A few bumps under the snowy slopes are better for environment

 Most people schussing down a ski slope probably don’t wonder if it’s been cleared or graded and why the answer makes a big difference to the surrounding environment.  A new study out in December’s Ecological Applications finds that there is a big difference between a downhill ski slope that’s been cleared (cutting and removing shrubs and trees) versus one that has been graded (extracting tree stumps and boulders and leveling out slope irregularities).  The former leaves the top layers of soil and existing seeds banks intact while the latter removes much of the topsoil and most of the plant life.  Graded (left) and cleared (right) ski runs. Photo: JW Burt.  University of California researchers Jennifer Burt and co-author Kevin Rice studied seven winter resorts in the Sierra Nevada range and found that cleared ski runs were functionally similar to nearby forests, sharing much of the same plant composition, diversity patterns and soil characteristics.  Their graded counterparts, however, had negative impacts on water storage, nutrient cycling, soil, and biodiversity. Burt noted in a statement that: This begs the question as to why any downhill runs are graded.  Resort managers told us that ski-run grading reduces surface depressions, hummocks and boulders, which means that less snow-about 20 inches on average-is required to open a graded run that a comparable cleared run. Resorts with graded slopes can therefore open their runs about one week earlier than those with cleared runs.  But, according to Burt and Rice, the extra week’s revenue may be partly offset by higher maintenance costs associated with erosion control and other measures the barren slopes require come summertime.  The study is available here (subscription required) and the abstract may be viewed here.   Burt, J., & Rice, K. (2009). Not all ski slopes are created equal: Disturbance intensity affects ecosystem properties Ecological Applications, 19 (8), 2242-2253 DOI:...

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ESA Policy News: Dec. 22

  Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. Read the full Policy News here.    COPENHAGEN SUMMIT ENDS IN NON-BINDING ACCORD–The UN climate summit in Copenhagen concluded on December 19, with the world’s largest emitters vowing to cut emissions and help developing countries adapt to the changing climate, and with the almost 200 countries present agreeing to “take note” of this pledge. Just before midnight the day prior, President Obama and leaders from Brazil, India, South Africa and China emerged from 13-some hours of last-minute negotiations, unveiling an outline for future action to be pursued by more than two dozen major emitters. The agreement established an overarching goal of limiting increases in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius or less. The accord also include some language on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), calling for the “immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus” (“REDD-plus” includes additional forest-related reductions, such as reforestation and sustainable forest management). Although leaders left the summit without a formal agreement or hard targets on REDD, many see the negotiations as an important step and expect to finalize an agreement in 2010, possibly independent of the broader climate talks. The Kyoto agreement did not address forest offsets and deforestation. SENATE CLIMATE DEBATE–On December 10, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a framework for the climate legislation on which they’ve been working.  This effort comes on the heels of a similar bill from Kerry and Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA), which failed to win bipartisan support.  The framework contains few specifics, but rather lays out a foundation on which committees with jurisdiction can build.  Kerry said that both the Agriculture and Finance committees are planning to hold hearings next year, giving leaders time to “pull this language together in January or February.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has scheduled floor time for a climate and energy bill next spring, giving lawmakers time to tackle the controversial matter before the 2010 elections.  But it’s still unclear if, when the Senate does take it up, this effort will have a better shot at reaching 60 votes. New industry incentives and protections, while necessary to win the support of Republicans and conservative Democrats, may drive away some of the more liberal senators.  In addition, lawmakers could have several other options to consider, including bills that would regulate only emissions from power plants (a strategy that many moderate Republicans see as more palatable) and a cap-and-dividend bill recently introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME).  FOREST SERVICE...

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Three Elephants in the Living Room at Copenhagen

This post was contributed by Meg Lowman, ESA Vice President for Education and Human Resources, who just recently returned from the Copenhagen climate summit.  With good intentions, delegates arrived from 192 nations in Copenhagen, Denmark last week for the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention). Their goal was to meet, talk, draft, edit and finalize a document to limit carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere, a resource that every country shares. Although the meetings were primarily political in nature, scientific underpinnings served as drivers to seek an international solution.  It was generally assumed that the major powers would dominate the conversation as they usually do, and the rest would meekly tweak the agreement as it was drafted. Following conventional diplomatic wisdom, the expected result was a piece of paper with technical language and many signatures; yet as with previous UNFCCC meetings, a piece of paper can gather dust instead of inspiring political will. Without binding language and enforcement, no agreement on paper can guarantee actions back home. America is an example of a country that not only fell short but has also altered its emissions targets midstream. A major global time-bomb exists – how can countries negotiate a binding agreement that will actually inspire action by all the signatories, and will be quick because poorer nations can not afford adaptation? Three elephants crowded into the living room at Copenhagen, not only taking center stage but also driving the conversations. These elephants represented emotion, ethics, and ecosystems. COP15  took on a new sense of urgency as small voices told their stories; as citizens around the world become aware of the imminent losses of life posed by rising emissions into our atmosphere and oceans, and as the scientific evident becomes stronger. Meg Lowman in front of a ballon the size of one ton of CO2.  Photo: Gary Braasch.   a. Emotions ran high early in week 1, when the Tuvalu delegation tearfully explained that their islands are inundated by the sea with every political delay, and that Mother Nature will not wait for paper-pushing exercises. This brought a reality check to the seriousness of COP15, and galvanized many activitist groups into action worldwide. The notion of citizens losing a homeland their ancestors had occupied for thousands of generations brought a heightened sense of emotion to COP15. Other small-nation voices joined their outcry, and the AOSIS (association of small island nations) became a large voice at the conference. b. Ethics has escalated, especially with the understanding of imminent tolls of climate events on poorer nations. African countries, lacking funding and technology face large-scale famines, infectious diseases, droughts and desertification, and...

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“Green Pope” says Environmental Stewardship is a Moral Obligation

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst.  Pope Benedict XVI has received his share of criticism from the scientific community, most recently because of his statement that condoms increase the risk of HIV transmission.  But in his December 15 message for the Catholic Church’s annual World Day of Peace, he gave ecological scientists and environmentalists something to celebrate, presenting environmental stewardship as a moral duty and calling for an international effort to embrace a more environmentally sustainable way of life: The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations. The theme of this year’s celebration “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation” speaks to the connection between ecological health and social justice, a matter of particular importance when, according to Benedict, “large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment.” Sustainable living was first positioned as a moral imperative by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s. Pope Benedict has been dubbed by some as “The Green Pope” by furthering this theme. In 2008, he named “polluting the environment” one of seven new sins now requiring repentance.  The Vatican recently outfitted its buildings with solar panels and is working to build Europe’s largest solar power plant. When the plant goes online in 2014, the Vatican will be the world’s first solar powered sovereign state (admittedly, its tiny size and population place it at something of an advantage). The country is already the first to go carbon-neutral-thanks to a donation from an eco-restoration firm, its emissions are offset by trees planted in a Hungarian national park.  In his World Day of Peace message, Benedict underscored the humanitarian aspects of current environmental problems, asking: Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the...

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Birds may expand the range of Lyme disease and its vector tick

Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) is typically associated with mammals, but birds too can become infected by black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), the principal vector of the pathogen.  Moreover, birds may figure significantly in the range expansion of both the Lyme bacterium and black-legged ticks.  So say Jory Brinkerhoff and colleagues of Yale University in a paper published today in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Black-legged adults and nymphs with straight pin. Photo: Jim Occi, BugPics, United States As anyone who has been infected by the Lyme bacterium knows, it can cause any number of health problems including arthritis, nervous system abnormalities, and irregular heart rhythm.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, with the number of reported human infections in the U.S. doubling between 1992 and 2006.   B. burgdorferi occurs naturally in small mammalian hosts such as mice, squirrels, and shrews.  Immature (larval and nymphal) ticks can become infected with the bacterium when they feed on these small mammals.  During subsequent blood meals, infected nymphs and adult ticks can transmit the infection to other hosts, including humans.  Interestingly, the white-tailed deer-though it plays an important role in maintaining tick populations-is, in fact, a “dead end” for the Lyme bacterium because deer blood is immune to infection from it.  Enter the birds. Gray catbird (top) and hermit thrush (below) carrying engorged immature ticks (red arrows). Photo: L Doss. Brinkerhoff and colleagues found published records indicating that at least 70 North American bird species are parasitized by immature black-legged ticks.  I. scapularis most consistently parasitizes thrushes, brown thrashers, wrens, and wood warblers.  The authors estimate that as few as three individual birds are required to produce one infected black-legged tick.  As they write in Frontiers:  White-tailed deer are probably responsible for the range expansion of I. scapularis, but they cannot transport B. burgdorferi.  Nomadic and post-breeding movements by birds, in addition to migration, facilitate the spread of B. burgdorferi and may result in northern range expansion of the pathogen and vector from the Northeast and in southern expansion from the Midwest. What remains to be seen, say the authors, is whether the B. burgdorferi strains that can infect birds can also infect mammals.  If the answer is yes, they say, then the role of birds in the transmission of Lyme disease to humans could be profound.   An abstract of the article can be accessed here and the complete paper is available here (subscription required).  Reporters interested in a copy of the paper or in speaking with the authors can contact Nadine Lymn at nadine@esa.org. Brinkerhoff, R., Folsom-O’Keefe,...

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