One more (excellent) reason to conserve tropical forests

26 02 2009

© K. Sloan Brown

© K. Sloan Brown

Another nail in the deforesters’ justification coffin – tropical forests are worth more intact than cut down. This one from Mongabay.com and one for the Potential section:

Undisturbed tropical forests are absorbing nearly a fifth of carbon dioxide released annually by the burning of fossil fuels, according to an analysis of 40 years of data from rainforests in the Central African country of Gabon.

Writing in the journal Nature, Simon Lewis and colleagues report that natural forests are an immense carbon sink, helping slow the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.

“We are receiving a free subsidy from nature,” said Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds. “Tropical forest trees are absorbing about 18% of the CO2 added to the atmosphere each year from burning fossil fuels, substantially buffering the rate of climate change.”

But the good news may not last for long. Other research suggests that as tropical forests fall to loggers, dry out due to rising temperatures, and burn, their capacity to absorb carbon is reduced.

The research, which combined the new data from African rainforests with previously published data from the Americas and Asia, lends support to the idea that old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change. Recent climate negotiations have included debates on compensating tropical countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (“REDD” or “avoided deforestation”).

“To get an idea of the value of the sink, the removal of nearly 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by intact tropical forests, based on realistic prices for a tonne of carbon, should be valued at around £13 billion per year,” said study co-author Lee White, Gabon’s Chief Climate Change Scientist. “This is a compelling argument for conserving tropical forests.”

“Predominantly rich polluting countries should be transferring substantial resources to countries with tropical forests to reduce deforestation rates and promote alternative development pathways,” added Lewis.

The new findings show that tropical forests account for roughly half of the 8.5 billion tons of carbon that is sequestered in terrestrial sources each year, the balance is absorbed by soils and other types of vegetation. Another 8.5 billion tons dissolved in oceans, leaving 15 billion of the 32 billion tons emitted by humans each year in the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for roughly 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions – greater than the emissions from all the world’s planes, ships, trucks, and cars.

Note – the contention by Muller-Landau that the Lewis and colleagues’ findings are not realistic due to ‘regeneration’ demonstrates her ignorance of recent work demonstrating the sequestration aspect of mature forests. But more importantly, this cherry-picked gripe, even if it were plausible, is almost of no consequence. With much of the world’s tropical forests already badly degraded or destroyed, there will inevitably be large areas of regenerating forests for centuries to come (i.e., time periods relevant to climate change projections). We haven’t even managed to reduce the RATE of tropical deforestation, so the opportunities for regeneration will persist, making the Lewis result all the more important. Muller-Landau is known for her unrealistic and anti-conservationist views, so her comments are hardly surprising. My advice – take her opinions with a very large shaker of salt (or better yet, ignore entirely).

CJA Bradshaw





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss III

24 02 2009

Some more (see previous ‘Cartoon Guide’ instalments I and II) comedic reminders of humanity’s environmental short-sightedness.

The Call of The Wild

CJA Bradshaw

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Don’t torture your readers II

22 02 2009

The second instalment of “Don’t torture your readers” (an attempt to stimulate better writing in conservation science) follows with some more mistakes, bad grammar and personal pet peeves.

  • DECIMATE (as in ‘… the population was decimated following…’) – I’ve seen this one used way too often. It is usually invoked by the author to imply some devastating reduction in population size (somehow it sounds bad); for this reason alone, the emotive language should be avoided. However, ‘decimate’ has a specific meaning: to reduce by every ‘one in 10’ (hence the ‘deci’ prefix). If you really mean the population was reduced by 10 %, use ‘decimate’. If you are just stating the population was reduced, state by how much and avoid emotive and incorrect terms.
  • DRAMATIC(ALLY) (as in ‘… we observed a dramatic decline in…’) – another meaningless, emotive word that belongs in the theatre, not in scientific writing. Quantify your meaning instead of relying on subjective terms.
  • CRITICAL(LY) (as in ‘… highlights the critical importance of…’ – This term is generally meant to communicate some urgent need or absolute necessity. While most authors would like to think their chosen topic is ‘critical’, many neither define to whom or what the results are ‘critical’, or even what the lack thereof would entail. In some circumstances it is used to infer some sort of threshold beyond which another state dominates, so I question the need for ‘critical’ at all in conservation writing. If you are trying to inflate the importance of your work, ‘critical’ is the word to use; if you mean a threshold, then simply state so.
  • FEW versus LESS – I’m amazed this still stumps so many people. ‘Few’ should be used to define a small number of countable (discrete) items (e.g., individuals, quadrats, plots). ‘Less’ should be applied to a measurable, continuous variable (covariate) that cannot be easily discretised (e.g., water, biomass, carbon). If you ever see someone write ‘less individuals’, get out the big red pen.
  • DATA – While on the subject of quantification, the word ‘data’ should always be followed by plural forms of the verbs (e.g., ‘… the data are…’; ‘… the data were…’). A singular ‘datum’ is one measurement and requires the singular form. A ‘dataset’ is a single group of data, so it too can use the singular form. If you want to communicate that your sample size was too small (for your intended purposes), you need to write ‘too few data’.
  • MIGHT/CAN versus MAY – I’ve often got this one wrong too. ‘May’ implies doubt or permission, so it is most often better to use ‘can’ or ‘might’ (where appropriate) when you expressly mean ‘under certain circumstances’.
  • THAT versus WHICH – This is not an easy one, and for a full discussion, visit this link. In the most basic description of the difference, ‘that’ usually introduces essential information in a restrictive clause, whereas ‘which’ introduces additional information in a non-restrictive clause. Quoting from the link given above provides some more clarity:

“What is FASCINATING to me is that . . . one way to determine . . . the correct word . . . is to ask the question, ‘Does the clause clarify which of several possibilities is being referred to?’ If the answer is yes, then the correct word to use is that. If the answer is no, the correct word to use is which.”

Seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but it’s correct (hence the confusion).

CJA Bradshaw

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Shifting baselines

19 02 2009

jellyburger

A term first coined by Daniel Pauly (who we’ve previously covered as a Conservation Scholar), and one I could easily classify as a conservation Classic, it essentially describes the way changes to a system are measured against previous baselines, which themselves may represent changes from the original state of the system (definition modified from Wikipedia). Pauly originally meant it in a fisheries context, where “… fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct “baseline” population size (e.g., how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline“.

It’s easily considered a mantra in fisheries (there’s even a dedicated Scienceblog on the topic, and several other fisheries-related websites [e.g., here & here]), but it has been extended to all sorts of other conservation issues.

As it turns out, however, quantifying ‘shifting baselines’ in conservation is rather difficult, and there’s little good evidence in most systems (despite the logic and general acceptance of its ubiquity by conservation scientists). Now Papworth and colleagues have addressed this empirical hole in their new paper entitled Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation published online recently in Conservation Letters.

Papworth et al. discuss two kinds of shifting baselines: (1) general amnesia (“… individuals setting their perceptions from their own experience, and failing to pass their experience on to future generations”) and (2) personal amnesia (“… individuals updating their own perception of normality; so that even those who experienced different previous conditions believe that current conditions are the same as past conditions”), and they provide three well-quantified examples: (a) perceptions of bushmeat hunters in Gabon, (b) perceptions of bushmeat hunters in Equatorial Guinea and (c) perceptions of bird population trends in the UK.

Although the data have issues, all three cases demonstrate convincing evidence of the shifting baselines syndrome (with the UK example providing an example of both general and personal amnesia). Now, this may all seem rather logical, but I don’t want the reader to underestimate the importance of the Papworth paper – this is really one of the first demonstrations that it is a real problem in vastly different systems (i.e., not just fisheries). I think it’s hard evidence that the issue is a big one and cannot be ignored when presenting historical data for conservation purposes.

Humans inevitably have short memories when it comes to environmental degradation – this essentially means that in most demonstrations of biodiversity decline, it’s probably a lot worse even than the data might suggest. Policy makers take note.

CJA Bradshaw

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One year later: Conservation Letters

17 02 2009

Conservation Letters

I have been very proud to be a part of Conservation Letters‘ success since its inaugural issue in April 2008. I thought I’d share our Chief Editors’ retrospective editorial after the first year. Thanks to all who have made CL such a success!

In the editorial that launched Conservation Letters, we promised a journal that would publish novel and innovative papers drawing on a diversity of disciplines, and including perspectives and case studies from across the globe. We anticipated first class research that would help deliver effective policy and management solutions. Furthermore, we pledged rapid publication: a review time of six weeks and submission-to-publication time of 20 weeks. So let’s see how we have done in the first volume.

The five issues of the first volume comprise 37 papers drawn from 146 submissions. Of these submissions, 40% were rejected without review. We did better than our target for processing manuscripts: average review time was five weeks and submission-to-publication time was 17.5 weeks.

Coverage of topics has been diverse. Several papers dealt with mainstream conservation science: habitat and population decline, climate change impacts and assessments for conservation planning. Many dealt with “hot” topics, namely natural capital and ecosystem services, conservation economics, and monitoring and evaluation. Few papers had a strictly biological focus – most also considered social dynamics and focused on production land and waterscapes. Most straddled disciplines. Although all papers articulated implications for policy and practice, two documented research that was engaged with the stakeholders responsible for developing policy or implementing practice.

We are disappointed that the geographic spread of the submissions was strongly biased in favor of developed, English-speaking nations: 36% of first authors hailed from the USA, 19% from UK, 16% from Australia and 6% from Canada. Only 11% of submissions originated from mainland Europe, 5% from Asia, 3% from Africa, 2% from Latin America. More encouraging was that almost half the papers published dealt with topics that transcended biome boundaries; the remainder was equally shared between land and water ecosystems.

At this early stage, it is difficult to assess whether any of the papers have had an impact on conservation policy and practice. However, the editorial team is pursuing ways of monitoring the extent to which papers are influential in catalyzing actions that safeguard nature and its services in a secure, just, and sustainable way. What we can report is that research published in Conservation Letters aroused considerable interest from major television networks (BBC, ABC, National Geographic), magazines (Economist, American Scientist), newspapers (New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Sydney Morning Herald) and conservation organizations (BirdLife International, The Nature Conservancy). Two papers attracted most of the media interest: Wilson and Edwards’ paper on low emission kangaroo meat (issue 3, 119-128) and Reed and Merenlender’s contribution that assessed the impact on carnivore populations of non-consumptive recreation in protected areas (issue 3, 146-154). Along with Kapos et al’s paper on measuring conservation success (issue 4, 155-164) and Koh and Wilcove’s article on the impacts of oil palm agriculture on tropical biodiversity (issue 2, 60-64), as of November these contributions also had the highest impact as measured by downloads. Conservation Letters will apply for ISI listing in early 2009 so it will soon be possible to track impact via citation analysis.

Overall, we are very pleased with the first volume of the journal. The papers are scientifically rigorous, innovative and – importantly – likely to have a real impact on policy and practice. Moreover, we believe that the quality and speed of the review process has been good. However, the journal does face certain challenges in maintaining this high quality of content and process. We need to attract more contributions with social science perspectives, that involve scientists from developing countries, and that are socially engaged in processes leading to implementation of conservation actions. As Conservation Letters grows and becomes even more diverse, we will also need to recruit to our editorial board more rare individuals like the ones we already have: leading scientists who are willing to allocate time to editorial chores that advance conservation science and policy.

Our success is attributed to the conservation science community who has so enthusiastically supported the journal by submitting their top-notch papers to a fledgling journal. Of key importance has been our outstanding editorial board. Its members have ensured a rigorous, fair and speedy review process. We wish to thank in particular those who dealt with four or more submissions for the first volume, namely Bill Adams, James Blignaut, Justin Brashares, Nicholas Dulvy, Richard Krannich, David Lindenmayer, Atte Moilanen, Mathieu Rouget, Javier Simonetti and Kerrie Wilson. At the helm is Corey Bradshaw, our Senior Editor whose dedication and commitment have underpinned our achievement thus far. Corey shouldered the lion’s share of editorial responsibilities for the early issues, personally handling 18 submissions. Thanks too for the sterling work by the team at Wiley-Blackwell: Managing Editor Jen Mahar and Associate Publisher Marjorie Spencer. Finally the entire team is hugely appreciative of the guidance of our Editorial Advisor, Michael Hochberg, whose experience as editor of our sister journal Ecology Letters, provided important direction for the editorial team.

By any measure conservation research is booming – both in terms of its scientific and real world impact. The remarkable early enthusiasm for Conservation Letters is testimony to the excitement that surrounds our discipline. We, the Chief Editors, are very grateful for your support.

Richard M. Cowling
Michael B. Mascia
Hugh Possingham
William J. Sutherland





Toilet Torrens II: The Plot Sickens

14 02 2009
© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

A few days into the Torrens ‘River’ disaster, and we see very little in the way of a truly dedicated, organised clean-up. With some token efforts to clean up the more obvious rubbish in the lake section itself (i.e., cars, fridges, etc.), there is nothing suggesting the true problems are going to be addressed. Indeed, the authorities are desperately trying to ‘find’ water to cover the problem up rather than deal with it.

Instead of a catchment-wide mass clean-up, the removal of the water-sucking invasive plants that line the river’s edge (see photos below), the implementation of a water neutrality scheme, and the removal of hundreds of untreated drainage pipes, they are willing to spend over $1 million to pipe in water from elsewhere.

I can’t believe it.

This is the best opportunity Adelaide has ever had to rectify the problem and clean the mess up once and for all; instead, the investment is going toward a cosmetic cover-up that will effectively fix nothing. Toothless. Some images I took today while cycling along the Torrens path follow:

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

CJA Bradshaw

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Adelaide’s shame – the ‘River’ (toilet) Torrens

12 02 2009

I’ve put this post off for too long as it is, but after today’s ridiculous dereliction of dutymalfunction‘, I can no longer hold my tongue (as it were).

I’ve been living in Adelaide for about a year now, and it’s been slowly dawning on me just how badly managed, for decades, the Torrens River has been. I cycle or run to work along the Torrens cycle path and see and smell the amazing neglect that has accumulated over the years.

The river literally stinks of rot and filth. What am I saying? The Torrens is about as much a river as a trickle in public urinal. Actually, most urinals are a hell of a lot cleaner.

It’s not just the rubbish, the unregulated and ubiquitous pipes of untreated run-off entering every 100 m or so, the almost complete lack of flows during the summer, the terribly regulated flows during the infrequent winter rains, the toxic build-up of blue-green algae, or the choking invasive alien plants lining its entire course, it’s the unbelievable neglect, cover-up and blind ignorance that has lead to one of the most polluted, unnatural and degraded streams in Australia.

And it’s in the middle of Adelaide.

This is how some would rather you think of the Torrens:

But scratch just a little under the surface and you find this:

and this:

Yes, today’s mishap exposed decades of bad management to the press and the public in general; the authorities can’t wait for a little rain to cover up the ’embarrassment’, but they’ll have to wait a long time. This isn’t “embarrasing“, it’s shameful, disgusting, neglectful, irresponsible and naïve.

Of course, a few people have some partially right approaches to address the problem – indeed, Tourism Minister Jane Lomax-Smith suggests we take advantage of the low water levels and clean up the mess. I couldn’t agree more. However, apart from a few derelict cars pulled out, I’ve not seen a single attempt to get out there and do the job properly. We need to remove every last scrap of rubbish from the Adelaide Hills to Henley beach – this means the trolleys, oil drums, bicycles, wheelie bins and other assorted crap (I think I even saw a fridge today). I’m willing to help.

We need a major overhaul, clean-up and rethink about this so-called ‘river’.

The ‘drought’ that Australia seems convinced will some day end will not go away – climate change will ensure that, along with the persistence of some very bad urban water policies. We need to get used to the idea that we’ll have less and less water, not suddenly more when the ‘drought’ ends. Sorry, the drought won’t end.

So, what can we do? There are some very obvious improvements that can be made:

1. Undeniably, a massive, catchment-wide, get-your-hands-dirty clean-up is required to remove the astounding array of rubbish.

2. Yes, we have reduced flows and will continue to have in this state for a long time to come. So, we need to minimise waste. A paper I recently covered in ConservationBytes.com detailed how a water neutrality programme would benefit water supply AND biodiversity. The idea is relatively simple – the water allocated to industry, residents, etc. is taxed according to total use. The monies received are then invested in removing all those invasive reeds, rushes, palms, bamboo, etc. that line the water course (all of these are water-hungry pests that have no business being there in the first place). In one fell swoop you have an employment program, an incentive to use less water, a ‘water-neutrality’ scheme that makes water-intensive products (e.g., fruits and vegetables) more attractive to environmentally conscious consumers, removal of alien species that consume too much water and prevent native species from proliferating, and importantly, a functioning ecosystem that provides water more regularly.

3. Get rid or divert all those untreated storm pipes from all and sundry lining the Torrens along its path. I’ve seen campground drainages with all sorts of filth flow into the river, car park drainages and inappropriate garden waste ooze into the river right along its course.

4. Let’s get rid of the horses grazing on the denuded banks of the river near Henley Beach. What the hell is livestock doing grazing in the middle of a city?

5. Remove golf courses lining the river.

6. Debunk the myth that bore water used to keep artificially lush gardens in the wealthier neighbourhoods lining the Torrens is somehow not subject to the same problems as rainfall-sourced water. 72 % of the Torrens’ water use is residential. We waste far too much of the underground water on these ridiculous gardens in our desert city – I’m sorry, the prominent display of ‘Bore Water in Use’ in so many gardens around Adelaide is contemptuous and ignorant.

Can we mend the Torrens? Yes, yes we can. A lot of rivers is much worse shape have been brought back to life over the years (see examples here, here and here), so we can do it too. It just takes a little political will, some intelligent policy, a bit of money and public commitment.

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. I recommend you avoid swimming anywhere near Henley Beach for the next few weeks.

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