Changing Wildfire Policy for a Changing Climate

by Amanda Tai

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps replenish soil nutrients. It’s for this reason that wildfires are usually allowed to burn out on their own , granted that they remain at a low intensity and are far from developed areas.

Credit: footloosiety/Flickr

However, a new U.S. Forest Service directive has put a temporary hold the agency’s typical response to wildfires for the last two decades. This new directive instructs forest supervisors to act more proactively by quickly putting out wilderness fires in the early stages, while they’re still small, instead of using more manpower and equipment to monitor the fire. The hope is that putting out small wildfires will ultimately save the agency time and resources, as things like equipment, aircrafts and firefighting crews will be more readily available to tend to higher-priority fires that may arise near developed and populated areas.

This new directive is the end result of too many fires and not enough funding. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio that this directive aims to improve the agency’s approach to national wildfire emergencies and make better use of funding. Based on the string of huge fires that have plagued the West this summer — forcing people to evacuate their homes — the agency hopes the directive addresses issues of resource availability for catastrophic wildfires. In an agency-wide memo, James E. Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, supported the directive, stating that “safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

I’m encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to use their resources more effectively to stop a fire in its initial stages, but I wonder how these efforts will keep up with the rise of megafires. According to NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate change is one of the major factors that intensify wildfire. In the last few years, unusually hot, dry and windy weather conditions — the products of climate change — have caused fires like the Pagami Creek Fire in Minnesota and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in Colorado to quickly become catastrophic in scale. Such conditions are putting even more strain on firefighting resources, as fires are spreading and intensifying faster than ever. In the U.S., from 2002-2011, wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres annually. That’s almost double the annual average from the previous decade!

As the issue of wildfire becomes more and more complex, it’s important to take a management approach that takes all factors into consideration — development, climate change, weather conditions, etc. This is a critical time for wildfire management, especially when it appears as though these megafires are becoming the new norm.


Pesky Pachyderms

by Loose Leaf Team
Elephant in Kruger National Park.

Credit: Peter Guilliatt/Flickr

When I think of elephants, big, friendly giants come to mind. This said, I would much rather prefer to enjoy the friendly giants, weighing up to 16,500 pounds and standing close to 13 feet tall, with the comfort of a fence between us. New studies show, though, that it is trees that need to worry about the destruction an elephant can do.

As stated by the Conservation Ecology Research Unit, elephants are known for their ability to uproot, debark and break branches of many savanna trees. Scientists have known the destructive nature elephants play in toppling trees in order to reach leaves growing on top branches, but it has not been until recently that they have been able to quantify the number of trees African elephants have taken down.

New technologies have allowed scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science to determine tree loss from elephants on the savannas of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Greg Asner of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and his team used a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) model mounted to their Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a flying device, to monitor the growth and height of trees in the savannas. This technology provides detailed 3-D imagery of the vegetation canopy using laser pulses as the model flies above the African savanna.

The studies showed that elephants are the primary culprits of trees destruction in the savannas in Kruger National Park: “Their browsing habitats knock trees over at a rate averaging six times higher than in areas inaccessible to them,” says the report. For two years, the scientists studied 58,000 trees and found that elephants were responsible for almost 20 percent of downed trees. The team studied other environmental factors, such as other herbivores and fire, but came to the conclusion that elephants were the major factor to blame in tree loss.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Credit: Artem/Flickr

Also in the report, Greg Asner states how this information could be useful in managing the land in the future saying, “The elephant-driven tree losses have a ripple effect across the ecosystem, including how much carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.” Elephants toppling trees is a natural occurrence and will continue to impact the abundance and growth of savanna trees in the future. These new studies will give park and government officials insight into what regions are being most affected and how to better manage the trees and protect them from elephants.

 

 

 

 


Carbon-rich Coastlines

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Grey mangroves

Grey mangroves. Credit: Brisbane City Council/Flickr

At American Forests, we’ve long recognized the importance of mangrove forests — by doing reforestation work for them and discussing them in our magazine and right here on Loose Leaf — and according to new research, protecting these forests should be seen as an affordable way to offset CO2 emissions.

Mangrove forests, which grow in the tropical waters within 30 degrees of the equator, represent less than one percent of the world’s forests, but have the capability to store approximately 20 billion metric tons of CO2. Considering that world carbon emissions are approximately eight billion metric tons per year, mangroves can be a big factor in the global carbon picture.

According to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “In most areas of the world, we find that preventing a ton of carbon emissions from mangrove deforestation is competitive (less costly) relative to reducing a ton of carbon emissions from currently regulated GHG [greenhouse gas] sources in developed countries. The estimated cost of avoiding emissions from mangrove loss is also below the recent monetized estimates of damage caused by GHG emissions.” Basically, it’s pretty cheap ($10 per ton of CO2 saved) to conserve and protect mangroves compared to many other types of forests that could offset carbon emissions.

And we need to conserve and protect mangrove forests because over the last 50 years, we’ve lost about 50 percent of our mangrove forests. Beyond their large carbon storage capabilities, mangroves are key elements of marine ecosystems, providing protective feeding, breeding and nursing areas for a variety of fish, crustaceans and other aquatic creatures, not to mention wading and sea birds. Plus, they protect our shorelines from destructive waves. So if we protect the mangroves, they’ll help protect us and other creatures. I think that’s a price worth paying.


Palms From the Past

by Loose Leaf Team

Imagine taking tropical vacations to Antarctica. While that might seem like a stretch, new studies reveal that around 52 million years ago, palm trees were growing along the edge of the now ice-covered Antarctica.

Antarctica.

Antarctica. Credit: Jennifer Pickens/Flickr

On Antarctica’s eastern coast researchers drilled a kilometer deep into the ocean floor and found layers of sediment containing pollen grains from palm trees that are relatives of modern baobab and macadamia trees. One of the members of the team, Dr. James Bendle from the University of Glasgow, tells Planet Earth Online, “In the sediments, we found fossilized pollen representing two distinct environments with different climatic conditions — a lowland, warm rainforest dominated by tree ferns, palm trees, baobab trees and a cooler mountainous region dominated by beech trees and conifers.”

Palm trees.

Palm trees. Credit: Amanda Richards/Flickr

The study suggests that palm trees thrived in Antarctica in a time when the temperature in the winter exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit and temperature in the summer got up to almost 80 degrees. Additional evidence of the warm temperatures comes from analysis of additional organic compounds that were produced by soil bacteria populating the soils along the Antarctic coast. The details of past warming periods and greenhouse conditions give insight into the increasing effects CO2 could have on our planet today and hundreds of years from now.

The samples come from the early Eocene period, ranging from around 34-56 million years ago, when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were more than twice as high as they are today. During the Eocene period CO2 levels are estimated to be around 990 parts per million (ppm), and today, they are estimated at 395 ppm. Of course, 34 million years ago, there were no humans experiencing these conditions. Although these extreme levels of CO2 will not be reached relatively soon, it is possible that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current same rate, they could be reached by the end of the century.

So what exactly do these findings say about the future? Kevin Walsh, a scientist from the 2010 expedition that uncovered these findings, says to Agence France-Presse, “It’s difficult to say because that’s really controlled by people’s and governments’ actions. It really depends on how emissions go in the future.” Though the future is not completely clear, it is apparent that CO2 levels will continue to rise, ice will continue to melt and we’ll witness phenomena not seen since before our species inhabited Earth.


A Scary Picture

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

As the well-known saying goes, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Well, how about two pictures?

First, there’s this satellite image released by the NASA Earth Observatory of lodgepole pine forests near Grand Lake, Colorado on September 11, 2005.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Now, the exact same location just six years later.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Where did the green go? What happened to the forest? Pine bark beetles happened.

These rice-sized insects have been attacking five-needle pine trees across the western U.S. for the past decade, causing widespread losses to forests across the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming die each day.

This is a big problem. Actually, more than big, as many scientists call the situation an epidemic. The affected pine trees provide homes for many wildlife species, food for others (grizzly bears!) and stabilize snowpacks and soil overall.

And, American Forests is committed to helping restore affected areas with our Global ReLeaf work and advocating in support of government initiatives that will help affected areas. For more on this issue and ways you can help, visit our Endangered Western Forests page.

 


Where’s the Water?

by Amanda Tai

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the world’s forests sequester 2-2.8 billion metric tons of carbon annually. A new study published in Nature Geoscience indicates that evergreen forests ranging from northern Mexico to Canada took up a lot less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during a 2000-2004 drought period, dropping 30-293 million metric tons below normal levels. And, according to the study, this might just be the beginning: Forests in the western U.S. could be facing a 100-year drought.

Just check out this map that shows the current drought situation in the U.S. The destructive impacts of drought are clear with this year’s catastrophic wildfires in Colorado and the ones happening now in Texas, Utah and California. But drought has even longer term impacts that will last longer than one hot, dry summer season. Severe drought may actually convert western evergreen forests into scrubland by the end of the century.

Trees, like all living things, need water to be healthy and functional. I know that I certainly don’t feel well when I’m dehydrated. When trees don’t get enough water, it greatly impairs their ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water helps facilitate the leaf development process and the greater the leaf surface area, the greater the ability to sequester carbon. Also, as trees die, the carbon dioxide that is stored within them is released back into the atmosphere. This is bad news not only for forest ecosystems, but the atmosphere.

The research team at Northern Arizona University School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability that led the Nature Geoscience study thinks that drought may become the new norm. Researcher Christopher Schwalm said the current trends of extreme temperature and droughts could last decades or even a century as a result of global climate change; and drought is just one of the many impacts we have started to see as a result of global climate change. Schwalm noted that although trees are somewhat amenable to change, the type of forests we see in the western U.S. could drastically change over the next century thanks to drought conditions.


Volcanic Beauty

by Loose Leaf Team

This Wednesday, marks the 96th anniversary of two of Hawaii’s most prized national parks: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakalā National Park, both of which were established decades before Hawaii was even a state. Back in 1916, only one park was actually created to represent the combination of volcanic areas on the islands of Maui and Hawaii. It was not until 1960 that the two islands volcanic wonders were divided to create two separate national parks. Here are some of the each parks highlights.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Credit: John Hyun/Flickr

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, named for what else but its famous volcanoes:

  • The park is located on the southeastern edge of the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • The active volcano Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth when measured from the seafloor at 33,000 feet.
  • The park’s most recent volcanic activity occurred at the small volcano known as Kilauea, which means “spewing, much spreading.”
  • With lava flowing at an average rate of 800-1,300 gallons per second from the currently erupting volcano Kalauea, more than 500 acres of new land have been added to the island of Hawaii since the eruption began in 1983.

Haleakalā National Park:

  • This park stretches across Maui’s southern and eastern coastline and is home to Maui’s highest peak.
  • Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.”
  • The park is home to the rare Haleakalā silversword, a plant endemic to the islands that only grows in a 2,471-acre area at an elevation of 6,890 to 9,843 feet.
  • The park surrounds and includes the Haleakalā crater, a massive shield volcano that forms more than 75 percent of Maui.
Haleakala National Park.

Haleakala National Park. Credit: Peter Kemmer/Flickr

Both parks have been named by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve — and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a World Heritage Site — due in part to their diverse ecology and native species. But these species have been facing grave challenges from invasive species and animals. The parks have made strong efforts to prevent this destruction from invasive weeds and feral pigs by fencing off the native species in the parks to protect them.

Over the years American Forests has had a variety of planting projects in Hawaii. This year we will be teaming with the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring native plants and ecosystems, to plant 6,000 trees in the Waihou Spring Forest on Maui. Hopefully these plantings and efforts in the future will help to keep Hawaii and its famous national parks healthy and diverse for years to come.


On Time Departures

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

I am fascinated by annual migrations.

I find it remarkable that so many creatures around the world are able to make the same trek season after season, year after year, when most humans these days have trouble navigating without their smart phones or GPS units. However, the mind-blowing regularity of some species’ habits may also be their downfall.

Wood thrush

Wood thrush. Credit: Bill Lynch (Billtacular)/Flickr

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, professor of biology at York University, and colleagues just published a study in the journal PLoS One that details the migratory patterns of individual songbirds. Strutchbury attached penny-sized geolocators to wood thrushes to track their long-distance migrations from Pennsylvania to Costa Rica and Belize and back again. The results of the study revealed that while departure dates in the fall for Central America varied, the individual birds would depart for North America each spring within the same three-day window. En masse, spring migration departures occurred over a month period, but Stutchbury’s research reveal that each individual wood thrush adhere to a punctual departure date each spring, which has interesting implications.

As stated in the report, “The high repeatability in spring departure date suggests a stronger influence of endogenous schedules than local environmental conditions.” Basically, no matter what the external circumstances, the studied wood thrushes were following an internal clock that told them when to leave each spring. The consequence of such a rigid schedule is that as climate changes, the birds’ food sources will begin peaking at different times — regardless of whether or not the birds have arrived to consume them. A 2010 study (by Both C, Van Turnhout CAM, Bijlsma RG, Siepel H, Van Strien AJ, et al.) in Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences revealed that such a “mismatch between timing of food requirements and food availability” “may have become a major cause for population declines in long-distance migrants in highly seasonal habitats.”

So while an individual bird’s punctuality is both awe-inspiring and impressive, it may not be so good in the long run for its health and survival.


The Oaks Are Moving Up

by Loose Leaf Team
Old oaks in Gladstone Park, California.

Old oaks in Gladstone Park, California. Credit: Penman2/Flickr

In a study published in 2011, researchers found that more than half of the tree species in eastern U.S. forests are not adapting to climate change as quickly or consistently as predicted. Only about 21 percent of the species studied appeared to be shifting northward. With warmer temperature zones shifting northward, scientist expected to see the tree populations follow, but the study revealed that this is not the case with a majority of tree species.

The concept of climate-driven migration states that as temperature increases mature trees will die out, while young seedlings spread to northern areas with higher altitudes to take root in newly favorable climates. The researchers found little evidence to support the idea of climate-driven migration for many North American tree species. But there is one species defying the crowd. Recent research shows that the mighty oak is advancing northward by genetically transforming to adapt to climate change.

Jeanne Romero-Severson, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, and her colleagues are tracking the live oaks of eastern North American to see how the trees adapt to climate change. Oak trees are originally from Southeast Asia, but can now be found all over the world. However, it is in North America that the highest diversity of oak species are located. Researchers have long thought that this diversity was attributed to the oaks ability to adapt to climate challenges. Romero-Severson’s studies focus on the migration of live oak into northern Canada, the diversity of oaks in North America and their ability to genetically transform to adapt to varying temperatures.

An oak tree in Kensington Metro Park, Michigan.

An oak tree in Kensington Metro Park, Michigan. Credit: Maia C/Flickr

As reported by Phys.org, the researchers are hypothesizing that “trees in contact with a relative who could just manage to survive the cold were able to ‘capture’ from these relatives a few genes favorable for survival in colder climates, without retaining extensive genetic changes that would alter morphology.” The goal is to understand the role that climate change plays in the hybridization of the oaks and the general evolution of forest diversity. The study includes four research teams, each studying different aspects of how the oaks engaged in interspecies hybridization, while still maintaining species distinction. The unique thing observed in oaks is that the trees moving north acquire genes to survive in the different temperatures, while also maintaining all the genes that keep their species identity. Many species, animals and trees alike, have gone through similar adaptions, but lose the identity of the parent genes.

The mystery is how and why this tree species is able adapt so well and evolve which Romero-Severson and her team are just beginning to find out. Figuring this out will be completing a small piece of a much bigger puzzle: “We feel that we have to define the problem so carefully that what we learn from these live oaks will help us understand how evolution works and how natural adaptation arises,” says Romero-Severson. It will be interesting to see what the study reveals about how oak trees are adapting to climate change. It may even bring new insight into how other species, of all kinds, will adapt to climate change in the future.


Spying on Bears Live

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

A few years ago, I vacationed in Alaska, and while I was lucky enough to see some caribou and moose while in Denali National Park & Preserve, I must admit I was a bit disappointed not to encounter — from a safe distance — a bear. Well, on Tuesday, Alaska’s Katmai National Park & Preserve gave me a way to vicariously see a bear — and become increasingly distracted from my work — with its newly launched Brooks Camp Bearcam.

Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Yes, you read that right: a bearcam. A live camera that is continuously streaming footage of bears fishing for salmon in the Brooks River. It’s engrossing — bears are there all the time! But why? As I’ve discovered, it’s all about the salmon.

According to Katmai National Park’s website, “The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay, Alaska, each summer. Part of those salmon move into Katmai National Park using the Naknek drainage and end up at Brooks Camp. This is why so many bears gather in July on the Brooks River Falls.”

Pacific salmon, of which there are many varieties, spend their adult lives at sea in the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean. However, they’re born in freshwater — from intertidal pools to mountain streams — and every year, thousands of mature salmon must return to the waters where they were born to give birth to a new generation. Once they leave their saltwater habitat behind, they face various threats to survival, including brown bears. Some salmon will die of starvation on the trip since they stop eating the minute they enter freshwater. Some will die from polluted waters, while others are caught up in fishing nets. All of these difficulties and other factors, such as habitat loss, have led many Pacific salmon species to be declared threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. (Click here to watch a video about and discover some of the work American Forests is doing to help Pacific salmon.) But I digress.

Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Salmon are an essential part of bears’ diets, as salmon helps shore up a bear’s fat reserves for winter hibernation. Therefore, anywhere where salmon are ripe for the picking is ripe for bear spotting. About 100 bears live in the Brooks Camp area, where the bearcams are located, but Katmai is actually home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears. Because of its remoteness, which is good for the bears, Katmai only receives about 10,000 visitors per year, so the webcams are a way to bring the experiences of this Alaskan wilderness to a wider variety of people.

“I think it’s an unparalleled opportunity for people to get that front-row seat of the lives of the bears at Brooks Camp,” Roy Wood, chief of interpretation for Katmai National Park and Preserve, told the Associated Press. While two cameras are running now, the Associated Press reports that two more are to come, giving wildlife lovers many different bear activities to enjoy — from the catching of salmon on the falls to moms and their cubs downstream to aerial views of the ecosystem. You know I’ll be watching.