2012 June 06 Wednesday
Earth Ecological Collapse Approaching?

A huge ecological shift headed our way in the 21st century?

Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 18 scientists, including one from Simon Fraser University, predict we're on a much worse collision course with Mother Nature than currently thought.

In Approaching a state-shift in Earth's biosphere, a paper just published in Nature, the authors, whose expertise span a multitude of disciplines, suggest our planet's ecosystems are careening towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.

Earth's accelerating loss of biodiversity, its climates' increasingly extreme fluctuations, its ecosystems' growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget are precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point.

Once that happens, which the authors predict could be reached this century, the planet's ecosystems, as we know them, could irreversibly collapse in the proverbial blink of an eye.

As humans replace more of the wilderness with cities and farms the planet loses stabilizing buffer areas. Ecosystems become simpler and more vulnerable to shocks. We humans manage more of the Earth's surface and seas we will have to become far more skilled at managing human-made ecosystems.

Maybe we'll develop the ability to model ecosystems in really complex computer simulations and these simulations might tell us where disaster looms and how to avert it. Then again, once the computers alert us to an approaching problem governments and their populaces may show themselves unwilling to make the needed levels of sacrifice.

The authors promote solutions that seem unlikely to be put into place.

The authors recommend governments undertake five actions immediately if we are to have any hope of delaying or minimizing a planetary-state-shift. Arne Mooers, an SFU biodiversity professor and a co-author of this study, summarizes them as follows.

"Society globally has to collectively decide that we need to drastically lower our population very quickly. More of us need to move to optimal areas at higher density and let parts of the planet recover. Folks like us have to be forced to be materially poorer, at least in the short term. We also need to invest a lot more in creating technologies to produce and distribute food without eating up more land and wild species. It's a very tall order."

I do not expect governments and their populaces to be willing to make very large sacrifices . Population growth and economic growth seem on course to cause the loss of many species and the expansion of human habitats at the expense of dwindling wild habitats. I'd like to proven wrong on this point.

Some regions of the world may already be past a tipping point.

Coauthor Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said "we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world. I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood – wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers. We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth."

The authors note that studies of small-scale ecosystems show that once 50-90 percent of an area has been altered, the entire ecosystem tips irreversibly into a state far different from the original, in terms of the mix of plant and animal species and their interactions. This situation typically is accompanied by species extinctions and a loss of biodiversity.

Overpopulation is the root cause. That used to be a major concern of environmentalists back in the 1970s. Are environmentalists going to reawaken to the problem as the situation becomes more dire?

Currently, to support a population of 7 billion people, about 43 percent of Earth's land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use, with roads cutting through much of the remainder. The population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045; at that rate, current trends suggest that half Earth's land surface will be disturbed by 2025. To Barnosky, this is disturbingly close to a global tipping point.

Since the human population is going to rise and since industrialization will increase the land used per person it seems hard to imagine how we'll avoid the tipping point.

Currently, to support a population of 7 billion people, about 43 percent of Earth's land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use, with roads cutting through much of the remainder. The population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045; at that rate, current trends suggest that half Earth's land surface will be disturbed by 2025. To Barnosky, this is disturbingly close to a global tipping point.

Say good bye to lots of species.

"We believe that ongoing loss of biological diversity is diminishing the ability of ecosystems to sustain human societies," says Andrew Gonzalez, Associate Professor with the Department of Biology and the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science at McGill University and author on the paper.

I'm pretty bearish on the 21st century future of Earth from an ecological standpoint.

By Randall Parker    2012 June 06 10:17 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (79)
2012 March 06 Tuesday
CO2 Driving Biggest Ocean Chemistry Changes In 300M Years?

An article in Wired takes a look at a new research paper on how the current rate of ocean acidification compares to previous episodes over the last 300 million years. How about a shift in ocean acidity at a speed and magnitude greater than the last 300 million years?

The authors conclude, “[T]he current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 [million years] of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”

Ocean acidification worries me. In theory we could do climate engineering to prevent the worst of global warming. But CO2 is going to dissolve into the oceans and do so at a rate that could easily exceed the ability of species to evolve adaptations.

I think the continued rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is inevitable unless either much cheaper substitutes for fossil fuels are developed (and I agree with those who think major energy innovations take a long time) or Peak Oil, Peak Coal, and Peak Natural Gas cause huge cuts in fossil fuels usage. While I'm confident Peak Oil is near the picture with natural gas especially is unclear.

If a clearer picture emerges that CO2-caused damage to ocean ecosystems will be extensive maybe we could find the political will to use tree growing combined with tree submersion in deep waters to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. But at least for the next couple of decades the tragedy of the commons seems a more likely outcome.

By Randall Parker    2012 March 06 08:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (90)
2007 August 02 Thursday
Carnivore Birds Protect Pine Trees From Herbivore Insects

Those of you moved by my story Heroic Wolves Save Glorious Aspens From Evil Elks about how the carnivores are the good guys will no doubt be delighted to learn that carnivore birds protect trees from evil vegetarian insects.

Chickadees, nuthatches and warblers foraging their way through forests have been shown to spur the growth of pine trees in the West by as much as one-third, according to a new University of Colorado at Boulder study.

The study showed birds removed various species of beetles, caterpillars, ants and aphids from tree branches, increasing the vigor of the trees, said study author Kailen Mooney. Mooney, who conducted the study as part of his doctoral research in CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department, said it is the first study to demonstrate that birds can affect the growth of conifers.

"In a nutshell, the study shows that the presence of these birds in pine forests increased the growth of the trees by helping to rid them of damaging insects," said Mooney. "From the standpoint of the trees, it appears that the old adage, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' holds true."

A paper on the subject by Mooney was published in the August issue of Ecology, a monthly science journal. Mooney, who received his doctorate from CU-Boulder in 2004, will become a biology department faculty member at the University of California, Irvine, in fall 2007.

In the study, Mooney used mesh netting to exclude birds from ponderosa pine limbs in the U.S. Forest Service-managed Manitou Springs Experimental Forest northwest of Colorado Springs for three years. The results showed that branches on 42 trees rigged to exclude birds had 18 percent less foliage and 34 percent less wood growth by the end of the study.

Mooney collected about 150,000 insect specimens from the mountain study area, identifying more than 300 separate spider and insect species collectively known as arthropods. The trees used in the study were set up to exclude birds, ants, or both, since ants also can have significant impacts on other arthropods, he said.

Carnivorous birds and wolves toil to protect forests from their natural enemies. What great animals. Cheer them on as they kill, kill, kill!

By Randall Parker    2007 August 02 08:51 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2007 July 28 Saturday
Heroic Wolves Save Glorious Aspens From Evil Elks

No, I'm not talking about the people and buildings in Aspen Colorado. Aspen Colorado's roads and buildings exist instead of trees after all. I'm talking about how wolves play a more clearly beneficial role than the Smokey the Bear cartoon in allowing forests to grow. (by "more clearly" I'm referring to how the US Forest Service prevents smaller fires and therefore causes bigger fires that are far more damaging to trees)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The wolves are back, and for the first time in more than 50 years, young aspen trees are growing again in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park.

The wolves serve as a deterrent force based on fear who protect the Aspens from the ravenous tree eaters.

The findings of a new study, just published in Biological Conservation, show that a process called “the ecology of fear” is at work, a balance has been restored to an important natural ecosystem, and aspen trees are surviving elk browsing for the first time in decades.

The research, done by forestry researchers at Oregon State University, supports theories about “trophic cascades” of ecological damage that can be caused when key predators – in this case, wolves – are removed from an ecosystem, and show that recovery is possible when the predators are returned. The results are especially encouraging for the health of America’s first national park, but may also have implications for other areas of the West and other important predators.

After an absence of 70 years, wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone Park in 1995, and elk populations began a steady decline, cut in half over the past decade. Also, the presence of a natural predator appears to have altered the behavior of the remaining elk, which in their fear of wolves tend to avoid browsing in certain areas where they feel most vulnerable. The two factors together have caused a significant reduction in elk browsing on young aspen shoots, allowing them to survive to heights where some are now above the animal browsing level.

I'm thinking any gains the Aspen trees make in Yellowstone thanks to the wolves will be eventually swamped by the development of cellulosic technology that turns trees into edible food for ravenous SUVs, motorhomes, and other vehicles. The vehicles will eat into the tree population on a far larger scale than the elks can manage to do.

So here's this relative of the dog, not as smart and as sentient as humans, who does far more for the environment than any ten thousand sentient humans. Plus, this species puts out a pretty cool night time howl that few if any humans can beat.

Evil plant eaters kill off saplings years before they have a chance to reach their full potential. Great meat-eating wolves create the ecological room that trees need to establish themselves. Morally virtuous carnivores stop the evil vegetarians from damaging the environment.

“This is really exciting, and it’s great news for Yellowstone,” said William Ripple, a professor in the OSU College of Forestry. “We’ve seen some recovery of willows and cottonwood, but this is the first time we can document significant aspen growth, a tree species in decline all over the West. We’ve waited a long time to see this, but now we’re optimistic that things may be on the right track.”

The study found significant numbers of aspen, especially in streamside “riparian” zones, that have grown from tiny shoots in the past decade to heights of more than seven feet – a key point in their long-term survival, placing their crowns above the height easily browsed by elk and other animals. Tree growth in some stands has been particularly apparent just in the past 4-5 years.

What I wonder: what ecological changes have we unknowingly caused by cutting the population of grizzly bears down by two orders of magnitude in the lower 48 states?

In the early 1800s, 50,000 to 100,000 grizzly bears ranged over North America west of the Mississippi River. By 1900, only small, scattered populations remained. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly as a threatened species in 1975, estimating that fewer than 1,000 bears remained in a few pockets of Yellowstone National Park and along the Canadian border.

As human populations continue to grow our ability to create suitable habitats for many big animal species will continue to dwindle.

What I also wonder: Will genetic engineering eventually lead to the emergence of highly intelligent post-human species which will rebalance the world's ecology by serving as predators of the currently reining smartest species? Will the new post-humans serve as cunning Hannibal Lecters who enjoy hunting and killing homo sapiens? After all, lions and tigers feel no remorse for their killings. Surely the development of post-humans who enjoy hunting sentient beings will become technologically feasible.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 28 01:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
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