Le Carnaval du Bleu

cephalopodcast300.jpg. . . is up at Cephalopodcast — this month’s round-up of blue bloggers (meaning ocean-themed, as opposed to morose and crooning about lost love or some such ill).

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Blogospheria, Oceans | Comments Off on Le Carnaval du Bleu

Our one minute and 54 seconds seconds of fame

vims-floway.jpgOK, fame would be overstating it, even on a local level. But we did get air. At any rate, Check out last night’s green energy link on WVEC-TV 13. Now it’s looking forward to actually doing the work . . .

Posted in Education, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | 5 Comments

Algae to the rescue: the egg hatches

floway.jpg[Over the last year, through a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, euphoria and despair, exciting breaks, wild goose chases, dead ends, dark nights of the soul, and so on, we have been working to develop a project to employ wild algae to simultaneously help clean up pollution on the one hand and provide a feedstock for environmentally sustainable biofuels on the other. It has been a long road. But we have cleared the first hurdle.

As the authoritative news anchors used to say back in the day, with a sense of controlled urgency, “This just in:]

Algae initiative aims to produce fuel while helping the environment

By Joe McClain, The College of William and Mary
30 September 2009

The College of William and Mary and its Virginia Institute of Marine Science have formed a collaborative research initiative to investigate a promising new technology to produce biofuel from the algae growing naturally in rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The enterprise, called ChAP—the Chesapeake Algae Project—is an integrated research approach to algae-based energy production and environmental remediation. It includes a number of corporate partners, notably StatoilHydro, a Norwegian energy company. StatoilHydro has seeded the enterprise with an initial $3 million investment. Other key partners are the Williamsburg energy advisory firm Blackrock Energy, the University of Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Arkansas and HydroMentia, a Florida company that works with water-treatment technologies.

“This is the kind of collaboration at which William & Mary excels,” William & Mary President Taylor Reveley said. “It is a powerful extension of our own drive toward a more sustainable campus community.”

StatoilHydro representatives met with William & Mary officials and other partners in Williamsburg recently to sign a formal agreement to proceed. Other partners, private and public, are expected to join the initiative as work progresses.

“By taking the first step in close cooperation with some of the most skilled researchers the U.S. has to offer in this field, we feel confident that we have the best starting point possible for reaching a successful result and a good basis for attracting new private and public partners in the future,” says Lars Nordli, head of StatoilHydro’s biofuel division.

The William & Mary/VIMS group is investigating a process that not only is environmentally sustainable, but if used on a large scale, can help to reverse a number of environmental problems such as excess nutrient enrichment that produces “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay and other waters.

However, Dennis Manos, William & Mary’s vice provost for research and graduate and professional studies, said the main environmental benefits of ChAP will derive from the central goal of the project: to find a way to produce algal biofuel on an industrial scale.

“We would like to help companies put a significant dent in the world’s thousand-barrel-per-second appetite for oil,” Manos said.

Lead researchers at VIMS involved in ChAP include J. Emmett Duffy, the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of Marine Science, and Professor of Marine Science Elizabeth Canuel. At the Williamsburg campus of William & Mary, Gene Tracy, Chancellor Professor of Physics and Applied Science; Bill Cooke, professor of physics; and Robert Hinkle, professor of chemistry, are lead members of the team, which includes other faculty members.

Manos explained that the project involves the entire process of producing biofuels, from algal growth to harvesting, extracting the oil and other projects from the algae, processing the oil and producing the final biofuel product.

The project was initiated by exploring, among others, technology originally developed by Walter Adey of the Smithsonian Institution as an efficient, large-scale aquarium filter.  Adey has been meeting with a group of researchers at William & Mary and VIMS for the past year, working out details of how to adapt the concept to industrial-scale algae cultivation. A test site has been operating at VIMS, using brackish York River water, and a second test station is planned for Lake Matoaka on the William & Mary campus.

Algae are good candidates for use as biofuel because of their rapid growth rates, ability to take-up nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and some of these aquatic plants have as much as 50 percent oil content, depending on environmental factors. ChAP differs from other algal biofuel initiatives in two ways.

“In the first place, we’re going to work with many species of algae, as opposed to concentrating on farming a monoculture, or attempting to contain genetically modified algae in open-water environments,” Manos said. Most current algae studies focus on one high-yield species or strain of algae, but Manos explained that using a polyculture approach makes the algae less susceptible to disease and generally more robust. One of the goals of ChAP will be to develop processes to maximize the effective energy yield from a harvest that varies in oil content.

The other difference is that the process is designed to work without competing with either fresh-water supplies or agricultural resources. “The process will work in brackish water, salt water, even waste water,” Manos said. “That’s one of the best parts of the whole idea, and ultimately, while producing affordable transportation fuel, using wild algae can even help to remediate conditions that otherwise would lead to harmful algal blooms.”

[Stand by for details . . .]

Posted in Biodiversity, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | 8 Comments

Approaching the ultimate limits?

ltg.jpgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

As an academic ecologist researching or teaching about ecosystems, a common dilemma is the issue of how to define the boundaries of a system. Where, for example, does the Chesapeake Bay end and the Atlantic begin? What is the edge of the Hubbard Brook ecosystem? Et cetera. But there is one major exception to this rule: planet earth. We can define the edges of that superecosystem reasonably well. For all practical purposes we are limited, as a global society, to the resources we have here, with the single major exception of incoming solar radiation.

Humans have now grown in abundance and influence to the point where we are the force of nature. Which begs the ultimate practical question about ecosystems: How is humanity interacting with the planetary ecosystem, and is this suite of interactions sustainable?

Obviously, this generation is not the first to ask these questions. In 1972, a team lead by Donella Meadows from MIT published a book called “The Limits to Growth” (LTG), which presented results of a computer modeling study commissioned by a think-tank, The Club of Rome, concerned about the mounting impacts of unsustainable human activities on the earth system. They examined the interactions of five subsystems of the global economic system: population, food production, industrial production, pollution, and consumption of non-renewable natural resources. The model began in 1900 and continued to 2100. The model was able to reproduce broadly the historical data to the year 1970.

ltgpredictions.jpgThe central message from the LTG model  was that growth of the global economy would lead to exceeding planetary limits sometime in the 21st century, likely resulting in collapse of the human population and economic system.

BUT, the model also suggested, collapse could by an aggressive program of changes in behavior, progressive policy, and strategic application of technology.

LtG modeled three scenarios:

1) The “standard run” represents a business-as-usual situation where physical, economic, and social relationships were maintained more or les as they were during 1900–1970. This run (see the figure above) shows continuing economic growth into the early decades of the 21st century but signs of increasing environmental pressure at the start of the 21st century (e.g., resources diminishing, pollution increasing exponentially, growth slowing in food, services, and material wealth per capita). Sounds uncomfortably familiar? Finally, this scenario resulted in “overshoot and collapse” of the global system in mid-21st century due to diminishing resources and increasing pollution.

2) The “comprehensive technology” approach—approximating suggestions of “optimists” like Julian Simon or Bjorn Lomborg—attempts to solve sustainability issues with purely technological solutions. This scenario assumes (as do some economists, astonishingly enough) that levels of resources are effectively unlimited, as well as efficient recycling of materials, big reductions in pollution, doubling of agricultural land yields, and availability of birth control world-wide. Hmm. This scenario delayed the collapse of the global system to the latter part of the 21st century, after which economic growth outstripped the gains in efficiency and pollution control.

turner1.jpg3) The “stabilized world” scenario assumed implementation of both technological solutions and deliberate social policies to reach equilibrium in population, material wealth, food, and services per capita. Policies implemented include perfect birth control for a family size of two kids per couple; preference for consumption of services over material goods; effective control of pollution; maintenance of agricultural land; and increased lifetime of industrial capital, among others.

The publication of the Limits to Growth study (LtG) in 1972 had immediate and ongoing impacts. Millions of copies were sold, and it was translated into 30 languages. It linked the world economy with the environment in the first integrated global model.

Needless to say, the book was also highly controversial. There was and remains a sustained campaign to discredit the LtG, including repeated misrepresentations that the LtG predicted resources would be depleted and the world system would collapse by the end of the 20th century. So people have been arguing about this for more than 30 years.

Surprisingly, no one thought to test whether the predictions were true until very recently, when Graham Turner published a paper comparing historical data for 1970–2000 with the LtG scenarios. Here’s what he found (see the other figures here):

turner2.jpgGenerally, the “stabilized world” and “comprehensive technology” scenarios overestimated food, services, and material goods for the population. And population was under-estimated by the “stabilized world” scenario. All scenarios matched the remaining non-renewable resources to varying extents. Global persistent pollution was underestimated by both the “stabilized world” and “comprehensive technology” scenarios.

Overall, Turner’s analysis shows that — can you guess it yet? — 30 years of historical data match pretty closely the key features of the business-as-usual “standard run” scenario, which predicted collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century. Conversely, the data did not compare well with other scenarios involving salvation through technology (perhaps too much of it is being diverted to twitter) or stabilizing behavior and policies.


turner4.jpgTurner’s analyses also provide some indication of the change in consumption patterns that would likely be required to achieve a sustainable global system. The “stabilized world” scenario assumed a sustainable global average per capita level of material wealth approximately equal to contemporary levels. Currently, of course, the great majority of that wealth is being enjoyed by us in the developed world, which makes up one-quarter or less of the world’s population. If, for the sake of argument, this wealth were distributed evenly across the future global population (assume ~9 billion people), average per capita material wealth would fall to about 1/6th of current levels in developed countries.

Yikes again. Let’s get that cap-and-trade bill passed . . .

[original source:  Turner GM (2008). A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions, 18, 397-411.]

Posted in Biodiversity, Politics, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | 6 Comments

Farewell old friend

chimney_rock.jpg0940. Maupin Field shelter. A still, overcast contemplative day, early autumn crickets singing, an unidentified bird — or conceivably a frog — chirping monotonously in the muffled foliage. Green and moist. Dim in the forest. Made good time through the Three Ridges from our camp by the waterfall at Campbell Creek. Yesterday a heavenly dip in the cold pool below the the trickling waterfall — one of those golden moments that shines in memory. After two hard days of sweat and grime and hard climbing and rationing the last few ounces of water, we were cleansed in the natural spring.

A strong consciousness on this trip of the end of an era — my venerable old backpack, the Jansport “hatchback” that I coveted for months before buying it with money from my paper route (delivering the Washington Post from 8th through 12 grade, right through the Watergate years, which betrays my vintage), the pack that has seen so much mileage over the decades, my mobile home on the pack_flap.jpgwatershed 17-day hike one summer in high school through Georgia and NC from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail — the tales this pack could tell. My trusted old friend will ride no more. Most zippers broken, the waterproofing flaking off, dry rot setting in, belt dysfunctional and killing my hips, shoulder strap tied on with a knot, the other one wrapped in duct tape. After more than three decades I’ve sweated through the mountains beneath this rig for the last time.

Farewell old friend.

Posted in Biophilia | Tagged | 3 Comments

Can religion save the world?

caravan.jpgI mean the natural world here. Yes, the suggestion might at first seem counterintuitive (perhaps even obscene) given the fierce opposition to any restraint on rapacious commerce and “development” that became, rightly or wrongly, intertwined with fundamentalist religion in the conservative coalition in America we have known for most of the last decade.  But of course the situation is more nuanced than that. Even among American Christians, a greener outlook has been taking hold in recent years, and it appears that this sentiment transcends particular religious sects (see, for example, the arcworld website linked below). For most religious people, obviously, there are more important concerns than the environment. But that is equally true of non-religious people.

I was led down this thread of rumination by an interesting letter to Nature this past week, which is reproduced verbatim below. The potential value of appealing to people’s religious views in environmental conservation also resonates strongly with the message from Randy Olson’s new book “Don’t be such a scientist“, which is basically that you can get a lot more mileage for your message by aiming for the heart, gut, and libido than by making clever academic arguments and citing tables of facts. The argument below seems pretty persuasive to me.

Conservation: the world’s religions can help

Shonil Bhagwat & Martin Palmer

The world’s religions are emerging as a surprising driver of support for conservation of biological diversity.

The International Interfaith Investment Group, for example, which is collectively worth more than US$7 trillion, is encouraging religious organizations to change their current investment policies in favour of those that support conservation.

In addition, lands owned by these organizations can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity because of their protected status. More than 7% of Earth’s land surface is owned by religious institutions, and a further 8% has sacred links (http://www.arcworld.org). Given that most countries will never be able to designate more than 15% of their land as protected areas (S. Chape et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 443–455; 2005), territory with religious and sacred affiliations contributes substantially to maintaining biodiversity.

It should also be possible to raise funding for conservation by appealing to donors who have religious faith. For example, the wealthy countries of the G20 group that have large religious populations might step in and help.

The focus of initiatives in the past has been on paying for ecosystem services, which are considered ‘natural capital’ (R. Costanza et al. Nature 387, 253–260; 1997), but an appeal to support native communities on religious grounds might prove more persuasive in a difficult economic climate.

Of the 125 countries that are represented in the Conservation International list of biodiversity hotspots, most have a low per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) and a strong religious base (http://tinyurl.com/2b2kg9). Collectively, these countries are home to more than 4 billion people affiliated with one of 11 mainstream faiths; more than half of them have a total population of 3 billion and a per-capita GDP of less than US$5,000.

Religious sympathy has the potential to make a major contribution towards biodiversity conservation. This contribution could be extremely valuable in the approach to the 2010 target of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Posted in Biodiversity, Politics, Sustainability | Tagged | 7 Comments

What I did on my summer vacation

summer_vacation.jpgNot blogging obviously.

Eek, it’s been a scandalously long time. In fact I should probably begin today with an explicit announcement that the Natural Patriot is not dead yet (“I don’t want to go on the cart!” — free virtual salute to the first reader that identifies the source of that quote. I know, it’s not that difficult, I’m just blatantly fishing for signs of life in my readership).

So, in the interest of delivering on the title of this post, a few events from the summer that is rapidly drawing to a close, none especially memorable, but for what it’s worth:

1) I finished my sabbatical. I am tempted to say that it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, since I spent most of it sitting around in my sweatpants at the kitchen table editing manuscripts and what not instead of in some intellectual salon in Paris or London. Or even Madison, Wisconsin.  By the end I was actually ready to come back just to talk to real humans again. On the other hand, I did get a few things done, though inevitably not as much as I’d hoped. Made two more field expeditions to the Caribbean, which was cool. But more about that later. If I have time . . .

2) Took the lad to summer camp in the mountains of western North Carolina. Then drove home and hung out as a couple for 2 weeks. It felt pretty strange to be honest, a premonition of the empty nest looming in six short years. On the other hand, we woke up when we wanted and got to go out on dates for a change. That was great.

3) Family vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Not somewhere I would normally have thought to spend summer vacation but my sister and her family got a week at this house as part of some charity auction deal. OMG. Perhaps you’re familiar with the Sundance catalog — all this trendy western clothing and jewelry and stuffed leather furniture priced at about an order of magnitude more than any reasonable person would consider it worth? This house could easily have been a set for the catalog — I honestly expected Robert Redford might knock on the door for a cup of sugar, or more likely some single-malt scotch. Fantastic place, loads of large ungulates of several species, clean (albeit thin) mountain air, trout. I may well describe it in more detail in a subsequent post if I’m suddenly seized by a surge of motivation.

4) Returned a few days ago from seeing the Red Sox live in Fenway Park for the first time (we saw the Paw Sox there last year). This was, without exaggeration, one of the principal highlights of the boy’s life as his universe more or less revolves around the Red Sox. Plus they won. I was struck the first time I was in Fenway by how initimate it is — a tiny park by today’s imperial “Chuck E. Cheese-Palukaville Memorial Stadium” standards.

5) My Macbook Air, after ~15 months of constant frustration, finally died. Hard drive damaged. This caused much indigestion until I finally got a new hard drive and was able to restore the files from my time capsule, though it still sounds like its grinding meat at 110 degrees F whenever it’s running. Many hard lessons have been learned along the way. I considered writing a post entitled “My bitter divorce from Apple” but I am giving them another try. Like a battered wife. Plus it’s not Apple at large but that beautiful, stylish, but utterly anemic and substanceless, Air that is the problem. Hence I have a new MacBook Pro on order.

Right. Now that I’ve re-established contact with the virtual world, stand by for something of substance in the not too distant future. And thank you for your attention.

Posted in Blogospheria, et cetera | 8 Comments


pollinator_stamps_small.jpgNo, I’m not talking about hay fever. This just in:

National Pollinator Week is coming up (21-27 June), and I just ran across this great website that offers free downloadable guides to improving habitat for these essential animals in your yard or area.  If you live in the USA, you can scroll down to the link on lower right (“Free pollinator friendly planting guides!”), enter your zipcode, and download a concise, illustrated guide that summarizes the importance of pollinators to the ecology (and economy) of your region, describes some of the important types of pollinators in your area, and — most useful of all — lists native plants of the region with their flowering times and characteristics, which allow one to engineer the habitat to support a diverse array of pollinators throughout the year.

There is also a really nice pollinator curriculum for grades 3-6 here. The curriculum includes a bunch of specific activities and lessons, even a community service module, that can be done with kids.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Education, Sustainability | 4 Comments

Can Nature heal?

salvage-logging.jpgIt’s a tough job these days being an environmentalist proponent of sustainability. Bad news and warnings of impending doom at every turn. One might be forgiven for craving a bit of sunshine every once in a while.

One of the especially troubling themes that has risen to dominance in recent years as a result of reports from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the IPCC on climate change, and so on, is the idea that the world’s ecosystems are undergoing a fundamental and potentially irreversible shift into alternate states from which we may not be able to return. There is a good deal of evidence in support of this idea. And the question of how and whether ecosystems can recover form the wounds we inflict on them is a critical one because humanity is rapidly running out of wild nature to exploit. Thus, fixing degraded systems is now central to a sustainable future. Can we pull it off? Conventional wisdom’s answer is rather pessimistic.

So I was quite intrigued, and heartened, to read a new paper in the open-access journal PLoS ONE by by Holly Jones and Oswald Schmitz that set out to test this idea with quantitative data. They scoured the scientific literature for studies that had examined how fast ecosystems recover from disturbances. They found 240 studies — spanning land, sea, and freshwater and including a wide range of habitats —  that met their criteria.

jones.pngThe results were surprising: across a broad range of ecosystem and perturbation types, they found that most ecosystems appear capable of rebounding surprisingly quickly—within a few decades—if treated properly (see the figure). The last point being the trick, of course. Forests rebounded most slowly, and agriculture and multiple stressors had the longest lasting effects. But, overall, most ecosystems were able to recover to something like their pre-disturbance state within a decade or two.

The analysis offers an unexpected ray of hope that damaged ecosystems may be much more resilient on average than previously expected.

Now, the glass might alternatively be seen as half-empty given that roughly half the systems and variables examined had not recovered by the end of their respective studies. In many cases this is probably because they had not been monitored long enough. Intriguingly, only 5% of the ecosystems showed evidence of shifting into an alternate stable state, suggesting that this phenomenon may rarely explain non-recovery despite the high-profile attention such regime shifts (as they are called in the technical literature) have received in recent years.

There are, of course, the usual questions about how representative are the published data found through an electronic literature search, and also the more specific spectre of “shifting baselines” affecting the results, that is, in trying to determine what the actual “natural” or equilibrium state of an ecosystem is in the absence of disturbances.

To me, perhaps the most sobering issue, which was not considered by this study, is that ability to measure recovery is only possible once the perturbation has been relaxed. Yet many of the pressures humans are now imposing, such as climate heating and agriculture, are long-term, sustained perturbations that are unlikely to be relaxed in the foreseeable future. The analysis also found that recovery is slower from multiple stressors, which is increasingly the situation facing most ecosystems.

Despit these caveats, this new analysis provides a first quantitative benchmark against which future refinements can be evaluated. Equally importantly, in my view, these data provide a valuable psychological jolt to an increasingly entrenched sense of resignation and hopelessness about the state of wild nature. While there is no arguing with the magnitude of impacts humans have had on ecosystems, this paper offers at least a hint that nature is more forgiving and resourceful than many have assumed.

[Original source (open access): Jones,H.P. and O. J. Schmitz. 2009. Rapid Recovery of Damaged Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5653. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005653]

Posted in Science, Sustainability | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A few things I learned from a zucchini

farmed_jeds_premium_zucchini.jpgA few days ago, the little garden patch produced its first fruit (photo at right). It doesn’t like like much, I’ll admit, but every baby is beautiful to its parents.

Well, to be truthful, some of the things advertised in the title I already knew, and others I learned from trying to grow things outside in general, rather than from this particular zucchini per se. But the larger point is that growing things teaches one several important lessons that are difficult to get from the everyday, fast-paced, air-conditioned, hyper-caffeinated, homogenized, insular, virtual world that most of us inhabit.

The first and perhaps most pedestrian thing I learned is that I can do this.  Born in the suburbs and having spent most of my life foraging shrink-wrapped pseudo-food from more or less identical supermarkets throughout the 50 states and the world, even I can do this. It’s only one zucchini so far, but there are two or three more on the surprisingly gigantic plants out there, and a pile of green tomatoes ready to spill out of the patch and lots of basil. I’m optimistic about the beans and at least a few leaves of spinach too. And you can do it too (no doubt many of you could give me long lessons about this), with even a few square yards of soil or a few large pots. It doesn’t take much to get started, and then you start seeing all kinds of opportunities.

I learned to be keenly aware of the weather, and in fact to like rain. At least rain of a certain sort and frequency — gentle, sustained for a few hours, coming after we haven’t had any rain for a week. Now, instead of seeing rain as an annoyance as so many of us do in modern life, getting exasperated about getting my shoes wet on the way to the car, my skin feels like it’s gratefully absorbing the moisture as I think of the soil and little root hairs drinking up life-giving water, and the two rain barrels filling up to see us through the next week or so. Well, not always — I still get annoyed when I get soaked on the way to the car.

Most importantly, I learned that eating fresh produce has a satisfaction that is far deeper than just filling one’s stomach with the fuel necessary to keep tapping at the computer. Knowing the source of food, knowing its history, having seen it grow from a flower bud, through hot sun and rain, having tended it and checked on it every morning, heard the birds singing around it, maybe picked off a pest or encouraged a friendly insect, all of this gives eating a satisfaction not only to the body but to the soul that is impossible to appreciate without having done it.

And I didn’t even mention that it was the best zucchini I ever had — firm but tender, mildly flavored with no hint of bitterness, no seeds. Raw or sauteed in a bit of olive oil (I tried it both ways). I could almost feel the vitamins and healthful essence spreading through my body. Nourishment in a much broader sense that we usually think about.

OK, I’m off now to check the garden.

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