A nearly 30-year survey, conducted at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, has found that the distribution of Argentine ants has shrunk as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, native species are faring better.
A nearly 30-year survey, conducted at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, has found that the distribution of Argentine ants has shrunk as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, native species are faring better.
Say "doomsday bunker" and most people would imagine a concrete room filled with cots and canned goods.
The threat of global annihilation may feel as present as it did during the Cold War, but today's high-security shelters could not be more different from their 20th-century counterparts.
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A number of companies around the world are meeting a growing demand for structures that protect from any risk, whether it's a global pandemic, an asteroid, or World War III -- while also delivering luxurious amenities.
"Your father or grandfather's bunker was not very comfortable," says Robert Vicino, a real estate entrepreneur and CEO of Vivos, a company he founded that builds and manages high-end shelters around the world.
"They were gray. They were metal, like a ship or something military. And the truth is mankind cannot survive long-term in such a Spartan, bleak environment."
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The Oppidum, Czech Republic
The Oppidum, Czech Republic
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The demand for designer bunkers has grown rapidly in recent years. Credit: the oppidum
Many of the world's elite, including hedge fund managers, sports stars and tech executives (Bill Gates is rumored to have bunkers at all his properties) have chosen to design their own secret shelters to house their families and staff.
Gary Lynch, general manager of Texas-based Rising S Company, says 2016 sales for their custom high-end underground bunkers grew 700% compared to 2015, while overall sales have grown 300% since the November US presidential election alone.
Apocalypse now: Our incessant desire to picture the end of the world
The company's plate steel bunkers, which are designed to last for generations, can hold a minimum of one year's worth of food per resident and withstand earthquakes.
But while some want to bunker down alone, others prefer to ride out the apocalypse in a community setting that offers an experience a bit closer to the real world.
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1/17 – Five-star shelter
A secret bunker in South-East London, built to protect key government employees during a nuclear winter, has been transformed into a $4 million luxury residence. Credit: JDM estate agents
Developers of community shelters like these often acquire decommissioned military bunkers and missile silos built by the United States or Soviet governments -- sites that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build today.
The fortified structures are designed to withstand a nuclear strike and come equipped with power systems, water purification systems, blast valves, and Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) air filtration.
Most include food supplies for a year or more, and many have hydroponic gardens to supplement the rations. The developers also work to create well-rounded communities with a range of skills necessary for long-term survival, from doctors to teachers.
Vicino says Vivos received a flurry of interest in its shelters around the 2016 election from both liberals and conservatives, and completely sold out of spaces in its community shelters in the past few weeks.
One of those shelters, Vivos xPoint, is near the Black Hills of South Dakota, and consists of 575 military bunkers that served as an Army Munitions Depot until 1967.
Presently being converted into a facility that will accommodate about 5,000 people, the interiors of each bunker are outfitted by the owners at a cost of between $25,000 to $200,000 each. The price depends on whether they want a minimalist space or a home with high-end finishes.
The compound itself will be equipped with all the comforts of a small town, including a community theater, classrooms, hydroponic gardens, a medical clinic, a spa and a gym.
Vivos Europa One in Germany
Vivos Europa One in Germany Credit: © Copyright Terravivos.com
For clients looking for something further afield and more luxurious, the company also offers Vivos Europa One, billed as a "modern day Noah's Ark" in a former Cold War-era munitions storage facility in Germany.
The structure, which was carved out of solid bedrock, offers 34 private residences, each starting at 2,500 square feet, with the option to add a second story for a total of 5,000 square feet.
Stunning mural appears in secret forest
The units will be delivered empty and each owner will have the space renovated to suit their own tastes and needs, choosing from options that include screening rooms, private pools and gyms.
Vicino compares the individual spaces to underground yachts, and even recommends that owners commission the same builders and designers that worked on their actual vessels.
"Most of these people have high-end yachts, so they already have the relationship and they know the taste, fit, and finish that they want," he explains.
The vast complex includes a tram system to transport residents throughout the shelter, where they can visit its restaurants, theater, coffee shops, pool and game areas.
"We have all the comforts of home, but also the comforts that you expect when you leave your home," Vicino adds.
Survival Condo in Kansas
Survival Condo in Kansas Credit: Courtesy of Survival Condo
Nuclear hardened homes
Developer Larry Hall's Survival Condo in Kansas utilizes two abandoned Atlas missile silos built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to house warheads during the early 1960s.
Super-rich building luxury doomsday bunkers
"Our clients are sold on the unique advantage of having a luxury second home that also happens to be a nuclear hardened bunker," says Hall, who is already starting work on a second Survival Condo in another silo on site.
"This aspect allows our clients to invest in an appreciating asset as opposed to an expense."
The Survival Condo has several different layouts, from a 900-square-foot half-floor residence to a two-level, 3,600-square-foot penthouse that starts at $4.5 million.
Owners have access to their homes and the facilities at anytime, whether a disaster is imminent or they just want to get away from it all, and the complex features a pool, general store, theater, bar and library.
The condo association sets the rules for the community, and during an emergency, owners would be required to work four hours a day.
If you prefer to spend the end of days solo, or at least with hand-selected family and friends, you may prefer to consider The Oppidum in the Czech Republic, which is being billed as "the largest billionaire bunker in the world."
The top-secret facility, once a joint project between the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), was built over 10 years beginning in 1984.
An interior shot of the Oppidum in Czech Republic
An interior shot of the Oppidum in Czech Republic Credit: Courtesy of the Oppidum
The site now includes both an above-ground estate and a 77,000-square-foot underground component. While the final product will be built out to the owner's specifications, the initial renderings include an underground garden, swimming pool, spa, cinema and wine vault.
While many might see the luxury amenities at these facilities as unnecessary, the developers argue that these features are critical to survival.
"These shelters are long-term, a year or more," Vicino says. "It had better be comfortable."
A new scientific study published Tuesday has found that warm ocean water is carving an enormous channel into the underside of one of the key floating ice shelves of West Antarctica, the most vulnerable sector of the enormous ice continent.
The Dotson ice shelf, which holds back two separate large glaciers, is about 1,350 square miles in area and between 1,000 and 1,600 feet thick. But on its western side, it is now only about half that thickness, said Noel Gourmelen, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the lead author of the research, which was just published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The reason is the same one that is believed to be shrinking glaciers and pouring ice into the ocean across West Antarctica — warm ocean water located offshore is now reaching the ice from below.
In Dotson’s case, it appears the water is first flowing into the deep cavity beneath the shelf far below it, but then being turned by the Earth’s rotation and streaming upward toward the floating ice as it mixes with buoyant meltwater. The result is that the warm water continually melts one part of the shelf in particular, creating the channel.
“We think that this channel is actually being carved for the last 25 years,” said Gourmelen, whose research team detected the channel using satellite observations. “It’s been thinning and melting at the base for at least 25 years, and that’s where we are now.”
The work was conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh along with colleagues at other institutions in France, Norway, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
The newly discovered channel is three miles wide and 37 miles long, and the scalloped region at the base of the floating ice shelf is mirrored by a long depression on its surface.
Dotson ice shelf as a whole has been thinning at an average rate of more than eight feet per year since 1994, even as the speed of ice flowing outward through the shelf has increased by 180 percent. But the thinning in the channel has been far greater. The research calculates that 45 feet of ice thickness is being subtracted annually from the channel.
The new study calculates that as a result of this highly uneven melting, the Dotson ice shelf could be melted all the way through in 40 years, rather than 170 years, which would be the time it would take if the melt were occurring evenly. And it speculates that as the thinning continues, the shelf may not go quietly or steadily any longer — something dramatic could occur, such as a breakup.
“Any carpenter knows: you’re going to cut through a block of wood a lot faster with a saw than with a sander,” said Ted Scambos, an Antarctic expert with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, who commented on the study by email (he was not involved in the research). “What they’ve shown is that warm ocean water reaching the Antarctic coastline beneath the ice does not just remove the ice uniformly, it cuts deep gouges in the ice from below. The channels are weak spots in the floating ice (ice shelves).”
Meltwater from this process streams outward into the Amundsen Sea in front of the Dotson ice shelf and the channel, which has large downstream consequences. The water carries nutrients, such as iron, that have also spurred sharp growth of marine microorganisms in the region — another sign of the major changes in the region.
“This study reveals the complexity with which the ocean interacts with Antarctic ice shelves, and will be of value in assessing the future of the ice-ocean-biology system of the Antarctic coastline, and its sensitivity to changes in climate,” said Dan Goldberg of the University of Edinburgh, another of the study’s authors.
Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said the new research highlights the importance of a European Space Agency satellite called CryoSat-2, which she said is “currently the only satellite monitoring Antarctica’s ice shelf thickness.”
“It gives us data at incredibly dense coverage, which is allowing us to map small-scale features like basal channels,” Fricker said. “These are regions of higher basal melt, and could cause the ice shelf to weaken much sooner than the average melt rates imply. It is vital that we keep monitoring these ice shelves.”
There could be numerous other such channels across the Antarctic continent, Gourmelen said.
In the particular case of Dotson, the ultimate fear is that the undermining of the shelf will increase the flow of ice outward from the glaciers behind it, named Smith and Kohler, which contributes to sea level rise. If the ice shelf collapsed, that would speed up even further.
To see why that matters, consider this map of what the overall region looks like, where “DIS” refers to Dotson ice shelf:
In the long term, the greatest fear perhaps is that Smith glacier ultimately connects to Thwaites glacier, the largest in West Antarctica, as you can see above. Thwaites runs backward all the way into the heart of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains about 10 feet of potential sea level rise.
“The nature of the impact is not really known” if Dotson is lost, Gourmelen said. “But they are essentially part of the same large basin.”
By David Roberts@drvox
Last year, the Nation Institute launched a Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture Series, in honor of the late environmental journalist. The topic is rather grandiose: The Fate of the Earth.
The first lecture, last year, was given by famed environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, who spoke about climate change.
This year, the lecture was delivered Wednesday by Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of several books, including 2014’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
Kolbert’s lecture took on a larger and, if anything, even more difficult subject, namely what the Anthropocene — the geological age of human influence — is like from the perspective of other species. As humans have grown and spread, they have jammed unfamiliar animals and pathogens together in the geological blink of an eye, driving countless species to extinction. In the 3.8 billion-year history of life on this planet, she says, “no creature has ever changed the earth at the rate that we are changing it right now.”
As usual, Kolbert’s message is bracing and free of false-hope homilies. You can watch a video of the lecture here.
Kolbert is something of a hero of mine. Her 2006 Field Notes From a Catastrophe was the first book on climate change I ever read, and its concluding line still haunts me: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”
So it was a pleasure to chat with her by phone about the issues and difficult moral dilemmas her lecture raises — perspectives too often absent from our typically human-centric discussions of environmental damage. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to focus on biodiversity? Is it just because Bill McKibben took climate change already?
[laughs] Well, you know, I don’t want to downplay that. But at the same time, I have come to see — and this was the impetus for writing The Sixth Extinction — that climate change is part of an even bigger issue. So when the topic is the Fate of the Earth, it seemed like you could open it up into this even bigger issue, the way we are changing the planet, for all intents and purposes, permanently. As I say, unfortunately, climate change is just one of those ways, and not even necessarily the most significant.
Climate change is such a huge issue, it’s already difficult for people to fit it in their heads. To put it into an even bigger context ... how do you even go about that? Do you feel like you’ve successfully gotten your head around it?
I don’t think anyone does, really. The reason the Anthropocene as a concept really took off since Paul Crutzen first proposed it — which is not very long ago — is that it gives us a framework for thinking about a lot of things that seem disparate but are all pointing in one direction. To look at it in geological terms has been a really interesting and useful exercise.
I’ve been out in the field with people who are trying to look at human impact on the planet in terms of the great history of life — half a billion years of multicellular life. How is this going to look millions of years from now? When you go through that exercise, it tends to wash away everything that we humans are attached to and leaves just these geochemical markers, basically.
You find that, wow, what humans are doing is really significant. It’s significant on the scale of the history of life. It kills your worldview, I think.
One way people have tried to narrow this, to make it manageable, is to frame the benefits of biodiversity in human terms — “ecosystem services” and what they do for us. What do you think of that tactic?
I totally understand it and sympathize with it. And I think there’s a very compelling case to be made that, however independent we think we are from biological systems and geochemical systems, we’re very clearly not. All of our oxygen is biologically produced. We’re still intimately connected — even those of us who live in a high-rise in Manhattan — to this world, even though we may not appreciate that.
So you mess around with these systems, you push them too far, and it’s going to come back and bite humanity in the ass. I think that’s true.
But I also think it’s true that, taking the broadest possible view, humans are just one of many, many species that have lived on Earth. So even if we decided it is possible for us to escape unscathed through a mass extinction, the idea that we would eliminate many of the other species on Earth, including our closest relatives (we’re in the process of eliminating the great ape), is a pretty awful legacy.
When we drive a species to extinction, is that like murder?
We assess people’s actions in terms of intentionality and responsibility, but we don’t assess “natural processes” that way. We don’t think poorly of a lion for killing a gazelle. What special obligations do humans have to other species?
I don’t have a straightforward answer to that. It turns out that our ethics are based on humans and human consciousness, so when we look at other species, we often try to do it in terms of consciousness. Are they consciously suffering or not? There’s a lot of talk of ethical treatment of animals, for example, in the context of farming.
But is there ethical treatment of animals in the context of just the world? Nature, red in tooth and claw; everything is competing for existence. It’s not even clear to me if it’s possible to have what we as humans would identify as an ethical system that would tell us what the right thing to do [in the Anthropocene] is.
That being said, I don’t think that absence lets us off the hook.
I’ve certainly heard the perspective expressed that morals are just for other humans. Like, if we travel around the world in our ships and the accidental byproduct is that some frog goes extinct, that’s just how nature works. It has no moral valence.
On one hand, these are such big issues that they’re hard to talk about, but on the other hand, we are so powerless. Yes, people move around the world. Many, many species of amphibians are gone, purely accidentally — to this day, we don’t know who or how exactly those moved around.
As you say, intentionality is very, very difficult to parse now. That’s also true in these cases of pathogens moving around. But there are lots of things along the way between poaching an elephant — which is also a huge, huge problem right now, simply killing things for their tusks or their horns or whatever — and accidentally moving a pathogen around.
But what I’m really trying to point to is just the incommensurability of the way we like to think of our actions and the way they’re playing out in the world. I don’t exactly have a takeaway there. It’s more a negative message. It’s more, let’s not be smug about our ethics.
We can all agree that we have these human ethics, toward other humans, that we’re not observing; that’s step number one. But even if we were observing them and we were simultaneously doing in the rest of the biosphere ... that should still give us pause.
Where do your moral and ethical principles come from? Are you religious? Or [do you] have some sort of philosophy on these matters?
No. I have some personal — I don’t know if I want to call them heroes — people whose work I have been inspired by, but they’re not a tradition. I’d say it’s ad hoc. I would not claim to have a systematic view of the world.
One thing you run into when you discuss these kinds of things is you say, “We shouldn’t drive this frog species extinct,” and someone asks, “Why?” You say, “Seems bad.” Pretty quickly your ethics ground out in raw instincts.
Yes, I agree.
First of all, it’s an area where ethics and aesthetics and science come together. And because we’re dealing with a world that we only very, very partially understand, it’s very difficult to answer these questions.
But the other thing is that the more you try to get at the answers, the more you realize we are often blocked from seeing the impact of our actions. You can’t even anticipate them. We’re just humans, this one species that has a certain way of making our living. All around us are other answers to the question, “How do you survive on this planet?”
People compare it to burning down a library. That’s what we’re doing, just eliminating a certain knowledge of how to make it in this world.
But because those are such alien ways, you just don’t even know how other species make a living. Until something goes really radically awry, we don’t even notice it. And things are going radically awry often, and we don’t even notice it.
Charles C. Mann, the author, thinks we are no different than protozoa — absent natural limits and predators, we’re going to breed and breed and overbreed and crash. Do you see any realistic hope for our species asserting self-aware control over that primal biological force?
There’s a lot to unpack there.
First of all, the question of how many people can the world support. Predictions are that eventually, toward the end of this century, if certain demographic trends continue, that world population will peak around 10 billion people. Now, whether we can get through that and then bring the population down and have a happy, healthy, prosperous world — that’s pretty much beyond my pay grade.
Anyone who thinks they can tell you that is full of shit. We just don’t know.
But what I am trying to point out is the flip side of that, which is, okay, it’s true we have defied all these expectations, right? When Malthus was writing, there were roughly a billion people on the planet; now, there’s 7.5 billion people. So he was clearly, massively wrong.
But while we’ve increased our numbers, it has been at the expense of other things. We are simply consuming other species. We are consuming a tremendous amount of the primary productivity of the oceans, for example, just emptying them out.
And so there’s two questions really, it seems to me. One is will humanity make it through this basically unrestrained growth, both in terms of numbers and in how much we as individuals consume? And meanwhile, what happens to everything else?
The answer is not necessarily the same. I mean, humanity has found that it can reproduce and consume at a very rapid rate and, depending on how you look at it, the world continues apace — though obviously many people are not doing well, many people are.
But most other species are not doing too well.
One thing I always appreciated about your writing is your tragic imagination. I feel like lots of folks in the climate discussion lack that. [When author David Wallace-Wells wrote a story on the tragic potential of climate change, he was roundly scolded by the climate positivity police.]
I really appreciate that. Thank you.
American culture, in particular, lacks a tragic imagination — an ability to imagine that things can go horribly wrong.
I completely agree with you. That’s the only way we can explain what’s going on right now.
A couple years ago, we lived in Rome for a year. In Rome, you are surrounded by the ruins of a civilization. You don’t have the same our-best-days-are-ahead-of-us nonsense.
As the Trump administration mulls whether to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, its legal foes are already plotting creative courtroom challenges against U.S. EPA and directly against utilities.
If the agency drags its heels on replacing the rule, declares that it won't replace it at all or issues a narrower rule, lawsuits are certain. Among the tactics environmental lawyers are eyeing: bringing climate change "nuisance" claims under common law — where those suing would argue that they're harmed by emissions — and filing direct citizen lawsuits against EPA. Those prospects have industry worried and are part of the reason some are pushing for a replacement.
"If EPA is not acting like it is taking this issue in hand and moving forward aggressively against this singularly serious threat ... there will be more pressure for innovative remedies, innovative approaches," said Sean Donahue, an attorney representing environmentalists in the ongoing Clean Power Plan litigation. "A picture of abdication is going to inject a lot of energy into efforts to find other ways to get at these emissions," he said.
The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan required states to craft strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt formally began the process to repeal the rule. EPA also said it's considering whether to issue a replacement rule. A replacement from the Trump administration is expected to forgo the broad approach that the Obama administration took and focus more narrowly on efficiency limits at specific power plants.
The prospect of being vulnerable to widespread common law and citizen lawsuits is extremely unattractive to industry, which could face steep legal costs and settlement fees. Having a replacement rule for the Clean Power Plan could help take some of the legal uncertainty off the table.
"I think that for several reasons, the vast majority of people in the business community believe that there should be a reasonable regulation instead of no regulation at all," said Jeff Holmstead, an attorney at Bracewell LLP. "Part of that is they think that that protects them against these nuisance suits, I think that's certainly part of it. They would also just like to have some regulatory certainty."
Looming over the legal debate is a 2011 Supreme Court decision.
In the 2011 case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, a state-led coalition sued six power companies, arguing it was hurt by the companies' emissions contributing to climate change. But the justices ruled that the Clean Air Act pre-empted such federal common law claims. Because the court had previously ruled that EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the ruling was seen to preclude common law claims brought under federal law.
The question being pondered now: What if EPA doesn't actually act to limit greenhouse gas emissions?
"At the time AEP was decided, it looked like EPA was actually going to move forward with fulfilling its statutory duty," Donahue said. "And so it is certainly a significant change in the game to see EPA pulling back from fulfilling its statutory duty, and I think we'll have to see what happens."
Multiple legal experts, though, said they see an uphill battle for climate change claims brought under common law, even in the absence of any EPA limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
That's because, in the 2011 opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that displacement occurred when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. "The Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency action the Act authorizes, we hold, displace the claims the plaintiffs seek to pursue," the opinion says.
"It's the legislation that displaces or pre-empts, not regulation," said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Eric Glitzenstein, partner at Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP, a D.C. law firm that was involved in AEP, was not optimistic about using federal nuisance cases either, citing the Supreme Court's broad ruling in the 2011 decision. "I have a hard time seeing how one would get around that," said Glitzenstein, who represented Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Wildlife Federation in an amicus brief in AEP.
According to Tom Lorenzen, an attorney at Crowell & Moring LLP who's represented utilities in the litigation opposing the Clean Power Plan, "displacement continues to hold whether there's a replacement rule or not because EPA has the authority to regulate under [the Clean Air Act]."
However, he added, "I think there's less incentive for environmental groups and others to try to bring these suits if the federal government is regulating."
Judges 'may take it into their own hands'
But experts note that the "displacement" in AEP extends only to federal common law and not to claims brought under state law.
"There's nothing the Trump administration can do to shield power companies and coal companies from liability under state law, so they can't get that kind of shield," said David Doniger, director of the Climate & Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As the Trump administration works to kill the Clean Power Plan, cities and counties in California are already turning to state common law.
Since July, three California cities and two counties have sued companies for damages related to climate change under state public nuisance law. The lawsuits claim that the companies — which include BP PLC, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC — have intensified climate change and exacerbated costly sea-level rise.
"We're going to ensure that those responsible for the problem are held to account," Dennis Herrera, San Francisco's city attorney, said last month (Climatewire, Sept. 21).
David Bookbinder, counsel at the libertarian Niskanen Center and former climate attorney at the Sierra Club, said that judges have dealt with claims of injuries to people and property for centuries. While climate change cases are more complex, they may be more likely to succeed the longer Congress and EPA punt on regulating industrial emissions.
"The longer the delay, the more likely it is that judges, be they state or federal judges, will be receptive to the idea that they are the only ones who can do anything," he said.
He added: "The judges don't want to do this. They would far prefer that either Congress dealt with it or EPA dealt with it. But they may take it into their own hands."
Still, state common law claims on climate change are a relatively untested legal area. Up to now, courts have expressly declined to address such claims, Burger said.
If the state lawsuits fail, it could increase the impetus for filing federal common law claims as a "tool of last resort," Burger predicted.
"It seems perfectly plausible that a city, a state, an environmental organization would say, well, what are we going to do?" he said. "The courts are blocking state common law avenues, the federal government is not doing anything, courts aren't forcing them to do anything — we have to go back to the idea that there's a right that's being infringed on here."
Some conservatives are dismissing concerns about both federal and state nuisance cases.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative nonprofit, pointed to the decision in AEP when representatives met with White House officials last month.
In a handout given to administration officials, the foundation noted it was difficult at both the state and federal level to prove injury from greenhouse gases from specific sources or categories of sources since they are emitted worldwide, from "virtually every nook and cranny of the developed and developing world."
"Even in the event that a legally defensible scientific case could be made that total global anthropogenic emissions are significantly contributing to climate change, allocating responsibility among emitters everywhere will be an impracticable task for federal courts to undertake," the group wrote.
If EPA declines to replace the Clean Power Plan or slow-walks a new rule, the agency will also likely face direct legal challenges from supporters of climate action, lawsuits known as citizen suits. States, environmentalists and health groups could file citizen suits that challenge the Trump administration's unreasonable delay or failure to act.
It wouldn't be the first time on this issue. In fact, the Clean Power Plan came about after a yearslong legal tug of war ultimately won by states that wanted EPA to crack down on climate-warming emissions.
After the 2007 Supreme Court decision finding EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, the Sierra Club and Our Children's Earth Foundation then filed a citizen suit pushing EPA to craft power plant emissions standards. EPA responded by issuing a rule that set new performance standards for power plants but did not address carbon dioxide.
New York then filed a separate lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that prompted a 2007 settlement allowing EPA to take another stab at power plant standards, this time incorporating greenhouse gases. After years of additional legal wrangling and another Supreme Court decision affirming EPA's authority, the Obama administration issued the Clean Power Plan.
"It's almost certain that if EPA moves forward with the repeal and doesn't do anything on the replacement or moves so slowly on the replacement that in effect nothing will happen, I would expect that there would be a lawsuit filed against EPA of the same sort arguing that EPA is thereby violating a nondiscretionary duty," said Richard Revesz, director of New York University's Institute for Policy Integrity.
Some conservative lawyers have pushed back on just how firm that duty is. They have argued that the Clean Air Act simply does not give EPA the tools to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, or that the agency's determination that such emissions endanger public health is not specific enough to compel regulation for the power sector.
Environmental lawyers largely shrug off those arguments, pointing to EPA's 2009 endangerment finding for greenhouse gases and Supreme Court cases that have affirmed the agency's authority.
"If he does nothing at all, we can bring various kinds of litigation to force him to act," NRDC's Doniger said. "The D.C. Circuit itself has indicated that he has an obligation to act, and at least some of the judges there are looking at their wristwatches."
Doniger was referring to a recent concurrence from two D.C. Circuit judges who agreed that litigation over the Obama rule should be put on hold but cautioned that EPA has a legal duty to act on climate change.
"Combined with this court's abeyance, the stay has the effect of relieving EPA of its obligation to comply with that statutory duty for the indefinite future," Judges David Tatel and Patricia Millett wrote in August. "Questions regarding the continuing scope and effect of the Supreme Court's stay, however, must be addressed to that Court."
Revesz said that the uncertainty provides a good reason for the D.C. Circuit to decide whether the Obama rule is legal. The court has put litigation over the rule on hold as the Trump administration decides what to do with the rule.
"The fact that this litigation is likely to be coming up down the road actually provides a pretty strong argument for the D.C. Circuit to decide the pending challenge to the Clean Power Plan now as opposed to waiting for this whole process to unfold," Revesz said.
He added: "If the D.C. Circuit, for example, upheld the Clean Power Plan, a lot of these things would get resolved. There'd be no federal common law actions. We would know that the repeal is illegal, and there would be a fair amount of certainty and less litigation."
Reporters Niina Heikkinen and Robin Bravender contributed.
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In 1966, an ecologist at the University of Washington named Robert Paine removed all the ochre starfish from a short stretch of Pacific shoreline on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The absence of the predator had a dramatic effect on its ecosystem. In less than a year, a diverse tidal environment collapsed into a monoculture of mussels because the starfish was no longer around to eat them.
By keeping mussel numbers down, the starfish had allowed many other species to thrive, from seaweed to sponges. Paine’s research led to the well-known concept of keystone species: The idea that some species in an ecosystem have prevailing traits — in this case preying on mussels — whose importance is far greater than the dominant traits of other species in that ecosystem.
Now, a half-century later, researchers are taking the study of traits much farther, with some scientists concluding that understanding the function of species can tell us more about ecosystems than knowing which species are present — a concept known as functional diversity. This idea is not merely academic, as scientists say that understanding functional diversity can play an important role in shaping conservation programs to enhance biodiversity and preserve or restore ecosystems.
“The trait perspective is very powerful,” says Jonathan Lefcheck, a researcher at the Bigelow Marine Lab in East Boothbay, Maine who studies functional diversity in marine environments. “Some species in an ecosystem are redundant, and some species are very powerful.”
Much about the concept is also unknown. One case study is taking place along the Mekong River, a 2,700-mile waterway that serves as a vital fishery for millions of people in Southeast Asia. While the fishery is healthy now, widespread changes in the ecosystem — including the proposed construction of numerous dams and the development of riparian forests and wetlands — could mean that key fish species might not be around to carry out important functions, such as keeping prey numbers in check or recycling nutrients.
“There is simply no understanding of how the construction of a dam today, and another five years from now, and another in 10 years — all in the same river basin — will impact the biodiversity and push it past a point of no return, where large scale species extinctions are imminent,” said Leo Saenz, director of eco-hydrology for Conservation International.
So a team of ecologists from Conservation International is trying to determine which roles various species in the Mekong fill that are critical to perpetuating a healthy ecosystem. Those species might be predators like the giant snakehead, which helps control other fish populations so they don’t become too numerous, or thick groves of mangrove forests in shallow areas that provide a nursery for a wide variety of fish species. Models can then predict the best way to protect these key species and ensure a healthy river over the long term.
“Ecosystem resilience is an important part of what we aim to maintain, both for the interest of biodiversity conservation and for the maintenance of the ecosystem services that nature provides,” says Trond Larsen, a biologist who heads Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program for biodiversity.
Some scientists now compare knowing which species are present in an ecosystem to knowing only which parts of a car are present. Functional trait ecology is a deeper dive into ecosystem dynamics to help understand how the parts come together to create a natural environment that runs smoothly, like a well-tuned automobile, thus enabling a more focused protection of the vital parts that keep it going.
“Say you have two habitats with 10 different species in each,” explains Marc Cadotte, a professor of Urban Forest Conservation and Biology at the University of Toronto. “Yet, they might not be comparable at all if in one of those habitats eight of those 10 species are similar and redundant, while in the other habitat, all 10 species are unique from one other. We need alternative measures for biodiversity that tell us something about the niche differences, trait differences, how species are interacting, and how they are using resources. Functional diversity and phylogenetic diversity are meant to capture that.”
Phylogenetic diversity refers to species that have few or no close relatives and that are very different from other species, which may mean that they can contribute in very different ways to an ecosystem. Protecting phylogenetic diversity, then, is part of protecting important functions. The distinctive pearl bubble coral is one example, as it provides shelter to shrimp, an important food for the highly endangered hawksbill turtle.
Better understanding these aspects of ecosystems is a game-changer for the conservation of biodiversity. The Indo-West Pacific region, between the east coast of Africa and South Asia, has the highest diversity of life in the world’s oceans. But many species there, such as damselfishes and butterfly fishes, have a lot of overlap with other species in terms of traits — somewhat similar body sizes, similar habitats and habits, how and where they school, etc. That means they may have a narrower range of traits that may be important for ecosystem function.
“In the Galapagos, on the other hand, there are fewer species, but each of those species is doing something much different than the others,” says Lefcheck, who worked on research looking at functional diversity there. “If you were prioritizing your conservation efforts, you might focus on the Galapagos. Even though it doesn’t have as much biodiversity in the traditional sense, it has a much greater diversity of form and function.”
“Functional diversity is incredibly difficult to determine,” says Larsen of Conservation International, “but generating an improved understanding of the relationship between species and their functional diversity is key to understanding and mitigating impacts or threats from development.” His organization works to protect tuna and sharks, for example, because these predators help maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem by keeping numbers of prey from growing too large and by culling the sick and the weak.
In a recent study in the journal Nature, researchers say that focusing on species function and evolutionary heritage can narrow the focus on what needs to be protected most urgently. “Biodiversity conservation has mostly focused on species, but some species may offer much more critical or unique functions or evolutionary heritage than others — something current conservation planning does not readily address,” says Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University.
The researchers noted that 26 percent of the world’s bird and mammal species are not included in protected reserves. Focusing on the most important traits and evolutionary heritage of those species would allow conservationists to narrow their protection of critical biodiversity with just a 5 percent increase in protected areas, and would be far less costly than trying to protect them all, the Nature study shows.
As traits are better understood in ecosystems, Lefcheck says, it allows tweaking and management of ecosystems for certain outcomes. “You could choose to conserve the species that are very different than others that might lead to changes in the ecosystem that could be considered beneficial,” he says. That has potential for fisheries management, for example. “When I tell someone, ‘This species has been around for 2.6 million years,’ that’s very esoteric in a way,” says Lefcheck. “But if I can say, ‘This large-bodied species produces a lot of biomass, and it can crop down invasive algae, and it plays a high-functioning and critical role in the ecosystem,’ you might want to protect species that have that trait.”
Such is the case with parrotfish and surgeonfish — “reef-grazers” that eat algae and keep coral reefs healthy. Because of these key traits, the government of Belize has enacted a law to protect these two species.
Understanding traits also can enhance ecosystem restoration projects. While building a new oyster aquaculture fishery can provide a commercial harvest, “we also know that oysters provide a lot of other services,” says Lefcheck. “They filter the water. They provide nooks and crannies for small fish and invertebrates to live in, and they are fish food for the tasty things we like to catch and to put on the dinner table. Where is the optimum placement of this restoration to enhance the variety of services we get from the oysters beyond just having the reefs there?”
The benefits of understanding functional diversity can go well beyond ecosystem restoration. In Toronto, for example, green (plant-covered) roofs are required on most new commercial buildings to help cool the city and reduce storm water runoff. A monoculture of grass called sedum is used. In studies, though, Cadotte and colleagues have found that if grass species that are distantly related and dissimilar are used in the mix, they have different traits that provide more shade for the soil and help the roof keep the building cooler. This mix also reduces stormwater runoff by about 20 percent.
The formal study of functional traits can be traced back to the 1990s, when ecologist David Tilman at the University of Minnesota did research on grasslands. He found that those regions with more species diversity did better during a drought, and only a few of the grasses resistant to drought were needed. Later, he and his colleagues discovered that the presence of some grasses with certain traits, such as an ability to fix nitrogen, was more important than overall species diversity.
Researchers in Jena, Germany established the Jena Experiment to follow up on this work. They found that there are plants, such as wild tobacco, that emit “messenger molecules” when they are under assault by herbivores to attract predators from miles away that eat their enemies. This trait not only benefits the tobacco, but other species in the neighboring plant community.
Experts say these findings could also help agriculture rely less on pesticides by understanding the right mix of plants to maximize predator defenses. “Varying the expression of just a few genes in a few individuals can have large protective effects for the whole field,” says Meredith Schuman, a researcher on the Jena Experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. “It’s an economically tenable way to recover the lost benefits of biodiversity for the vast expanses of land that have already been converted from natural, biodiverse habitats into agricultural monocultures.”
These new approaches to ecology show how limited the science has been. Many researchers welcome the change. “Ecology has moved from counting species to accounting for species,” says Cadotte.
Jim Robbins is a veteran journalist based in Helena, Montana. He has written for the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and numerous other publications. His latest book, The Wonder of Birds: What they Tell Us about the World, Ourselves and a Better Future, is due out in May.
Tobias Okwara is a farmer in Kayoro Parish in southeastern Uganda. In the midst of a long drought that began in May 2016, he and his neighbors got together to discuss what to do. Food was becoming scarce, and they hoped to recover quickly once the rains started again. They decided they would pool their meagre resources and plant a large communal field of maize. By spring 2017, the rains had finally returned, and their maize was thriving.
Then the fall armyworm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Larvae of the nondescript gray moths hatched and ate their way through the field of young corn.
Endemic to North and South America, the fall armyworm was first spotted in January 2016 in Nigeria. No one knows for certain how it arrived on the African continent, but since its initial appearance the pest has spread to more than 28 countries, including South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most recently, Sudan and Mali. As it has spread, it has destroyed more than 740,000 acres of maize, the staple food for more than 200 million Africans.
The fall armyworm is closely related to the African armyworm, which is native to the continent. Both pests feed not just on corn, but also on other cereal crops like rice, sorghum, and wheat. Kenneth Wilson of Lancaster University has studied the African armyworm for 25 years and is now part of a working group with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization that is examining how to deal with the newly arrived pest.
Wilson says that while the African armyworm has long been a problem, it typically attacks one area and then moves on to another, making it only a sporadic threat to crop production in any given location. Not so with the fall armyworm. Once it has eaten its way through the cereal crops in a particular area, it sticks around to see what else it can eat. “If you’re a smallholder farmer who plants a little bit of maize, some sorghum, some beans, some tomatoes,” Wilson says, “all of those crops are potentially at risk from the fall armyworm.” It’s been known to feed on at least 80 plant species. In Uganda, over 40 percent of the crops are infested.
Uganda, like much of the rest of Africa, is already reeling from the effects of climate change.
Erratic weather patterns and intensifying cycles of drought and rain have taken a heavy toll on subsistence farmers like Okwara, who have no alternate food supply when it rains too much or too little and crops fail. The fall armyworm comes at a time when farmers throughout rural Africa are grappling with rising food insecurity because of climatic changes.
Climate change may also be a factor in the fall armyworm’s rapid spread across the continent. Wilson says that while it’s too early to know for sure about the new pest, 50 plus years of data on the native African armyworm show that the population explodes after periods of drought. He thinks it’s possible that the intensifying droughts brought on by climate change may favor both varieties of armyworm.
In South America, where the fall armyworm has plagued crops for decades, farmers have used a combination of genetically modified crops and pesticides to keep it mostly in check. But this is an expensive and ecologically damaging approach that Wilson does not think is viable for the majority of farmers in Africa. For one thing, he says, “we know that resistance is developing already both to GM crops and pesticides.”
Wilson specializes in biological pesticides, which are developed from bacteria, baculoviruses, and fungi that naturally prey on pests. He has already identified a virus that kills the African armyworm, but to his frustration it doesn’t kill the fall armyworm. Wilson is currently testing a range of biopesticides to see if there are any commercially available products that could work as a short term alternative to the chemical pesticides that African governments are relying on to address infestations.
As for the long term? Wilson points to parts of Central America, where the fall armyworm hasn’t been as big of a problem. “Farmers there say that it’s because they’ve got good integrated pest management practices. They fertilize the soil with organic fertilizer, they painstakingly search their crops for eggs, they’ve got mixed vegetation, like flowering plants that help to foster natural enemies.”
Such an effort will take time and significant outside investment. Fortunately, Wilson thinks countries outside of Africa are taking the threat seriously. It’s only a matter of time, he says, before the fall armyworm makes its way to Yemen and southern Europe. “For Europe and Asia, there should be an element of self-interest. It’s a global problem. It’s going to be everywhere.”
Why Southern Nevada Is Fighting to Build a 250-Mile Water Pipeline
Decades after it was first proposed, Southern Nevada Water Authority is still pushing for a pipeline to send rural groundwater to the Las Vegas area. But others are questioning whether the project is really needed.
Oct. 12, 2017
Approx. 7 minutes
A 'bathtub ring' in 2016 surrounds Lake Mead near Hoover Dam, which impounds the Colorado River at the Arizona-Nevada border. The white ring shows the effects of a drought which has caused the level of the lake to drop to an historic low.Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images
IN 2015, ALBUQUERQUE delivered as much water as it had in 1983, despite its population growing by 70 percent. In 2016, Tucson delivered as much water as it had in 1984, despite a 67 percent increase in customer hook-ups. The trend is the same for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, said longtime water policy researcher Gary Woodard, who rattled off these statistics in a recent phone interview. Southwestern cities boomed during these decades, yet water demand fell far below projections. Efficiency and conservation worked better than water managers could have hoped.
“Everyone assumed that water demand was proportional to population,” said Woodard, a former University of Arizona professor who works for the water resource consultants Montgomery & Associates.
In the 1980s, before increased efficiency and conservation efforts, cities across the West saw an immediate need to secure reliable water resources for future growth. This thinking in part was what drove the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas area, to propose in 1989, a 250-mile pipeline that would pump billions of gallons of rural groundwater to Las Vegas. Farmers, ranchers and local officials near the targeted groundwater basins in rural northern Nevada called it a “water grab.”
The pipeline was never built, and Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the Colorado River, never experienced a water shortage. The opposite happened. As population boomed in the early 2000s, Southern Nevada pulled less and less Colorado River water from Lake Mead.
Decades later, Southern Nevada Water Authority is still actively pursuing the pipeline, despite legal challenges from a diverse coalition of ranchers, tribes and environmental groups. In a new round of state engineer hearings last week, opponents are again pushing to limit the scope of the water authority’s groundwater rights.
They believe that the project would undermine the area’s environment. And they often find themselves asking the same question: Las Vegas grew, and its per capita demand decreased without the $15 billion pipeline, first proposed decades ago. So how necessary is it?
The Falling Reservoir
“At some point, it is the only choice,” said Pat Mulroy, a legendary Colorado River deal maker and a forceful advocate for the project as the water authority’s first general manager until 2014.
Most of Southern Nevada’s drinking water comes from Lake Mead, the shrinking manmade reservoir that stores Colorado River water for the southwest. Compared to its neighboring states, Nevada is entitled to only a sliver of the river’s allocation. The Colorado River Compact, a treaty inked long before Las Vegas sprouted resorts, casinos, golf courses and vast master-planned communities, gives Nevada about 2 percent of the water.
This leaves the Southern Nevada Water Authority at a constrained starting point. Where many water agencies have a diversified portfolio – groundwater, Colorado River water, maybe in-state surface water – Southern Nevada is almost entirely reliant on one source, Mulroy argues.
And a changing climate is only expected to place additional stress on the Colorado River, according to recent academic studies. Thanks to higher temperatures, more water is expected to evaporate off the surface of Lake Mead while projections suggest that a shrinking snowpack will decrease supplies – all this, before the backdrop of further population growth not only in Las Vegas, but also across much of the southwest. Under those situations, having one source “is a very risky proposition,” Mulroy said.
But there is still a big economic incentive driving the push to build the pipeline. Las Vegas is projected to grow, and builders might be unwilling to back new developments if they don’t know that there will be a secure supply of water. The project’s backers point out that the state’s economy depends on Southern Nevada, which in turn depends on water. The 2.1 million people who populate Southern Nevada comprise most of Nevada’s population, about 70 percent.
Las Vegas officials see the pipeline as a form of hedging, to prepare for a time when getting 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead might not be sustainable. “When you live in the driest state in the union, you don’t take options off the table,” said John Entsminger, the water authority’s current general manager. “Whether something really is necessary is a question of time.”
Conserving What You Have
Joined by a coalition of farmers, ranchers and local officials, the Center of Biological Diversity has sued over the Southern Nevada pipeline twice, and the organization has had some success in delaying the project. Judges have ordered federal and state officials to consider narrow revisions to environmental impact statements and limiting the water authority’s groundwater rights.
Southern Nevada Water Authority hopes to build a 250-mile water pipeline to send groundwater from rural Nevada, near Great Basin National Park, to the Las Vegas area. (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Nevada representative, said the project and desert pipelines like it could dry ecosystems critical to sustaining wildlife in the deserts scattered across the southwest.
“These projects propose the wholesale dewatering of entire landscapes,” he said of groundwater pumping. “Before we start having the discussion about whether we sacrifice millions of acres of habitat [to adapt to growth and climate change], we need to reduce our consumption.”
With more efficient homes and conservation programs, most Western cities have reduced their consumption, but researchers and water managers agree that, in many cases, people are still using more water than they need. Since 2002, Las Vegas cut its per capita water consumption by about 40 percent, according to Bronson Mack, a water authority spokesman. In the mid-1990s, Las Vegans were consuming more than 200 gallons per capita, higher than many other cities.
That number is now at about 123 gallons per capita. The drop is not unique to Las Vegas. Most cities in the region have seen their per capita daily consumption drop as a result of efficient appliances, homebuilders placing a new emphasis on sustainability and conservation efforts. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, for its part, runs a cash-for-grass program that pays its customers to replace turf with desert landscaping. It credits the rebate program with saving billions of gallons of water.
Donnelly at the Center for Biological Diversity said such statistics can be misleading.
“They have cut their water consumption a lot, but they are still using water like crazy,” he said.
Las Vegas is lagging behind other cities, he argued. In July, Los Angeles’ average residents’ daily water consumption was at 59 gallons, according to KPCC. And San Francisco residents use about 50 gallons per day, according to its water agency. Howard Watts, a spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition opposing the pipeline, said his organization has sparred with the water agency over whether its efforts are stringent enough. He said the agency should consider requiring customers to phase out front lawns or retrofit homes with more efficient appliances.
“They have been really hesitant to force requirement on older homes,” Watts said.
The uncertainty for water managers is how far they can push it.
“For any particular case, it’s different,” said John Fleck, who directs the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. But he added that “conservation has continually outpaced water managers’ projections of what their customer’s conservation would be.”
The incentive for water managers, Fleck said, is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Politics on the Colorado River
There are also larger forces at play.
Arizona, California and Nevada are in the late stages of negotiating a drought contingency plan to voluntarily cut the amount of water they take from Lake Mead during shortages. In the past, Colorado River negotiations have played into Southern Nevada’s calculation that it needs to continue pushing for the pipeline. For years, Arizona, which banked a portion of Nevada’s Colorado River water, was “extremely adamant” that Las Vegas find a long-term water source.
“It doesn’t really matter that growth isn’t there,” Mulroy said. “The other states are not going to let Southern Nevada [Water Authority] draw its full allocation out of a reservoir that is crashing to zero.” Falling water levels in Lake Mead have come close to triggering a federal shortage declaration. Under such a designation, the basin states would be required to cut their usage.
Watts, with the Great Basin Water Network, said that underestimates the leverage Nevada has on the river. In 2015, the water authority uncapped a third intake in Lake Mead that would ensure deliveries for Southern Nevada even if the reservoir fell so low that water stopped flowing to California and Arizona.
California and Arizona would want to keep that from happening, Watts said. As a result, their incentive is to conserve the Colorado River and keep more water in Lake Mead. There are ways to mitigate dropping lake elevations: water banking, conservation or investing in desalinization.
“The only new source of water that we’re going to get that is going to have the most minimal amount of conflict is going to be from the ocean,” he said, noting that costs have come down for desalination. And even though Nevada is a long way from the ocean, more desalination could reduce California’s reliance on the Colorado River and leave more water in the lake.
Among water managers along the river, there is an increasing recognition that infrastructure in one state can affect water planning in another state. They are watching the Southern Nevada pipeline project, along with another large infrastructure project in California. Gov. Jerry Brown and Southern California’s wholesale water agency, Metropolitan Water District, is pushing to approve a $17.1 billion plan to build two tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The tunnels, meant to create more reliability in California’s water supply, play into how the state will position itself in the final negotiations of the drought contingency plan. If California can’t rely on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, it might be less inclined to accept cuts in Lake Mead deliveries.
“In general, projects that increase the water supplies … are good for the potential management of the [Colorado River],” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It would create another water supply for them that they could use in a conjunctive and flexible way that could potentially conserve water and keep water in Lake Mead.”
Groundwater Nevada Southern Nevada Water Authority
Another Victim of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Treasured Rainforest
By LUIS FERRÉ-SADURNÍOCT. 11, 2017
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Hurricane Maria obliterated El Yunque Rain Forest on Puerto Rico, raising questions about whether it will be able to recover. Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times
LUQUILLO, P.R. — When you looked up, you could once see nothing but the lush, emerald canopy of tabonuco and sierra palm trees covering El Yunque National Forest.
That was before Hurricane Maria obliterated the only tropical rain forest in the United States forest system. Left behind was a scene so bare that on a recent visit, it was possible to see the concrete skyline of San Juan about 30 miles west — a previously unimaginable sight.
El Yunque, pronounced Jun-kay, has been an enormous source of pride in Puerto Rico and one of the main drivers of the island’s tourism industry. The 28,000-acre forest on the eastern part of the island has over 240 species of trees; 23 of those are found nowhere else. Over 50 bird species live among the forest’s crags and waterfalls.
But sunlight now reaches cavities of the forest that have not felt a ray of light in decades, bringing with it a scorching heat.
“Hurricane Maria was like a shock to the system,” said Grizelle González, a project leader at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, part of United States Department of Agriculture. “The whole forest is completely defoliated.”
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The hardest hit areas at the top of the forest “might take a century to recover,” Ms. González, who has worked at El Yunque for 17 years, said.
Tree trunks that still stood were left brown, stripped of their leaves and dark-green mosses. Landslides have scattered the forest with mounds of displaced soil and boulders.
The billions of gallons of water that rain every year on the eight major rivers that originate here supply 20 percent of the drinkable water in Puerto Rico.
“What’s going to happen if the ecosystem has less capacity to capture that water, get it into the streams, and into the municipal water systems?” Sharon Wallace, the forest supervisor for El Yunque, said.
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Hurricane Maria decimated much of the flora and fauna in the rain forest. Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times
Bryophytes, mosses that grow on tree trunks, collect a lot of the water that goes down the mountain, Ms. Gónzalez said. But trees were stripped of the mosses, especially on the face that received the direct fury of Maria’s winds.
The bird population also suffered a devastating hit. Birds are typically affected after hurricanes ravage trees of the food they eat. But on an initial scouting trip to the accessible parts of the forest, Ms. Gónzalez said she saw the bodies of dozens of blackbirds and pearly-eyed thrashers that had died because of the hurricane’s galloping gusts.
The livelihood of the Puerto Rican parrot, an endangered species living in El Yunque and Río Abajo State Forest, is of special concern. The colorful bright-green bird with a distinctive red stripe above its beak is found only in Puerto Rico and is the only native parrot species in the United States.
“The Puerto Rican parrot is an iconic species of the island,” Marisel López, leader of the The Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program, of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said. “It’s our legacy.”
While there were tens of thousands in pre-Columbian times, the parrot population dwindled to 13 by 1973 because of deforestation, hunting and species competition. Conservation efforts since then have helped rebuild the population, and before Maria, the captive and wild population combined numbered over 500, Ms. López said. At least seven parrots died in captivity because of the stress induced by the hurricane and the high heat in the days after because of the lack of canopy, she said.
Ms. López, whose team is trying to gain access to the western part of El Yunque where the parrots live, said the toll in the wild population was not known.
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The tourism industry in Puerto Rico is deeply intertwined with its environment.
About 1.2 million people visit El Yunque every year for its hiking trails, zip-lining, camping and waterfalls. But the rain forest has remained closed since Maria left roads inaccessible and all its recreational facilities received blows, Ms. Wallace, the forest supervisor, said.
“We don’t know how long it is going to take to reopen,” she said.
And on an island, where 58 percent of the acreage is forests, Maria’s ecological damage was widespread.
The population of mountain coquí, one of the 14 species of a small native frog, with a distinctive mating call heard at night across the island, was severely decimated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Rafael Joglar, a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico, said.
Hurricane Maria could be the final straw for that species, Mr. Joglar said.
“It worries us that it’ll be the next species to disappear in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Joglar, a herpetologist, said. “The worst would be if we get a dry season — that would be the mortal blow other than the hurricane.”
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The livelihood of the Puerto Rican parrot, an endangered species, found on the island is of special concern since the hurricane. Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times
Over a million bats, encompassing 13 different species, call Puerto Rico their home, Allen Kurta, a professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, said.
A majority of the bats in Puerto Rico live in caves and probably weathered the storm better than those that roost in trees, he said.
Beside direct mortality from hurricane winds, bat and bird populations will be faced with the daunting task of finding new tree habitats and scavenging for food.
“Nectar feeders and fruit eaters are going to have a very hard time because all the major fruit and nectar trees are down,” said Mr. Kurta, who has studied bats for 40 years.
As bat populations recover, they will play a crucial role in pollinating and dispersing seeds that will help Puerto Rican forests recover.
Some experts say the island’s environment will recover and eventually flourish.
Hurricanes are part of Puerto Rico, natural cleansers of the tropical ecosystem, scientists say. Nature’s mechanisms will kick in, they say, and spark the forest’s natural recuperation just as they did after Hurricane San Ciprian in 1932 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
“Obviously there’s a negative immediate effect,” a wildlife biologist, Jafet Vélez, said. “But we know by experience that, long-term, this will cause a rejuvenation in the vegetation of the forest that will benefit all the species that reside there.”
New sun exposure will spark a rebirth of latent plant species in the forest’s thicket that once stopped growing because of dense canopies that blocked sunlight, Mr. Vélez said. Some species might overtake others, changing the ecological composition. And leaves brought to the ground, Ms. Gónzalez said, could begin to act as a fertilizer that will help plants recuperate.
“The flora and fauna in Puerto Rico, the biodiversity, has adapted to work through hurricanes,” Mr. Joglar said.
For now, it is a matter of how long it will take for nature to take its course after being battered by the deadliest hurricane in Puerto Rico’s modern history.
Follow Luis Ferré-Sadurní on Twitter @luisferre.
A version of this article appears in print on October 12, 2017, on Page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Lush Refuge In Puerto Rico Left Shredded By Hurricane. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
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October 11, 2017 — It is still cool in the morning as Spots gets ready to start work. Calm and confident, the imposing 10-year old light brown Kangal is leading a herd of goats into a pasture. “He is always excited to go out with the goats,” says Tyapa Toivo, small livestock manager at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).
In this part of north-central Namibia, the goats graze every day on the same land where leopards, cheetahs and jackals also live. But the goats are safe with Spots. He watches over them intensely, and if a predator approaches, he barks loudly and places himself between the herd and the threatening animal. This is usually sufficient to scare the predator away. “Our goats go out every day and we have cheetah roaming around, but I have never experienced losses from a cheetah,” says Toivo. “They know that this herd of goats is with a dog, so they don’t bother coming any closer.”
Spots is a livestock guard dog, and like others around the world, his job is to protect domestic animals against native predators — and so reduce humans’ perceived need to kill the predators. It’s just one way in which dogs have been enlisted to help protect threatened and endangered species around the world.
Cheetahs, the fastest land animals on earth, are struggling in the race against extinction. Once found throughout Africa and in much of Asia and numbering around 100,000 animals in 1900, cheetahs are now persisting in only 9 percent of their historic range. The global population is now estimated at about 7,100 animals. Namibia is part of the home range of the world’s largest subpopulation, numbering around 3,940.
Due to conflicts with more powerful predators such as lions and hyenas, which kill cheetahs’ cubs and steal their prey, most cheetahs live outside protected reserves and parks, including on farmland. There they face other dangers. Because they live close to humans raising cows, sheep and goats, cheetahs are often held responsible for livestock losses, and Namibian farmers have felt they had no other option but to kill the big cats to protect their herd. It is estimated that between 1980 and 1990 nearly 10,000 cheetahs were lost that way, according to CCF. Convinced that farmers and predators could co-exist, CCF turned to man’s best friend to reduce conflicts between farmers and big cats.
Kanga puppies and goats spend timing getting used to each other early in the training process. Photo courtesy of Isabelle Groc
Since 1994, the organization has been placing Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs on farms across Namibia to protect livestock against predators. The goats that Spots is watching over belong to the CCF’s model farm, which has been set up to show farmers that livestock and wildlife can live in harmony with improved herd management and the use of guard dogs.
CCF raises and trains puppies at its headquarters in Otjiwarongo, two to three hours north of the capital city of Windhoek. At a young age, the dogs are placed in pens to live and bond with goats. Before long they are ready to start protecting goats on a farm. Since its beginning, CCF has placed nearly 600 dogs on farms and currently has 160 working dogs across the country.
According to Laurie Marker, CCF’s founder and executive director, livestock losses have been reduced by 80 to 100 percent on farms with guard dogs. “I picked [Anatolian shepherds] because they are independent thinkers,” she says. “They don’t need to be told by humans what to do. They are way smarter.”
The ancient qualities of working dogs are becoming increasingly valued as dogs are recruited to solve a variety of modern-day conservation challenges.
Heidi Parker, a staff scientist with the Dog Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, says Anatolian shepherds are great for this job. “This is a very old breed, probably one of the first types of dogs that people started creating,” she says. Anatolian shepherds go back to a time when canines were working animals rather than pets. “Dogs were originally designed with jobs, they can still do jobs, and they are happy to learn new jobs,” Parker says.
The ancient qualities of working dogs are becoming increasingly valued as dogs are recruited to solve a variety of modern-day conservation challenges.
At CCF, Levi, like Spots, is a working dog, but his job is different. Handler Quentin de Jager is harnessing the powerful sense of smell of the two-year old Belgian Malinois/German shepherd cross to find cheetah scat.
De Jager brought Levi from South Africa, where the dog had been trained to respond to the scent of rhino horn in an effort to fight widespread poaching by literally sniffing out contraband. “Dogs were the most effective tool we had against anti-poaching even with all the technology we have today,” says De Jager. “Nothing compares to what the dogs are capable of.”
A dog’s reward for successful sleuthing? Playtime with a red bouncy ball. Photo courtesy of Isabelle Groc
In the field De Jager says the word “Soek,” the search command in Afrikaans. Levi runs around looking for cheetah scat; once he finds it, he is rewarded with a ball to fetch. Cheetah researchers in turn are rewarded with knowledge they can use to determine how many cheetah are in an area, how they are distributed, and their health, diet and stress levels. Scat can also tell them whether cheetahs are responsible for eating livestock on farmland, which can ultimately help reduce human-wildlife conflict.
No Job Too Big
Far from Africa, in Washington state, Conservation Canines, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, has been training dogs to track down the scat of rare and elusive species for the past 20 years.
“There is almost unlimited use for the dogs,” says Heath Smith, Conservation Canines’ instructor and field operations manager. “So far there hasn’t been a project too big for the dogs.”
K9 Jack searches for whale scat in the Salish Sea. Photo courtesy of Conservation Canines
The organization’s 20 detection dogs are helping at-risk species all over the world, on land and water. In Nepal and Vietnam they have searched for pangolin scat, which provides a genetic fingerprint that makes it possible to track illegal shipments of pangolins to the regions in which the animals were captured and so home in on criminals. In Puget Sound they have tracked down scat from southern resident killer whales that researchers used to identify pregnant animals and assess the role of physiological stress in reproductive problems.
Other Conservation Canine dogs have located the elusive Oregon spotted frog in British Columbia’s wetlands and found carcasses from birds and bats struck by turbine blades as part of a study of impacts of wind farms on wildlife. One worked downtown Seattle, sniffing for PCBs so researchers could find and fix leaks contaminating nearby waterways. Another tracked scat of the rare ocellated lizard in a region of Provence where the reptile was thought to be extirpated.
“More people are realizing dogs can do this and that is a viable way to provide a lot of data quickly over large areas,” says Smith.
Researchers collect scat detected by a Conservation Canine working dog. Photo courtesy of Isabelle Groc
Unlike the specialized livestock guard dogs of Namibia, a specific breed is not required to do the jobs these dogs are assigned. Instead, Smith rescues energetic, unwanted dogs from shelters and redirects their insatiable play drive to the search mission. “We are looking for dogs that can problem solve and think for themselves,” he says.
While the dogs catch onto their jobs relatively quickly, the people involved with the canines often require more training. Smith says it takes two years to train a handler, and he also educates researchers about working with dogs.
“A lot of studies are designed for human surveyors, and the researchers want to put the dogs into that formula,” says Smith. “They think of a dog as a super human who is going to detect everything.” But each situation has variables, such as the direction of the wind, that affect the dog’s ability to perform the job. “It is a different world for the dog.”
“The dogs are not a silver bullet. They are a part of an integrated system that goes along with good livestock management.” – Laurie Marker
In Namibia, farmers who receive guard dogs are trained to develop and implement predator-friendly livestock management techniques on their land, including the establishment of calving seasons to make it easier to monitor animals at vulnerable life stages and the use of calving enclosures called kraals. that help protect newborns from predators. Farmers are also taught how to take care of the dogs and monitor their performance on a daily basis. Over 5,000 farmers have been trained at the CCF’s model farm, says Marker.
“The dogs are not a silver bullet. They are a part of an integrated system that goes along with good livestock management,” she says. “The dog plays a role, the farmer plays a role, predators are not the enemy.”
It's a shocking image.
Lots of hippos, some lying on their sides, others completely belly up, but all mysteriously dead and partially submerged in a lake in Namibia. What confuses locals even more is how quickly it happened.
The first hippo was spotted on October 1, said the acting director of Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Johnson Ndokosho. Since then, at least 100 have turned up dead in the western region of Bwabwata National Park, which sits in a northeastern Namibian strip, sandwiched between Angola and Botswana.
BREAKING NEWS: Over 50 hippos found dead in Bwabwata
— New Era Newspaper (@NewEraNewspaper) October 6, 2017
"It had not broken out for a while," said Ndokosho. Early theories for the massive die off are centered around previous die offs caused by a lethal bacteria with a household name.
"We suspect that they died because of anthrax but we are yet to confirm this," said the ministry official in a phone interview. He emphasized that, while tests are ongoing, preventing anthrax poisoning is difficult.
"There's not much we can do," said Ndokosho. "We can't move the wildlife."
Several water buffaloes have also reportedly turned up dead. But because the dead hippos are in a remote part of the park, far from livestock operations, there isn't much potential for the disease to spread, Ndokosho said.
In 2004, as many as 200 hippos died from a deadly anthrax outbreak in Uganda. It took researchers months before an official diagnosis was reached, and at least 10 people died after eating contaminated hippo meat.
WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
Anthrax illness is caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which is thought to naturally come into contact with wildlife when water recedes. While anthrax is known infamously as a potential biological weapon, the bacteria naturally occur in the soil, where they can lay unnoticed for decades.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the bacteria produce spores that can become "activated" when they enter a living organism. From there, the bacteria multiply and spread throughout the body, causing severe illness, and, if left untreated, death.
In an interview with regional outlet the New Era, Colgar Sikopo, the director of Namibia's parks and wildlife division, blamed the outbreak on lower than normal river levels that may have exposed the deadly patches of soil.
The ministry is warning locals not to eat meat from dead animals in the region, and hippo carcasses are being burned in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading.
"We're concerned that animals are dying, but we're not worried about the [overall health of the] population," said Ndokosho. As a species, hippos are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and an estimated 3,300 live in and around Namibia.
Bwabwata sits just north of the Okavango Delta, the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa, which supports an abundant array of wildlife. (Learn how National Geographic is helping build long-term sustainability in the Okavango.)
Investigations are still ongoing, and this article will be updated as more details are released.
The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owls that inhabit Arizona are sticking the Fish and Wildlife Service with a pretty big problem.
And it's not just the owl that gives a hoot.
The federal agency is scrambling to save its interpretation of a crucial but notoriously ambiguous phrase in the Endangered Species Act. What an Arizona-based judge next decides in a lawsuit over the pygmy-owl could buffet officials and other species alike.
"The bottom line is, they are looking for a way to avoid listing species," said attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who represents environmental groups challenging the agency.
The ESA phrase in question is "significant portion of its range." Under the 1973 law, officials must determine whether a species is at mortal risk throughout either all or a significant portion of its range.
Consequently, how the phrase is interpreted can determine whether a species is deemed threatened or endangered or is denied Endangered Species Act protections altogether.
Recently, for instance, FWS relied on its disputed interpretation of the five-word phrase in concluding neither the Kenk's amphipod nor the Deseret milk-vetch needed the ESA's help (Greenwire, Sept. 29).
Everyone agrees the phrase lacks clarity, prompting one federal appellate court in 2001 to pronounce it "puzzling" and forcing FWS to spend years trying to figure it out.
But in a March 29 ruling that's now being second-guessed, Arizona U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez struck down the agency's "significant portion of its range" (SPR) policy adopted in 2014.
Though the specific case centers on the compact pygmy-owl, which tops out at about 6.75 inches in length, Márquez's ruling extends nationwide.
"The Final SPR Policy is 'arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,'" Márquez wrote, adding that the policy's intent "is arguably at odds with the conservation purposes of the ESA."
Márquez's ruling stung the federal agency, not least because she reached out from her Tucson courthouse to touch species everywhere.
Officials quickly asked the Obama administration appointee to reconsider; at the very least, officials want her to narrow the decision's reach.
"Federal agencies are not properly bound nationwide by the decisions of individual district courts on questions of statutory interpretation," the Justice Department subsequently argued in one court filing.
Underscoring the case's importance, Justice Department attorneys added that "because the 'significant portion of its range' phrase is central to the definitions of 'endangered species' and 'threatened species,' [officials] need a way to apply that language."
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, which sued on behalf of the pygmy-owl, want Márquez to hold firm.
"Courts in this and other [appellate] circuits routinely vacate regulations and other final agency actions of broad scope when they are deemed to be in violation of the law," the environmentalists stated in a court filing.
A decision is pending, even as attorneys disagree over the current status of Márquez's original order.
Environmentalists first petitioned in 1992 for the administration to list the pygmy-owl under the ESA. The FWS did so in 1997, but then withdrew the listing in 2006 on grounds that the bird's Arizona population was not a truly distinct population segment.
In 2011, the agency declined to relist the pygmy-owl, which FWS scientists describe as "cryptic" and "difficult to observe."
Environmentalists contend the agency should have more thoroughly considered the loss of bird habitat in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico. Geographically, this represents 20 percent or more of the bird's range.
Federal officials, though, reasoned that even if the pygmy-owl disappeared from the desert, the bird with lemon-yellow eyes would likely survive in the remaining portion of its range.
As finalized in 2014, the policy of FWS and NOAA Fisheries states a significant portion of its range meant "the portion's contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without the members in that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction, or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range."
Márquez ruled this interpretation was invalid and "superfluous," noting that it set a high threshold. Environmentalists want what Glitzenstein called a "more flexible" interpretation.
But following Márquez's decision, FWS has effectively continued using the same interpretation. The agency stated Márquez's ruling was "based on two misunderstandings" when officials announced the no-protection decisions for the Kenk's amphipod and Deseret milk-vetch.
"They are continuing to apply an interpretation that a judge has deemed illegal," Glitzenstein said. "That's usually problematic."
Glitzenstein added that "simply filing a motion for reconsideration does not automatically stay a court order" and said "the vacatur is now in effect."
An official with the service, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted the judge's ruling has not yet taken effect "because we filed a motion for reconsideration."
The aide added that the service is not acting in defiance of the judge's order but is taking every species decision on a case-by-case basis.
"We are aware that it could become vacated," the official said.
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For many people, a toasted bagel topped with honey might sound like a healthy breakfast choice. Others might prefer a bowl of oatmeal or cornflakes or a hot plate of scrambled eggs. Few would likely welcome a dose of weed killer that has been linked to cancer in their morning meal.
Yet that is exactly what private laboratory tests in the United States started showing with alarming frequency in 2014: residues of the world’s most widely used herbicide were making their way into American meals.
Testing since then, by both private and public researchers, has shown glyphosate residues not only in bagels, honey, and oatmeal but also in a wide array of products that commonly line grocery store shelves, including flour, eggs, cookies, cereal and cereal bars, soy sauce, beer, and infant formula.
Indeed, glyphosate residues are so pervasive that they’ve been found in human urine. Livestock are also consuming these residues in grains used to make their feed, including corn, soy, alfalfa and wheat.
The United States allows among the highest levels of glyphosate residues, which critics say underscores the level of influence Monsanto has with regulators.
Glyphosate residues have been detected in bread samples in the United Kingdom for years, as well as in shipments of wheat leaving the United States for overseas markets. “Americans are consuming glyphosate in common foods on a daily basis,” the Alliance for Natural Health said in its April 2016 report, which revealed glyphosate residues detected in eggs and coffee creamer, bagels and oatmeal.
In North Dakota, an agronomist at the state university, Joel Ransom, became so curious about glyphosate residue that in 2014 he ran his own tests on flour samples from the region. North Dakota grows much of America’s hard red spring wheat, a type that is considered the aristocrat of wheat and carries the highest protein content of all classes of American wheat.
It is used to make some of the world’s finest yeast breads, hard rolls, and bagels. But growing the wheat and bringing a healthy crop to harvest is not always easy in a state known for cold and damp conditions. To make harvesting the crop easier, many North Dakota farmers spray their wheat crops directly with glyphosate to help dry the plants a week or so before they roll out their combines. The practice is also common in Saskatchewan, across the border in Canada. So when
Ransom ran his tests on flour samples from the area, including flour from Canada, he expected to find some samples with glyphosate. He certainly did not expect all of them to have glyphosate residues. But they did.
Since at least the 1960s, world food and health experts have sought to gauge how much of a pesticide can be ingested on a daily basis—an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI)—over a lifetime without any noteworthy health risk.
The United States allows among the highest levels of glyphosate residues, which critics say underscores the level of influence Monsanto has with regulators. The EPA even has gone so far as to say that safety margins called for by law to protect children from pesticide exposures could be reduced when it comes to glyphosate.
The Food Quality Protection Act calls for the EPA to use an extra tenfold (10X) safety factor when assessing exposure risk and establishing allowable levels for pesticide residues in food, unless the EPA determines the extra margin is not necessary to protect infants and young children because the substance in question is so safe. That’s exactly what the regulatory agency decided with glyphosate, saying it had adequate data to show that the extra margin of safety for glyphosate could be eliminated.12
Even with the EPA’s generous allowances for glyphosate residues, many of the various individuals and organizations doing their own testing have found levels that exceed the tolerances, though many tests do show residues falling within the allowed thresholds.
Still, critics say even residues that the EPA says are at safe levels may in fact be harmful to human health when consumed meal after meal, day after day. They believe that the EPA’s analysis is outdated and not sufficient to protect people from the pervasiveness of many pesticides, such as glyphosate, that are often combined in food.
The private and nonprofit attempts to test foods for glyphosate residues were well under way when the World Health Organization’s cancer experts made their March 2015 decision to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. But testing efforts doubled after that, in large part because WHO’s decision didn’t stand alone; rather, it added to warnings that many scientists had been making for years.
It’s not just glyphosate residues that people worry about, of course. Fears about a range of chemical residues in food have been growing in recent years. Pesticide residues can be found in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans.
One sample of strawberries examined by the USDA in an annual testing program found residues of twenty pesticides in the berries. In fact, roughly 85 percent of more than 10,000 food samples tested by the USDA in 2015 carried pesticide residues.
Most of those foods were fruits and vegetables, both fresh and processed—foods consumers generally consider healthy. Residue levels higher than what the government allows have been found in spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon.
Even residues of chemicals long banned in the United States were found as recently as 2015, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. U.S. regulators have also reported finding illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid insecticide thiamethoxam in rice.
The USDA asserts that all these pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about. The agency states that “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe.” But many scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. The animal studies the regulators rely on to set the allowable pesticide levels are typically conducted by, or on behalf of, the pesticide companies and look only at the effects of one pesticide at a time.
Regulators do not have sufficient research regarding how consuming residues of multiple types of pesticides affects us over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false, say the skeptical scientists.
“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences twenty years down the road,” said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They want to assure everybody that this is safe, but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”
Able to dive after avian prey at a shrieking 200 miles per hour, the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on Earth. Yet the return of the peregrine to its historic habitat in the western Chesapeake region has been anything but speedy.
After their numbers were decimated in the mid-20th century by DDT pesticide poisoning, peregrines have made a strong comeback in Eastern urban areas but rarely grace the mountains and valleys of central Appalachia that were once a stronghold for the species.
According to Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, Virginia supported 31 pairs of peregrines during 2016’s breeding season, the largest recorded in the state, even before the decimation from DDT, which weakened eggshells to the point where the chick inside failed to develop, as well as built up in the adults’ bodies, killing them. But only two of these pairs were found in the Appalachians — less than 10 percent of the statewide total and a far cry from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service goal of restoring 21 breeding pairs to the central and southern Appalachians, including a portion of the Bay watershed.
The “dramatic success story” of peregrine reintroduction to Virginia, Watts said, “is dampened only by the lack of recovery in the mountains.”
“It’s our duty” to restore the Eastern population to its former domain, said Rolf Gubler, a park service biologist who leads a peregrine reintroduction program at Shenandoah National Park. “DDT erased the board.”
Prior to the scourge of DDT, the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains of Virginia and Maryland were focal points for Eastern peregrines, which prefer to nest on steep slopes of bare rock to deter predators. Today, these sharp-tailed raptors are found mostly in urban environments like Richmond or Baltimore, where high, isolated nesting sites such as bridges and office buildings, coupled with abundant year-round prey like pigeons and starlings, make for ideal, if unexpected, habitats.
The Center for Conservation Biology, National Park Service and state agencies have partnered in an effort at Shenandoah National Park to encourage a return to the mountains.
The process involves the capture, transport and eventual release of young peregrines not yet ready for flight, called “eyases.” Biologists call the artificial nesting process “hacking.”
The eyases are taken from nesting sites in locations where their first flight is likely to be their last — beneath water-spanning highway and railway bridges, which, while appealingly inaccessible to predators, pose a deadly risk for juveniles taking their initial leap into the air.
Gubler said that bridge-nesting peregrines suffer a 90 percent fatality rate as the uncertain young sail from their nests and fail to gain enough lift to reach the shore.
To counter this waste of life, and to further the westward expansion of the peregrine’s historic range, Gubler and his colleagues at the center, with the help of personnel from the Virginia departments of Game and Inland Fisheries and Transportation, use cranes and rappelling gear to capture the peregrines from nests beneath bridges spanning the James and Tappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
A brood of two to five young, ranging from 15 to 27 days old, are removed from the nest, banded and taken to Shenandoah National Park. There, biologists place them in wooden boxes at an ideal nesting site among stone crevices and boulders on bare cliff tops that are barred to the public.
The boxes are staid affairs, simple enclosures painted to match the stone they’re set on, with a wire mesh “window” on one side. Hacking sites are spaced four to five miles apart to allow for territorial boundaries. In 2017, biologists placed two hacking boxes at Franklin Cliffs and released three groups of fledglings.
The peregrines are fed and monitored for two weeks or until they’re old enough to fly.
Slots in the boxes allow for the delivery of food — usually farm-raised quail, shipped frozen — and the cleaning of the box floor. Trash grabbers are used for this interaction to keep personnel out of the young birds’ sight lines and prevent acclimatization to humans.
When the birds are a month-and-a-half-old, food is placed next to the box and one side is opened. The young birds, tagged for tracking purposes, find perches to exercise their wings. In a couple of hours, they’re ready to leap into the sky. A day or two after their first flight, Gubler said, the peregrines display markedly advanced flying capabilities and zero in on prey.
The Shenandoah hacking program has released 260 birds since the beginning of the program in 2000, at a rate of 10 to 20 birds per year.
When conditions are ideal, adult peregrines return to the general location of their juvenile nests to raise their own brood. But the birds introduced at Shenandoah have either not returned or escaped observation.
Although the eyases are tagged, they are usually not found or reported. A small number have been fitted with satellite transmitters, at a cost of approximately $4,000 each, and have been tracked into 26 Eastern states, from northern sites in New York and Michigan to the southern reaches of Louisiana.
“The appropriate question is not why don’t they stay in the park, but why they don’t return when they are 3 years old to establish breeding sites,” Watts said. “The answer is that we don’t know.”
The hacking boxes at Shenandoah National Park are placed in what seem like excellent locations, but Watts said he believes there may not be enough ideal habitat in the surrounding area to lure the birds back. The regrowth of vegetation around cliffs has reduced the amount of bare stone that the birds need for nesting, and hikers and campers are a frequent disturbance along the most prominent rock formations.
Watts said that “virtually all states” down the mountain range to Georgia now have at least one breeding pair but “we do not feel that the recovery in the mountains is complete, and most historic nest sites remain empty.”
As a result, biologists are changing their strategy. They have learned that hacked peregrines are most likely to remain in areas where they see others of their kind nearby — but not too close. They now concentrate the hacking boxes, still at intervals of about 4 or 5 miles, in an area that has at least one naturally breeding pair.
In the past, Watts’ team has placed hacking boxes at Shenandoah on the Hawksbill, Hogback and Blackrock overlooks. Today they use only Franklin Cliffs, but may expand hacking activities into Virginia’s mountainous southwest.
Watts and Gubler believe that their revised approach to hacking, combined with the preservation of vertiginous mountain habitats, may still — in time — achieve an Appalachian recovery.
About peregrine falcons
The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), resplendent in a black-and-white barred underside, with an ebony mask and pointed wings, is one of Earth’s most widespread bird species, native to every continent except Antarctica.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, peregrines were among the raptor species, including the bald eagle, that fell victim to the eggshell-weakening effects of DDT. After the United States outlawed DDT in 1972, the peregrine began its slow return to native ecosystems.
Peregrines are excellent, high-speed hunters that can take down birds more than twice their weight and fly up to 15,500 miles during yearly migration. While ferocious in the air, peregrines are actually very delicate animals, with a body finely honed to live on the extremes of performance but unable to absorb much physical injury.
Caution and territorial needs historically led peregrines to nest on cliffs with sheer drops, naked of shrubs and grasses that could conceal predators. Ideally the nests face west so that young falcons can take advantage of prevailing winds for their first flight. Today, peregrines in the Chesapeake region seem to prefer the height of bridges and urban buildings to their native mountainsides.
By Eric Staats, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-263-4780
A Texas company has asked state environmental regulators to allow crews to resume their hunt for oil beneath Big Cypress National Preserve despite deep muddy ruts and damaged trees left behind by the company's earlier work in the spring.
"It was a mess, as we suspected," said Allison Kelly, anÂ attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The NRDC, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for Biological Diversity have asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to not renew the Burnett Oil Co.'s state permit.
Burnett was unable to finish the survey in the spring before the start of the rainy season, and the company's permit expired July 15.
"These groups are recycling the same kinds of claims that have been rejected by the National Park Service and the federal court," Burnett spokeswoman Alia Faraj-Johnson said, referring to the groups' failed 2016 lawsuit to try to stop the work.
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said the agency's deadline for making a decision on the company's permit renewal is Oct. 24.
The DEP plans to send inspectors along with the National Park Service when work to repair the damaged wet prairies is underway, but that won't happen until the landscape flooded by Hurricane Irma dries out, Miller said.
In letters to the DEP, environmental groups contend Burnett violated its earlier permit by working into the rainy season and not repairing damage.
A lawyer for Burnett, in his own letter to the DEP, said the groups have their facts wrong and don't understand the law.
The company blamed unusually heavy rains for it having to work into the wet season to remove equipment, something the groups contend violated the first permit.
Ruts have not been repaired, as the permit requires, because the National Park Service told crews to wait for drier conditions, Burnett's letter says.
In the letter, Burnett says it "made major efforts to minimize potential damage," including having ecologists with each survey truck to steer them clear of wetter areas and wildlife.
However, National Park Service employees raised concerns that the work was progressing too quickly for ecologists to do proper monitoring.
The problem was serious enough that the National Park Service put out a call for monitoring help from other preserve staff and even from other regional public land managers.
In its approval of the survey work, the Park Service found that any environmental harm from the oil surveys would be minimal and required crews to follow a list of 47 conditions.
Those included avoiding wading bird colonies, using existing trails when possible, repairing ruts and limiting the size of trees that could be cut down.
Burnett used special trucks with large steel plates to vibrate against the ground and send out seismic signals that would indicate whether underground formations might hold oil or gas.
The seismic surveys are being used to study a geologic formation called the Sunniland Trend. That formation already has proved to hold oil and has been tapped in the preserve since the 1970s.
Burnett plans to cover 70,000 acres of the preserve with its current survey but has indicated future surveys could cover more than 200,000 acres.
The painkiller, taken by half of pregnant women worldwide, could be contributing to rising rates of reproductive system problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
"If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most is emitted by the developed and industrialized countries, but the problem is poor countries like Bangladesh are the main sufferers."
Working with youth writers on a climate-fiction screenplay has opened my eyes to the power of the arts in confronting environmental crises.