Canada under the influence of oil

Grave consequences for ecology, democracy, and environmental protection   This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy The past year has seen some forward-thinking environmental policies in the US: pro-science budgets, automobile fuel efficiency standards, coal power plant and fracking regulations, a recent (though rough) climate commitment, and rejection (for now) of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. We might expect our neighbor Canada, often pictured as a realm of clean water and majestic forests, to at least keep pace. Instead we see the opposite, a worrisome erosion of environmental regulations, depreciation of science, and disregard for democratic process from a conservative and proudly pro-oil government. The following regressive changes matter to ecologists, and just about everyone, worldwide. Budget cuts The recently passed 2013 Canadian federal budget enacts steep cuts to environmental agencies including Parks Canada and Environment Canada, which will reach beyond layoffs to changes in agency priorities and abilities, especially to pollution monitoring and mitigation. Scientist Peter Ross writes an eloquent response here. Another victim is the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an independent, interdisciplinary panel that studied and offered recommendations on air, water, biodiversity, economic, and energy policy. Disturbingly, the government openly admits the reason for disbanding the panel is only partially budgetary- its recommendations on carbon taxes were not in line with government and public opinion: “It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Most problematic is that the budget bill extended far beyond apportionment of funds to radically change dozens of environmental regulations. Even Conservatives say that it was undemocratic to amalgamate so much in a budget bill, that each change deserved separate debate and voting. Fisheries Protection For example, the bill re-words the Fisheries Act, one of Canada’s strongest environmental protection measures, which banned activities resulting in “harm” to any fish habitat. New wording focuses only on “serious harm” (permanent alteration or destruction) to “commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or the fish they depend on.” A letter written by the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution states that this will remove protection of most endangered fish and other organisms in the food web, and devalues the inherent importance of habitats and biodiversity, though conservatives defend the measure as re-focusing agency efforts. The change was enacted in spite of opposition from hundreds of scientists, including fisheries organizations. Environmental Assessment In addition to a 40 percent cut in funds for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the government has enacted several changes to environmental review of energy development projects: a cap of one to two...

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Hidden Treasures

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Imagine you get up one morning and go outside to fetch your paper.  As you reach to pick it up, a strange spider bites you. Your neighbor is bitten too.  Now you’re both dying because no one can identify these spiders and therefore can’t administer anti-venom that might save you.  This was the dramatic scenario Michael Mares conjured up for the audience during a June 5 congressional briefing, “Digitizing Science Collections: Unlocking Data for Research and Innovation” sponsored by the Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSCA). Mares, director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, was drawing his gripping story from a real-life mystery that is unfolding in Assam, India, where several people were bitten by tarantula-like spiders.  According to The Washington Post, two people died, although possibly from the wound-cutting treatment they received for the spider bites.  Local researchers have been unable to identify the thumb-sized spiders, saying they look like a new species.  Mares’ point was to demonstrate the value of preserving natural science collections.  New species, some of them potentially hazardous, will arise and natural history collections can help shed light on what they are and how to effectively respond. The United States has the largest natural science collection in the world, with collections found in every state.  These include samples of life on Earth collected over centuries—everything from bacteria to animal and plant specimens to fossil skulls of long extinct creatures such as the saber-toothed tiger.  National and state museums, universities, botanical gardens and zoos are among those institutions that house these science collections. Natural science collections can hold the key to solving numerous mysteries including identifying the species of birds that have collided with planes such as US Airways Flight 1549, allowing for better understanding of how to avoid such encounters (see Smithsonian video below). Collections also played a significant role in understanding the negative impact of the insecticide DDT on birds of prey, such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle.  By comparing the birds’ eggs with that of the same species’ eggs held in collections, researchers found the evidence that DDT was causing eggshells to thin, making them highly breakable and nearly driving both these species to extinction before DDT was banned.  Science collections have also helped identify the origins of diseases including Ebola and Hantavirus.  They can play a significant role in biosecurity, emerging diseases, and identifying exotic non-native species. But for all the benefits they can bestow and the billions of dollars that the country has invested in gathering these collections, they suffer from a myriad of problems.   Usually locked out...

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How to encourage us to conserve energy

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Many of us recognize that a large part of the solution to environmental problems lies in getting people to change their behavior.  Unfortunately, altering the habits of the human animal can be especially challenging—we are intelligent but we can also be irrational and our age-old tendency to focus on immediate needs frequently overrides our ability to think, plan and act longer-term. That topic was addressed during a briefing co-sponsored last week by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.  The ninth part of a briefing series on the science and engineering needed to meet the energy goals of the United States, the May 23 briefing focused on the psychology of the energy choices we make. Since human behavior causes environmental and economic problems, it stands to reason that changes in human behavior are needed to address them, said Elke Weber, one of the speakers at the briefing.  Weber is director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, one of NSF’s Decision Research Centers that focus on better understanding how we make decisions, particularly about long-term environmental risks.  Weber’s work includes looking at obstacles that prevent people from doing things that would lead to energy conservation.  In spite of the demonstrated personal cost savings of adopting energy-efficient technology, we don’t fully take advantage of them.  Why?  According to Weber, we may be fearful of new technology or perceive that our energy savings will be too small.  And, we tend to heavily discount future savings, especially when they require an initial large, upfront cost. Weber explained that while our short-term goals are automatically activated, getting our long-term goals activated is challenging and requires paying attention to social, cultural and other contexts.  For example, she said, labels matter.  Calling something a carbon “tax” has a negative connotation for many people.  Calling that same thing a carbon “offset” is a more positive label to which most people respond to more favorably.  The setting in which people make their choices are also influential.  Whether people are making energy-provider choices alone at home or in a community meeting can make a big difference. A member of the audience picked up on Weber’s cultural reference, noting that social norms among different groups may be wasting energy, yet be difficult to change.  For example, law offices may intentionally leave the lights burning at night to give the appearance that someone is there working—even if no one is.  Weber’s response:  devise substitutions that will work for a particular group that are less wasteful but still achieve the community’s goal. Weber offered an interesting possibility for the future.  She...

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Showcasing science on Capitol Hill

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Last night was the 18th consecutive year that researchers and policymakers came together over finger food and beverages to talk about the science and education projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  “STEM Research and Education: Underpinning American Innovation” is sponsored by the Coalition for National Science Funding.  Its goal is to showcase the wide variety of projects made possible by NSF and facilitate some good conversations between the recipients of these federal grants and those who manage the purse strings—Congress. Nearly 40 exhibit booths showcased a wide range of topics to over a hundred congressional staff and Members of Congress, including Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA), Mike Simpson (R-ID), Hanson Clarke (D-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI). The Ecological Society of America (ESA) was among the exhibitors and featured ESA graduate student Sarah Roley’s work on mitigating nutrient pollution in the agricultural Midwest.  Roley, a freshwater ecologist who is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, spoke with numerous congressional staffers who were interested in how the two-stage ditch—the focus of her research—works and how it might be applied in other areas besides Indiana.  Among those interested were Kevin Warnke, Legislative Assistant for Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Robert Bonner, with the House Committee on Appropriations (pictured above, speaking with Roley).  Roley also told several senior NSF staff about her work, including Myron Gutmann, who heads the Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences Directorate at the agency. Roley is a GLOBES NSF Fellow.  Earlier in the day, she visited her Indiana delegation to express her appreciation for their past support of STEM research and education and to talk with them about how her work can help address a persistent problem in the Midwest and in areas downstream, particularly the Gulf of Mexico.  As Roley explained during her congressional meetings and the CNSF reception, fertilizers used to grow crops move from farm fields and can contaminate drinking water and harm fishing industries downstream by fueling algal blooms.  The two-stage ditch adds floodplains to incised channels, slowing the flow of water and allowing bacteria and plants to take Nitrogen out of the system.      Farmers with whom Roley has worked seem receptive to the two-stage ditch.  They usually don’t need to give up much land because many already have grassy buffers next to existing ditches and the addition of floodplains to these ditches keeps their fields from being flooded during high-water events.  According to Roley, nutrients travel half as far from two-stage ditches than from conventional ditches and remove at least twice as many nutrients during floods.  Another bonus,...

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Renewal after catastrophe

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Extreme events such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the severe fires in Yellowstone National Park initially seemed to have left behind wastelands.  Yet ecologists and other researchers discovered that in both cases, plants and other life rebounded much more quickly than anticipated.  Now a new study of sandy beaches finds surprising resilience following the 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked coastal Chile in February of 2010. The Maule earthquake was the 6th largest event recorded by modern seismology and unleashed a tsunami, killing nearly 500 people.  Communities in coastal areas around the world have been erecting seawalls for centuries in an effort to stem beach erosion and protect themselves against storms and tsunamis.  Researchers from Southern University of Chile and the University of California, Santa Barbara had been researching the effects of such structures on plant and animal life on nine coastal beaches in Chile just prior to the earthquake.  After it struck, they resurveyed the now dramatically altered areas. As they had predicted, their pre-earthquake surveys found that species that live in the upper and mid-intertidal areas of sandy beaches are more affected by seawalls than those living in the lower shore areas.  The upper intertidal zone is mostly terrestrial except during high tides and the mid intertidal zone is regularly exposed and submerged by tides.  The low intertidal areas are only exposed during very low tides.  Seawalls physically cover up part of the beach and cause sand in front of the walls to be lost until the beach eventually “drowns.” The earthquake and tsunami brought about tremendous physical changes, drowning some beaches while creating sandy beach habitat in other areas. According to a press release by the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the study, the research team found that intertidal species were destroyed in the drowned beaches while newly widened beaches saw the return of life that had previously “vanished due to the effects of coastal armouring.” From previous studies in California and Chile, said lead author Eduardo Jaramillo of the Universidad Austral de Chile, “…we knew that building coastal defense structures, such as seawalls, decreases beach area, and that a seawall results in the decline of intertidal diversity.  But after the earthquake, where significant continental uplift occurred, the beach area that had been lost due to coastal armoring has now been restored,” said Jaramillo.  “And the re-colonization of the mobile fauna [such as crabs] was underway just weeks afterward.” Jaramillo E, Dugan JE, Hubbard DM, Melnick D, Manzano M, Duarte C, Campos C, & Sanchez R (2012). Ecological Implications of Extreme Events: Footprints...

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