Transforming Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Thousands of years ago, central Africa’s Congo rainforest was much larger than it is today. Eventually, large sections of the forests were replaced by savannah and grassland. For a long time, scientists attributed this change entirely to the era’s climate growing warmer and drier, but a recent paper asserts that humans may have had a hand in the transformation as well.

The somewhat controversial study, published in the journal Science, had simply intended to examine the role that precipitation played in weathering the region (breaking down its soils and rocks). While studying the area’s minerals for the elements that indicate this type of erosion, researchers found that the geochemical record matched the precipitation levels, but only for a while. About 3,000 years ago, the pattern changed; instead of following the same trends, the soil and rocks showed a distinct spike in chemical weathering — something that the climate could not account for.

Africa's Gabon Rainforest (Credit: Mongabay)

It was about this time in history that groups of humans moved further into Africa’s rainforests and began to practice agriculture. They planted crops, which meant clearing large plots of land. This, the new study asserts, would explain the spike in erosion that their research found. With so much more of it exposed to the elements, the soil would have fallen subject to much higher levels of erosion. This means that while a changing climate may have started the transition of Africa’s land from forest to savannah and grassland, humans gave it quite a push in that direction — though exactly how large that push was has yet to be determined.

Although this study addresses changes that occurred millennia ago, the implications for our present-day forests are pretty significant. Today we are seeing forests fall to agricultural development in large swaths — ecologists are already concerned about the adverse effects on the Amazon. If simple farmers could have a hand in such a large-scale change to the landscape so long ago, what will today’s development on a much larger scale mean for the future of our forests?

The Frozen Forest

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Sometimes amidst all of the worrisome environmental news, it’s nice to be able to step back and just revel in beauty every once and awhile. So revel we shall in this time-lapse video showcasing the frozen winter forestland of Burleigh Falls and Fenelon Falls, Ontario, which was shot last month by Ben Lean.

Sounding It Out

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

You’re watching a movie. The leading characters are out in the woods, hiding from some monster or another, and all of a sudden everything goes silent. No birds chirping, leaves rustling or twigs snapping — all of it stops, and you know something bad is about to happen. Turns out, this isn’t just a cinematic trick, the sounds of nature can be as important as any other factors in predicting trouble in an ecosystem. This science of analyzing nature’s sounds — called soundscape ecology — is a fairly new idea, and a fascinating one.

Bryan Pijanowski (Credit: Purdue University)

Ecologist Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University is working at the forefront of this new field, and is passionate about its implications. “Natural sound could be the canary in the coal mine,” he says in a recent press release. “Sound might be the critical first indicator of changes in climate and weather patterns, or the presence of pollution.” Pijanowski and his colleagues will be getting a chance to study these soundscapes and their meanings further, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program.

So far, Pijanowski’s team has mapped soundscapes in a variety of ecosystems, from wetlands in Indiana to California’ Sequoia National Park. He and his team set up recorders and use the resulting data to create a plot of acoustics, turning sound into a three dimensional map of the area. Changes on the maps over time reflect changes in the ecosystem, whether as natural as the changing of seasons, or as abrupt as a human disturbance. You can view his research and listen to the project’s many recorded soundscapes here.

In addition to the ecological significance that the soundscape of an area can hold, Pijanowski is quick to point out that the sounds themselves hold great value, as they create a link between humans and our environment in a society where that connection seems to be waning. It’s true that we often tune out the sounds of our environment, and this means that we miss the opportunity to hear a song that may never be played again. Each region’s soundscape is a snapshot; it can change every year or every day. With the various natural and man-made threats facing the environment today, many species are being quietly silenced. It may be more important than ever to take some time to simply listen.

Bargain in the Bayou

by Amanda Tai

Credit: USFWS Headquarters/Flickr

It can be hard to turn down a two-for-one deal. But this kind of bargain isn’t just benefitting your wallet; it can benefit the environment too! A new methodology tool has been developed to help restore wetlands along the Gulf Coast while also establishing the grounds for a carbon offset market. Tierra Resources, a small environmental consulting firm, developed the tool with the help of Louisiana State University scientists. Terra Resources founder, Sarah Mack, says the tool measures and quantifies the amount of carbon plants absorb as they grow and how much carbon is stored in the plants throughout their lifecycle.

The idea for the tool stemmed from Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. When Katrina hit, the resulting water drainage and coastal restoration work cost the state of Louisiana a lot of money. That’s where Mack saw an opportunity to get more bang for the buck. The idea was a tool that would generate more than just environmental benefits from coastal restoration efforts; it would establish the grounds for a wetland carbon market and boost the local economy.

The wetland carbon market tool is the first of its kind; allowing investors to pay for wetlands restoration work to count towards carbon credits. The tool’s methodology is currently being reviewed by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) to ensure that it meets certified carbon credit standards. The review process will look at the carbon-storing capability for a variety of wetland restoration efforts, including: fresh water management, tree planting, and habitat restoration. The ACR review and approval process is set to be complete in spring 2012.

Beyond the Cape

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

In 1788 on this date, Massachusetts became our sixth “state” — it’s technically one of four commonwealths in the United States. Despite being one of America’s smallest states by land area, Massachusetts still boasts 11 national wildlife refuges, whose habitats include wetlands, forests, marshes, bogs and savannas. So much diversity in such a small place!

Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts

Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Credit: James Weliver/USFWS

A Savannah sparrow at the Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts

A Savannah sparrow at the Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Credit: Amanda Boyd/USFWS

Coastal wetlands at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts

Coastal wetlands at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

The Rainmakers

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

(Credit: David Sim)

If you follow environmental science at all, you already know that there’s a lot more we don’t know about how nature works than we actually do. When a new theory is introduced, I’m always interested because there’s that chance that it will explain some mystery people have been wondering about for ages — or (sometimes more fun) upset an existing theory that, while already widely believed, may not be true.

The biotic pump theory claims to be one of the latter. It holds that precipitation occurs over land, not because of differences in temperature, but because of the condensation that forests produce. Have I lost you? Let me explain. The traditional belief is that winds bringing precipitation over land are caused by differences in temperature and pressure. The biotic pump theory holds that those winds are actually created and controlled by forests and the condensation that they produce. Wind is created when air moves from high-pressure to low-pressure areas. The biotic pump theory says that as the forests’ condensation pushes vapor into the air and the vapor condenses from a gas to a liquid, it creates a low-pressure area, pulling the wind in.

What are the implications of this theory, if it should be proved true? Well for one thing, it means that messing with our forests is an even worse idea than we ever realized because we would be getting rid of a vital part of the system that brings us rain. Because the concept of the biotic pump upsets some of the basic processes in mainstream meteorological science, it has been considered fairly controversial since its introduction in 2007 and so has been by and large ignored. At the same time, the theory has been examined and reexamined without being discredited and is now gaining more traction throughout the scientific community. In fact, some recent findings linking deforestation to catastrophic drought that essentially ended the ancient Mayan civilization actually support the biotic pump theory, as does recent research on deforestation and drought in today’s Amazon rainforest.

Mongabay, a popular environmental news site, scored an interview with Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, the scientists behind the theory. It goes into great detail, and you can see the entire transcript here. Take a look and see what you think — could forests really be a major party responsible for our rainfall? And if so, will that news influence the rate at which we are losing are forests? Because one thing is clear: If this theory is proved to be true, we may be relying on our forests more than ever before.

Wonderful Wetlands

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Wetlands in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge

Wetlands in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today is World Wetlands Day. For more than a decade, countries around the world have celebrated wetlands on February 2 in remembrance of the 1971 signing of the Convention of Wetlands in Ramsar, Iran. Why do we celebrate wetlands every year? Where to begin?

Wetlands is the broad term used to describe areas that often find their soil saturated with water and as a result support flora and fauna that need these saturated-soil conditions to survive. While water is often prevalent in wetlands, wetlands aren’t necessarily wet all the time. The most common types of wetlands in the U.S. are marshes, swamps, bogs and fens. Because of their unique wet-dry conditions — which enable them to act as transitions from wet habitats to dry ones — wetlands are essential to maintaining nature’s balance.

According to the EPA:

  • One acre of wetland can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
  • Fifty percent of North America’s birds nest or feed in wetlands.
  • More than 30 percent of America’s plant species call wetlands home.
  • Wetland-dependent species contribute billions to the commercial and recreational fishing industry every year.

That’s just a small glimpse of the benefits of wetlands. Wetlands improve water quality, help with flood protection, control shoreline erosion, provide fish and wildlife habitat and contribute billions in recreation value annually. And we’re losing them.

When the Europeans first arrived in America, more than 220 million acres of the conterminous United States were covered with wetlands. Now, we’re hovering around 110 million acres. Loss was rampant from the 1950s to 70s, mainly due to conversion of wetlands into agricultural fields and other development. While that trend has slowed in recent years thanks to some protection from 1972’s Clean Water Act and 1986’s Emergency Wetlands Resources Act and other restoration and protection efforts, we’re still losing about 10,000 acres of wetland annually.

That’s why many of our Global ReLeaf projects each year are dedicated to restoring wetlands, like our 2011 project at the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. But remember that wetlands aren’t always special reserves or areas: they can be found in every county and every climatic zone in the U.S., according to the EPA. Which means you might be living in or on the edge of a wetland! With heightened awareness around the Clean Water Act because of its 40th birthday and the Farm Bill up for reauthorization in Congress this year, there are going to be many opportunities to step in and make our voices heard on important conservation issues, especially concerning water, wetlands and more, so stay tuned and go celebrate a wetland today.

New Year, New Plan

by Amanda Tai

Photo credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

Fun Fact: The USDA Forest Service was formed on this day in 1905, which means the agency is now 107 years old. Happy Birthday! And even after a century of work, the agency is still looking for ways to improve. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! Last week, the Forest Service announced the release of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the new Planning Rule that will guide the management of our National Forests. The PEIS lays out additions that may be incorporated into the final Planning Rule. This revision is a major step towards this country having a stronger, more efficient and more cost-effective land-management system. The PEIS promotes an “all-lands approach” — recognizing the interconnectedness of wildlife, recreation and other land uses. It also fosters collaborative work among federal agencies, state and local governments, tribes and organizations. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls this the “most collaborative rulemaking effort in agency history.”

The Forest Service received roughly 300,000 comments on the PEIS and Planning Rule during its public comment period. American Forests submitted comments advocating for a more outcome-based approach that focuses on the quality rather than the quantity of ecosystem services. After reviewing the updates incorporated into the PEIS, the final Planning Rule will be released thirty days later.

Last Thursday, I was able to sit in on a national media conference call hosted by Secretary Vilsack to learn more about the newly released PEIS and the final Planning Rule. My take-away from that call was that the PEIS has a strong emphasis on collaboration and public involvement in the forest planning process. Other significant changes in the PEIS from its original draft for which American Forests strongly advocated include strengthening the use of the best available science in forest planning, prioritizing water quality and watershed restoration issues, and recognizing the importance of wildlife and recreation in land management.

The Forest Service is also seeking candidates for a National Advisory Committee that will work on recommendations for the Planning Rule. The agency is interested in establishing a diverse committee that encompasses a wide range of members — including elected officials, tribal members, conservation groups, scientists and industry representatives. The deadline for nominations is February 21st. Further details about the final rule and advisory committee will be coming out in the next few months. Be sure to stay tuned as I continue to provide the latest updates on the Planning Rule.

Scores of Species

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

One thing that constantly amazes me about the environment is the staggering amount of diversity that you find in nature. Just the other day, this amazement resurfaced when the International Institute for Species Exploration released its “State of Observed Species” (SOS) report for 2011. This report sums up all of the species that we already know of and details the new species discovered in 2011. Actually, because it takes some time to confirm the findings, the data available for the SOS usually shows numbers for a couple years prior. Last year’s report is no exception, but that doesn’t make its findings any less impressive. The 2011 SOS report shows that in 2009, there were 19,232 new species discovered. Really, 19,232 new species in just one year!

(Credit: International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University)

So what were these new species? A lot of them — almost 62 percent, in fact — were insects. For instance, 2009 saw the discovery of no less than 3,485 different species of beetles. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of bugs, but that’s pretty darn impressive. The next largest group of species was vascular plants, of which trees are a member. Discoveries included new species of orchids, daffodils and even asparagus.

We hear about new species most often when they are of the cute and cuddly variety, and that usually means mammals. The 2011 report revealed that of the thousands of new species discovered in 2009, only 41 of them were mammals. The majority of those were bats, which is perhaps good news since so many known species of bats aren’t doing so well. Of the new amphibians recently discovered, almost 90 percent were frogs. You can view the full report here to learn more about the different types of new species discovered. One thing worth noting is that forests seem to be an eternal cache of new species. Whether it’s the cowboy frog recently found in the Suriname tropical forest or the new snakes found in Tanzania’s forests or the newest type of lemur to be found in Madagascar, forests always seem to hold enough life to boggle the mind.

The total of known species in the world is creeping ever closer to the two million mark. This year’s report brings the grand total to 1,941,939 species. And it seems that almost every year, the number of new species discovered is even greater than the last. These gains in knowledge are enough to make me regrettably contradict one of my all-time favorite TV shows: space is not the final frontier. We aren’t anywhere near done with Earth, yet.

A Deadly Mercury Cocktail

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

For years now, there have been studies and concerns about mercury levels in our oceans and bodies of water and how they affect aquatic life and consequently those of us that rely on fish and shellfish for sustenance — from children to birds and fish-eating mammals. But these studies hadn’t really examined mercury’s affect on terrestrial invertivores, aka land-based insect eaters. Until now. And unsurprisingly, the news isn’t good.

Rusty blackbird

Rusty blackbird. Credit: Vlad Litvinov (vlitvinov)/Flickr

A new report released by the Biodiversity Research Institute last week reveals that many species of songbirds and bats in the Northeast are exhibiting high mercury levels that are leading to adverse effects on reproduction, among other things. How are birds and bats getting such high levels of mercury in their systems? It’s all about the cycle of life with a heap of emissions on top.

Industrial plants, especially coal-firing ones, release mercury emissions into the air. These emissions eventually settle onto our trees and plants and are absorbed or settle into the soil, where — under the right environmental factors, such as wet areas with the right bacteria — the mercury is transformed into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Then, invertebrates, aka insects, consume mercury or methylmercury-contaminated leaf matter. Spiders and other predatory insects eat these smaller insects, absorbing multiple sources of mercury. Birds eat the spiders. And the cycle perpetuates. Each level higher on the food chain has the potential to consume more mercury than the level before, and pretty soon, birds and bats find their systems full of mercury.

While the highest mercury levels have been detected in areas marked by strong wet-dry cycles, like bogs and marshes, the study also found elevated mercury blood levels in species living in deciduous and high-elevation forests. The study found that species such as the rusty blackbird, the saltmarsh sparrow and the little brown bat were experiencing dangerously high levels of mercury. The consequences include decreased reproduction success because it alters the animals’ neurochemistry, affecting timing, instincts and other precise requirements to breeding success. And the poor little brown bat: the mercury compromises its immune system at a time when it’s already facing a deadly bat-killer, white-nose fungus.

At least some hope is on the horizon, as the EPA finally created a set of regulations for mercury emissions last month, which will hopefully help curb mercury emissions and their fallout because as we’re quickly learning, it appears that it’s fallout is widespread.