ESA Policy News: June 14
Jun14

ESA Policy News: June 14

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. EDUCATION: STEM REORGANIZATION EFFORT MEETS BIPARTISAN CRITICISM On June 4, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened for a hearing examining the Obama Administration’s proposed reorganization of Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering (STEM) programs outlined in its proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget. Under the plan, 110 of 226 federal agency STEM programs would be eliminated. The plan would house STEM programs primarily under three agencies: the Department of Education (DOE), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Smithsonian Institution (SI). DOE would oversee K-12 programs, NSF would oversee undergraduate and graduate programs while the Smithsonian would be responsible for informal science education. The proposal, an effort on the part of the administration to deal with the reality of current fiscal constraints, was met with inquiries and skepticism from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and former chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) were all particularly concerned with the reorganization’s impact on STEM programs within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The reorganization would cut NASA programs by one-third. NASA’s STEM programs would lose $50 million under the reorganization effort.  There were also bipartisan concerns that the reorganization does not include enough focus on vocational training programs or programs that seek to increase STEM participation among underrepresented groups, including women and minorities. Members of Congress expressed concern that the reorganization effort was decided primarily through the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with little input from school districts, non-profits, universities or the federal agency program managers responsible for the programs slated for elimination. “In addition to being concerned about the process, I have serious concerns with the budget proposal itself.  To be blunt, it seems to me it was not very well thought out,” stated Ranking Member Johnson. Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren noted that no one wants to see their own programs reduced or eliminated. View the full hearing here. CLIMATE CHANGE: US, CHINA REACH DEAL ON HFC EMISSIONS On June 8, the White House announced that the United States had reached an agreement with China to reduce the use of use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are greenhouse gases used in refrigerator and air conditioner appliances. The most common types of HFCs are anywhere from a hundred to a thousand times as potent as carbon dioxide in warming the planet. According to the White House, HFC emissions could grow to nearly...

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Recycled oil rigs could aid life in the deep seas

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Typically the size of a football field and reaching a height of several hundred meters, the production life of an offshore oil or gas rig is over once it’s drained its location’s energy supply.  Then a company must retire and remove the rig. Conceived by the former U.S. Minerals Management Service (now reorganized as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) the Rigs-to-Reefs (RTR) program recycles retired rigs as artificial reefs with the aim of aiding marine communities and fisheries and saving the gas and oil industry significant money.  Often a rig is dragged to a new location and then sunk to create an artificial reef.  So far restricted to shallow waters, the first RTR conversion took place in 1979, off Florida’s coast and since then other programs have been put into place elsewhere around the globe, such as in Southeast Asia. In a review article published in the October issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment researchers Peter Macreadie, Ashley Fowler, and David Booth note the growing pressure to expand the RTR program to the deep seas, areas 500 meters or more in depth. Though relatively rare in the deep sea, natural reefs are increasingly threatened.  And with more than 6,500 rigs due for retirement by 2025, the time seems ripe to consider creating deep-sea artificial reef complexes, say the authors. “Thousands of massive oil rigs reaching the end of their production life all at once is unique to the present time,” explains Macreadie.  “The newer rigs are very different to these ‘old school’ fixed-jacket style rigs; they don’t have anywhere near as much structure.” Macreadie and colleagues highlight existing research on the consequences of rigs in shallow water to outline the potential benefits and detriments that retired rigs might offer deep-sea communities.  For example, rigs might be especially helpful in protecting marine life against illegal trawling.  The rigs’ large internal spaces could offer shelter to fish and other organisms, which could be especially beneficial to species that are long-lived, slow-growing, and slow to reproduce and therefore most vulnerable to overfishing.  However, the authors note that while the crossbeams and large internal space of recycled rigs may be useful habitat for larger organisms, small fish and invertebrates would likely not find suitable habitat in rigs until coral and other encrusting species create a more hospitable environment. Artificial reefs created by retired rigs could also offer “stepping stones” for animals to move between vast expanses of soft bottom sediment.  Removing long-distance barriers could be good or bad, depending on the species, say the authors. Other potential risks associated...

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Tracking Pacific walrus, impacts of early-life stress, and plant traits matter more than origin

Monitoring Pacific Walrus: With the end of summer fast approaching, US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers are once again gearing up to radio-tag walruses on Alaska’s northwestern coast as part of the agency’s ongoing study of how the marine mammals are coping with declining sea ice. “Sea ice is an important component in the life cycle of walruses.  These tracking studies will help us to better understand how top consumers in the arctic ecosystem may be affected by changes in sea ice habitats,” said USGS Alaska Science Center research ecologist Chad Jay in yesterday’s USGS press release. Walruses, which can dive hundreds of feet in search of food, rely on sea ice to rest between dives.  When sea ice is not available, the animals haul out on beaches, something they have been doing more frequently as the extent of sea ice has decreased in recent summers.  Read more at www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/ Far-reaching impact of stress: A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. shows that when zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) are briefly exposed to stress early in life, the jolt of stress hormones reduced not only their own lifespan, but that of their breeding partner as well.  Pat Monaghan (University of Glasgow) and co-authors report that “only 5 percent of control birds with control partners had died after 3 years, compared with over 40 percent in early stress pairs. Interestingly, a pair’s reproductive success did not seem to be compromised by the early-life exposure to stress. Traits trump plant origins: Nonnative plants often get a bad rap as being a potential threat to wildlife habitat and many state agencies spend time and energy getting rid of them.  An In Press study with Ecological Applications suggests that might be a misplaced effort in some cases.  Jillian Cohen (Cornell University) and colleagues compared the impacts of native and nonnative wetland plants on three species of native larval amphibians.  They found no difference in metamorphosis rates and length of larval period between habitats dominated by native and nonnative plants.  Say the authors: “We suggest that to improve habitats for native fauna managers should focus on assembling a plant community with desirable traits rather than only focusing on plant origin.” Rising sources of nitrate to Gulf of Mexico:  The results of a new study by the US Geological Survey (USGS) published in Environmental Science and Technology found that in spite of decreases along some portions of the Mississippi River Basin, overall efforts to curb this nutrient have been unsuccessful.   Excessive nitrate contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zones—areas unable to support marine life because of minimal oxygen.  The USGS study...

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Record drought in the U.S., cod fishery recovery and Bjork’s ode to E.O. Wilson

This is the last post I will contribute as moderator of ESA’s blog EcoTone—it has been a wonderful, educational experience to explore the connectivity and complexity of life processes and to meet the scientists who have helped to further this cross-disciplinary research. I hope you have enjoyed reading these stories as much as I have enjoyed writing them! Please continue to visit the blog frequently for new posts, and remember that guest submissions are always welcome at esablog@esa.org. See the end of this post for a few highlighted EcoTone articles published since January 2010. Detrimental drought: According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Texas and other southern states are experiencing record-breaking, “exceptional” drought.  And as a recent Reuters article pointed out, these conditions are leading to wildlife hardships. In Austin, for example, the world’s largest urban bat colony has been departing from under the Congress Bridge earlier than usual to search for prey. “The drought has killed off crops in Texas, and that in turn has killed off those delicious pests the Mexican free-tailed bats consider dinner,” wrote Karen Brooks. As a result, the bats are emerging before sunset—providing ample viewing time for bat-watchers but indicating the bats are exerting greater energy to feed. “An extended drought could be a double whammy for central Texas farmers, who depend on the bats to remove some 1,000 tons of insects and pests from the air each night,” wrote Brooks. Read more at “1.5 million bats in Texas city left hungrier by drought.” Conserving water in the West: Many U.S. residents are aware that turning lights off after leaving a room conserves energy; however, people may not be as aware that conserving water is also conserving energy. As Daniel Glick reported in a Scientific American article, “Nationally, energy production sucks more water from freshwater sources than any other sector except agriculture. It takes water to create the power we use to drive our cars, transport our groceries, and run our toaster ovens. Virtually every source of electricity in a typical American home or manufacturing plant—whether it comes from hydroelectricity, coal, natural gas, nuclear, biofuels, or even concentrated solar—also requires water. Lots of water.” Read more at “How Saving Energy Means Conserving Water in U.S. West.” Slow recovery: Researchers from Dalhousie University have reported that, after nearly two decades, cod and haddock fisheries off the coast of Nova Scotia are showing signs of recovery. After the fisheries collapsed due to overconsumption, the Canadian government closed this area in 1993 and has just started to see the ecosystem begin to stabilize. As Hannah Waters concluded in a Scientific American article, this is just one example...

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Pondering America’s energy future

I went to a New Republic briefing this morning on the future of U.S. energy policy.  What stood out most were the rather impassioned remarks from Senator Kerry (D-MA), who is not generally known for displaying much emotion.  He opened his comments by describing America’s “ostrich-like” approach to energy: “I’ve had it up to here,” he said, motioning to just below his chin.  Every prediction made years ago about this issue is coming true but even faster, said Kerry.  We’ve been receiving countless “postcards from the edge,” he said; warnings and evidence that we are bringing about undesirable changes with our energy demands: pine beetle outbreaks no longer held in check by cold temperatures, lobsters and other marine life threatened by ocean acidification, record breaking heat waves and hurricanes.  And in response to all these warnings, asked Kerry, what have we done?  The answer: “Business as usual.” And while Kerry allowed himself a few partisan digs—for example, we have a growing “flat Earth caucus”—he did quickly move on to more pragmatic arguments that echoed those made by others, such as former Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That is, we should use common sense to move forward on cleaner energy sources because doing so will be good for our health, jobs and the economy, and national security.  Declaring that “we’re our own worst enemy,” Kerry said that he believes “America’s greatness, America’s capacity to lead, is really on the line.” He pointed to the global competition in clean energy, noting that, according to a recent Pew study, China holds first place, leading the way in solar panel and wind turbine production.  Solar panel technology was invented in the U.S. decades ago by Bell Labs, yet China now exports this technology around the globe, selling it also to the U.S.  Germany has recently jumped to second place, bumping the U.S. to third.  While Germany is a far smaller country than the U.S., it has doubled its investment in cle an energy to $42.1 billion, while the U.S. invests $34 billion. Earlier in the briefing, several other speakers offered their views on America’s energy future.  Jacques Besnainou, Chief Executive Officer with the nuclear power services provider AREVA Inc. argued that the U.S. must come to grips with its aging nuclear fleet, the “oldest in the world.”  Doing nothing is not an option, said Besnainou; if no action is taken, these plants will have to be retired in ten years.  Yet another panelist, Christopher Guith, Vice President for Policy at the Institute for 21st Century Energy, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that because natural gas is currently very cheap, the option...

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Noise pollution in the ocean damages cephalopods’ auditory structures

Pollution is not limited to toxic chemicals in the air and water—light pollution in urban environments, for example, has been shown to affect the mating rituals of some birds. Research has also shown that noise pollution in the oceans alters the behavior and communication of marine life such as dolphins and whales that depend on sound for daily activities. And a recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View) indicates that noise pollution could have a more widespread impact on the ocean environment. That is, Michel André from the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona and colleagues found that low frequency, high intensity sound in the oceans causes massive damage to the auditory structures of cephalopods, like squid and octopus. As Andy Coghlan described today in New Scientist, “It’s not just dolphins and whales that suffer from the noise of shipping, sonar and oil prospecting. Experiments on squid, cuttlefish and octopuses show that their balancing organs are so badly damaged by sound similar to submarine noise pollution that they become practically immobile. The consequences seem permanent.” Specifically, André and colleagues examined the statocysts—fluid-filled sacs responsible for determining balance and positioning in cephalopods—of cuttlefish, squid and octopus that had been exposed to low frequency sound bursts. The researchers found that all of the squid experienced damage to the hair cells inside the statocysts (compared to cephalopods that were not exposed to the sound), and those that were exposed to longer durations of the sound showed large lesions in their statocysts. Read more at Live Science, Science Now and in the Ecological Society of America’s press release. André, M., Solé, M., Lenoir, M., Durfort, M., Quero, C., Mas, A., Lombarte, A., van der Schaar, M., López-Bejar, M., Morell, M., Zaugg, S., & Houégnigan, L. (2011). Low-frequency sounds induce acoustic trauma in cephalopods Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment DOI:...

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An ant’s eye view of sand

To an ant, a piece of garnet or a shark’s tooth is merely another boulder to excavate for the expansion of the nest. And for humans, these bits of treasure would largely go unnoticed as just another grain in an anthill. But, as the blog Neatorama pointed out this week, every inch of sand is a world of discovery to photographers and sand collectors. Specifically, Flickr user Mouser Williams captures the history and biological connections of each location through his macro lens. For example, the pointy star sand from beaches in southern Japan—such as on Iriomote Island in Okinawa—was formed from the death of Foraminifera. In this case, these organisms are marine protists with calcium-based skeletons that wash ashore to create the “sand.” Williams also described how the hard work of ants creates unique sand compositions: “…Ant sand from a site near Taos, New Mexico…has a remarkably high concentration of garnets. The reddish faceted spheres are garnets hauled up to the surface by the ants. Because they are roughly spherical, they tend to roll down the slopes of the ant hills and collect in an annulus around the base of the ant hill.” Using a magnet, Williams extracted some of the garnets and photographed them separately. “These garnets range in size from 1mm to 5mm in diameter,” he explained. “There are presumably larger garnets in the soil in this area, but with ant sand you are limited to things ants can lift and carry.” In another photo, ants excavated fossil bits from their nest in the Morrison Formation of New Mexico, a location that at one point supported dinosaurs, reptiles, termites, conifers, ginkgos, tree ferns and more along the area’s rivers. The site also had a diverse group of sauropod species at one time. Photo Credit for Star Sand Naked Eye (sand on a finger): Geomr Photo Credit for all other sand photos: Mouser...

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