June 7, 2014, it’s a good time to appreciate the vital conservation work our local land trusts perform.

Some of the lands spared by land trusts are ecologically sensitive to the point they would suffer from extensive human visitation; thus, access may be restricted. But the majority of land trust acquisitions are open for public exploration. In fact, some of the places you love to explore most have been made available courtesy of your local land trust.

Since the 1980s, North Carolina’s 24 local land trusts have saved more than 371,000 acres of land in 2,300 different locations statewide. Often, that land is either given or sold to state or federal land managers.

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Buried carbon causes deep concern

Posted by on Jun 1, 2014 @ 10:51 am in Conservation | 0 comments

Geographers have found a new factor in the carbon cycle, and – all too ominously – a new potential source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. They have identified huge deposits of fossil soils, rich in organic carbon, buried beneath the Great Plains of America.

The discovery is evidence that the subterranean soils could be a rich store, or sink, for ancient atmospheric carbon. But if the soil is exposed – by erosion, or by human activities such as agriculture, deforestation or mining – this treasure trove of ancient charred vegetation, now covered by wind-blown soils, could blow back into the atmosphere and add to global warming.

It is known as Brady soil – ancient buried soil − formed more than 13,500 years ago in Nebraska, Kansas and other Great Plains states, and lies more than six metres below the surface. It was buried by a vast deposit of loess – wind-blown dust – about 10,000 years ago, when the glaciers began to retreat from North America.

The significance is not that it survived the end of the Ice Age and the colonization of the Great Plains by grazing animals, but in the fact that it is there at all, at such depths. Calculations about the world stock of soil carbon have focused on the topsoil, and the role of root systems, decaying vegetation, microbes and fungi in the natural carbon cycle. Now the climate scientists who play with models of the carbon cycle will have to think again.

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Park rangers cracking down on vandalism in Smokies

Posted by on May 30, 2014 @ 7:36 pm in Conservation | 0 comments

Officials in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are cracking down on vandalism.

Park rangers say for years, people have been carving their names into historical landmarks, and while it may seem harmless, it is a crime. “A sad reflection of lack of pride,” said park visitor Steve McSmith. “I think they’re destroying something that has been here for years,” said park visitor Brandie Hawkins.

Cabins have stood in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than a century, and throughout the years people have left their mark. “These buildings have been here for hundreds of years. The trees that they are built by, some of these trees don’t even grow in the national park anymore. They’re irreplaceable,” said GSMNP spokesperson Caitlin Worth.

Names, dates, and drawings are carved into or written on the walls of cabins throughout the park, and park officials say it is nearly impossible to fix. “We can’t just sand down these historic buildings. They’d just wither away,” said Worth.

Park rangers say they are trying several different things to try to deter people from carving into the walls of the cabins, including putting out books at some locations encouraging them to sign those instead.

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