Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »





Medieval Canada threatens global biodiversity

25 11 2013

harper_scienceArtists, poets and musicians make us feel, viscerally, how people destroy what they do not understand. Logic and observation led E. O. Wilson to conclude: ‘If people don’t know, they don’t care. If they don’t care, they don’t act.’

Whether you feel it in one of Drew Dillinger’s poems1 or visualise it from the sinuous beauty of mathematical equations, the song remains the same. Scientists are critical to the present and future of the biosphere and humanity, but if — and only if — we are free to communicate our findings to the voting public.

Galileo did not have that right. Scientists in totalitarian regimes of today still lack it. And now, incredibly, some of Canada’s top scientists have lost that right2,3,4.

That is not the Canada I immigrated into. Rewind the tape to 1983. I am a young immigrant, ecstatic that my family has gained entry into the country. We all have mixed feelings; we love our home country of Mexico and are sad to leave it, yet we look forward to being part of Canada’s open-minded and science-loving spirit. The tape runs forward and not all turns out to be as advertised. Still, for the next 23 years Canada remains a damn good place, ruled by governments that, imperfect as they might have been, were not obsessed with burying science.

Fast forward the tape to 2006. Stephen Harper’s newly elected and still ruling Conservative Government hits the ground pounding punches in all directions. Almost immediately, the Conservatives begin to implement one of their many Machiavellian tactics that aim to turn Canada into a petro-state6,7: downgrade science as irrelevant to evidence-based decision making. Ever since, Canadian federal scientists have seen their programs slashed or buried. Those who manage to hang on to their jobs are strictly forbidden to speak about their findings to the media or the public8,9,10,11.

Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation hypocrisy

28 05 2013
telegraph.co.uk

telegraph.co.uk

Another soul-searching post from Alejandro Frid.

Confession time. This is going to be delicate, and might even ruffle some big feathers. Still, all of us need to talk about it. In fact, I want to trigger a wide conversation on the flaws and merits of what I did.

Back in March of this year I saw a posting for a job with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) seeking a ‘conservation biologist to provide expert advice in the design and implementation of a Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP) in northern British Columbia, Canada’. The job sounded cool and important. I was suited for it, knew northern British Columbia well, and loved the idea of working there.

But there was a catch. The job was focused on the local impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure while dissociating itself from the climate impacts of burning that fuel, and involved collaborating with the fossil fuel company. According to the posting, this was not a new thing for the Smithsonian:

Guided by the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, SCBI works with a selected group of oil and gas companies since 1996 to develop models designed to achieve conservation and sustainable development objectives while also protecting and conserving biodiversity, and maintaining vital ecosystem services that benefit both humans and wildlife.

Given that climate change already is diminishing global biodiversity and hampering the ecosystem services on which we all depend, the logic seemed inconsistent to me. But there was little time to ponder it. The application deadline had just passed and my soft-money position with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre was fizzling out. So I applied, hastily, figuring that I would deal with the issue later, if they ever got back to me. Read the rest of this entry »





Get boreal

7 06 2012

I’ve been a little quiet this last week because I’ve had to travel to the other side of the planet for what turned out to be a very interesting and scientifically lucrative workshop. After travelling 31 hours from Adelaide to Umeå in northern Sweden, I wondered to myself if it was going to be worth it for a 2.5-day workshop on a little island (Norrbyskär) in the Baltic Sea (which, as it turned out, didn’t have internet access).

The answer is a categorical ‘yes’!

Many of you know that I’ve dabbled in boreal forest conservation in the past, but I could never claim any real expertise in the area. Hence it came as something of a shock when Jon Moen of Umeå University asked me to attend a specialist workshop focused loosely on making the plight and importance of the boreal forest more widely acknowledged. I dragged my feet initially, but Jon convinced me that I could add something to the mix.

It was a small workshop, but well-represented by all boreal countries save Norway (i.e., we had Russians, Swedes, Finns, Canadians and Americans – this Australian was indeed the odd one out). We also had a wide array of expertise, from carbon accountants, political scientists, political economists, native cultures experts, ecologists to foresters. Our mandate – justify why we should pay more attention to this globally important region.

Just how important is the boreal forest? We managed to unearth some little-appreciated facts: Read the rest of this entry »





The wounded soldiers of biodiversity

10 04 2012

Here’s another great post from Salvador Herrando-Pérez. It is interesting that he’s chosen an example species that was once (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) of great interest to me (caribou – see ancient papers a, b, c, d). But that is another story. Take it away, Salva.

 

Figure 1. Caribou (reindeer) are ungulates weighing up to ~ 100 kg. They live in tundra and taiga in Finland, Greenland, Finland, Norway, Mongolia, Russia, Canada and USA (extinct in Sweden). The species is globally stable (‘Least Concern’, IUCN Red List), but the subspecies of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is threatened in North America. Schneider and colleagues’ 7 study encompasses ~ 3,000 individuals in 12 herds (75 to 450 individuals per herd), occupying ~ 100.000 km2 of conifer forest and peatland (3,000 to 19,000 km2 per herd). Two ecotypes are recognized regionally22, namely migratory mountain herds (mostly from mountains and foothills in west-central Alberta), and non-migratory boreal herds (mostly from peatlands in central and northern Alberta). The photo shows a group of caribous grazing on subalpine vegetation from Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada). Photo courtesy of Saakje Hazenberg.

As conservation biology keeps incorporating management and economical principles from other disciplines, it stumbles with paradoxes such that investing on the most threatened components of biodiversity might in turn jeopardize the entire assets of biodiversity.

At the end of 2011, newspapers and TVs echoed an IUCN report cataloguing as ‘extinct’ or ‘near extinct’ several subspecies of rhinos in Asia and Africa. To many, such news might have invoked the topic: “how badly governments do to protect the environment”. However if, to avoid those extinctions, politicians had to deviate funds from other activities, what thoughts would come to the mind of workers whose salaries had to be frozen, school directors whose classroom-roof leakages could not be repaired (e.g., last winter at my niece’s school in Spain), colonels whose last acquisition of ultramodern tanks had to be delayed, or our city council’s department who had to cancel Sting’s next performance.

Thus, there are three unquestionable facts regarding species conservation:

  1. the protection of species costs money;
  2. governments and environmental organisations have limited budgets for a range of activities they deem necessary; and
  3. our way of conserving nature is failing because, despite increasing public/private support and awareness, the rate of destruction of biodiversity is not decelerating1,2.

One of the modern debates among conservationists pivots around how to use resources efficiently3-6. Schneider and colleagues7 have dealt with this question for woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Canada. A total of 18 populations of this ungulate persist in the Canadian province of Alberta, all undergoing demographic declines due to mining extractions (oil, gas and bitumen), logging and wolf predation. The species is listed as ‘threatened’ regionally and nationally. The Alberta Caribou Recovery Plan (2004-2014) is attempting to protect all herds. Under such a framework, Schneider et al.7 predicted that woodland caribou would be regionally extirpated in less than a century.

Furthermore, they estimated the costs of making each herd viable (Fig. 1), with a triple revelation. To save all herds from extinction would need ~ CA$150,000 million (beyond the available budget). The most threatened herds are among the most expensive to protect (within present management approach). Some herds would be secured through modest investment for two decades. Overall, their study suggests that Alberta’s woodland caribou would be eligible for triage, i.e., at the subpopulation level8. Read the rest of this entry »





Sink to source – the loss of biodiversity’s greatest ecosystem service

29 02 2012

I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it’s nice when some real data support a prediction (no matter how gloomy that prediction might have been). It’s what drives scientists toward discovery (or at least, it’s what I find particularly appealing about my job).

Several years ago, my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi† and Ian Warkentin) and I wrote a major review in TREE about the fate of the world’s ‘second’ lung of the planet, the great boreal forests of Russia, Canada & Scandinavia. We discussed how fragmentation was increasing at an alarming rate, and that although most species there are still relatively intact, we stand to lose a lot of its biodiversity if we don’t halt the fragmenting processes soon. We wrote more on the subject in a paper to appear imminently in Biological Conservation.

Another component though that we raised in the TREE paper was the boreal forests were very much in danger of turning into a net carbon producer. You see, the ‘lung’ analogy is very pertinent because on average, the growth of the massive expanse of the vegetation in the forest generally takes up much more atmospheric carbon that it exudes through decay and burning (for as we all know, plants take up carbon dioxide to produce sugars during photosynthesis, and produce oxygen as a ‘waste’ product). However, as we fragment, cut down and burn the forest, it can end up producing more than it takes up (i.e., turning from a ‘sink’ to a ‘source’). We highlighted several studies indicating how insect outbreaks and human-exacerbated fire intensities and frequencies could conceivably do this.

Now Zhihai Ma and colleagues have just compiled a paper in PNAS indicating that the danger is well on the way to becoming reality in Canada. The paper entitled Regional drought-induced reduction in the biomass carbon sink of Canada’s boreal forests reports the results from 96 long-term permanent sampling plots spread right across southern Canada – from British Columbia in the far west, to Newfoundland in the far east. Read the rest of this entry »





Navjot Sodhi is gone, but not forgotten

13 06 2011

I woke up this morning to a battery of emails expressing condolences on the tragic passing of Navjot Sodhi. I have to say that his death is personally a huge blow, and professionally, a tragic loss to the fields of ecology and conservation biology. He was a good friend, and a bloke with whom I had some great times. He was someone I could trust.

Many of you will know that Navjot had been ill for the last few months. I was told that at first it was something unidentifiable, then it was suspected diabetes, then the shock – some sort of ‘blood cancer’. I found out today it was one of the worst and most aggressive kinds of lymphoma that shuffled dear Navjot off this mortal coil. And it acted fast.

As I reflect on this moment, I remember all the times I spent with Navjot. I first met him in 1992 in the most unlikely of places – Edmonton, Canada at the University of Alberta where I was doing my MSc, and he his post-doc with Sue Hannon. Many years later, Navjot confessed that he thought I was a complete knob when he first met me, and that’s something we’ve laughed about on many occasions thereafter. Read the rest of this entry »





Putting environmental testing to the test

25 11 2010

A few months ago I made a general call for submissions to ConservationBytes.com. I’m happy to say that the first person answering that call has come through with the goods. Please welcome Julie Pollock of Environment Canada and her post on environmental testing. Thanks, Julie.

Environment Canada is often called upon to assess damage or the risk of damage to natural systems. Scientific and legal staff depend on the reliability of test methods and, in some cases, may require entirely new methods. Challenges federal government researchers face supporting these assessments include ensuring ecological relevance in subject selection, keeping up with industry to capture new substances, and understanding the cumulative nature of damaging pollutants.

The Biological Assessment and Standardization Section, led by Rick Scroggins, develops, validates and standardizes test methods for assessing contaminants in natural soil systems. Part of the Science & Technology Branch, they are located in the National Capital Region (Ottawa) where they work closely with the Enforcement Branch.

Their test methods support assessments of new and existing chemical substances and programs to clean up contaminated sites under federal jurisdiction. The group provides test method research to Natural Resources Canada’s Program of Energy Research and Development, which funds government R&D for sustainable energy. Another collaborator is Alberta, one of Canada’s largest provinces, which requires expertise in soil sampling and assessments associated with oil and gas extraction in the northern boreal and taiga ecozones. Read the rest of this entry »





International Congress for Conservation Biology 2010 overview

18 07 2010

A few posts ago I promised a brief overview of the 2010 International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) that I attended last week in Edmonton, Canada. Here it is.

While acknowledging that it is impossible for any single individual to attend all talks at a congress of this size given that there were usually around 6-8 concurrent sessions on most days, I can provide only a synopsis of what I saw and what I heard from others.

I’ve been lukewarm about the two SCB conferences I have attended in previous years (Brasilia and Chattanooga), and I expected about this same this time around. However, overall the presentations were generally of a higher quality, the audio-visual was professional and the schedule was humane (I really, really, really like 09.00 starts; I really, really, really hate 08.00 starts).

For me, highlights certainly include Tyrone Hayes‘ plenary on the evils of atrazine, Fangliang He‘s description of the perils of overestimating extinction rates from species-area relationships, Mark Burgman‘s account of the crap performance of ‘experts’ in returning truth, Stuart Pimm‘s advocacy of scientific advocacy, Bastian Bomhard‘s sobering account of our failure to meet the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity targets, Rob EwersBioFrag software, Tom Brook‘s account of vertebrate threat patterns, Rob Dietz‘ presentation on the Centre for Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Guy Pe’er‘s review of population viability analyses, and of course, the Conservation Leadership Programme salsa party! Read the rest of this entry »





Global rates of forest loss – everyone’s a bastard

29 04 2010

© A. Hesse

I’ve written rather a lot about rates of forest loss around the world, including accumulated estimates of tropical forest loss and increasing fragmentation/loss in the boreal forest (see Bradshaw et al. 2009 Front Ecol Evol & Bradshaw et al. 2009 Trends Ecol Evol). For the tropics in particular, we used the index that an area of rain forest about the size of Bangladesh (> 15 million hectares) was disappearing each year, and in Russia alone, annual decline in forest area averaged 1.1 million hectares between 1988 and 1993. Mind boggling, really.

But some of these estimates were a bit old, relied on some imprecise satellite data, and didn’t differentiate forest types well. In addition, many have questioned whether the rates are continuing and which countries are being naughty or nice with respect to forest conservation.

It was great therefore when I came across a new paper in PNAS by Hansen & colleagues entitled Quantification of global gross forest cover loss because it answered many of the latter questions.

Part of the problem in assessing worldwide forest cover loss in the past was the expense of satellite imagery, access problems, data storage and processing issues. Happily, new satellite streams and easing of access has rectified many of these limitations. Hansen & colleagues took advantage of data from the MODIS sensor to create a stratification for forest cover loss. They then used the Landsat ETM+ sensor as the primary data for quantifying gross forest cover loss for the entire planet from 2000 to 2005. They defined ‘forest cover’ as “… 25% or greater canopy closure at the Landsat pixel scale (30-m × 30-m spatial resolution) for trees > 5 m in height”.

For your reading pleasure (and conservation horror), the salient features were: Read the rest of this entry »





Fragmen borealis: degradation of the world’s last great forest

12 08 2009
© energyportal.eu

© energyportal.eu

I have the dubious pleasure today of introducing a recently published paper of ours that was at the same time both intellectually stimulating and demoralising to write. I will make no apologies for becoming emotionally involved in the scientific issues about which my colleagues and I write (as long as I can maintain with absolute sincerity that the data used and conclusions drawn are as objectively presented as I am capable), and this paper probably epitomises that stance more than most I’ve written during my career.

The topic is especially important to me because of its subtle, yet potentially disastrous consequences for biodiversity and climate change. It’s also a personal issue because it’s happening in a place I used to (many, many years ago) call home.

Despite comprising about a third of the world’s entire forested area and harbouring some of the lowest human densities anywhere, the great boreal forest that stretches across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia is under severe threat.

Surprised that we’re not talking about tropical deforestation for once? Surprised that so-called ‘developed’ nations are pilfering the last great carbon sink and biodiversity haven left on the planet? If you have read any of the posts on this blog, you probably shouldn’t be.

The paper today appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and is entitled Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity (by CJA Bradshaw, IG Warkentin & NS Sodhi). It’s essentially a review of the status of the boreal forest from a biodiversity perspective, and includes a detailed assessment of the degree of its fragmentation, species threat, climate- and human-influenced disturbance regime, and its carbon sequestration/emission status. I’ll summarise some of the main findings below:

borealfire

© NASA

  • Russia contains ~53 % of the boreal forest, followed by Canada (25 %), USA (18 %, mostly in Alaska), Sweden (2 %) and Finland and Norway (~1 % each); there are small areas of boreal forest in northern China and Mongolia.
  • Fire is the main driver of change in the boreal forest. Although clearing for logging and mining abounds, it pales in comparison to the massive driver that is fire.
  • There is evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and possibly extent of fires in the boreal zone. That said, most fires are started by humans, and this is particularly the case in the largest expanse in Russia (in Russia alone, 7.5 and 14.5 million hectares burnt in 2002 and 2003, respectively).
  • While few countries report an overall change in boreal forest extent, the degree of fragmentation and ‘quality’ is declining – only about 40 % of the total forested area is considered ‘intact’ (defined here as areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by things such as roads, and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km).
  • Russian boreal forest is the most degraded and least ‘intact’, and has suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades compared to other boreal countries.
  • Boreal countries have only < 10 % of their forests protected from wood exploitation, except Sweden where it’s about 20 %.
  • There are over 20000 species described in the boreal forest – a number much less than that estimated for tropical forests even of much smaller size.
  • 94 % of the 348 IUCN Red Listed boreal species are considered to be threatened with extinction, but other estimates from local assessments compiled together in 2000 (the United Nations’ Temperate and Boreal Forest Resources Assessment) place the percentages of threatened species up to 46 % for some taxa in some countries (e.g., mosses in Sweden). The latter assessment placed the Fennoscandian countries as having the highest proportions of at-risk taxa (ferns, mosses, lichens, vascular plants, butterflies, birds, mammals and ‘other vertebrates’), with Sweden having the highest proportion in almost all categories.
  • Boreal forest ecosystems contain about 30 % of the terrestrial carbon stored on Earth (~ 550 Gigatonnes).
  • © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

    Warmer temperatures have predisposed coniferous forest in western Canada to a severe outbreak of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) extending over > 13 M ha. © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

  • Mass insect outbreaks killing millions of trees across the entire boreal region are on the rise.
  • Although considered in the past as a global carbon sink, recent disturbances (e.g., increasing fire and insect outbreak) and refinements of measurement mean that much of the area is probably a carbon source (at least, temporarily).
  • A single insect outbreak in western Canada earlier this decade thought to be the direct result of a warming planet contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than all of that country’s transport industry and fire-caused release combined.
  • Current timber harvest management is inadequately prepared to emulate natural fire regimes and account for shifting fire patterns with climate change.
  • No amount of timber management can offset the damage done by increasing fire – we must manage fire better to have any chance of saving the boreal forest as a carbon sink and biodiversity haven.

Those include the main take-home messages. I invite you to read the paper in full and contact us (the authors) if you have any questions.

CJA Bradshaw

Full reference: Bradshaw, CJA, IG Warkentin, NS Sodhi. 2009. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.019

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