Indonesia’s precious peatlands under oil palm fire

31 05 2009
© Cockroach Productions

© Cockroach Productions

A small opinion piece about to be published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (June 2009 issue) discusses a major concern we (Lian Pin Koh, Rhett Butler and I) have with Indonesia’s decision to allow peatlands less than 3 m deep to be converted to oil palm. Is nothing immune to the spread of this crop (see previous posts here and here on oil palm plantations)?

Why is this such a big deal? Well, we list five main reasons why it’s a bad idea for Indonesia, the world in general and biodiversity:

  1. Peatlands are amazing carbon sinks, so their destruction necessarily equates to a large release of carbon into the atmosphere (Page et al. 2002)
  2. Tropical peatlands take a hell of a long time to generate – 100s to 1000s of years (Chimner and Ewel 2005)
  3. Tropical peatlands harbour a massive biodiversity, but they are still poorly described and their ecosystems only superficially understood
  4. The burning of peatlands to provide the conditions necessary to plant oil palm will contribute to the massive ‘haze’ problem in South East Asia (Lohman et al. 2007)
  5. The decision goes against the principles of ‘reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation‘ (REDD), which means it will be more difficult to implement carbon trading schemes that intrinsically value intact forests

More detail can be found in the Write Back piece that will be published shortly in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. For more information on oil palm and its conservation implications, see the following:

CJA Bradshaw

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Underwater deforestation

26 05 2009
© C. Connell

© S. Connell

I’ve been meaning to blog on this for a while, but am only now getting around to it.

Now, it’s not bulldozers razing our underwater forests – it’s our own filth. Yes, we do indeed have underwater forests, and they are possibly the most important set of species from a biodiversity perspective in temperate coastal waters around the world. I’m talking about kelp. I’ve posted previously about the importance of kelp and how climate change poses a threat to these habitat-forming species that support a wealth of invertebrates and fish. In fact, kelp forests are analogous to coral reefs in the tropics for their role in supporting other biodiversity.

The paper I’m highlighting for the ConservationBytes.com Potential list is by a colleague of mine at the University of Adelaide, Associate Professor Sean Connell, and his collaborators entitled “Recovering a lost baseline: missing kelp forests from a metropolitan coast“. This paper is interesting, novel and applied for several reasons.

First, it sets out some convincing evidence that the Adelaide coastline has experienced a fairly hefty loss of canopy-forming kelp (mainly species like Ecklonia radiata and Cystophora spp.) since urbanisation (up to 70 % !). Now, this might not seem too surprising – we humans have a horrible track record for damaging, exploiting or maltreating biodiversity – but it’s actually a little unexpected given that Adelaide is one of Australia’s smaller major cities, and certainly a tiny city from a global perspective. There hasn’t been any real kelp harvesting around Adelaide, or coastal overfishing that could lead to trophic cascades causing loss through herbivory. Connell and colleagues pretty much are able to isolate the main culprits: sedimentation and nutrient loading (eutrophication) from urban run-off.

Second, one might expect this to be strange because other places around the world don’t have the same kind of response. The paper points out that in the coastal waters of South Australia, the normal situation is characterised by low nutrient concentrations in the water (what we term ‘oligotrophic’) compared to other places like New South Wales. Thus, when you add even a little bit extra to a system not used to it, these losses of canopy-forming kelp ensue. So understanding the underlying context of an ecosystem will tell you how much it can be stressed before all hell breaks loose.

Finally, the paper makes some very strong arguments for why good marine data are required to make long-term plans for conservation – there simply isn’t enough investment in basic marine research to ensure that we can plan responsibly for the future (see also previous post on this topic).

A great paper that uses a combination of biogeography, time series and chemistry to inform about a major marine conservation problem.

CJA Bradshaw

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The non-human view of the (real) world

21 05 2009

cokebottleglassesWe all have a distorted view of the planet. Our particular experiences, drives, beliefs and predilections all taint our ability to perceive and interpret our world objectively and rationally.

Enter science.

Science, in all its manifestations, aims, outcomes and applications, is united by one basic principle: to reduce human subjectivity. Contrary to popular belief, science isn’t a ‘thing’; and it’s certainly not a belief system. It isn’t even a philosophy (although there are several different major branches of the philosophy of science). It is, put way too simplistically, a method that attempts to isolate pattern from noise and objectivity from desire. It’s by no means a perfect system because human subjectivity can still creep in even when we make our best attempts to avoid it, but it’s the best system we have. Chances are too that if you’ve made a mistake and haven’t been as objective as you could have been, some other scientist will come along and rip down your house of cards. Two steps forward and one step back. That’s science.

So, where am I going? You might have seen this before, but I thought it worthwhile reproducing some of the images from Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford’s The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live (Thames & Hudson 2008). There are some fascinating images of the world map that alter the ‘volume’ of a country relative to a particular resource use or conservation measure. The example shows the use of coal power, ecological footprint, forest depletion, water depletion, waste recycled, extinct species, species at risk, plants at risk, mammals at risk (check out the IUCN Red List for the last 4 categories), greenhouse gas emissions, energy depletion, and biocapacity. Check out your country and see how well or poorly you’re doing relative to the rest of the world.

CJA Bradshaw

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Shark tags

19 05 2009

I have no real reason for posting this, other than I found it amusing. I do not know to whom I should attribute the cartoon, so apologies to the author. Click for a larger version if you find this too small to read.





Climate change’s ugly cousin – biodiversity loss

17 05 2009

uglybaby…nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection.

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North (UK), Co-chairman, Global Legislators Organisation‘s International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems

Last week I read with great interest the BBC’s Green Room opinion article by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP in the UK, about how the biodiversity crisis takes very much the back seat to climate change in world media, politics and international agreements.

He couldn’t be more spot-on.

I must stipulate right up front that this post is neither a whinge, rant nor lament; my goal is to highlight what I’ve noticed about the world’s general perception of climate change and biodiversity crisis issues over the last few years, and over the last year in particular since ConservationBytes.com was born.

Case in point: my good friend and colleague, Professor Barry Brook, started his blog BraveNewClimate.com a little over a month (August 2008) after I managed to get ConservationBytes.com up and running (July 2008). His blog tackles issues regarding the science of climate change, and Barry has been very successful at empirically, methodically and patiently tearing down the paper walls of the climate change denialists. A quick glance at the number views of BraveNewClimate.com since inception reveals about an order of magnitude more than for ConservationBytes.com (i.e., ~195000 versus 20000, respectively), and Barry has accumulated a total of around 4500 comments compared to just 231 for ConservationBytes.com. The difference is striking.

Now, I don’t begrudge for one moment this disparity – quite the contrary – I am thrilled that Barry has managed to influence so many people and topple so effectively the faecal spires erected by the myriad self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on climate change (an infamous line to whom I have no idea to attribute states that “opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one”). Barry is, via BraveNewClimate.com, doing the world an immense service. What I do find intriguing is that in many ways, the biodiversity crisis is a much, much worse problem that is and will continue to degrade human life for millennia to come. Yet as Barry Gardiner observed, the UK papers mentioned biodiversity only 115 times over the last 3 months compared to 1382 times for climate change – again, that order-of-magnitude disparity.

There is no biodiversity equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (although there are a few international organisations tackling the extinction crisis such as the United Nation’s Environment Program, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature), we still have little capacity or idea how to incorporate the trillions of dollars worth of ecosystem services supplied every year to us free of charge, and we have nothing at all equivalent to the Kyoto Protocol for biodiversity preservation. Yet, conservation biologists have for decades demonstrated how human disease prevalence, reduction in pollination, increasing floods, reduced freshwater availability, carbon emissions, loss of fish supplies, weed establishment and spread, etc. are all exacerbated by biodiversity loss. Climate change, as serious and potentially apocalyptic as it is, can be viewed as just another stressor in a system stressed to its limits.

Of course, the lack of ‘interest’ may not be as bleak as indicated by web traffic; I believe the science underpinning our assessment of biodiversity loss is fairly well-accepted by people who care to look into these things, and the evidence spans the gambit of biological diversity and ecosystems. In short, it’s much less controversial a topic than climate change, so it attracts a lot less vitriol and spawns fewer polemics. That said, it is a self-destructive ambivalence that will eventually come to bite humanity on the bum in the most serious of ways, and I truly believe that we’re not far off from major world conflicts over the dwindling pool of resources (food, water, raw materials) we are so effectively destroying. We would be wise to take heed of the warnings.

CJA Bradshaw

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Latest issue of Conservation Letters now out

13 05 2009

Conservation Letters

The April issue of Conservation Letters is now out (a little late, but worth the wait). There are some good titles in this one, and I’ve blogged about a few of them already:

Happy reading!

CJA Bradshaw





Realising you’re a drunk is only the first step

11 05 2009

© A. Savchenko

© A. Savchenko

I recently did an interview for the Reef Tank blog about my research, ConservationBytes.com and various opinions about marine conservation in general. I’ve been on about ‘awareness’ raising in biodiversity conservation over the last few weeks (e.g., see last post), saying that it’s really only the first step. To use an analogy, alcoholics must first recognise and accept that they are indeed drunks with a problem before than can take the (infamous AA) steps to resolve it. It’s not unlike biodiversity conservation – I think much of the world is aware that our forests are disappearing, species are going extinct, our oceans are becoming polluted and devoid of fish, our air and soils are degraded to the point where they threaten our very lives, and climate change has and will continue to exacerbate all of these problems for the next few centuries at least (and probably for much longer).

We’ve admitted we have a disease, now let’s do something about it.

Read the full interview here.

CJA Bradshaw

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