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 »

You know it’s hot when it’s too hot to ….

16 01 2014
© T. Brandon

© T. Brandon

My post’s title might be a good candidate title for a punk song in the 2030s (maybe by a re-incarnation of the Dead Kennedys).

I am currently sitting under my solar-powered ceiling fan as Adelaide is declared the world’s hottest city (and not in the funky, cultural, fun way), and I can’t help but contemplate climate change models predicting the fate of biodiversity over the coming decades. Because it’s far, far too hot to work outside, I’m perusing the latest interesting articles on the subject and I came across this recent little gem.

Also recommended on F1000Prime by Ary Hoffman, the paper, Using physiology to predict the responses of ants to climatic warming, by Sarah Diamond and colleagues touches on many aspects of climate predictions that need to be considered. I summarise these briefly here.

While no physiologist, I have dabbled in the past, although up until quite recently I didn’t see that physiology per se had much to do with conservation. It turns out that climate change has spawned an entire sub-discipline called ‘conservation physiology‘, which focuses inter alia on how species can/will/might respond and adapt to a warmer, climatically disrupted world.

What struck me about Diamond & colleagues’ paper was that yet again, it’s not as simple as heat-stressing a species experimentally and making a prediction on its future distribution (ecology is complex). No, the complexity comes in various forms that makes each species a little different from each other. Using North American ant species subjected to various warming scenarios in large (5 m) enclosures, they found the following: Read the rest of this entry »

DNA barcoding plants with citizen science

28 08 2013

hikingI was contacted recently by Oscar Jaslowski of Microryza (a web platform that allows scientists to post research  ideas and collect contributions from web visitors) about a project getting underway in Alaska by Ellen Jorgensen of Genspace. He suggested it might make a good post for ConservationBytes.com, and I agreed. Thanks for the contribution, Ellen & Oscar.

There’s nothing so final as watching the bush pilot take off in his tiny plane, leaving you stranded in the Alaskan backcountry. We had plenty of food for a three-day expedition, but no satellite phone or any other way to contact anyone. In Alaska, the phrase ‘primordial indifference’ pretty much sums up your relationship with the vast, glacier-carved landscape. Mother Nature does not care if an ant like you lives or dies.

Our destination, the Skolai Valley, is located about 480 km (300 miles) east of Anchorage, in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At a whopping 5.3 million hectares (13 million acres), it is the largest national park in the United States, and probably one of the least-visited. Much of its forbidding territory is snow-covered and similar to the Himalayas. In fact, the size of the massive ice fall that towers over the town of McCarthy, the origin of our flight, is exceeded only by one near Mt. Everest. But winding through the glaciers and snowfields are alpine valleys that are a backpacker’s dream. And Genspace, the nonprofit science-based organisation that I direct, was lucky enough to have received funding in 2012 to launch this expedition to Skolai.

Our  mission: to barcode wild Alaskan plant life. Two of us headed down into the river valley and the other two climbed up to the level of the mountain pass to survey more alpine vegetation. We were carrying portable plant presses – normally something too bulky for backpacking, but necessary for this trip. Read the rest of this entry »

Scaring our children with the future

21 01 2013

frightened childI’ve written before about how we should all be substantially more concerned about the future than what we as a society appear to be. Climate disruption is society’s enemy number one, especially considering that:

  1. all this unprecedented warming is happening on a template of highly degraded land- and seascapes. Extinction synergies (more extinctions than would otherwise be predicted by the simple sum of the different pressures) mean that climate change exacerbates the extinctions to which we are already committed;
  2. we show no sign of slowing emissions rates, partly because of the world’s ridiculous refusal to embrace the only known energy technology that can safely meet emissions-reduction requirements: nuclear power;
  3. there are 7 billion hungry, greedy humans on planet Earth, and that number is growing;
  4. scientific evidence denial, plutocracy and theocracy are all on the rise, meaning that logical, evidence-based decision making is being progressively tossed out the window.

That’s probably the most succinct way that I know of describing the mess we are in, which is why I tend to be more of a pragmatic pessimist when it comes to the future. I’ve discussed before how this outlook makes getting on with my job even more important – if I can’t reduce the rate of destruction and give my family a slightly better future in spite of this reality, at least I will damn well die trying. Read the rest of this entry »

Marine forests dropping off the edge

21 11 2011

This is probably a little late in terms of breaking news, but it’s good fodder for a blog post nonetheless.

I’ve done several posts now on the value (and threats) of marine macroalgae (seaweeds) – the last one hinted that a major paper was imminent regarding the fate of one of the world’s most important centres of macroalgae diversity in response to our rapidly changing climate: southern Australia.

Well, that paper has now come out in the eminent journal Current Biology headed by that crazy Aussie-Viking phycologist, Dr. Thomas Wernberg (byline here: Thomas was just awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and deserves many congratulations – not least for which the audacity to wear yellow budgie smugglers in public).

Entitled simply “Seaweed communities in retreat from ocean warming“, the short paper belies a hell of a lot of work examining over 60 years of herbarium records indicating MASSIVE shifts in the macroalgae community southwards on both the east and west coasts of Australia (see some media spots here). What do I mean by ‘massive’? Well, about 300 species on average (52 examined in most detail) shifted about 200 km south on the east coast (where warming has been most pronounced), and about 50 km south on the west coast. Read the rest of this entry »

The evil sextet

18 05 2011

This post doubles as a Conservation Classic and a new take on an old concept. It’s new in the sense that it updates what we believe is an advance on a major milestone in conservation biology, even though some of the add-on concepts themselves have been around for a while.

First, the classic.

The ‘evil quartet’, or ‘four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse’, was probably the first treatment of extinction dynamics as a biological discipline in its own right. Jarod Diamond (1984) took a sweeping historical and contemporary view of extinction, then simplified the problem to four principal mechanisms:

  1. overhunting (or overexploitation),
  2. introduced species,
  3. habitat destruction and
  4. chains of linked extinctions (trophic cascades, or co-extinctions).

Far from a mere review or list of unrelated mechanisms, Diamond’s evil quartet crystallized conservation biologists’ thinking about key mechanisms and, more importantly, directed attention towards those factors likely to drive extinctions in the future. The unique combination of prehistorical through to modern examples gave conservation biologists a holistic view of extinction dynamics and helped spawn many of the papers described hereafter. Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical forests cooking their biodiversity

5 05 2011

Another ‘hot’ essay by Bill Laurance recently published online by Yale Environment 360 (a publication of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies). Bill asked me to relay it on ConservationBytes.com, so here it is in full:

Much attention has been paid to how global warming is affecting the world’s polar regions and glaciers. But a leading authority on tropical forests [that would be Bill] warns that rising temperatures could have an equally profound impact on rainforests and are already taking a toll on some tropical species.

On Jan. 12, 2002, in the Australian state of New South Wales, biologist Justin Welbergen was observing a colony of flying foxes for his Ph.D. research. The temperatures that day on Australia’s subtropical, eastern coast reached record highs, soaring to 42.9 ° C (109 ° F) at the weather station closest to Welbergen’s study site — nearly 8 ° C higher than the average summer maximum temperature.

The flying foxes, or giant fruit bats, normally just doze in the treetops through the day, but on this afternoon they were fanning themselves, panting frantically, jostling for shady spots, and licking their wrists in a desperate effort to cool down. Suddenly, when the thermometer hit 42 ° C, the bats began falling from the trees. Most quickly died. Welbergen and his colleagues counted 1,453 flying foxes that died from the heat in one colony alone. The scorching heat that day killed at least 2,200 additional flying foxes in eight other colonies along a 250-kilometre stretch of coastline. All the deaths occurred in colonies where temperatures soared above 41.7 ° C. Read the rest of this entry »


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