Seeing (less) red: Bark beetles and global warming

This post contributed by Jesse A. Logan, retired research entomologist living in Emigrant, Montana. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is an ecological reserve of regional, national and international significance. This collection of National Parks, National Forests, wildlife reserves and tribal lands is generally recognized as one of the last remaining large, nearly intact, ecosystems of the Earth’s northern temperate region. Climax whitebark pine (Pinus albicalus Engelman) forests comprise the majority of forested habitat above 2,750 meters and extend to the highest elevation as a crooked krumholtz growth form. By functioning as both a foundation and a keystone species, whitebark pine is an important ecological component of the GYE. Unfortunately, the foundation whitebark forests of the GYE are facing catastrophic collapse due to a combination of an introduced pathogen, unprecedented attack by a native bark beetle and climate change. Whitepine blister rust is a pathogen introduced near the turn of the past century, and its effect is to first compromise the reproductive capacity of the tree, eventually (requiring an average of twenty years in the GYE) leading to the tree’s death. On the other hand, attack by the native mountain pine beetle either immediately leads to the  tree’s deaths, or the tree successfully defends itself and repulses the attacking beetles. The seriousness of these threats to the integrity of high-elevation forests is indicated by the recent finding by the US Fish & Wildlife Service that whitebark meets the criteria for a threatened or endangered species; in addition, despite their risk of extinction, the FWS did not add whitebark to the endangered species list due to lack of sufficient funding. Under historic climate regimes, these high elevation forests were simply too cold for the mountain pine beetle (MPB) (Dendroctonus ponderosae) to thrive. Although, past MPB-caused whitebark pine mortality did occur during periods of unusually warm weather—for example, in the 1930s—these outbreaks were short-lived and limited in scale. With the publication of the first Interngovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990, research on the potential for increased MPB activity in whitebark pine began to occur. Model predictions of high intensity MPB outbreaks began to be realized across the southern range of whitebark pine by the early 2000s. By 2005, USDA Forest Service Aerial Detection Survey (ADS) data showed significant MPB caused mortality across large areas of GYE whitebark pine. This mortality is first evident by large numbers of red trees (symptomatic of trees killed the previous summer), subsequently followed by vast areas of gray trees — the residual ghost forest — is shown in the photos above. In those photos of Hoyt Peak from Avalanche Peak near Sylvan Pass, Yellowstone National...

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URBAANE: An urban environmental conference for communities of color
Jul12

URBAANE: An urban environmental conference for communities of color

This post contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, University of Illinois-Chicago, NSF-IGERT LEAP Fellow and 2011 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner. As an active member of the Ecological Society of America and its Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program and environmental justice (EJ) section, I understand and support the Society’s vested interest in accomplishing meaningful broader impacts. As a member of the steering committee of “Urban Resolutions for Bridging African Americans to Natural Environments” (URBAANE) 2011, I am pleased to have connected the philosophies of the EJ section of ESA to the scope of the overall conference. I share with the ESA community a powerful grassroots conference that surely will resonate within the Society. It represents the potential for us as scientists to connect with communities of color in a way that advances the Society’s goals, as well as moves forward resolutions that are beneficial to diverse audiences. On Saturday June 4, 2011, professionals, students and community members gathered in a historic meeting of the minds to discuss resolutions to urban environmental issues in the Chicago metro area. Chicago State University, together with Fuller Park Community Development and a host of generous sponsors, put together a stellar event titled “Urban Resolutions for Bridging African Americans to Natural Environments” (URBAANE). The conference theme was “Connecting the Lots: Minorities and Urban Land Issues.” Speakers and presenters discussed their work as it related to land issues, including the uses of vacant lots, the spatial distribution of natural resources or the quality of spaces for various greenspace uses. URBAANE 2011’s mission was to develop a conference that discussed perspectives, research and solutions related to environmental justice, environmental education, green jobs, green development/industry and urban agriculture. Designed as a community conference, attendees varied in age, education levels and professions. The goal was to engage a diverse audience, foster networking between community groups and academia as well as student populations and government agencies. The findings and action plans resulting from URBAANE 2011 will contribute to establishing an agenda for African Americans and people of color on urban socio-ecological issues in the Chicago metro area. As exciting as it was to plan the conference, it was a true delight for me that one hundred percent of URBAANE speakers and panelists were people of color. All too often the voices of communities of color are whispers in environmental conversations amongst the booming voices of those in the scientific community.  Held in the New Academic Library on the campus of Chicago State University, the venue could not have been more ideal. Along with its strong environmental program—including biological sciences, geography and chemistry—the campus houses an award-winning...

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Are seagrasses buried under urban development?

Seagrass populations are facing major declines in the midst of global climate change and increasing urban development along coasts, according to a study conducted at the request of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Frederick Short from Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in New Hampshire and colleagues reported that, of the 72 species of known seagrass, 10 species are classified at a higher risk of extinction and 3 qualify as endangered. Seagrass meadows are responsible for many vital functions in marine ecosystems, explained Robert J. Orth from the College of William and Mary and colleagues in a 2006 study. They are directly linked to mangroves, coral reefs, salt marshes and other marine habitats. These meadows provide a haven for species of finfish and shellfish in their juvenile stages. Manatees, dugongs and green sea turtles are also heavily dependent on seagrasses: They provide the primary source of nutrients for these endangered marine animals. Reduction in the area of seagrass coverage available to these endangered species would undoubtedly decrease their already diminishing populations, according to Orth and colleagues. Seagrass is also a large source of carbon, some of which is transported deeper into the ocean, serving as a nutrient source for organisms that live in food-limited environments. Seagrass also captures and holds carbon within its rhizomes, roots and leaves. Much like tropical ecosystems, seagrass meadows serve as biodiversity hotspots, providing shelter and allowing various species to flourish in the nutrient-rich environment. Seagrasses serve as effective bioindicators because changes in their environment can cause changes in their development and ability to serve as filters. According to Orth and colleagues, changes in water quality are easily identified by the health of seagrasses because of their high reliance on light—for example, when a decline in seagrasses is linked to an increase in nutrient deposits from coastal development. The environmental advantages of seagrass can be noted by the after-effects of the “eelgrass wasting disease” of the 1930s: Substantial amounts of seagrass were destroyed on coasts surrounding the North Atlantic Ocean due to the wasting disease and in turn caused alterations in current patterns. Food chains and fisheries were damaged, and sedimentation was negatively affected. Research conducted by Orth and colleagues suggested that, although seagrass species were able to undergo evolutionary adaption during periods of environmental fluctuations, current environmental changes are occurring too rapidly to allow them to adapt. Increases in sea surface temperature, sea level and the frequency of storms, which cause surges and swells, have all played a part in impacting seagrass populations, wrote the researchers. Tsunamis and hurricanes have frayed seagrass communities and in turn affected their ability to provide the ecological...

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Speaking of species and their origins

An essay published in the June 8 issue of Nature is causing something of a stir. Eighteen ecologists who signed the essay, titled “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “argue that conservationists should assess organisms based on their impact on the local environment, rather than simply whether they’re native,” as described in a recent Scientific American podcast. In the essay, Mark Davis from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota and colleagues argue that adherence to the idea of non-natives as “the enemy” is more a reflection of “prejudice rather than solid science,” wrote Brandon Keim in a Wired Science article. As the authors wrote, the “preoccupation with the native–alien dichotomy” among scientists, land managers and policy-makers is prohibitive to dynamic and pragmatic conservation and species management in a 21st century planet that is forever altered by climate change, land-use changes and other anthropogenic influences. As a result of this misguided preoccupation, claim the authors, time and resources are unnecessarily spent attempting to eradicate introduced species that actually turn out to be a boon to the environment; the authors cite the non-native tamarisk tree in the western U.S. as an example of this. But some other ecological scientists believe that the authors of the essay are barking up the wrong tamarisk tree, so to speak. Not only is there a disagreement with the paper’s premise that there is an unjust bias against all non-natives, but other scientists assert that the harm non-natives are capable of causing should not be overlooked. Jessica Gurevitch, an ecologist at the State University of New York Stony Brook, stated that the authors “downplay some of the problems and uncertainties,” and she insists that the “just get used to [non-natives being the norm]” attitude is misguided. David Pimentel, an entomologist at Cornell University, has estimated invasive species damage in the U.S. at between $100 billion and $200 billion. Nevertheless, the essay authors argue that “being indigenous doesn’t grant a species special rights to inhabit an ecosystem,” according to the Scientific American podcast, and Razib Khan from Discover’s blog Gene Expression reminds readers that “we [humans] are after all an invasive species oursel[ves]!” Furthermore, not all natives are economically and ecologically beneficial. For example, British Columbia has recently had one of the largest infestations of the mountain pine beetle, a species indigenous to pine forests of western North America, on record—an issue that has caused significant ecological impacts. And according to Mark Davis, many non-natives can actually boost biodiversity. But is biodiversity always the ultimate goal? David Lodge, an ecologist at the University of Notre Dame, argues otherwise. While local biodiversity may at times increase with the introduction...

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Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields
Mar30

Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 Programme for the International Student Assessment results showed the United States ranking 19th in math and 14th in science out of 31 countries. Following this news, President Obama announced a $250 million proposal to increase funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. As he stated in his budget message, “In a generation, we’ve fallen from first place to ninth place in the proportion of our young people with college degrees. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.” The following post, contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, graduate student at University of Illinois-Chicago and recent recipient of ESA’s 2011 Graduate Student Policy Award, tells how diversity in environmental fields shows promise for the future of science. The student diversity was astounding, beautiful brown faces with shining eyes sat attentive and hanging on every word of the career panelists. This was the scene at last year’s Green College and Careers Fair organized by the Ecological Society of America and The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. The goal was to diversify environmental and ecological careers by reaching out to underserved communities: The hope is to change the face and fields of environmental careers by providing opportunities to those who traditionally lack access. The career fair was hosted at The New School in New York City—over 100 high school students (from 9 schools around the New York-New Jersey area) were treated to a highly professional career fair, including structured school-to-college workshops. The event was made possible with support from the Toyota USA Foundation. Students received information about environmental and natural resource careers and topics such as research ethics, laboratory work tips, resume guidelines, reference letters and tips on being successful in college. Other sessions included exhibitor presentations, a financial aid workshop, mock job interviews and a career panel. The career panelists—Victor Medina, Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, Charlee Glenn and Ann-Marie Alcantara— were young professionals and alumni of both the LEAF and ESA’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. They addressed more than just traditional college talk—they got to the heart of being minorities in fields where they are underrepresented. Glenn, a panelist and SEEDS alumna, shared her story of how ecology became an interest, which subsequently developed into her current position as Diversity Programs Assistant for ESA’s SEEDS program. Medina, a LEAF alumnus, discussed how he uses his educational and personal success to influence others within his community to do better—not only for themselves but for the environment as well. Alcantara, also a LEAF alumna, talked about her goals of being...

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