Scientists detect aquatic ecosystem warning signal

Scientists have found what appears to be the stress signals of a lake ecosystem that is on its way to collapse. Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues carefully monitored the food web in a Wisconsin lake as they gradually introduced largemouth bass into the ecosystem. The researchers noticed a shift in the algae populations that were directly related to the altered feeding behavior of smaller lake fish after the addition of the larger predators. “Because the smaller fish shifted to shallow waters where bass threaten them less, [Carpenter] explains, the algae that inhabit the more open waters of the lake were free of their predators and their populations fluctuate more,” wrote Jennifer Carpenter in a Science Now article. “Carpenter and his colleagues report online today in Science that these fluctuations were a warning that the lake’s food web is changing.” As explained in a National Science Foundation press release, the researchers “detected what they say is an unmistakable warning—a death knell—of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.” “We start adding these big ferocious fish and almost immediately this instills fear in the other fish,” Carpenter said in the release. “The small fish begin to sense there is trouble and they stop going into the open water and instead hang around the shore and structures, things like sunken logs. They become risk-averse.” A big indicator, according to Carpenter, was a boom in water flea populations. Carpenter and colleagues explained in the release that these signals are universal and could be incorporated into work on “rangelands, forests and marine ecosystems.” Photo Credit: Eric Engbretson,...

Read More

How federal investment in flood management can save money

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Is your neighborhood capable of weathering a flood? Would you still be able to drink tap water after such an event? Are the levees, dams, bridges and storm drains in your town capable of coping with a potential flood? The United States Geological Survey (USGS)–at least for the time being– has the federal resources, investment and capability to answer these questions for our nation’s communities. On April 15, USGS sponsored a briefing entitled “2011 – The Year of the Flood?”  This briefing highlighted the many flood management benefits of the USGS streamgaging program. The speakers—including Brian McCallum, Assistant Director of the USGS Georgia Water Science Center, Tom Graziano, Chief  Hydrologic Services Division of the NOAA National Weather Service, and Brian Hurt, a former City Engineer in Findlay, Ohio—discussed the many benefits of maintaining up-to-date information on surface water data. The USGS operates and maintains a nationwide streamgaging network of about 7,000 gages. The network is supported by funding through the USGS’s Cooperative Water Program, the USGS National Streamflow Information Program, other federal environmental agencies and roughly 800 state and local funding partners. Its users include a multitude of local, state and federal agencies, industry, educational institutions, non-governmental organizations and even individual citizens. The economic benefits and cost savings of adequate federal investment in streamgaging technologies is substantial.  A study from the National Hydrologic Warning Council estimated the value of hydrologic forecasts at $1.6 billion annually, and that report attributed $1.02 billion in savings to successful forecasting for reservoir operation. If three to five percent of this total is attributed to the gage network that provides that necessary data for forecasting, the benefit is $30-$50 million annually. The Army Corps of Engineers presents an annual report to Congress, with detailed information on flood damages prevented by Corps projects. The average annual flood damage prevented by Corps projects between 1983-2002 is $23.2 billion. Nearly 20,000 communities across the nation participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, which is designed to provide an alternative to disaster assistance to reduce the costs of repairing infrastructural damage caused by floods. During Friday’s briefing, Brian Hurt pointed out that methods that allow earlier flood warnings to residents allows them to preemptively secure valuables and consequently allow savings of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the National Flood Insurance Program. Concurrently, the National Weather Service (NWS) uses USGS streamgaging data in its flood warning program. The data reported from the NWS flood warning program provides critical lead-time ahead of impending natural disasters for emergency response agencies, and consequently citizens, to take pre-emptive measures for minimizing the...

Read More

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:...

Read More

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...

Read More

It takes more than climate change to cause amphibian decline

This post contributed by Monica Kanojia, Administrative Assistant/Governance for ESA. Amphibians have been around for hundreds of millions of years. They have survived numerous extinction events and yet somehow, in the past two decades, their numbers have been in severe decline. The population changes have been linked to many factors, including climate change and disease, habitat destruction and water pollution. Studies indicate that amphibians are sensitive to all of the proposed variables—not just one root cause. A unique quality of amphibian biology is their transdermal water uptake ability. Transdermal uptake allows for nutrients to be delivered across the skin. For example, the skin of a frog allows for the direct exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water from the environment. While in ideal situations this would be beneficial, it currently poses a threat to amphibian populations. Overexposure to any nutrient can be lethal to an organism. With increased rates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, heavily polluted water and loss of water, amphibians’ ability to survive is diminishing. A majority of amphibian species go through reproductive and developmental stages that require a body of water. The eggs of amphibians are not as resilient as reptile or bird eggs because they are jelly coated and unsuitable for development on land; therefore, amphibians must return to water to reproduce. Increased agricultural and industrial run off and poor waste management has led to a decline in the quality of water available for amphibians. The main types of chemical contaminants affecting amphibian environments are pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, increasingly acidic water and nitrogen pollution. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by Tyrone Hayes from the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues, pesticides commonly used in cornfields in the western United States have adverse affects on amphibian larval growth and development, immune system and the size prior to and after metamorphosis. High levels of pesticides enter streams and groundwater as water runs off of farms, ranches, golf courses and suburban areas. While organic and low-risk pesticide use is encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it remains predominantly unregulated… That is, the EPA lists guidelines for how to safely use pesticides for commercial and agricultural needs, but it does not strictly regulate what can and cannot be used. Herbicides, on the other hand, are made to disrupt photosynthesis capabilities of plants and were thought to have little to no effect on fish and wildlife.  But, as Science Daily reported in 2008, studies have revealed otherwise. For example, atrazine—one of the most commonly used herbicides on golf courses, home lawns and soybean and corn crops—is responsible for lethal changes...

Read More

ESA Policy News: February 10

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: PARTISANSHIP ABOUNDS AT FIRST GOP-LED CLIMATE HEARING House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans questioned climate science and asserted new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules would cost jobs while Democrats accused Republicans of ignoring scientists and human health concerns during the first subcommittee hearing concerning carbon emission regulations and the effects climate change since the GOP regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The focus of the hearing was the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” legislation jointly sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) that would exempt greenhouse gases from regulation under the Clean Air Act. The hearing was presided over by Ed Whitfield (R-KY), Chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee. Waxman references Bush EPA Admin letter Prior to the hearing, Ranking Member Waxman sent correspondence to Chairman Upton, which included a January 2008 letter from former President George W. Bush’s third U.S. EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson. In the private letter to the president, Johnson stated “the latest science of climate change requires the agency to propose a positive endangerment finding, as was agreed to at the Cabinet-level meeting in November. The state of the latest climate change science does not permit a negative finding, nor does it permit a credible finding that we need to wait for more research.” The letter was sent six months before Johnson overrode EPA scientists’ determination and announced the agency would continue to evaluate evidence to determine whether a positive endangerment finding was warranted. Subsequently in 2009, current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finalized an endangerment finding for carbon and other greenhouse gases, paving the way for their regulation under the Clean Air Act. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE REPUBLICANS RELEASE PROPOSED FY 2011 SPENDING CUTS House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) announced a partial list of spending cuts on February 9 that will be included in the upcoming appropriations Continuing Resolution (CR) for Fiscal Year 2011. The CR would fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2011. Overall, the proposed CR represented a cut of $32 billion from the levels enacted in the temporary CR passed by Congress last December, which expires March 4. Republican appropriators were forced to modify their efforts Thursday, Feb 10, after coming under pressure from Tea-Party freshman Republicans to fulfill their pledge to cut $100 billion in spending this year, according to House aides. The spending cuts originally released by Chairman Rogers based its...

Read More

From the Community: waste and the environment

Turning wasteful Styrofoam packaging into biodegradable, mushroom-based materials, the current news on Hungary’s alumina sludge disaster, Frito Lay changes back to original chip bag packaging after consumer complaints about the “eco-friendly” bags and cities wasting water and using new technology to turn wastewater into energy.

Read More

A Conference about Water V: The EcoEd Digital Library

This post was submitted by Teresa Mourad and Jennifer Riem of ESA’s Education Office. The ongoing discussions at the Millennium Conference are highlighting the role that ecologists and social scientists play in issues related to water, ecosystem services, and drought. Preparing the next generation of scientists to research, adapt, mitigate and manage these challenges is a responsibility that we all share. While the plenary talks and poster presentations have all showcased the current scientific knowledge about these topics, EcoEd Digital Library is also showcasing a collection of teaching resources related to water resources that can be used to bring this knowledge into the classroom. These resources were all submitted by ecologists who have integrated their own research into their teaching and published their work for others to use. The collection highlights the close-knit relationship between research and education that must be developed in order to prepare future ecologists and social scientists to add to the knowledge being shared today. You can view the resources in the Drought & Water-Ecosystem Services Collection here. EcoEd Digital Library is part of the BioScience Education Network (BEN), which is the biology pathway of the National Science Digital Library. EcoEd DL accepts a wide variety of resources, including  photos and photo collections, videos, tables and figures, datasets, and classroom activities. The descriptions and keywords accompanying the resources allow instructors to search by keyword and browse by ecological concept. By submitting research products to the library, researchers can fulfill broader impacts requirements of funding agencies. Most importantly, educators will have access to the best scientific resources for their classrooms. EcoEd DL also welcomes resources on other ecological topics. For more information on how to submit, please visit the EcoEd Digital Library...

Read More