Tag Archives: Ecology

Compost.

If you need a good reason to compost your food waste, Kenneth Weiss provides it an article he wrote for Science magazine in May (Vancouver’s Green Dream, Science 20 May 2016, Vol. 352, Issue 6288, pp. 918-921, DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6288.918).  Weiss describes Vancouver’s efforts to combat climate change, among other environmental initiatives, by capturing methane generated in its landfills with extraction wells. Methane can be 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide, so rather than allow methane to escape to the atmosphere, Vancouver burns what it collects to generate useful heat.

Then the city discovered that about 40% of the methane generated in its landfills evaded the extraction wells and escaped to the atmosphere. Extraction wells can only capture so much, so Vancouver decided to do what other cities have begun, barring the food wastes and other compostable garbage that generates methane when buried in a landfill.

That meant convincing the city’s population (over 600,000 within the city limits alone) to keep their food wastes and other compostables out of the regular trash and save it for a separate collection. When that separate collection only happened every other week, compliance lagged, but when the frequency increased to weekly, the city experienced a 40% reduction in garbage while compost collections jumped 60%.

It’s coming, folks. We can’t afford to throw food and other recoverable garbage into landfills which not only tosses valuable nutrients out of reach, but also produces dangerous greenhouse emissions. If your town or city collects food scraps for composting, participate in the program. If they don’t, start your own compost bin. It’s not that difficult, and it will combat climate change.

 

Hungry Birds

Walking around the Apex Reservoir this afternoon I noticed a lone Double-crested cormorant paddling along. I kept an eye on him as I figured he’d soon be diving, and I was curious how far he’d go underwater. Sure enough he submerged, and I looked ahead five, ten yards to catch where he came up.

I stretched to see around trees that blocked my view, and noticed a Great blue heron standing tall and statue-like about three feet offshore. Then the cormorant surfaced, a white fish about 4 inches long wiggling in its beak. Before the first cormorant swallowed his catch, a second cormorant surfaced, also bearing white fish. As soon as the first cormorant downed his fish, he dove under and within seconds surfaced with another fish. Suddenly I noticed a third cormorant, also with white fish in its beak.

All this time the heron looked on, motionless, less than five yards away from the ongoing feast, beak empty.

The school of white fish under the surface continued to provide a late afternoon dinner for the trio of cormorants for another few minutes while the heron watched.

 

The Ozone Protocol: A Climate Change Precedent

The following letter appeared in the January 1, 2016 edition of the News and Observer, Raleigh, NC

News and Observer Letter

It’s deja vu all over again reading George Will (“Another false ‘turning point’,” N&O, 12/17) and Charles Krauthammer (“Obama’s legacy of fiction,” N&O, 12/18) whine about efforts to address climate change. Neither one considers the science or the history. In this case, it’s history worth repeating, not avoiding.

When the world faced the destruction of stratospheric ozone, 12 countries sat down in 1977 to plan how to negotiate a planet-wide pact. It took 10 years, and the outcome was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed by just 24 countries. It’s strength was flexibility, proven in the eight revisions made since 1987.

Now 197 countries are party to a protocol that includes monitoring, reporting, and critically, sanctions for noncompliance. Most important, it’s working, as the rates of emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals have dropped, and since 2000, the ozone layer has begun its slow process of recovery.

International agreements can succeed in addressing a global environmental crisis. The fits and starts seen in the attempts to address climate change might work faster if those with a monetary or political stake in burning fossil fuels would cease their misinformation campaigns, aided by the head-in-the-sand antics of Will and Krauthammer.

—Denis DuBay

P.S. See this article by Jennifer Morgan and Eliza Northrop,  “Form AND Function: Why the Paris Agreement’s Legal Form Is So Important” for confirmation that the Paris deal holds real promise, not unlike the situation with the Montreal Protocol when it was first signed my just 24 countries. It was published online December 16, 2015 by the World Resources Institute.

Plants in Space

Several weeks ago there was a big splash in the media about astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) eating lettuce they had grown in Earth orbit. Having once spent ten weeks on a faculty fellowship at Kennedy Space Center working on potential problems associated with growing plants in space, I was curious about the progress that had been made since I had that experience.

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Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev holds lettuce plants grown onboard the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA

Okay, I was more than a bit curious. I’m also writing a science fiction novel where plants grown in a greenhouse provide oxygen and food for the crew on a long-duration space mission. The reports from the ISS hardly dented the array of issues I’ve had to consider in creating a system that uses plants to provide crucial life-support for astronauts. By contrast, this recent story seemed almost trivial, a novelty. Astronauts had something better to eat for a change than vacuum-wrapped dry food or paste packaged months earlier back on Earth. I know NASA has grown plants in space for years. Is this the first time astronauts have officially eaten something they’ve grown in orbit? Really?

In fact, I have come up with a list of questions I hope to pose to NASA public relations contacts about plants in space. My questions follow below, and if anyone reading this list either has an answer, knows where I can find an answer, or knows who I might ask for an answer, please reply with a comment to this post.

1. Was the recent event on the ISS the first time space-grown plants have been eaten by astronauts in orbit?

I’ve found a tantalizing hint or two of other astronauts or cosmonauts eating space-grown food unofficially. But it seems that most space-grown plants were harvested and frozen or otherwise stored for shipment back to earth. Which leads to my next question.

2. Have space-grown plants ever been eaten by Earth-bound scientists before?

So if the space-grown veggies were promptly shipped back to Earth, did they get taste-tested there? I’ve gathered hints here and there about concerns that space-grown plants might not be safe for human consumption. I have to admit this sounds a bit like the worries about the safety of genetically-modified crops (GMCs). If it grows like a leaf of lettuce, is the same color – green, and looks like a lettuce leaf… Which leads to the next question.

3. Have toxic compounds ever been discovered in space-grown plants as a result of their growth in microgravity?

If it’s a serious concern, and not the wide-eyed speculations of someone who would rather bring food up to orbit from traditional farms back on good old planet Earth, then presumably space-grown plants have been tested for their safety. Has anything been found to justify further testing, or can our astronauts relax and enjoy any veggies they find the time and space to grow up there in the Space Station?

My last question, for now, goes back a bit further than the International Space Station and even the Space Shuttle. I think I know the official answer to this one, but it was a long boring ride (when nothing went wrong anyhow) from Earth orbit to the Moon.

4. Were plants ever grown by Apollo astronauts on a lunar landing mission either on the Moon or on the way there?

Once again, if you know part of an answer to any of these questions, please share. Even if you’re not sure, share your speculations. Or if you know where I might find an answer, or who I might ask, speak up. And thanks in advance.

We (North Carolina that is) can do better!

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One of two Prius’s (Prii?) owned by my daughter and her husband!

As the owner of two hybrid vehicles (a Prius and a Honda Civic hybrid), I take exception with Donald van der Vaart and his comparison of North Carolina to a Prius among old gas-guzzling Cadillacs. I love the old north state, and we’ve done well to reduce our power plant pollution, but we’re not so far ahead of the pack that we can’t improve. And the new federal Clean Power Plan seems a reasonable method to do so. Hence I sent the following missive, which I would entitle, We can do better, to the News and Observer:
– – – – – – –
Donald van der Vaart, secretary of our state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, suggested (N&O 8/15/15) that asking us to follow new federal regulations governing carbon emissions from power plants was like “…asking North Carolina to make a Prius more efficient while our neighbors are driving 1972 Cadillacs.”

Examining population data with carbon emissions from coal burning for all 50 states, North Carolina ranks 25th in per capita carbon emissions from coal burning (US EIA, http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/) at 5.3 tons of carbon per person per year. Compared to our neighbors, we’re also in the middle. Tennessee stands at 6.3, South Carolina at 6.1, and Virginia at 2.6.

As a state, North Carolina ranks in the middle of a country that emits much more carbon per person than most nations on the planet. The US ranks 198th out of 215 countries in that statistic, with our total carbon emissions per person topping twice the world average. We emit more carbon per person than other highly developed countries such as Canada, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Italy, and France, among many others.

Hardly makes us a Prius in the midst of old Cadillacs. We can do better, Mr. Secretary.

—Denis DuBay.

AIRSPACE CROWDING

As a general aviation pilot, a story about increasing conflicts among fliers sharing the skies overhead carries an intrinsic interest with a safety overtone. As a biologist and a birder, realizing the story is about wildlife-human aerial interactions awakens quite a different interest, still with a safety overtone.

Sergio Lambertucci, a wildlife ecologist at the National University of Comahue in Argentina, along with Emily Shepard, and Rory Wilson, wildlife scientists at Swansea University in the UK, outline the evidence in a thorough review of where and when human and wildlife uses of airspace can lead to problems (see Science magazine, 1 May 2015, 348(6234), pp. 502-504).

Lambertucci et al. include on the human side what you would expect, fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters, and of course, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. But you may be surprised that human use of the near-surface airspace extends beyond aircraft. Buildings, wind turbines, power lines, and antennae also project well into the lowest hundred meters of airspace within which most flying animals operate.

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Piper Cherokee wing over West Virginia headed to Oshkosh

These three inclusive thinkers also remind their readers that less visible life forms exploit earth’s airspace; bacteria, algae, and fungi. I must admit, even wearing my biologist hat I never considered the impact of our use of airspace on microbial life. But aerial microorganisms can serve as condensation nuclei promoting cloud formation. Changes in the abundance and distribution of these organisms as a result of air pollution and wind flow patterns altered by tall buildings can impact precipitation and weather.
 
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Bald eagle over Jordan Lake dam, North Carolina

Key to mitigating adverse impacts of human activities is a better understanding of just how and where and when wildlife use airspace. Beyond the obvious bird migration patterns that can extend across continental and oceanic boundaries, think about the more mundane, daily use of airspace by our avian friends to find food, mates, and nesting space. These smaller scale dynamics require understanding animal movements in the horizontal and vertical dimensions at scales from meters to kilometers, and how these uses change during the course of a 24-hour day.

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Great blue heron over the Apex Reservoir, North Carolina
 
Armed with better knowledge of wildlife habits of airspace utilization we can design and place buildings and other structures to minimize conflicts. Windows can include markers to alert flying animals, the newest technologies employing ultraviolet lights highly visible to birds. Radar can detect approaching flocks of birds and enable structural modifications to limit impacts, such as reducing wind turbine speeds. In selected instances, full-time or time-sensitive airspace reserves might provide the best alternatives.
 
With over 500 hours in the left seat of single engine aircraft, I’ve only come close to a vulture or other bird a handful of times, almost always in the landing or take-off pattern. But as Lambertucci et al. report, there have been over two hundred people killed by birds striking aircraft, and the cost of bird strikes in the U.S. alone exceeds $900 million per year. One year, 2013, saw 11,315 bird strikes. Better understanding of wildlife use of airspace at small and large scales should enable us to reduce these and the variety of more subtle human-wildlife conflicts in our skies.

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A student’s father took me up in his Christen Eagle!

 

The Evolution of Aerial Combat

Luna moth resting on a screen at the Len Foote Hike Inn in north GeorgiaIMG_3015

This was one of a few luna moths we saw while we were hiking this May in Amicalola Falls State Park in the north Georgia mountains. With apparently little to do in the daylight hours, these huge specimens mostly just hung around our lovely accommodations at the Len Foote Hike Inn. When nighttime comes, things might get a bit busier.

Luna moths, as large and impressive looking as they are, have little chance against the weight and teeth of a hungry bat. But as long ago as 1903 a published report suggested that the extended hindwing tails dragging behind the wings of saturniid moths, the family of moths that include luna moths, might serve to divert bat attacks away from crucial parts of the moth’s body. The hindwing tail may present an acoustic return of the bat’s sonar that proves more attractive than the main wings and body of these moths. Evidence of this was discovered by Jesse Barber and colleagues at Boise State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The expendable hindwing tail does little to improve basic flight.IMG_3014

They presented luna moths with and without their hindwing tails to big brown bats in controlled settings and found that bats captured only 34% of moths with intact tails, but captured 81% of bats with their hindwing tails removed. Tail removal did not otherwise injure or significantly alter the flight characteristics of the moths.

The link below is infrared video of a big brown bat’s unsuccessful attack of a luna moth. The bat appears to aim for the hindwing tail, and even though the moth seems to lose part of its tail in the attack, it escapes.

BAT ATTACK VIDEO

Between 1937 and 1942, human technology, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not, suggested imitating nature. British researchers thought that dropping strips of aluminum foil from aircraft might deflect German radar and allow British bombers to remain undetected as they approached targets over Germany during World War II. They called this dropped chaff, Window, and it appeared to work. German fighters could not be vectored to meet the approaching bombers, and ground-based anti-aircraft fire had to rely on visual sightings rather than advance alerts from radar.

Today, military aircraft flying in harm’s way fire flares behind them to distract enemy anti-aircraft missiles. The heat of the burning flare will attract the heat-seeking missile away from the vulnerable and slow-moving aircraft.

Seahawk helicopter firing anti-missile flares.chaff_Seahawk

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Jesse R. Barber, et al. 2015. Moth tails divert bat attack: Evolution of acoustic deflection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112 no. 9, p. 2812–2816, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421926112 Continue reading

CLEAN COAL: A COLLAPSE OF CHICANERY?

The U.S. Department of Energy has for the second time decided to terminate its financial support of the attempt to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The concept of “clean coal” depends on the ability to capture and inactivate or permanently store the carbon dioxide emissions and other contaminants otherwise released when coal is burned to produce electricity.

The following undated statement appears at the very bottom of the FUTUREGEN 2.0 page of the federal government’s energy.gov Office of Fossil Energy website under the banner, CLOSEOUT OF FEDERAL SUPPORT.

“Due to statutory restraints under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Department of Energy initiated a structured closeout of federal support for the FutureGen 2.0 project in February 2015. Although federal support for the project has ended, FutureGen 2.0 provided tangible benefits and valuable information, particularly with regard to oxy-combustion technology and storage site characterization.”

It is unclear whether, without continued federal support, FutureGen will continue. Of course it was an open question whether “clean coal” would ever be feasible. Retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants with CCS was an expensive proposition from the beginning. Companies burn coal because it can be obtained without paying the health and environmental costs of mining it, and without paying the health and environmental costs of burning it. In other words, we mine and burn coal to produce electricity because our government has structured the energy industry in such a way that it is cheap to do so.

We could choose to make the energy industry pay those health and environmental costs of coal up front, passing the costs on to consumers of the electricity, or we could avoid some of those health and environmental costs by paying to capture and isolate or destroy the carbon dioxide and other pollutants produced from burning coal. Either choice would turn coal into an expensive and likely unaffordable source of energy, not something that would gladden the hearts of the rich industrial giants burning it.

CCS has been sponsored off and on by the federal government since 2003. It is an open question whether or not CCS would ever have been affordable. It is also an open question whether or not the very concept of “clean coal” was anything more than a wistful oxymoron that those in the know knew would never really happen.

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Kaiparowits coal-burning power plant in Arizona, July 2004

February’s Bird-of-the-Month

Sunset’s shadow fell about two-thirds of the way up the wall of tall pine trees lining the eastern shore of the lake. I thought it would be neat to get the rising shadow on video, but realized it would progress too slowly to enjoy in real time, perhaps a time-lapse would work. A blustery northwest wind pushed a few swells larger than I usually see on this three-quarter mile long, tree-shrouded lake. A rusty red-brown bird blew in on one gust, soaring down over the lake. Hawk. It pivoted in the winds, dark in the shadows below the sunset. Its swerve sent it streaking back up into the dying sun, shining pale yellow underwings bright against the darkened sky. Another gust and turn and it dived back into the shadows below, swiveling in a tight circle near the shoreline, searching for dinner? Then back up on the next bluster, seeming to enjoy playing the momentary meteor. Better than a time-lapse video of a slowly settling sun, this hawk swiftly banked around for one last flash of yellow before a few shallow beats of brown-red wings sent it up and over the treeline with the sunset. sunset021215 Sunset over the Apex Reservoir 5:45 PM on February 12, 2015

January’s bird-of-the-month

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Heard this red-shouldered hawk somewhere in my backyard a couple days ago. Difficult to triangulate his location, but after a while I recalled these guys are often lower than you think, so I aimed closer to the ground and found him, only about 20 feet up on a branch, just biding his time. He looked so relaxed and comfortable I went back in the house, grabbed the camera, mounted the telephoto lens, and went back outside. Sure enough, he was waiting patiently. He posed for about 15 minutes. I was waiting for him to fly so I could get a good shot of his wings extended. From time to time I had to lower the camera from my eyes to rest my arms. Fingers were getting numb and feet were beginning to ache. I walked around, waved at him, talked to him. He sat and looked at me and looked all around. Finally I figured I would try to get him to fly, so I tossed a stick into the air under the branch on which he was perched. He stretched, which is the picture above, but didn’t fly right away. He waited another minute until I lowered the camera and glanced away for a second. By the time I could re-aim and shoot, he was 20 yards away and moving fast. I did manage to get his wings to show up in one frame, but it was not a good picture. This was the best of over 50 I took. Note he’s holding on with only his right claw. He’s stretching his left leg out, the left claw is below the branch. He appears to have been stretching his shoulder and wing or tail feathers as well, getting ready to fly.