GLOBAL CHANGE IS NOW. Ecology can help.
May06

GLOBAL CHANGE IS NOW. Ecology can help.

Third US National Climate Assessment released today.

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In phenology, timing is everything
Jul02

In phenology, timing is everything

If you’ve ever thought that botany doesn’t involve enough time travel, you are not alone. Plant ecologists studying climate change and and the timing of flowering are constantly wondering ‘is this happening when it used to happen?’ My job would be infinitely easier if I had access to a time machine.

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Landsat Data Continuity Mission launches
Feb19

Landsat Data Continuity Mission launches

Great day for a launch: all indications positive for Landsat 8. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer.   AT 10:02am local time on Monday, February 11, 2013, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, into a clear blue sky atop an  Atlas V rocket. The latest USGS earth observatory satellite is a $855 million investment in the future of a 40-year continuous land imaging program, begun with the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972. The LDCM deployed its solar array, powered up, and promptly began sending telemetry back to control, NASA Project Manager Ken Schwere reported jubilantly at the post-launch press conference two hours later. He seemed relieved and giddy, no doubt remembering Landsat 6, which tumbled away after launch in 1993 when a fuel line blew, leaving no power for the final orbital adjustments. But the LDCM’s upper stage rocket nudged the satellite into its final attitude and altitude without a hitch, leaving it in the scheduled sun-synchronous, polar orbit at 705 kilometers, crossing the Earth’s equator at the same local time (10 am +/- 15 minutes) every 99 minutes. It images the entire Earth’s surface every 16 days. The LDCM is in a three month commissioning period while NASA test-drives the instrumentation and calibrates the sensor arrays to its immediate predecessor, Landsat 7. Schwere expects to get an early peek at imagery from the two onboard instruments around day thirty. At one hundred days, NASA will turn the satellite over to USGS for operation and the LDCM will become Landsat 8. USGS Director Marcia McNutt (now former director; McNutt resigned February 15) said the new satellite is an essential tool in this time of global change. “We are all citizens of this earth, and as such we are all reliant on it for services,” she said during the press conference. “We have few ways of observing the changes in the ability of the planet to supply the services that we rely on for survival.” Recently published ecological studies have used Landsat data to examine river dynamics and hydrological infrastructure, wildfire management, degradation of arid shrublands, and global habitat change*. Landsat 8 arrives just as USGS is decommissioning the elderly Landsat 5, launched in 1984. The longest operating Earth observation satellite, Landsat 5 has long outlived its planned 3-year lifespan. Operators lost contact with Landsat 5’s Thematic Mapper in late 2011. A gyroscope failure in 2012 sealed its fate. In January 2013, USGS began strategic burns to remove it from orbit. (You may eulogize Landsat 5 here.) Landsat 7 continues data collection. McNutt said that Landsat 7 has been the more popular...

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A unified field theory for public participation in scientific research
Jul26

A unified field theory for public participation in scientific research

Disparate citizen science disciplines come together at the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer The idea of a big, cross-disciplinary meeting had been floating around citizen science circles for a while. Though public participation in scientific research has deep roots in the history of science, in the last few years it has taken off spectacularly from launch pads across the disciplines of science and education, fueled by advances in communications technology and a sea change in a scientific culture now eager to welcome outsiders as collaborators. There was a feeling that the time had come to muster the leadership from their independent community science fiefdoms for an intellectual potlatch. Citizen science, crowd-sourced science, DIY research, volunteer monitoring, community participatory action research – the variety of banners flying over participatory science projects reflects the diversity of their origins, from astronomy to zoology. Workshops had been organized before, notably by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but they were small, field-oriented, and unable to meet growing demand. “The participatory science field has been growing, but in isolated silos. Even within the environmental sciences, the water quality people self-organize separately from the biology people,” said Abe Miller-Rushing, a science coordinator for the National Park Service up at Acadia National Park, in Maine. “We really wanted to have an open-invite meeting that emphasized innovation, and could kick-start conversations.” So Miller-Rushing and a handful of scientists and educators hatched a plan to make their dream meeting happen. It all comes together on August 4th-5th as a conference-within-a-conference at ESA’s 2012 annual meeting in Portland, Oregon: the “Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference” (technically ESA’s “workshop #1” for organizational purposes, it starts early on Saturday morning, before ESA’s main event kicks off with the Sunday evening keynote). “Jennifer and I were talking about this at a meeting, and I think Rick was there too, and we decided – hey, let’s just do it.” [Update, 8/2/2012: Rick Bonney phoned me to correct the record: the PPSR conference was actually conceived over a large pot of chili at Jennifer’s house, out in the woods near Ithaca, NY. The three (and Jennifer’s husband Sam, famous chili artist) got to rehashing the need for an open-invite meeting. “And Abe said, you know, I really think that we could pull this off if we worked with ESA on it.” –Thanks for the update, Rick!] Miller-Rushing will open the upcoming conference with a presentation on the history of public participation in scientific research. He has a paper on the same topic, with Richard Primack of Boston University and Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,...

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No love for the lady ginkgos

Washington DC Department of Urban Forestry nips stinky seeds in the bud By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. A male Gingko biloba in Lafayette Park, flanking the White House. Credit, Liza Lester April, 2012. As an urban arboreal companion, the ginkgo has much to recommend it. Its tall branches bring welcome summer shade, the fans of its leaves turn a lovely gold in the fall, it copes well with city pollution, lives for thousands of years, and isn’t prone to disease or insect infestation. But it has a serious drawback. In the fall, mature female ginkos produce fleshy seeds (not a “fruit” in the parlance of botany, as the ginkgo is not an angiosperm, or flowering plant), and unlike cherry season, the height of ginko reproduction is not a time of celebration. The seeds drop all over city streets, smelling “like dirty socks and vomit.” Some city dwellers hate the trees so much that they are willing to cut them down rather that endure the annual mess. Rather than massacre female ginkgo trees all over the city, this week DC’s Urban Forestry Administration will spray the trees with “Shield EC” aka “Sprout Nip” aka “chlorpropham,” an herbicide that interferes with the division of plant cells during growth. Agricultural distributors typically use chlorpropham to discourage potatoes from sprouting after harvest. Buds and shoots  – anywhere the plant is actively growing – are hotspots of cell division, and the incipient ginko seed buds fall off before they can grow stinky. At least, that’s the idea. Not all customers are satisfied. Since only female trees are a problem, it would make sense to plant only male trees. But male and female trees look identical when their reproductive parts aren’t hanging out. It can be a good two decades before a tree matures and begins to produce either pollen cones or seeds. Botanist CL Lee’s argument for an X/Y sex determination scheme (like the human mechanism), pointing to a subtle chromosomal difference between the sexes, has not been confirmed in the fifty years since he proposed it. Genetics has not provided an easy solution. Although Chinese scientists have been looking for molecular signatures that would allow botanists to sex young saplings, there is no easy test as of yet. Instead, nurseries now take cuttings of mature male trees to create “clones” of the male tree, either inducing root growth, or grafting the cutting to the roots of a young tree (sometimes this backfires when the graft fails and the root stock turns out to be female, hence reports of male trees turning female). But in the meantime there are robust, mature female trees...

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Loveliest of Trees
Mar22

Loveliest of Trees

Project Budburst: Cherry Blossom Blitz kicks off in the midst of an unusually early bloom. by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer IT’S the first week of spring, and Washington DC’s Tidal Basin is rimmed with snowy petals. Thousands of cherry trees bloom along the water – a week ahead of schedule. Hurried along by a streak of 80 degree (F) days and warm nights, the trees are in full bloom, the earliest since 2000, and petals will be falling by the time the centennial Cherry Blossom Festival* starts on March 24th. Much to the distress of festival organizers. A gift from the City of Tokyo in 1912, the cherry trees have brought out their spring finery around the 4th of April, give or take a few weeks, for 100 years. But a few weeks’ give is often too much leeway for the coordination of major city events, planned months in advance. The Washingtonian reported earlier this month that the city is expecting 100s of thousands of tourists, bringing 100s of millions of dollars, to arrive for the festival. So predicting the bloom is no trivial matter. Unfortunately, predicting it more than ten days in advance is entirely luck, according the National Park Service. Cherry trees are exquisitely sensitive to the vagaries of early spring weather. “This has been a wonderful learning opportunity. If the cherry blossoms don’t show up for their very own parade, people take notice,” said Sandra Henderson, director of the National Ecological Observatory Network’s (NEON) Project BudBurst. Festival organizers have sounded considerably more morose about this lesson than Henderson in the flood of recent news reports. But they are interested in different things. Henderson doesn’t have a festival to run; she just wants to map the blossoming of your backyard cherry to latitude, longitude, and date, with the option to cross-reference it to weather and climate trends. Henderson co-founded the citizen science project in 2007 with Kayri Havens-Young of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Carol Brewer, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Montana (and now on NEON’s board of directors, among other activities). The project collects data worldwide. They’re interested in “phenology”: the study of seasonal changes and their environmental cues. The eponymous “bud burst” of new leaves unfurling on the branches of deciduous trees is one such phenomenon, or phenophase, “but don’t let our name fool you; we’re interested in plants throughout the year,” said Henderson. It’s just that “project leaf dye-off” didn’t have quite the same enticing cache. BudBurst records the first unfolding of leaves, stages of bloom, the pale green new needles at the tips of fir trees, showers of pollen,...

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Phenology, bees and climate change video

The Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA just put out this excellent video about pollination, phenology and the effects of climate change. Although NASA has satellite data showing that spring green-up has been occurring a half-day earlier each year, it’s a bit harder to figure out whether a corresponding change in phenology is occurring among pollinators. The video shows beekeepers–scientists and citizens alike–weighing their hives to find out whether flowering and pollination are getting out of sync. View the video below, or check it out (free) in stunning high-def at the NASA web...

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