Slowing the insect invasion: wood packaging sanitation policy yields US $11.7 billion net benefit
Jun06

Slowing the insect invasion: wood packaging sanitation policy yields US $11.7 billion net benefit

Risk analysis finds savings for homeowners and local governments of excluding invasive pests like the emerald ash borer outweigh added cost to imported goods.

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Strawberry poison frogs feed their babies poison eggs
Mar20

Strawberry poison frogs feed their babies poison eggs

The Strawberry poison frog lavishes care upon its offspring. It’s just that kind of frog. In the March issue of Ecology, Stynoski et al. report that it also feeds its progeny poison. Also in this issue: P value debates, arctic warming, and estimating the success of biological invasions.

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Global economic pressures trickle down to local landscape change, altering disease risk

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer The pressures of global trade may heighten disease incidence by dictating changes in land use. A boom in disease-carrying ticks and chiggers has followed the abandonment of rice cultivation in Taiwanese paddies, say ecologist Chi-Chien Kuo and colleagues, demonstrating the potential for global commodities pricing to drive the spread of infections. Their work appears in the September issue of ESA’s journal Ecological Applications. After Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, active cultivation of rice paddies fell from 80 percent to 55 percent in just three years. The government of Taiwan subsidized twice-yearly plowing of abandoned fields to reduce the spread of agricultural pests into adjacent fields still in cultivation. Compliance has been spotty. Kuo found that, while plowing did not suppress rodent populations, it did inadvertently reduce the presence of the ticks and chiggers that use rodents as their primary hosts. “The government considers only agricultural pests such as insects and rodents. They don’t think about the disease factors,” said Kuo. But land use policy can have complex and unexpected reverberations in the ecology of the landscape. Chiggers, the larval stage of trombiculid mites, spread scrub typhus (Orientia tsutsugamushi), a bacterium that gets its name from the scrubby, dense vegetation that often harbors its flesh-loving host. Scrub typhus is a common culprit underlying visits to Southeast Asian hospitals for flu-like symptoms. It is one of the rare bacterial infections that develop into hemorrhagic fever. Without antibiotics, the infection is often fatal. Ticks (Ixodidae) transmit bacteria spotted fever group rickettsiae, causing fever, aches and rash similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Neither pest prefers to live underwater. Hualien, Kuo’s study area, is one of the least populous of Taiwan’s counties, yet had nearly the highest incidence of scrub typhus from 1998-2007. The county is a smattering of small villages surrounded by a patchwork of flooded, plowed, and abandoned rice paddies. Flooded paddies are poor habitat for ticks and chiggers, and so cultivation of rice, which locally means carefully managed flooding of fields to drown agricultural pests, likely suppresses ticks and chiggers as well. Even the seemingly unkillable ticks die after a few weeks of submersion, and chiggers are similarly terrestrial. Though studies are few, limited data indicate that most chiggers die after a month under water. This study did not assess flooded paddies due to the difficulty of finding and collecting rodents, ticks, and chiggers underwater. Instead, Kuo trapped rodents in fallow and plowed fields and examined their tick and chigger passengers, testing the arachnids for presence of disease-causing rickettsial bacteria. He found 6 times as many ticks on the rodents living...

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A marketplace for nature’s services

In the Willamette River watershed, an experiment in ecosystem economics is underway. Map of the Willamette River Basin; Temperature Effects of Point Sources, Riparian Shading, and Dam Operations on the Willamette River. Credit, Oregon Water Science Center, USGS. “What we want to do,” said Bobby Cochran, “Is take the money that we’re spending now and redirect it the way nature would spend it.” Cochran is executive director of the non-profit Willamette Partnership, and he was talking about the limited supply of conservation dollars. How does he think nature would spend them? It’s easier to get him to say what nature would want to achieve: improvements that meet the needs of human and wildlife communities, not just the stipulations of regulatory checklists. But ideals can be difficult to accomplish. He thinks market systems can point the way to efficient solutions by giving people a monetary incentive to get creative. “Look at all the money we are investing in the environment – we’re spending a lot of money,” Cochran said. Our traditional mechanism for protecting natural resources is to react to visible problems, big problems, burning river-type problems – problems that can be addressed with the regulation of specific industries, or point sources of pollution. The problem of how to make human development sustainable is diffuse, and complex. It is a Wicked Problem with no easily defined solution. And the public mood is turning against disaster narratives. Cochran doesn’t want the public to think of streams, trees, and fish as obstacles and expenses. They are precious assets. He says framing a natural system as an economic good puts it into a context where decision makers recognize its value. So the Willamette Partnership is embarked on an experiment in harnessing market forces to protect the watersheds of the Willamette River Basin in northeastern Oregon. Cochran’s plan requires the establishment of a market for “ecosystem services,” the benefits that nature provides to people. The idea of trading ecosystem services has surged in popularity since the 2005 United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It translates the beauty and utility of a wetland into pounds of phosphorus removed from agricultural runoff, Joules of heat pulled out of urban wastewater, and inches of floodwater absorbed upstream of riverside communities. The Willamette Partnership is a coalition of public utilities, academic, agriculturalists, environmental non-profits, and do-gooder for-profits united by an interest in the ecology of the Willamette River Basin in northeastern Oregon. That ecology encompasses the native ecosystems of the coastal Pacific Northwest between the rainshadowed slope of the coastal range and the oceanward slope of the Cascade Mountains, the population of the greater Portland metropolitan area ( and...

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Economist William Nordhaus rebuts “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” WSJ Op-Ed

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. “My response is primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change.” WILLIAM Nordhaus is not pulling any punches. The Yale economist and author of A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (Yale University Press, 2008) thinks climate change is a clear and present danger, a problem of our own making, and one we need to actively address. A January 23rd 2012 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal signed by, as the WSJ editor takes pains to note in preface to the letter, sixteen scientists, cited his work as evidence that waiting fifty years to impose climate controls is more cost effective than intervening today. The letter has inspired over 2500 comments on the WSJ website, and numerous blog and news commentaries. Nordhaus was not pleased. In the March 22nd (print) issue of the New York Review of Books, he responds to the sixteen scientists, point by point. He kicks off with the observation that he has wanted to cover skeptical views of climate change in his upcoming book, but found them hard to address because the source material is so wildly distributed. But here were the “standard criticisms” neatly and conveniently contained in one brief statement! He breaks down the questions thusly: Is the planet in fact warming? Are human influences an important contributor to warming? Is carbon dioxide a pollutant? Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists? Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain? Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial? Nordhaus does not question the op-ed authors’ authority to comment on climate science, as other critics have done (most of the letter writers are not atmospheric scientists per se). He actually points out that all sixteen are established at prestigious institutions in arguing that academics skeptical of climate change are not subject to repression. Why did so many critics go after the op-ed writers’ credibility? Particularly as skeptics like to point out that science should be about being skeptical and asserting facts, not prestige? It is probably fair to say that scientists do not like their authority on their specialty to be poo-pooed, nor do they like to be labeled charlatans defrauding the public of grant money.  Climate scientists have a reasonable desire to defend their knowledge and integrity, and strike back in kind. And in the political sphere, gaining public confidence in science does become...

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Spaceship Earth?

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Astronaut Bruce McCandless II drifts free, 350 kilometers above Earth’s surface and 100 meters from the safe haven of the Space Shuttle Challenger, during one of NASA’s first un-tethered spacewalks (credit, STS-41B, NASA 1984, via the Astronomy Picture of the Day). Invisible bonds of absolute necessity hold the free-flying astronaut to his shuttle, and to Earth below. He can take a short walk in space, but he is sightseeing on borrowed time. Earth has a monopoly on all the necessities of life. When the space programs of the ‘60s began sending back images of a small, blue jewel suspended in the vast darkness of space, the metaphor of the Earth itself as a spaceship came easily into public discourse. Modern economics also leant power to the notion of the Earth as a single, global system. Humans had begun to appreciate the scale of change that our technology had wrought. Abruptly, we found ourselves fellow passengers on a lonely vessel, our fortunes tied together. Barring radical reformation of our conception of physics, colonization of other planets is not practical or practicable even as a small-scale curiosity, much less an escape plan. The good ship Earth is our only ship, so we had best not sink it. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Joel Achenbach reports on a movement toward a new paradigm of management and intervention in environmentalism, a Spaceship Earth on which we are not just passengers, but engineers. Just what sinking Earth would entail is a matter of debate. The idea that it would even be possible to sink it is rather new. For a substantial US voting bloc, the world is still a garden for us to harvest, and its upkeep and management is not our business. At passionate odds with the champions of this resource Manifest Destiny, environmentalists object morally to the loss of wilderness, the present wave of extinctions, and the invasion of the successful, surviving species into exotic new locations with the help of human transport. To the less ideologically committed folks in the middle, keeping Earth afloat is synonymous with keeping their own lives and lifestyles afloat, leavened with some empathy for distant communities and future generations. So conservation traditionally operates under a paradigm of custodianship, protection, and restoration. To what perfect historical time do wish to restore our pockets of wildlands? ask the proponents of the new school. Though our current numbers and technological reach are tremendous, humans have been manipulating our environs for thousands of years. There is no pristine Before which can be restored, say the interventionists. The great grasslands of North America...

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When it comes to economics, diversity is key

A study published this week in Nature compared the U.S. economic downturn with a current ecological issue: a decline in biodiversity. In the study, economist Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England and zoologist Robert May of Oxford University basically described the financial system as having similar weaknesses as a monoculture. That is, if all banks are run equally, they are more susceptible to a uniform crisis; much in the way that a pest invasion would have a farther-reaching impact on a plot of land with all of the same species. According to a Scientific American article, “One way to combat this issue is to establish more self-contained “nodes” as has been employed in forest management and even computer networks, so that if one element takes a hit, it doesn’t take down the entire system.” As Sarah Zielinski explained in today’s Surprising Science post, “There are lessons to be had from the world of ecology, say Haldane and May. We could be promoting and managing ecosystem resilience better by requiring banks to have a larger proportion of liquid assets on hand in case of some sort of shock to the system. Taking a lesson from epidemiology, we could focus on limiting the number of ‘super-spreaders’ within the network; but instead of quarantining infected individuals we would somehow limit the number of ‘super-spreader institutions,’ those banks more familiarly labeled as ‘too big to fail.’” Discover’s blog 80beats implied that the current structure could be affected like a trophic cascade: “Modern ecologists recognize that the failure of key species could cause non-linear, cascading ripples that cripple a whole ecosystem.” Some might propose that these comparisons oversimplify the financial system; however, the overall recognition that industry could draw on ecological science to reevaluate such a complex network is a valid argument to make. “Whether or not experts agree that biology is a useful lens through which to study financial markets, Haldane and May suggested that financial regulation is already ‘following in the footsteps of ecology, which has increasingly drawn on a system-wide perspective when promoting and managing ecosystem resilience,’” concluded the Scientific American article. Photo Credit: Dirk...

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Optimistic economists weigh in on climate change

A group called Economics for Equity and the Environment released a report today detailing their predicted costs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  According to this article in the Washington Post, the cost could be as low as between one and three percent of the country’s GDP each year to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 387. The groups emphasizes the 350 number, saying that a 450ppm limit, put forth by many climate experts, would be far too much to avoid the negative impacts of ocean acidification, sea level rise and severe droughts. The report itself focuses on calculating the least-cost way of achieving the 350ppm goal by either the year 2100. A few of their requirements: (1)    Coal burning must be completely phased out or achieve 100 percent capture efficiency of carbon capture by the year 2030. (2)    Oil and gas reserves can be used freely according to the IPCC estimates of their reserve levels. (3)    Ending deforestation and initiating large-scale reforestation would have to bring land-use carbon emissions to zero by 2015 and become a force of carbon sequestration by 2030. As much as we all want attitudes about greenhouse gases and reduction of energy use to change for the better (see this recent post), these projections strike me as severely optimistic.  The small price tag is tantalizing, but doesn’t this goal seem too farfetched? Read the whole report here. I welcome your...

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