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Ecology Today

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News & Information for Planet Earth
Updated: 50 min 14 sec ago

Keeling Curve Shows 2014 Setting New Records for Atmospheric CO2

Fri, 03/28/2014 - 20:43

Less than three months into the new year, 2014 is already shaping up to become another in a long line of record setting years for global concentrations of atmospheric CO2.

Last May — the month in which CO2 levels peak in the northern hemisphere — marked the first time Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory recorded daily readings above 400 ppm. By the end of that month, a total of nine days had crossed that threshold.

As of this writing, we’ve already recorded 10 days this year with concentrations above 400 ppm – more than in all of 2013 and nine weeks earlier than last year (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are already exceeding 400 ppm -- nine weeks earlier than they did last year.

Fig 2. Not only have annual measures of CO2 been increasing, the rate of increase has been rising.

Fig 3. If monthly year-over-year increases this year follow the annual increase of the past decade, 2014 would see 3 months with CO2 levels above 400 ppm.

Fig 4. Even under the unlikely conservative scenario in which the past decade's annual rate of increase holds steady, CO2 would exceed 450 ppm in 26 years.

While the significance of exceeding 400 ppm may be largely symbolic, the fact that it is occurring this early in the year is not.

Global concentrations of CO2 are cyclic, peaking in May, when spring finally reaches Siberia’s boreal forests and new growth throughout the northern hemisphere once again begins absorbing atmospheric carbon.

Seasonal cycle of CO2 levels in the northern hemisphere over the last 24 months. Source: Keeling Curve, Scripts Institution of Oceanography

October marks the low point in the cycle, when vegetation dies off and decomposition begins releases carbon back into the atmosphere.

So, given the levels we’re already experiencing, the question is not whether 2014 will see the highest CO2 concentrations on record, but by how much last year’s record will be surpassed.

Over the past 50 years, annual rates of increase in CO2 levels have themselves been on the rise, from an average of 1.0 ppm/year in 1964-73 to more than 2.0 ppm in 2004-2013 (Fig 2).

Applying that 2 percent to last year’s concentrations (Fig. 2), it’s entirely possible that this year’s peak months of April, May and June could all see monthly averages above 400 ppm (Fig. 3).

Similarly, it’s likely that next year’s annual average will exceed 400 ppm (Fig 4).

The complete record of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa since Charles David Keeling began measurements in 1958. Sawtooth curve shows seasonal variations; shaded blue area indicates the accelerating trend over time. Source: Keeling Curve, Scripts Institution of Oceanography.

Looking further ahead, recent studies are projecting CO2 concentrations of 450 ppm by 2030. If those sound extreme, consider this: even if the average annual rate of increase over the last ten years were to hold steady in coming decades– something it hasn’t done since record keeping began in 1958 — we’d still be on track to reach 450 ppm by 2040 (Fig 4).


Categories: Ecological News

Radiological Damage to Microbes Hampers Plant Decomposition within Chernobyl Ecosystem

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 02:06

More than 25 years after an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spewed large quantities of radioactive material across much of the western USSR and Europe, microbes near the site of the accident remain compromised in their ability to decompose dead plant matter at normal rates.

Decades after the Chernobyl disaster, a sign warns of radioactive contamination amid undecomposed biomass in the Red Forest, located directly downwind of the nuclear reactor. Credit: Timm Suess

The result is a buildup of biomass that presents not just a local wildfire hazard, but could potentially spread radioactive beyond the immediate area if carried aloft by smoke.

Tim Mousseau, a professor of biology and co-director of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Research Initiatives at the University of South Carolina, and frequent collaborator Anders Møller of Université Paris-Sud became intrigued when they noticed something unusual in the course of their work in the Red Forest, the most contaminated part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

“We were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast,” Mousseau said. “Some 15 or 20 years later, these tree trunks were in pretty good shape. If a tree had fallen in my backyard, it would be sawdust in 10 years or so.”

In an effort to assess the rate of plant decomposition relative to background radiation, the researchers placed hundreds of mesh bags containing uncontaminated leaf litter in different areas representing a range of radioactive contamination.

Nine months later, analysis of the samples showed that the degree of decomposition was inversely related to the level of radioactive exposure. In the most contaminated areas, decomposition was 40 percent less than in control regions with normal levels background radiation.

The team concluded that the bacteria and fungi that decompose plant matter in healthy ecosystems are hindered by radioactive contamination. They showed a smaller effect for small invertebrates, such as termites, that also contribute to decomposition of plant biomass.

According to Mousseau, slower decomposition is likely to indirectly slow plant growth as well, given that the products of decomposition provide nutrients for new growth. The team recently reported diminished tree growth near Chernobyl, which he says likely results both from direct radiation effects and indirect effects such as reduced nutrient supply.

“It’s another facet of the impacts of low-dose-rate radioactive contaminants on the broader ecosystem,” Mousseau says. “We’ve looked at many other components, namely the populations of animals in the area, and this was an opportunity for broadening our range of interests to include the plant and microbial communities.”
The results also show the potential for further spread of radioactivity.

“There’s been growing concern by many different groups of the potential for catastrophic forest fires to sweep through this part of the world and redistribute the radioactive contamination that is in the trees and the plant biomass,” Mousseau says. “That would end up moving radio-cesium and other contaminants via smoke into populated areas.

“This litter accumulation that we measured, which is likely a direct consequence of reduced microbial decomposing activity, is like kindling. It’s dry, light and burns quite readily. It adds to the fuel, as well as makes it more likely that catastrophically sized forest fires might start.”

A paper on the work of  Mousseau et. al,. appears in the latest issue of the journal Oecologia.

Categories: Ecological News

Explore the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon in Google Maps Street View

Sun, 03/23/2014 - 21:49

American Rivers and Google Maps have teamed up to bring armchair rafters a chance to explore the Colorado River as it cuts through one of the most awe inspiring landforms on Earth — the Grand Canyon of the southwestern United States.

Views: Nankoweap Granaries by Google Maps

Carved out of uplifted rock over the course of 6 million years, the 277-mile long canyon reaches 18 miles (16km) across at its widest point. Descending more than a mile beneath the Colorado Plateau, its steep walls expose nearly 2 billion years of Earth’s geological history.

Yet, despite its intrinsic beauty, the ultimate wonder of the Grand Canyon is the unfathomable power of the once mighty river that created it.

Explore the Colorado River as it winds through the Grand Canyon in a series of 360° panoramic views.

As recently as a century ago, the Colorado was the wildest, most extreme river in the U.S. With nearly early 90 percent of its volume coming from melting snow in the Rocky Mountains, the river experienced dramatic fluctuations, with summer flows as much as 40 times greater than in winter months.

In an effort to control the unruly river and harness its power, a series of dams and reservoirs were built beginning in early 1900s — most notably, the Boulder Canyon Dam and Lake Mead in the 1930s.

Today, the “tamed” Colorado River is among the most controlled, regulated — and litigated — rivers in the world. Yet, the very agricultural and population booms it fostered now place unsustainably high demands upon it.

Several years of sustained drought accompanied by high levels of evaporation in the reservoirs have exacerbated the problem, resulting in historic, critically low water levels that unchecked climate change all but ensures will become the new normal in years to come.

Combined, the threats facing the Colorado are so severe that American Rivers named it America’s Most Endangered River in 2013. As a lifegiving resource and natural wonder, it deserves better.

Categories: Ecological News

2014 Winter Olympics Shine a Light on the Plight of Russia’s Homeless Dogs

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 05:32

It was a PR nightmare for Sochi, the picturesque Russian resort town hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics: the revelation that the city government intended to exterminate the packs of stray dogs that roam its streets as a part of its beautification process. Now these dogs are admittedly a rag-tag group – small and large, furry and hairless – with a genetic heritage consisting of a-little-of-this this and a little of Who-Knows-What? Much like strays you find in your local shelter. Independent and sometimes spooky, these street dogs are mostly feral and tend to shy away from people – preferring instead to scavenge at garbage or construction sites. But they are dogs – those trusting creatures with the soulful eyes that the world loves. Or most of it anyway.

Russian stray dogs - Photo Wikimedia Commons

When confronted with questions about the canine pogroms, the director of the pest control company tasked with the job told reporters that the dogs had been “biting children.” Dog bites or no, street dog removal had long been an unofficial policy in the town. And besides, what would the world think if a stray dog sauntered through a live Olympic telecast, as it did during a rehearsal of opening night ceremonies in the Fisht Olympic Stadium? It would be, as one official put it, “a disgrace to the whole country.”

The disgrace, as it turned out, was shooting the strays with poison darts and carting them off for an undignified disposal. The story was one of the biggest to emerge from the Games, generating widespread condemnation from animal lovers and rivers of indignant ink in the global media.

Stung by the criticism, Sochi officials grudgingly acknowledged that there might be a more humane way to keep its dog population in check. Et voila…within days of the opening ceremony, the city announced on its website that it had opened its own showcase shelter for 100 dogs. Funny thing though, animal activists could find no evidence of that city-run shelter.

Russians and Dogs: A Love-Hate Story

Moscow Metro Dog - Photo Wikimedia Commons

There are other international capitals – Bangkok and Mexico City for example – where you will see dogs wandering the streets. But in no other megalopolis is the stray population bigger than in Moscow where it is estimated that there are about 35,000 homeless dogs. Of those, about 500 or so have become residents of the Metro, the city’s sprawling subway system. There they perambulate the stations, negotiating escalators and automatic doors just like other seasoned riders. These are dogs that “commute” from one location to another – usually in the search of food, but sometimes, it is believed, simply to explore new places. And then there are the more laid-back types that stake out their territory in a particular car or station and spend their waking hours ingratiating themselves with humans in hopes of being rewarded with a little touch, or better yet, a snack.

It was not always this way in Russia’s capital. During the Soviet era, the stray population was tightly controlled by government teams. This policy didn’t offend the average citizen. On the contrary, they were often responsible for calling in the hit squads. While dogs weren’t a part of the Russian cuisine as they are in some Asian cultures, it was not unusual back then for them to end up as a fur cap.

In the unregulated civil aftermath of the Soviet Union, there were no longer controls in place to manage the packs. In Moscow, most could be seen roaming the city, but other more resourceful types began to winter underground in the tunnels of the subway. They soon became known as “Metro Dogs.”

Russia’s burgeoning oil economy of the 90s was not only good for the average Russian citizen, but for its canine citizens as well. More consumption brought more garbage, which meant more food for canine scavengers. With more to eat and less harassment by the law, the strays’ numbers expanded and they became a familiar site both above and below ground. In the Metro, workers and riders fed and petted them, and their mutual affection grew.

Though there is still no formal agenda for regulating the population of Russia’s homeless dogs, the future of Moscow’s Metro dogs appears to be growing grim and grimmer. For now, the day-to-day strategy is simply to make them less welcome. Subway guards chase them away from escalators and gates instead of letting them slip by. And above ground, vigilante squads take animal control into their own hands, scattering poison in parks and other canine gathering places. As a result, the overall stray population appears to be declining and fewer dogs are seen riding the subway.

How Smart Are Russian Mutts?

Here’s how smart: it was a stray dog named Leika, collected from streets of Moscow and trained for space travel, that became the first Russian cosmonaut. As for the Metro dogs, their survival mechanisms have become so sophisticated that they almost seem to be evolving before human eyes. Take, for example, behavior observed by many subway riders wherein smaller, cuter members of a pack are dispatched to panhandle. Those most likely to be approached are often single older women whom the dogs evidently see as a soft touch. They may not be cosmonauts like Laika, but they are pretty darned smart.

A Touching Postscript

It was recently reported that a local woman has now opened a shelter for 100 dogs outside of Sochi. Hearing of her efforts, a billionaire oligarch, who had been involved in the lucrative Olympics construction, unexpectedly came through with substantial financial support. The sad story of Sochi’s strays, which had come to his attention via a Facebook campaign, prompted him to organize a team of workers to save as many of the dogs and cats as possible. So far, 140 have been rescued and all because the oligarch had grown up with a stray he found on the streets of his small village, a dog that had become his “good friend.”

Maybe these rescue missions shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Except when they don’t, Russians have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the homeless dog population. And the Metro dogs have practically attained the status of personal pets with subway riders – so much so that they erected a statue of Malchik (Little Boy), a Metro dog that was stabbed to death by a mentally unbalanced woman in a subway station. For years now, it’s been deemed good luck to touch the statue on the way through the station. That is the reason why, they point out, his nose is so shiny.

Tribute to Malchik, Moscow metro-dog - Photo Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Ecological News

Kelp Watch 2014 to Measure Fukushima Radioactive Contamination on California Coasts

Fri, 02/14/2014 - 06:13

Courtesy of Nation of Change
By Christina Sarich

Kelp Forest - Photo Laura Francis, NOAA


Utilizing huge samples of sea kelp taken off the California Coast a program titled “Kelp Watch 2014” will keep vigil on the highly fragile ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean, and the fallout to this region caused by the Fukushima disaster.

The short term monitoring system comprised of scientists from California State University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, initiated by CSULB Biology Professor Steven L. Manley and the Berkeley Lab’s Head of Applied Nuclear Physics Kai Vetter, will measure kelp which could be contaminated by radioactive waste being brought in by sea currents from Del Norte to Baja.

Kelp vitality is a good measure of the overall health of the Pacific Ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states:

“. . .kelp may experience reduced growth rates and reproductive success in more toxic waters and sediments. Studies on microscopic stages of kelp suggest that kelp is sensitive to sewage, industrial waste discharges, and other causes [radioactive disasters] of poor water and sediment quality.”

Samples will be taken many times throughout the year and sent to the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Low Background Facility to be analyzed. Findings will be published for the public to see.

Dr. Vetter commented on the objectives on the project:

“UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab’s analysis within the new Kelp Watch initiative is part of a larger, ongoing, effort to measure Fukushima related radionuclides in a large variety of objects.  We have two main objectives—to learn more about the distribution and transport of these materials in our world, and to make the results and explanations available to the public.”

If the team of scientists and over 19 government and academic agencies involved in the project follow through with their promise, this will be some of the first transparency involved in reporting Fukushima contamination on our own shorelines. Dr. Vetter elaborated:

“Making our results available is a critical aspect of our work as it allows us to address concerns about Fukushima radiation levels and to explain the meaning and potential impact of these levels,” he added, “particularly in the context of the natural radiation background we are exposed to in our daily lives.”

Governments worldwide, however, have raised the ‘safe’ radiation contamination levels, and many argue that this has been done without a sound scientific basis. Even low –levels of radiation exposure can be lethal. The National Research Council of the National Academies talks about the problems with ‘high level radiation exposure’ and ‘absorption rates’ taking into consideration breaks in exposure that would allow an ecosystem or human being to ‘recover’ from said exposure, but if the estimates of 93 billion becquerels of cesium 137, strontium 90, and other radioactive particles being dumped into the ocean daily at Daiichi are even slightly correct, the measurements of sea kelp along the California Coast will indeed be telling.

Categories: Ecological News

Growing Concern Over Japan’s Dolphin Hunt Leads to Widespread Outcry

Tue, 02/11/2014 - 04:02

By Andy Butler
Courtesy of YES! Magazine

The dolphin massacre depicted in the Oscar-winning film The Cove took place again this year. But the reaction to it shows a changing public mindset toward the rights of sea mammals.

Photo by Jeff Kraus / Flickr.

In recent years, fishermen have gathered each year off the coast of Taiji, Japan, to corral dolphins into a small cove to be killed for their meat or sold to aquariums around the world. The group Whale and Dolphin Conservation estimates that more than 18,000 dolphins have been killed or captured in Taiji since the year 2000.

Social media and documentary films effect social change

The hunt has taken place every year since 1969, but this year it met a different reception—one that suggests changing public attitudes toward the hunting and capture of dolphins. The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, tweeted that she was “deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing,” and added that the United States government opposes such hunts. German and U.K. officials made similar statements, while the artist Yoko Ono published an open letter.

“At this very politically sensitive time,” Ono wrote, the hunt “will make the children of the world hate the Japanese.”

And the difference wasn’t just about the high-profile objections, says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with a Ph.D. in cetacean biology. This year’s dolphin hunt reached the attention of a larger and more global audience than earlier hunts have done due to increased discussion in social media.

Louie Psihoyos, executive director of the nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society and director of The Cove—the Oscar-winning documentary film that made the Taiji hunts famous when it was released in 2009—adds that this increased media attention is helping change the discussion around the hunting of whales and dolphins.

Signs of hope

“We’re getting toward a tipping point with this,” Psihoyos says. “You see hope everywhere.”

Psihoyos has faith in the ability of documentary films to effect social change. “I call them weapons of mass construction,” he says. “You make a good documentary and it keeps rippling around the world. Our movie is five years old now; it’s still doing its work.”

A second, more recent, documentary film has reinvigorated the movement against the captivity of whales and dolphins. Blackfish, released in 2013, follows the life of the orca Tilikum, a performing animal at a SeaWorld theme park that was involved in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The film documents the negative effects of a long life of captivity or orcas and enjoyed exposure to a large audience over 17 airings on CNN’s broadcast network.

SeaWorld reacted defensively to the film. For example, a headline at the company’s new “Truth About Blackfish” website reads “Why ‘Blackfish’ is Propaganda, not a documentary.” SeaWorld goes on to say that the claims made in Blackfish are illegitimate because it relies on information from “animal rights activists masquerading as scientists” and “former SeaWorld employees, most of whom have little experience with killer whales.” SeaWorld has also published full-page ads in several national newspapers to refute claims made by the film.

Rose says that she sees SeaWorld’s reaction as a sign of hope.

“We’ve been bandying about in the advocacy circles this Gandhian idea: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. SeaWorld is putting a lot of money into their PR,” Rose says. “So next is the win.”

Andy Butter wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Andy is an intern at YES!

Categories: Ecological News

The Polar Vortex Explained in 2 Minutes

Fri, 01/24/2014 - 05:56

President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, clearly explains the polar vortex in 2 minutes — and how this phenomenon relates to climate change and extreme weather patterns.

Learn more at

Categories: Ecological News