Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.” This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day? “In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article: “Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.” While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment. Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The...

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Hybrids in the Arctic
Mar17

Hybrids in the Arctic

Hybridization has led to some of the unique, naturally-occuring species present today, such as the Mallard duck-American Black duck hybrid. Usually this natural process takes generations to produce a new distinct species; however, it is possible for hybrids to emerge within one generation. For example, interspecies breeding could be expedited due to environmental stressors caused by climate change. Species that would not normally come in contact with one another are being pushed into the same habitats—called hybrid zones—due to the removal of physical barriers, like glaciers and ice sheets. The arctic area in particular is experiencing an increase in hybridization due to habitat changes brought about   by climate change. Everyone has seen the photographs of the polar bear clinging to a shrinking piece of ice – the shrinking ice is in fact what is encouraging the influx of non-native species into the Arctic. Polar bears broke off as their own species hundreds of thousands of years ago because they were able to adapt to the colder climate and find food. Charlotte Lindqvist of the University of Buffalo found that polar bears were able to survive the last interglacial warming period; however, Lindqvist added, because the rate of current climate change is so much faster , these Arctic animals are unable to adapt quickly enough. Polar bears are essentially being hit with a 1-2-3 punch. Not only is their habitat diminishing, so too, are their food sources, —negatively impacting their  breeding success. Research has shown that, due to lack of sustenance, female polar bears produce less healthy offspring, and the offspring that survive tend to be smaller in size. Additionally, polar bears may now have to deal with an increased number of grizzly bears. Grizzly bears do not only pose a competitive threat to polar bears but a genetic threat as well. With melting Arctic ice, more polar bears are being forced to remain on land—meanwhile, the warmer temperatures and diverse food sources are enticing grizzlies to move further north. The cross-breeding of polar and grizzly bears could eventually lead to a complete loss of the unique genes of polar bears that have enabled the bear’s survival in the Arctic for so long. Grizzly bears are better suited for the warmer temperatures of the uplands of western North America—that is, compared to Arctic temperatures. With the increase in grizzly population in the Arctic due to warmer temperatures, and the decrease in polar bear population due to habitat constraints, potential cross-breeding could be more likely to occur. While the accepted rule of thumb is that hybrid offspring are unviable—or, unlikely to survive since they are unable to reproduce—there is support in...

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Congress: Dissecting the current federal fiscal crunch

Countless federal programs, including a disproportionately large amount of science and conservation programs, will be on the chopping block this year as Congress and the White House work to reign in federal spending in an effort to lower the deficit. The current debate focus is on discretionary spending which, according to Factcheck.org, accounts for 36 percent of total federal spending. The White House typically releases its budget in February.  The Administration’s proposed FY 2012 budget , in an attempt to keep spending level for the next few fiscal years, cuts spending for every dollar increased. For example, while the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets would see strong increases in the President’s budget, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and countless research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture would face steep cuts. The U.S. House of Representatives is particularly keen on curbing non-defense, non-security discretionary spending, which comprises 12 percent of the budget. The House Republicans’ recently passed measure to curb spending (H.R. 1), would cut funding for a number of conservation efforts, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses and water pollution. The federal budget, which is under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Budget Committees, sets maximum spending levels (or ceilings) for how much the government can spend for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning Sept 30 and ending Oct 1 the next year. The budget resolution is technically non-binding and is not signed by the president. As an authorization measure it does, however, set funding limits and serves as a roadmap in the subsequent crafting of appropriations bills, which allocate specific dollar amounts to the federal agencies, programs and initiatives. Rarely are appropriations bills wrapped up before the close of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Generally, when appropriations spending levels are not decided before the close of the calendar year (in December), they are usually decided between January and February the following year, prior to when Congress begins debate on the upcoming fiscal year budget. It is uncharacteristic for Congress to continue debating current fiscal year appropriations spending levels well into March, a time during which the focus is typically centered on the budget for the next fiscal year. The current fiscal situation is unique in several ways. First, calendar year 2010 marked the first year since 1974 that the House failed to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. However, there have been several instances where Congress has failed to come to agreement on a final budget, most recently in 2006, 2004 and 1998. In fall 2010, Congress also did not come to agreement on appropriations spending for...

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ESA Policy News: December 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.

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Taking a shot at photographing science and nature

Go to Google Images and search for “science.” What are the results? More than likely, the search will come up with beakers, protons, lab coats, double helixes, pulsars, microscopes and perhaps a smattering of trees and images of the globe. Photographs of researchers boot-high in streams collecting samples, for instance, or of a Cayman Island blue iguana in its natural habitat, would probably be few and far between. But images such as these—which show an aspect of the biological sciences, environmental processes or a subject of ecological research—rarely show up, even though they are of course also science.

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Rest stops for fall migration

Many animals migrate in the fall to exotic locales and warmer, more abundant southern climates. Among the more famous migrating winged species are monarch butterflies, but there are several species of birds that also migrate during the fall. Some of these birds, such as hawks, rest and “refuel” in the Gulf region of the United States as they traverse southward.

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Restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed

According to the Obama administration, for the first time since the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program in 1983, the federal government is using its full force to prioritize restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. Speakers met on September 10 for a briefing in Washington, DC to discuss the government’s significantly expanded role in preserving the Bay and its watershed.

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When habitat destruction is extremely subtle

When it comes to habitat destruction, startling events like oil spills and deforestation are certain to grab the headlines. Yet as a new study in the journal Animal Conservation shows, sometimes habitat destruction can be so subtle that it passes under the eyes of all but the most astute scientists. David Pike and fellow researchers from the University of Sydney look at the case of reptiles in outcrops and find that people moving rocks less than 30 centimeters out of place can ruin the habitat for species like the endangered broad-headed snake that shelter in narrow crevices.

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