Saturday, January 25, 2014

Keystone pipeline presents environmental quandary

This was a boreal forest.
Domestic energy production would be a boon to our economy and security, but mining coal sands in environmentally horrific.

Mining proponents point out that the tar sands oil will be mined even without the pipeline.  Trains would carry tar sands oil if Obama denies the pipeline.   But trains are (apparently) more risky than pipelines in terms of frequency of spills (what about size of spills?).  So not building the pipeline could actually result in worse environmental consequences.  Catch 22?

What if....instead of building the keystone pipeline, we reduced the equivalent amount of energy (negawatts) by guaranteeing loans or rebates or tax incentives on geothermal systems.  Solar panels on roofs are nice, but electric technology has a shorter lifespan, whereas geothermal heating and cooling is a truly long-term infrastructure investment.  Cutting off supply only works if we reduce demand.

More photos.  Video presentation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Restoration Quandraries

"Playing God with Nature" can be funny as well as drop-dead serious.  On the funny side of things:

Nature Conservancy scientists are tooth-brushing corals to keep the clean.  A massive nursery effort is working to transplant corals to bleached-reefs.  Coral organisms are symbionts, like lichen.  When the coral are stressed from water pollution, eutrophyication, high temperatures, or acid water (from CO2) they may jetison their symbiotic algae.  So, unlike bleached teeth, a bleached reef is not a pretty sight.  The vainglorious restoration hope is to stay ahead of some of the myriad problems affecting corals, which have seen a 95% decrease in the Caribbean.  If viable breeding populations of the Endangered corals can be maintained, they just might have enough time to evolve or adapt resistance and resilience to climate change.     However, there are not enough sea urchins  in the collapsed-ecosystem of the bleached reef to eat algae growing over the coral.  Some people say the sea urchins got sick, but whatever their problem, nature conservancy divers are forced to go down with toothbrushes to try and save transplanted baby corals. source.  

Audubon magazine reports USFWS using EPA-outlawed rodent poison on breeding bird colonies.  The islands are threatened by invasive mice, but not by eating seabird eggs.  Instead, the profligate creatures entice great horned owls to set up shop.  But Great Horns are Super Predators: when they eat all the mice, they turn to eating shorebird eggs and chicks.  So the fact that poisoning the mice laces them with toxins that bioaccumulate up the food chain is justified -- because the ultimate environmental victims are ecological bullys. (Farallon Islands.)  These photos show the underwater environment.

Speaking of Farallon Islands: instead of eating bycatch (popular in New Orleans now), some advocate repressurizing stunned fish such as this rockfish whose swim bladder has tripled in size, pushing his eyes out of his head.  Yes, they do revive using proper technique. Rockfish are exceptionally long-lived and slowly reproducing so repressurization is probably an ecologically sound, if unlikely, response to catching one.  This is the best blog, BTW for NE Pacific Ocean natural history.
Bighorn sheep reintroduction ends up becoming a feeding frenzy for local Catalina mountain lions.  31 bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the mountains outside tucson, after an unexplained absense since the 1990's.  Since then, 7 (as of this writing) have been eaten by the resident mountain lions, who are being hunted by AZ Game and Fish to try to save the sheep.  The mountain lions, as discerning diners, posted yelp reviews of the "succulent" new menu item, but take exception to the rude retaliation.  And please don't imply them engaging in "High Mountain Lion Activity"!  Delightful dining on the Bighorn Experience dissolves into dangerous experience.  4 out of 5 stars.

Hydrophobic soils after fire? All soils are more or less hydrophobic...

As explained by "Geomorphology: Themes and Trends".  The book is worth it just for the classic essay on erosion and runoff.  A combination, it turns out, of pore size and particle characteristics.

These images are from Chapter 5, "Geomorphological processes, soil structure, and ecology" written by A.C Imeson.  Yes, the x-axis is scaled as square-rooted minutes.
Plant roots can change both the permeability and wettability of soil (as well as many other qualities).  For more information, read Reid, TB and Goss, MJ. 1981.  Effect of living roots of different plant species on the aggregate stability of two arable soils.  Journal of Soil Science.
The book also has a chapter on the Geomorphology of stream channels and craters on Mars!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Salvage Logging is Not Supported by Published Research

I completed a literature review on the effects of salvage logging (SL). I read all of the major papers, including the two extant literature reviews, the old Forest Service-funded one by McIver and Starr, and the newer one by conservation ecologists Lindemeyer and Noss. The conclusions are consistent: in general, SL increases fire risk, increases erosion, reduces wildlife habitat, and impairs natural recovery. SL has the potential to be much more detrimental than traditional (green) logging (Lindenmeyer and Noss 2006).

This Ponderosa Pine forest burned in a the Las Conchas fire, a stand-replacing crown fire in the summer of 2011.  Two years later, grasses and flowers had recolonized the area.  Cover values were greater than in nearby unburned forests;  forests can recover naturally from even very severe fires.  
 *Increased fire risk:  salvage logging provides the kind of fuels necessary to introduce ground fires into the canopy (Donato 2005). SL increases fuel loads for 20 years compared to controls (McIver and Ottmar 2007).
These burned trees will gradually decay and fall to the forest floor.  Some burned trees may take as much as 50 years to fall, providing valuable wildlife habitat all the while (Lindenmeyer 1997). If they were logged, most of the limbs and crowns would be left as "slash" that, if re-burned, would yield extremely high flame lengths and soil temperatures.
*Increased erosion: salvage logging has the potential to exacerbate erosional problems typically observed in burned watersheds (McIver and Starr 2000).
Natural post-fire erosion can deplete soil, further impairing vegetative recovery.  Human disturbance can compact soils and channelize flow paths, thereby exacerbating natural erosion.  

 *Reduced wildlife habitat:  Most wildlife species rely on dead trees in one way or another.  Of the 102 terrestrial vertebrate species in Washington State, over half (56) require dead tree boles (snags) to nest or den (Hutto 2006). Across the West, 150 species of vertebrates rely on dead trees for nesting or denning (Rose et al 2001).
Less than three months post-fire, bark beetles in the Jemez Mountains, NM were so active they created large piles of sawdust.  Needless to say, woodpeckers were extremely active in this area.

 *Impaired natural vegetation recovery: SL results in increased mortality of pine seedlings (Castro et al 2011).
A pine seedling emerges from the burned forest floor one year after a fire (with a little natural fertilizer thrown in to help).  This seedling would likely be crushed (and the elk dispersed) by salvage logging, necessitating an expensive tree-planting operation to compensate for destroyed natural recruitment and depleted natural fertilizers.
Yes, forest fires are a major natural disturbance to forest ecosystems.  But despite all the talk of unnatural "megafires", even the largest and hottest fires leave some legacy of the previous forest (e.g. burned trees). Logging is also a major disturbance to natural forest ecosystems, a disturbance that burned forests are less resilient to.  Multiple disturbances have cumulative effects on ecosystems, so compounding the damage to a burned forest by removing the remaining trees is much more damaging than logging without fire.

Going forward, there needs to be broader recognition of the ability of ecosystems to recover from natural disturbances and the essential role of biological legacies (in this case, dead burned trees) in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem processes (Lindenmeyer, Burton, and Franklin, 2008).  Those burned trees are hard at work shepherding the forest back to life, not wasted timber that must be "salvaged".

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And then there was 1....

AZ Star Article: Jaguar Tracks found at Site of Proposed Rosemont Mine
Possibly the only jaguar in the US.
The newspaper came out in favor of the mine several days later.  Many people think that Endangered Species on Federal lands are protected.  But the USFWS has decided that the mine would not significantly affect the overall population of jaguars throughout the Americas.  Even though it would make a lake out of the mountain whereupon resides the only (last) known jaguar in the US.   Many development or land management projects impact Threatened and Endangered species, with management plans written to address incidental take and to make a decision of No Significant Impact.  For example, the caves of several thousand Mexican Long-Nosed Bats (also Endangered) would be destroyed, but because this particular population of bats represents less than 10% of the remaining bats in AZ, the mine will be allowed to go ahead.