Missing the forest despite its trees

21 04 2015

An exchange on Alert-Conservation.org over the intactness of boreal forests has just erupted. Bill Laurance asked me to weigh in as an independent appraiser of the debate, so I copy my thoughts below. You can read the original exchange between Jeff Wells and Nick Haddad (& colleagues) here.

Despite its immense size, there is little doubt that the ugly second cousin of forest conservation is the boreal region covering much of Alaska, Canada, Fennoscandia and Russia. Indeed, extending some 1.4 billion hectares, of which well over 60% is found in Russia alone (1, 2), the entirety of the boreal forest is more than double the area of the Amazon forest. Yet despite this massive expanse, the impressive biota it shelters (2), and its important contribution to the global carbon (1), nitrogen (3) and oxygen (4) cycles, the boreal is an oft-overlooked region in terms of global conservation priorities and possibilities (5).

The exchange between Haddad & Sexton and Wells regarding the former researchers’ recent paper (6) highlights this problem, of which even many expert ecologists are often only vaguely aware. Wells takes particular issue with Haddad and colleagues’ assertion that the boreal forest is highly fragmented, claiming to the contrary that the (North America) boreal forest is “… truly intact … ”. While Haddad et al. respond that they did not differentiate between ‘natural’ and human-caused fragmentation, my view is that the exchange misses some important concerns about the state of the boreal forest.

Wells correctly points out that the boreal zone in North America is “massive”, but can his other claim – that it is “truly intact” – stand up to scrutiny? Citing one of my own papers from 2009 (2) to demonstrate (correctly) that the boreal forest of North America holds a stunning array of species, Wells neglects to highlight that in that same paper we also identified the extensive, artificial fragmentation that has occurred there and in other parts of the boreal zone over the last few decades. For example, we showed clearly that only 44% of the entire biome is considered to be ‘intact’, defining the term precisely as “areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by infrastructure (e.g., roads) and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km”. Satellite imagery has also confirmed that between 2000 and 2005, the boreal biome experienced the largest area of gross forest cover loss compared to any other (7). Despite recent evidence that so-called edge effects (characteristics of a disturbed matrix that penetrate some distance into habitat fragments) are probably of a smaller spatial magnitude in boreal compared to other biomes (8), it is disingenuous to claim that North America’s boreal forests are “truly intact”. Read the rest of this entry »





How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts: Read the rest of this entry »





Australians: out-of-touch, urban squanderers

23 03 2015

There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.

While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.

Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia’s perfect storm of negligence

17 03 2015

If, for the purposes of some sick and twisted thought experiment, you were to design policies that would ensure the long-term failure of a wealthy, developed nation, you wouldn’t have to look farther than Australia’s current recipe for future disaster. I’m not trying to be provocative, but the warning signs are too bold and flashy to ignore. Let’s just run through some of the main ones:

1. As the lambasted and thoroughly flawed 2015 Intergenerational Report clearly demonstrates, our current government has no idea about the future threats of climate change. Dragged kicking and screaming into only a symbolic recognition of some ‘distant and currently irrelevant problem’, the Abbott-oir and his intergenerational criminals are well known for killing the carbon-pricing scheme, dismantling the Department of Climate Change, pulling out of major international talks on climate-change mitigation and installing a half-arsed, ineffective policy that will do nothing to stem our emissions. Combine that with comments like “coal is good for humanity“, and it’s easy to see how our current leaders have little idea about the future mess they’re creating.

2. Not content just to kick the shit out of any meaningful climate action, our government has also turned its back on any renewable energy target, and facilitated the fossil-fuel barons to dig more coal out of the ground. While South Australia’s Royal Commission on the nuclear fuel cycle is a welcome candle in the climate change-mitigation darkness here, it is far from becoming a national priority any time soon.

3. As has been well documented, the Abbott-oir ship of fools has also done whatever it can to turn back decades of environmental protections in less than six months of taking office. Everything from opening up national parks for exploitation, failing to protect marine sanctuaries, limiting environmental checks to promoting logging in World Heritage Areas, there is little room for hope that our crumbling environmental system will improve at all in the near to long term. Read the rest of this entry »





Earth’s second lung has emphysema

19 02 2015
© WWF

© WWF

Many consider forests as the ‘lungs’ of the planet – the idea that trees and other plants take up carbon and produce oxygen (the carbon and oxygen cycles). If we are to be fair though, the oceans store about 93% of the Earth’s carbon pool (excluding the lithosphere and fossil fuels) and oceanic phytoplankton produces between 50 and 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. For comparison, the terrestrial biosphere – including forests – stores only about 5% of the Earth’s carbon, and produces most of the remainder of atmospheric oxygen.

So there’s no denying that the biggest player in these cycles is the ocean, but that’s not the topic of today’s post. Instead, I’m going to focus on the terrestrial biosphere, and in particular, the carbon storage and flux of forests.

Now it’s pretty well established that tropical forests are major players in the terrestrial carbon cycle, with the most accepted estimates of about 55% the terrestrial carbon stock stored therein. The extensive boreal forest, covering most of the northern half of North America, most of Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia, comes in globally at about 33%, and temperate forests store most of the remainder.

That is, until now. Read the rest of this entry »





It’s all about the variation, stupid

12 01 2015

val-1-3It is one of my long-suffering ecological quests to demonstrate to the buffoons in government and industry that you can’t simply offset deforestation by planting another forest elsewhere. While it sounds attractive, like carbon offsetting or even water neutrality, you can’t recreate a perfectly functioning, resilient native forest no matter how hard you try.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we shouldn’t reforest much of what we’ve already cut down over the last few centuries; reforestation is an essential element of any semblance of meaningful terrestrial ecological restoration. Indeed, without a major commitment to reforestation worldwide, the extinction crisis will continue to spiral out of control.

What I am concerned about, however, is that administrators continue to push for so-called ‘biodiversity offsets’ – clearing a forest patch here for some such development, while reforesting or even afforesting another degraded patch there. However, I’ve blogged before about studies, including some of my own, showing that one simply cannot replace primary forests in terms of biodiversity and long-term carbon storage. Now we can add resilience to that list.

While I came across this paper a while ago, I’ve only found the time to blog about it now. Published in PLoS One in early December, the paper Does forest continuity enhance the resilience of trees to environmental change?1 by von Oheimb and colleagues shows clearly that German oak forests that had been untouched for over 100 years were more resilient to climate variation than forests planted since that time. I’ll let that little fact sink in for a moment … Read the rest of this entry »





An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

15 12 2014

nuclear biodiversityProfessor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia. barry.brook@utas.edu.au

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia. corey.bradshaw@adelaide.edu.au

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. apb12@cam.ac.uk
  2. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. abeattie@bio.mq.edu.au
  3. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore. dbsbdp@nus.edu.sg
  4. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom. t.blackburn@ucl.ac.uk
  5. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA. marmots@ucla.edu
  6. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy. luigi.boitani@uniroma1.it
  7. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada. boyce@ualberta.ca
  8. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia. david.bowman@utas.edu.au
  9. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA. spcarroll@ucdavis.edu
  10. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  11. Professor F. Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA. terry.chapin@alaska.edu
  12. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia. david.choquenot@canberra.edu.au
  13. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom. b.collen@ucl.ac.uk
  14. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China. corlett@xtbg.org.cn
  15. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France. franck.courchamp@u-psud.fr
  16. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia. chris.daniels@unisa.edu.au
  17. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia. chris.dickman@sydney.edu.au
  18. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia. don.driscoll@anu.edu.au
  19. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China. ddudgeon@hku.hk
  20. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA. ece@umbc.edu
  21. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia. damien.fordham@adelaide.edu.au
  22. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia. egame@tnc.org
  23. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom. k.j.gaston@exeter.ac.uk
  24. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland. jaboury.ghazoul@env.ethz.ch
  25. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. robert.harcourt@mq.edu.au
  26. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA. spharrison@ucdavis.edu
  27. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China. fhe@ualberta.ca
  28. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia. mark.hindell@utas.edu.au
  29. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia. richard.hobbs@uwa.edu.au
  30. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia. oveh@uq.edu.au
  31. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA. maholyoak@ucdavis.edu
  32. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. lesley.hughes@mq.edu.au
  33. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia. c.n.johnson@utas.edu.au
  34. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom. julia.jones@bangor.ac.uk
  35. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom. kate.e.jones@ucl.ac.uk
  36. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia. menna.jones@utas.edu.au
  37. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom. lujoppa@microsoft.com
  38. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia. lianpin.koh@adelaide.edu.au
  39. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada. krebs@zoology.ubc.ca
  40. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA. rlacy@ix.netcom.com
  41. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia. susan.laurance@jcu.edu.au
  42. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia. bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au
  43. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore. dbsngkl@nus.edu.sg
  44. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA. tlovejoy@unfoundation.org
  45. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA. tlynam@wcs.org
  46. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom. ans.mackay@ucl.ac.uk
  47. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia. helene.marsh@jcu.edu.au
  48. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA. mmarvier@scu.edu
  49. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom. robert.may@zoo.ox.ac.uk
  50. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia. m.mayfield@uq.edu.au
  51. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia. clive.mcmahon@utas.edu.au
  52. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia. m.meekan@aims.gov.au
  53. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. emeijaard@gmail.com
  54. Professor L. Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA. lsmills@ncsu.edu
  55. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland. atte.moilanen@helsinki.fi
  56. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia. craig.moritz@anu.edu.au
  57. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada. robin.naidoo@wwfus.org
  58. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA. reed.noss@ucf.edu
  59. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA. olden@uw.edu
  60. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India. mkpandit@cismhe.org
  61. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA. pollock@ncsu.edu
  62. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia. h.possingham@uq.edu.au
  63. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA. peter.raven@mobot.org
  64. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. rich@sun.ac.za
  65. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia. e.ritchie@deakin.edu.au
  66. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA. troot@stanford.edu
  67. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey. c.s@utah.edu
  68. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway. douglas.sheil@nmbu.no
  69. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia. rick.shine@sydney.edu.au
  70. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. w.sutherland@zoo.cam.ac.uk
  71. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom. chris.thomas@york.ac.uk
  72. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia. ross.thompson@canberra.edu.au
  73. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. ian.warkentin@grenfell.mun.ca
  74. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia. stephen.williams@jcu.edu.au
  75. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA. k-winemiller@tamu.edu

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.

References

Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/03/world/nuclear-energy-climate-change-scientists-letter/index.html. (Accessed 14 March 2014).








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