Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Natalie Wolchover reports in Quanta:
Nestled in the northern Wisconsin woods, Peter Lake once brimmed with golden shiners, fatheads and other minnows, which plucked algae-eating fleas from the murky water. Then, seven years ago, a crew of ecologists began stepping up the lake’s population of predatory largemouth bass. To the 39 bass already present, they added 12, then 15 more a year later, and another 15 a month after that. The bass hunted down the minnows and drove survivors to the rocky shoreline, which gave fleas free rein to multiply and pick the water clean. Meanwhile, bass hatchlings — formerly gobbled up by the minnows — flourished, and in 2010, the bass population exploded to more than 1,000. The original algae-laced, minnow-dominated ecosystem was gone, and the reign of bass in clear water began.
[Here is a before (bottom) and after (top) photo – LG]
Today, largemouth bass still swim rampant. “Once that top predator is dominant, it’s very hard to dislodge,” said Stephen Carpenter, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the experiment. “You could do it, but it’s gonna cost you.”
The Peter Lake experiment demonstrated a well-known problem with complex systems: They are sensitive beasts. Just as when the Earth periodically plunges into an ice age, or when grasslands turn to desert, fisheries suddenly collapse, or a person slumps into a deep depression, systems can drift toward an invisible edge, where only a small change is needed to touch off a dramatic and often disastrous transformation. But systems that exhibit such “critical transitions” tend to be so complicated and riddled with feedback loops that experts cannot hope to calculate in advance where their tipping points lie — or how much additional tampering they can withstand before snapping irrevocably into a new state.
At Peter Lake, though, Carpenter and his team saw the critical transition coming. Rowing from trap to trap counting wriggling minnows and harvesting other data every day for three summers, the researchers captured the first field evidence of an early-warning signal that is theorized to arise in many complex systems as they drift toward their unknown points of no return.
The signal, a phenomenon called “critical slowing down,” is a lengthening of the time that a system takes to recover from small disturbances, such as a disease that reduces the minnow population, in the vicinity of a critical transition. It occurs because a system’s internal stabilizing forces — whatever they might be — become weaker near the point at which they suddenly propel the system toward a different state.
Since the Peter Lake study, interest in critical slowing down has spread across disciplines, bringing with it the hope of foreseeing and preventing a plethora of catastrophic failures. As theoreticians refine their understanding of the phenomenon, experimentalists are gathering further evidence of it in a mix of real-world systems.
“We have all these complex systems like the brain, the climate, ecosystems, the financial market, that are really difficult to understand, and we will probably never fully understand them,” said Marten Scheffer, a complex systems theorist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “So it’s really kind of a small miracle that across these very different systems, we could find these universal indicators of how close they are to a threshold.”
Experts stress that the study of critical slowing down is in its early stages, and not yet ready to serve as a call to action in the management of real systems. In some cases, responding to the signal might save an endangered species, a patient’s mental health, or an industry. But in other types of complex systems that have been studied mathematically — such as food webs that, unlike Peter Lake’s, are so chaotic that they do not exhibit critical transitions at all — the same signal might be a false alarm. Carpenter, who has returned to Peter Lake for a new experiment, says much more research is needed to sort out these different cases. In the meantime, he said, “don’t try this at home.”
One Fish Two Fish
An outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, hunting and training a flamethrower on nonnative plants around his cottage in southwestern Wisconsin, Carpenter “sees the big picture faster and better than most scientists,” said Michael Pace, an ecologist at the University of Virginia and a collaborator. Carpenter has worked on and off for 35 years at the experimental reserve where Peter Lake is located, making use of the relatively closed systems that lakes provide to test big ideas in complexity theory. Critical slowing down, as an idea, can be traced back at least as far as the 1950s, when physicists theorized that it would arise in certain properties of matter near a phase change. But as Carpenter tells it, the potential usefulness of critical slowing down went unrecognized until a boozy conversation in 2003 at a restaurant-bar in Tobago, where he and several colleagues had gathered for a conference. . .
Stephan Buranyi reports in Motherboard:
Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was only sworn on November 6, but his government has already taken steps to address one of its predecessor’s most toxic legacies: the so called “muzzling” of government scientists.
Last Friday, scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported that they had been told they were allowed to speak to the media about their research without restrictions. And later in the day the newly appointed Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, suggested that the restrictive policies of the previous government were ending.
“Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public,” he is quoted as saying in a statement released by his office.
If things are really changing, we should be able to hear it from the scientists themselves—so I called scientists in several government departments who were at the center of muzzling controversies over the past ten years. In many cases it was the first time they’ve been able to speak about their research and experiences publicly since the previous government came into power in 2006.
“I’m really pleased to talk to you, and it’s so good to be back,” said Dr. Max Bothwell, an Environment Canada researcher, who I reached at his office on Vancouver Island.
It’s the first time in nearly a decade I’ve been able to speak with a Canadian government scientist directly, on the telephone, without spending days or weeks clearing the request through a media officer and submitting a list of questions for editing and approval.
In 2014 The Canadian Press tried to ask about a paper Dr. Bothwell published onDidymosphenia geminata, a species of algae wreaking havoc in Canadian waterways, but the interview was refused by Environment Canada. Document’s obtained by journalists through Access to Information requests showed that there were 110 pages of emails amongst 16 different communications officers discussing the request—and Dr. Bothwell, as if behind glass, was arguing with them about interview scripts and approved statements, trying to get his answers out.
During our conversation Dr. Bothwell made reference to the “nightmare” being over. After Trdueau was sworn in as Prime Minister, he heard about Fisheries scientists being given the permission to speak in the news, and emailed around Environment Canada looking for an answer. “I got a phone call from my boss saying, pick up the phone Max, you can talk to anyone about your science,” he said.
Dr. Kristi Miller heard the news directly from her manager before the rest of Fisheries and Oceans Canada; they anticipated the press would be calling her. After Dr. Miller was restricted from speaking about her 2011 paper on declining salmon stocks, published in the journal Science, her case became perhaps the most cited example of muzzling, and one of the few cases reported outside of Canada.
She recalls that during the Harper years how things went from bad to worse. “Over time the limitations kept growing and there would be more and more bureaucracy to go through to speak to the media—starting with only answering questions provided in writing, and getting so bad that the communications people would write the answers,” she told me.
But now that they can speak openly, both scientists are more interested in talking about their current research than their silent past (though Dr. Miller says there’s a joke going around her office that Trudeau may reverse the muzzling decision once everyone realizes how boring scientists are).
Dr. Miller is working on a large scale genomic platform that will test fish for a huge number of fish disease agents at once and compare populations worldwide. ”We usually look for technology that’s used in the human medical arena first, this is the first time in my twenty year career that we’re ahead of the human medical world,” she explained.
As for Dr. Bothwell, he’s found some surprising things about the ”invasive” algae he studies. . .
In fact, if I read this in a science fiction novel, it would evoke the desperation of a dying civilization on a planet whose natural resources were heading for depletion. I’m just sayin’.
Astounding. This takes self-investigation and self-policing to a new level, and raises serious questions about the EPA’s ability to do its mission—and indeed about EPA’s understanding of its mission. Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:
The Environmental Protection Agency concluded in June that there was “no convincing evidence” that glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and the world, is an endocrine disruptor.
On the face of it, this was great news, given that some 300 million pounds of the chemical were used on U.S. crops in 2012, the most recent year measured, and endocrine disruption has been linked to a range of serious health effects, including cancer, infertility, and diabetes. Monsanto, which sells glyphosate under the name Roundup, certainly felt good about it. “I was happy to see that the safety profile of one of our products was upheld by an independent regulatory agency,” wrote Steve Levine on Monsanto’s blog.
But the EPA’s exoneration — which means that the agency will not require additional tests of the chemical’s effects on the hormonal system — is undercut by the fact that the decision was based almost entirely on pesticide industry studies. Only five independently funded studies were considered in the review of whether glyphosate interferes with the endocrine system. Twenty-seven out of 32 studies that looked at glyphosate’s effect on hormones and were cited in the June review — most of which are not publicly available and were obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request — were either conducted or funded by industry. Most of the studies were sponsored by Monsanto or an industry group called the Joint Glyphosate Task Force. One study was by Syngenta, which sells its own glyphosate-containing herbicide, Touchdown.
Findings of Harm Were Dismissed
Who pays for studies matters, according to The Intercept’s review of the evidence used in the EPA’s decision. Of the small minority of independently funded studies that the agency considered in determining whether the chemical poses a danger to the endocrine system, three of five found that it did. One, for instance, found that exposure to glyphosate-Roundup “may induce significant adverse effects on the reproductive system of male Wistar rats at puberty and during adulthood.” Another concluded that “low and environmentally relevant concentrations of glyphosate possessed estrogenic activity.” And a review of the literature turns up many more peer-reviewed studies finding glyphosate can interfere with hormones, affecting such things as hormonal activity in human liver cells, functioning of rat sperm, and the sex ratio of exposed tadpoles.
Yet, of the 27 industry studies, none concluded that glyphosate caused harm. Only one admitted that the pesticide might have had a role in causing the health problems observed in lab animals exposed to it. Some rats that consumed it were more likely to have to have soft stools, reduced body weight, and smaller litters. But because that evidence didn’t meet a test of statistical significance, the authors of the Monsanto study deemed it “equivocal.”
Indeed, many of the industry-funded studies contained data that suggested that exposure to glyphosate had serious effects, including a decrease in the number of viable fetuses and fetal body weight in rats; inflammation of hormone-producing cells in the pancreas of rats; and increases in the number of pancreatic cancers in rats. Each is an endocrine-related outcome. Yet in each case, sometimes even after animals died, the scientists found reasons to discount the findings — or to simply dismiss them.
When rats exposed to glyphosate had a decreased number of pregnancies that implanted, for instance, the authors of a 1980 Monsanto-sponsored study explained that “since ovulation and implantation occurred prior to treatment, the decreases … were not considered to be treatment related.” Although they noted that the decrease in implantations and viable fetuses was “statistically significant,” the authors nonetheless concluded that the decrease in implantations was a random occurrence.
While recent research has shown that very low doses of endocrine disruptors can not only have health effects but effects that are more dramatic than those caused by higher doses, some of the studies dismiss clear examples of harm because they occur in animals given relatively low doses of the substance. A study prepared by Monsanto in 1990, for instance, . . .
Coral Davenport, Josh Haner, Larry Buchanan, and Derek Watkins report on an expedition to gather data on the melting and eventual collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, a collapse that will raise ocean levels by 20 feet, but will happen over decades. Still, the process is underway, as the article makes clear. The graphics are astonishing, especially the zooming in on the scientists’ camp on the ice sheet. The article begins:
ON THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET — The midnight sun still gleamed at 1 a.m. across the brilliant expanse of the Greenland ice sheet. Brandon Overstreet, a doctoral candidate in hydrology at the University of Wyoming, picked his way across the frozen landscape, clipped his climbing harness to an anchor in the ice and crept toward the edge of a river that rushed downstream toward an enormous sinkhole.
If he fell in, “the death rate is 100 percent,” said Mr. Overstreet’s friend and fellow researcher, Lincoln Pitcher.
But Mr. Overstreet’s task, to collect critical data from the river, is essential to understanding one of the most consequential impacts of global warming. The scientific data he and a team of six other researchers collect here could yield groundbreaking information on the rate at which the melting of Greenland ice sheet, one of the biggest and fastest-melting chunks of ice on Earth, will drive up sea levels in the coming decades. The full melting of Greenland’s ice sheet could increase sea levels by about 20 feet.
“We scientists love to sit at our computers and use climate models to make those predictions,” said Laurence C. Smith, head of the geography department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the leader of the team that worked in Greenland this summer. “But to really know what’s happening, that kind of understanding can only come about through empirical measurements in the field.”
For years, scientists have studied the impact of the planet’s warming on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. But while researchers have satellite images to track the icebergs that break off, and have created models to simulate the thawing, they have little on-the-ground information and so have trouble predicting precisely how fast sea levels will rise. . .
It’s amazing to me that still there are people who deny that global warming is happening, though the arguments they offer in defense of their position grow increasingly strained. And in the meantime, in the real world, we continue to suffer the effects. Another interesting note in this regard is Eric Kleinenberg’s piece in the New Yorker on what is being done to prepare the New York City area for the next Hurricane Sandy:
rricane Patricia, which hit southwestern Mexico last weekend, was the largest recorded hurricane to make landfall off the Pacific, but it was not the only historic storm this October. At the beginning of the month, a tropical weather system formed southwest of Bermuda and intensified into a Category 4 hurricane, with heavy rain and surface winds reaching a hundred and fifty-five miles per hour. Meteorologists called it Joaquin, and predicted that the dangerous storm would soon turn northeast. According to their models, New York City and the surrounding coastal region fell directly within the “cone of uncertainty” where Joaquin could make landfall. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo activated the State Emergency Operations Center, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency, warning that major flooding events were likely. No one wanted to be caught unprepared. (Joaquin did turn out to be lethal and devastating–but in South Carolina, where it joined with other storms to cause severe flooding and fifteen deaths, and in the Bahamas, where it slammed several islands and sank a cargo ship, killing all thirty-three of its crewmembers.)
One clear consequence of Superstorm Sandy, which struck the New York City area in 2012, is that everyone, even climate-change deniers, takes planning for extreme weather events more seriously. After Sandy, I reported on why the region’s vital systems for energy, transit, health care, and communications proved so vulnerable to the storm surge. Since then, federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars to rebuild critical infrastructure; hospitals and utilities providers have made major investments in climate security; and “resilience” has become a buzzword in philanthropic and policy circles. Neither adaptation nor resilience is a sufficient response to global warming. Mitigation, which requires converting to an energy system based on renewable resources like sun and wind, is far more urgent. But because the carbon dioxide that we’ve already emitted will produce many decades of rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and more dangerous weather, we have no choice but to adapt. This week, the third anniversary of Sandy, is a fine time to ask what changes the superstorm inspired, and what work remains.
During Sandy, corrosive stormwater quickly inundated the subterranean arteries that connect New York and New Jersey, generating widespread damage and causing years of episodic delays on Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Battery tunnels, as workers slowly repair what is, at best, a woefully inadequate transit system. In New York City, the M.T.A. received four billion dollars in federal money for Sandy recovery and resiliency work, which it has spent on innovative deployable flood barriers, such as the Flex Gate and the Resilient Tunnel Plug, more water-resistant submarine cable, two new pump trains, and structural improvements to the tunnels. But Klaus Jacob, the Columbia University geophysicist who issued prophetic warnings about the city’s fragile infrastructure before Sandy, worries about other openings, “like subway entrances and open-sidewalk ventilation grids.” As he sees it, despite the system upgrades, “most M.T.A. facilities and operations remain vulnerable.”
Jacob is also concerned about the fragile power grid, where breakdowns left eight million households without power during Sandy, some for two weeks. On Long Island, where trustees of the Long Island Power Authority spent just thirty-nine seconds discussing Sandy during a two-hour meeting that took place four days before Sandy hit, and ninety per cent of its 1.1 million customers lost electricity, improving system performance has become imperative. After Sandy, Governor Cuomo vowed to end the “tragedy ofLIPA,” and in 2014 the Public Service Enterprise Group (P.S.E.G.) became the area’s main utilities provider. Since taking over, P.S.E.G. has engaged a year-round tree-trimming program to reduce the risk of downed lines, fortified low-elevation substations, updated transmission and distribution systems, and improved its outage-management system. These changes should provide modest improvements, but an energy system that transmits power across wires hoisted on poles that rest beneath trees will always be susceptible to outages in high winds. No wonder so many Long Islanders have purchased private generators for the blackouts to come.
In New York City, where more than half of local power plants are in the hundred-year flood plain, the storm surge from Sandy breached the walls at Con Ed’s East Village substation and caused a five-day blackout in downtown Manhattan. Today, thanks to higher protective barriers and elevated equipment at power stations, a recurrence on that scale is less likely—unless, of course, there’s a prolonged and severe heat wave, akin to the three-week disaster that hit Europe in 2003, and soaring demand proves impossible to meet.
Heat and wind, I learned, are what currently worry leaders of New York City’s medical system, who have spent the past three years protecting against water. . .
Melissa Cronin reports in Motherboard:
After an investigation found that ExxonMobil has been funding climate-denying organizations—despite the findings of its own scientists on climate change—the world’s fourth-largest oil company is now going after the journalists who revealed it.
Evidence that ExxonMobil has been deliberately leading a campaign of misinformation about climate change for decades began cropping up after InsideClimate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication, led an investigation into the company.
Shortly after the investigation was released, Exxon released a statement denouncing the reports, saying that the they “wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers.”
Exxon also called InsideClimate News an “anti-oil and gas activist organization,” and claimed that that site and the Los Angeles Times, which also reported on the documents, “ignored evidence provided by the company” about climate change research.
Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil’s vice president of public and government affairs queued up a series of tweets and sub-tweets and proceeded to blast them out at InsideClimate, political figures, journalists, and anyone who’d listen.
In response to Cohen’s tweets, David Sassoon, InsideClimate’s publisher, said that it was “Odd that he has only one thing to say, over and over, like a broken record.”
“We are a news organization with a track record of excellence,” Sassoon told Motherboard. “Facing a possible Department of Justice investigation, it’s not prudent for Exxon to say otherwise, and mislead its own shareholders. They might be wrongly persuaded to discount the seriousness of what we have uncovered.”
When asked about the particular journalists and activists Cohen was targeting on Twitter, Alan Jeffers, a media relations manager for Exxon, said that the company “doesn’t have any comment on their motives.” . . .
The article obviously hit home—so: attack the messenger. Directly. They obviously cannot appeal to the law. Calumny is the only tool they have, since they are absolutely guilty as charged based on their own documents and words.