Category Archives: RELEVANT TO SCIENCE WRITINGS

Can we predict earthquakes?

BBC News – Can we predict when and where quakes will strike?.

l'Aquila earthquake Seismologists try to manage the risk of building damage and loss of life

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This week, six seismologists go on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people, who died as a result of the 2009 earthquake in l’Aquila, Italy.

The prosecution holds that the scientists should have advised the population of l’Aquila of the impending earthquake risk.

But is it possible to pinpoint the time and location of an earthquake with enough accuracy to guide an effective evacuation?

There are continuing calls for seismologists to predict where and when a large earthquake will occur, to allow complete evacuation of threatened areas.

What causes an earthquake?

An earthquake is caused when rocks in the Earth’s crust fracture suddenly, releasing energy in the form of shaking and rolling, radiating out from the epicentre.

The rocks are put under stress mostly by friction during the slow, 1-10 cm per year shuffling of tectonic plates.

The release of this friction can happen at any time, either through small frequent fractures, or rarer breaks that release a lot more energy, causing larger earthquakes.

It is these large earthquakes that have devastating consequences when they strike in heavily populated areas.

Attempts to limit the destruction of buildings and the loss of life mostly focus on preventative measures and well-communicated emergency plans.

Predicting an earthquake with this level of precision is extremely difficult, because of the variation in geology and other factors that are unique to each location.

Attempts have been made, however, to look for signals that indicate a large earthquake is about to happen, with variable success.

Historically, animals have been thought to be able to sense impending earthquakes.

Noticeably erratic behaviour of pets, and mass movement of wild animals like rats, snakes and toads have been observed prior to several large earthquakes in the past.

Following the l’Aquila quake, researchers published a study in the Journal of Zoology documenting the unusual movement of toads away from their breeding colony.

But scientists have been unable to use this anecdotal evidence to predict events.

The behaviour of animals is affected by too many factors, including hunger, territory and weather, and so their erratic movements can only be attributed to earthquakes in hindsight.

Precursor events

When a large amount of stress is built up in the Earth’s crust, it will mostly be released in a single large earthquake, but some smaller-scale cracking in the build-up to the break will result in precursor earthquakes.

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There is no scientific basis for making a prediction”

Richard Walker University of Oxford

These small quakes precede around half of all large earthquakes, and can continue for days to months before the big break.

Some scientists have even gone so far as to try to predict the location of the large earthquake by mapping the small tremors.

The “Mogi Doughnut Hypothesis” suggests that a circular pattern of small precursor quakes will precede a large earthquake emanating from the centre of that circle.

While half of the large earthquakes have precursor tremors, only around 5% of small earthquakes are associated with a large quake.

So even if small tremors are felt, this cannot be a reliable prediction that a large, devastating earthquake will follow.

“There is no scientific basis for making a prediction”, said Dr Richard Walker of the University of Oxford.

In several cases, increased levels of radon gas have been observed in association with rock cracking that causes earthquakes.

Leaning building Small ground movements sometimes precede a large quake

Radon is a natural and relatively harmless gas in the Earth’s crust that is released to dissolve into groundwater when the rock breaks.

Similarly, when rock cracks, it can create new spaces in the crust, into which groundwater can flow.

Measurements of groundwater levels around earthquake-prone areas see sudden changes in the level of the water table as a result of this invisible cracking.

Unfortunately for earthquake prediction, both the radon emissions and water level changes can occur before, during, or after an earthquake, or not at all, depending on the particular stresses a rock is put under.

Advance warning systems

The minute changes in the movement, tilt, and the water, gas and chemical content of the ground associated with earthquake activity can be monitored on a long term scale.

Measuring devices have been integrated into early warning systems that can trigger an alarm when a certain amount of activity is recorded.

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Prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible”

Dr Dan Faulkner University of Liverpool

Such early warning systems have been installed in Japan, Mexico and Taiwan, where the population density and high earthquake risk pose a huge threat to people’s lives.

But because of the nature of all of these precursor reactions, the systems may only be able to provide up to 30 seconds’ advance warning.

“In the history of earthquake study, only one prediction has been successful”, explains Dr Walker.

The magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1975 in Haicheng, North China was predicted one day before it struck, allowing authorities to order evacuation of the city, saving many lives.

But the pattern of seismic activity that this prediction was based on has not resulted in a large earthquake since, and just a year later in 1976 a completely unanticipated magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck nearby Tangshan causing the death of over a quarter of a million people.

The “prediction” of the Haicheng quake was therefore just a lucky unrepeatable coincidence.

A major problem in the prediction of earthquake events that will require evacuation is the threat of issuing false alarms.

Scientists could warn of a large earthquake every time a potential precursor event is observed, however this would result in huge numbers of false alarms which put a strain on public resources and might ultimately reduce the public’s trust in scientists.

“Earthquakes are complex natural processes with thousands of interacting factors, which makes accurate prediction of them virtually impossible,” said Dr Walker.

Seismologists agree that the best way to limit the damage and loss of life resulting from a large earthquake is to predict and manage the longer-term risks in an earthquake-prone area. These include the likelihood of building collapsing and implementing emergency plans.

“Detailed scientific research has told us that each earthquake displays almost unique characteristics, preceded by foreshocks or small tremors, whereas others occur without warning. There simply are no rules to utilise in order to predict earthquakes,” said Dr Dan Faulkner, senior lecturer in rock mechanics at the University of Liverpool.

“Earthquake prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible.”

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Earthquake? Terrorist bomb? Call in the AI

Earthquake? Terrorist bomb? Call in the AI – tech – 23 May 2011 – New Scientist.

In the chaos of large-scale emergencies, artificially intelligent software could help direct first responders

9.47 am, Tavistock Square, London, 7 July 2005. Almost an hour has passed since the suicide bombs on board three underground trains exploded. Thirty-nine commuters are now dead or dying, and many more are badly injured.

Hassib Hussain, aged 18, now detonates his own device on the number 30 bus – murdering a further 13 and leaving behind one of the most striking images of the day: a bus ripped open like a tin of sardines.

In the aftermath of the bus bomb, questions were raised about how emergency services had reacted to the blast. Citizens and police called emergency services within 5 minutes, but ambulance teams did not arrive on the scene for nearly an hour.

As the events of that day show, the anatomy of a disaster – whether a terrorist attack or an earthquake – can change in a flash, and lives often depend on how police, paramedics and firefighters respond to the changing conditions. To help train for and navigate such chaos, new research is employing computer-simulation techniques to help first responders adapt to emergencies as they unfold.

Most emergency services prepare for the worst with a limited number of incident plans – sometimes fewer than 10 – that tell them how to react in specific scenarios, says Graham Coates of Durham University, UK. It is not enough, he says. “They need something that is flexible, that actually presents them with a dynamic, tailor-made response.”

A government inquest, concluded last month, found that no additional lives were lost because of the delay in responding to the Tavistock Square bomb, but that “communication difficulties” on the day were worrying.

So Coates and colleagues are developing a training simulation that will help emergency services adapt more readily. The “Rescue” system comprises up to 4000 individual software agents that represent the public and members of emergency services. Each is equipped with a rudimentary level of programmed behaviours, such as “help an injured person”.

In the simulation, agents are given a set of orders that adhere to standard operating procedure for emergency services – such as “resuscitate injured victims before moving them”. When the situation changes – a fire in a building threatens the victims, for example – agents can deviate from their orders if it helps them achieve a better outcome.

Meanwhile, a decision-support system takes a big-picture view of the unfolding situation. By analysing information fed back by the agents on the ground, it can issue updated orders to help make sure resources like paramedics, ambulances and firefighters are distributed optimally.

Humans that train with the system can accept, reject or modify its recommendations, and unfolding event scenarios are recorded and replayed to see how different approaches yield different results. Coates presented his team’s work at the International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management in Lisbon, Portugal, last week.

That still leaves the problem of predicting how a panicked public might react to a crisis – will fleeing crowds hamper a rescue effort, or will bystanders comply with any instructions they receive?

To explore this, researchers at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, have built a detailed simulation of how crowds respond to disaster. The Dynamic Adaptive Disaster Simulation (DADS) also uses basic software agents representing humans, only here they are programmed to simply flee from danger and move towards safety.

When used in a real emergency situation, DADS will utilise location data from thousands of cellphones, triangulated and streamed from masts in the region of the emergency. It can make predictions of how crowds will move by advancing the simulation faster than real-time events. This would give emergency services a valuable head start, says Greg Madey, who is overseeing the project.

A similar study led by Mehdi Moussaïd of Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France, sought to address what happens when such crowds are packed into tight spaces.

In his simulation, he presumed that pedestrians choose the most direct route to their destination if there is nothing in their way, and always try to keep their distance from those around them. Running a simulation based on these two rules, Moussaïd and his colleagues found that as they increased the crowd’s density, the model produced crushes and waves of people just like those seen in real-life events such as stampedes or crushes at football stadiums (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016507108). The team hope to use their model to help plan emergency evacuations.

Jenny Cole, head of emergency services at London-based independent think tank The Royal United Services Institute, wrote a report on how the different emergency services worked together in the wake of the London bombings. She remains “sceptical” about these kinds of simulations. “No matter how practical or useful they would be, there’s usually no money left in the end to implement them,” she says.

For his part, Coates says he plans to release his system to local authorities for free as soon as it is ready.

A cacophony of tweets

In the chaotic moments after disaster strikes, people often turn to Twitter for information. But making sense of a flurry of Twitter posts can be difficult.

Now Jacob Rogstadius at the University of Madeira in Portugal and his team have developed a system that sorts updates from Twitter by keyword – for example “Japan” or “earthquake” – and places them into an event timeline, without the need for hashtags.

In the next phase of development, people will look at tweets clustered in this way to judge the pertinence and reliability of different sources of information, or request more – pictures of the area, for example – to create a virtual “incident room” as the crisis unfolds.

Royal Ontario Museum investigates sudden bee death

BBC News – Royal Ontario Museum investigates sudden bee death.

honey bees The bees were part of a popular biodiversity exhibit

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A Toronto museum is investigating the sudden death of thousands of bees in a glass-enclosed beehive exhibit.

Officials at the Royal Ontario Museum said 20,000 bees in a biodiversity exhibit had died within two days last week, though they had appeared healthy.

Scientists have ruled out staff error and starvation, but said poor ventilation, disease or a lack of worker bees could be to blame.

The museum plans to replace the colony in the spring.

“The queen stops laying eggs in early- to mid-October and starts laying again in late February,” University of Guelph researcher Janine McGowan told the Toronto Star newspaper.

“If she didn’t lay enough winter worker bee eggs to make sure the hive and honey is kept warm during the winter, that could have contributed to the die-off.”

Will Climate Change Cause Crop Shortfalls by 2020?

Will Climate Change Cause Crop Shortfalls by 2020?: Scientific American.

Earth may be 2.4 degrees Celsius warmer by 2020, potentially triggering global scrambles for food supplies, according to a new analysis.

Work from the Universal Ecological Fund, the U.S. branch of Argentina-based nonprofit Fundación Ecológica Universal (FEU), sketches a somber portrait for world hunger by the end of the decade.

Rising temperatures will slash yields for rice, wheat and corn throughout the developing world, exacerbating food price volatility and increasing the number of undernourished people, the report warns.

It projects that food demand will substantially dwarf available supply.

The group drew upon existing climate and food production data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization and other U.N. agencies to draw its conclusions.

Chief among its findings, UEF said, is that if the planet continues on a business-as-usual path, temperatures may rise at least 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — or 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit — by 2020. Crossing a 2-degree-Celsius climate threshold is commonly considered dangerous.

The level of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, which was 284 parts per million in the preindustrial era, tallies more than 385 ppm today. By 2020, it could reach 490 ppm, cautions the report. Carbon concentrations that high are associated with a global temperature rise of 2.4 degrees Celsius, according to IPCC estimates.

Potential timing gap
Still, it’s not certain how quickly the planet would heat up if the planet had that concentration, said climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“If you look at Earth as an oven, by hitting 490 you turn the dial, but it could take a while for the oven to reach the temperature,” she said.

Climate scientist Osvaldo Canziani served as the scientific adviser on the study, going over it “line by line,” said Liliana Hisas, the executive director of the Universal Ecological Fund and author of the report. Canziani was unavailable for comment.

While not every part of the planet is expected to experience adverse effects of climate-linked impacts on agriculture, the report’s numbers suggest that by 2020 there will be a 14 percent deficit between wheat production and demand, global rice production will stand at an 11 percent deficit, and there will be a 9 percent deficit in corn production. Soybeans, however, are expected to have a 5 percent surplus.

To meet the needs of a world that is expected to have an additional 890 million people by 2020, the global community would need to increase food production by about 13 percent, the report states.

Josef Schmidhuber, a senior policy analyst at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, questioned some of the underlying assumptions for regional production figures and said that this UEF study also fails to consider other external factors that could affect these results.

“The only rationale for this to hold would be for climate change to have such a strong impact on the non-agricultural economy that people would lose purchasing power and thus would be so poor they couldn’t afford the food they need to meet the requirements,” Schmidhuber said. “Food security is much more than a production problem — it reflects above all a lack of access to food and a lack of income,” he said.

Schmidhuber contends that looking at food security purely in the context of the impacts of food production will lead to overstatements of hunger estimates.

Click here to read the study.

97 percent of scientists say man-made climate change is real

Report: 97 percent of scientists say man-made climate change is real – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.

Forget the four out of five dentists who recommend Trident…. Try the 97 out of 100 scientists that believe in man-made climate change.

This data comes from a new survey out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that 97 percent of scientific experts agree that climate change is “very likely” caused mainly by human activity.

The report is based on questions posed to 1,372 scientists. Nearly all the experts agreed that it is “very likely that anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for most of the unequivocal warming of the Earth’s average global temperature in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Click here for an interactive graphic that shows how global warming occurs.

As for the 3 percent of scientists who remain unconvinced, the study found their average expertise is far below that of their colleagues, as measured by publication and citation rates.

In the study, the authors wrote: “This extensive analysis of the mainstream versus skeptical/contrarian researchers suggests a strong role for considering expert credibility in the relative weight of and attention to these groups of researchers in future discussions in media, policy, and public forums regarding anthropogenic climate change.”

The study authors were William R.L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold and Stephen H. Schneider.

The report comes as the Earth continues to sizzle in 2010. So far, through May, 2010 is the warmest year ever recorded, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Royal Society paints picture of a world 4 °C warmer

Royal Society paints picture of a world 4 °C warmer – environment – 29 November 2010 – New Scientist.

As reported by New ScientistMovie Camera last year, UK Met Office researchers have shown that the world could warm by 4 °C by 2060, devastating much of the Amazon rainforest and disrupting the monsoon cycle. Now the UK’s Royal Society has published detailed study of how the world will look when it is 4 °C warmer.

Water shortages will become more severe, says Fai Fung of the University of Oxford, and colleagues. The extent of the warming depends in large part on our actions. If, by cutting emissions we limit global warming to 2 °C, projections suggest water supplies will dwindle because of demand from the growing population. But at 4 °C, a warmer, drier climate will become the biggest threat to water availability.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa will see shorter growing seasons, according to Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and colleagues. As a result, average maize production will drop 19 per cent and bean production by 47 per cent compared with current levels.

Extreme weather, sea-level rise and water shortages will will drive many people to migrate, says François Gemenne of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, France. But the poorest may be unable to move. Gemenne says we should make it easier for people to move country.

Journal reference: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A

A Devilish Grass Invades the West

A Devilish Grass Invades the West – ScienceNOW.

Armed with pointed tips so sharp that neither cows nor deer will eat it, medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is an invasive grass species that seems to have stepped right out of the Little Shop of Horrors. With no enemies, it is spreading rapidly throughout the western United States, outcompeting native grasses and even other grass invaders. Unless steps are found to control its spread, medusahead is likely to turn millions of hectares of grazing land into worthless fields, say researchers in a study that determined why this grass is so successful.

“It is a devilish species because it is absolutely not of any worth,” says Seema Mangla, a plant ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, who led the study. “Every animal avoids it.”

That’s because the medusahead’s long, twisting, snakelike seed stems (which give the grass its name) are stiff and pointed like needles. Any animal that leans in for a snack gets jabbed in the eyes and mouth. The grass is loaded with inedible silica, too, providing few nutrients to would-be grazers. As a result, the grass steadily accumulates, forming mounds of thatch, Mangla says. “It’s part of a huge change in vegetation structure,” as native grasses are overwhelmed by invaders. Other studies have shown that medusahead is spreading at a rate of 12% per year in 17 western states. Although it invaded the United States from the Mediterranean in 1880 and is now found only on more than 1 million hectares, Mangla and others worry that it is picking up steam and may be outcompeting not only native grasses, but even cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a more nutritious invader.

Measures to control medusahead’s spread—mowing or spraying with herbicides—aren’t effective, because they only treat the top of the plants, not the thatch beneath, which protects their seeds, Mangla says. “We need to understand its growth dynamics, what makes it such a successful invader, then we can figure out better ways to disrupt it.”

Invasive plants are thought to have especially high relative growth rates, enabling them to rapidly capture water and nutrients. To determine if the medusahead’s growth rate figures in its success, in 2008 and 2009 Mangla and her team randomly scattered the plant’s seeds on five 1-m2 test plots at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns. At regular intervals throughout the growing season, she and her team weighed harvested seedlings. She then compared the medusahead’s weight to that of two other grasses growing separately in similar plots: the native perennial bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), which the medusahead is rapidly replacing, and cheatgrass.

When she averaged the grasses’ weights across the two seasons, medusahead came up the winner. Only during 2008, which had below-average rainfall, did the native grass do slightly better. But after the more normal rainfall of 2009, the medusahead raced ahead, growing longer shoots for a longer period of time, the team reported in the 28 October Journal of Arid Environments.

sn-medusahead.jpg

Lush but prickly. Spiky and inedible medusahead is invading the western United States. Researchers plant a test plot with medusahead seeds (inset).

“It’s a good study, and shows why medusahead can be so competitive,” says Joseph Ditomaso, an invasive plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “Since animals won’t eat it, medusahead essentially creates its own thatch layer, which is a great tactic for preventing seeds from sprouting, as every gardener knows.” The only seeds that can make it past the medusahead’s thatch barrier are its own sharp, pointy, inedible ones. “It gives itself every advantage,” says Ditomaso, who says the best control right now is simply burning the thatch. Meanwhile, Mangla and her team expect that the medusahead will continue to spread, since climate conditions favoring native grasses are sporadic and rare.

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast.

It’s the environmental question of our time: what sustainable practices can keep our planet optimally habitable? Now a group of international scientists has published a report outlining five key areas of concentration necessary to protect the environment, as well as human societies and economies. The report was published by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council.

And the winners are…

Forecasting —we need to have pertinent & accurate forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

The second is observing. We need to develop better observation systems to record global and regional environmental change.

Three is something they call confining—anticipating and recognizing disruptive environmental change to quickly manage it.

Four: Responding—Determine those institutional, economic and behavioral responses that will make global sustainability possible.

Lastly, five is a big one: encourage innovation in technology and policy to achieve sustainability.

Clearly, these bullet points represent an overarching, general strategy. The next step, already underway, is to create an organized and focused international structure that can make these five recommendations a reality—and soon: the ICSU hopes for significant progress in all five areas within the next decade.

—Christie Nicholson

VALERIE: SUPER USEFUL article on climate-related forest death

t r u t h o u t | US Climate Bill Is Dead While So Much Life on Our Earth Continues to Perish.

Written by an Indian dude living in Santa Fe!

Extensive, useful stats on pinon forests, which are much older than we thought…

by: Subhankar Banerjee  |  Climate StoryTellers | Op-Ed

[I dedicate this story to my wife Nora who showed me a Curve–billed Thrasher’s nest on a cholla cactus, the first I had ever seen, and walked with me on all the paths that made this story possible.]

Imagine you live in New York City, and one fine morning you awake to the realization that 90 percent of all the buildings that were more than five stories tall have been destroyed. You will hardly have the words to talk about this devastation, but I’m sure you will walk around the rubble to make sense of it all.

Something similar has happened in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of the state. Some 816,000 affected acres were mapped and it was found that during this short period Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle, had killed 54.5 million of New Mexico’s state tree, the piñon. In many areas of northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española, and Taos, 90 percent of mature piñons are now dead.

Under normal climate conditions, bark beetles live in harmony with their environment, laying their eggs in dead or weakened trees. However, when healthy trees become stressed from severe and sustained drought, they become objects of attack: the beetles drill into their bark, laying eggs along the way, and killing their host. Milder winter temperatures have ensured more of them survive the winter, and warmer summer temperatures have reduced the life cycle duration of the beetles from two to one year, and subsequently their numbers have exploded in recent years.

In March 2006, my then–future wife Nora and I rented a house in Eldorado, a suburban community about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe. Each day as I drove from our home to the nearby city, all along the way on both sides of the road I’d see large areas of grey–brown (dead piñons) in the midst of green (live junipers).

During my childhood in India, I was fascinated by the detective stories of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series. Because of the forest devastation I witnessed daily, I took on the role of a self–assigned visual detective of a geographic region bound by a 5–mile radius around our home. I walked again and again the same three paths, each no more than 2 miles long.

As I repeated my walks, I gradually began to realize that the environment around our home in the desert is perhaps as biodiverse as the arctic, where I have been taking photographs for the past decade. In both regions, one far and one near, I am attempting to address two simple things: home and food that land provides to humans as well as to numerous other species with whom we share this earth.

I’ll share with you a few experiences and a little bit of what I learned from these walks.

From a distance I see a large dead piñon with a canopy that spreads more than 20 feet. I can determine from the canopy size that the tree was more than 600 years old when it died. Piñons take nearly 300 years to mature and can live up to 1,000 years.

As I get closer to the dead tree, I notice the damaged skin with many protrusions that look like soft yellow globs or lines. Such skin is visual evidence that the tree did not die a normal death, but instead put up a fight against beetles by sending out sap to drown them in resin. In the end the tree lost, as the number of beetles the tree was fighting was far too many. I’ve never seen a bark beetle, whose size is no bigger than a grain of rice, and I doubt you’ll see one either, but if you look closely at the skin of one of these dead piñons you will know that the beetles were here and that the tree fought hard.

Occasionally I see a beautiful northern flicker pecking away at a dead tree trunk, either building a nest or looking for food – insects that have come to break down the dead tree. In the process, the flicker will create perfectly circular holes. These cavities will become possible homes for gorgeous western and mountain bluebirds. Even after death these dead piñons provide home and food for many species.

On my walks I also come across areas that resemble graveyards, where every piñon in immediate sight is dead. But I continue to see birds resting on the branches of these dead trees. And when I wait patiently, sometimes I am rewarded with the sight of a tiny black–chinned hummingbird, which weighs less than 1/2 ounce, on top of a 20–foot–high dead piñon as it catches its breath briefly before buzzing off to feed on a cluster of bright–orange Indian paintbrush.

Piñon trees produce protein–rich nuts once every four to seven years. Nut eaters like Piñon Jays critically depend on piñon nuts for sustenance, but they also serve a very important role in the regeneration of piñon woods. A typical flock of 50 to 500 birds can cache more than 4 million piñon seeds in a good year in New Mexico, and uneaten seeds result in new trees.

For Native American communities of the desert southwest, piñon tree has been of immense cultural, spiritual, and economic importance for many millenia. The nut is extensively harvested throughout its range. It has been a staple for a long time and continues to be eaten and used in cooking today.

This is not the first time that piñon forests have been destroyed. It has been suggested that the ancient Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico overharvested the piñon–juniper woodlands around their community to support the growing need of timber for fuel and building materials. In the process they deforested woodlands that eventually contributed to their abandoning the magnificent community they had built. Even more extensive devastation occurred during the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, when vast areas of piñon woodlands were deforested to support cattle ranching, which indigenous communities and others regard as a major act of ecocultural vandalism.

According to a fascinating book, Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country, biologists have recently begun to define the piñon–juniper woodland as an old–growth forest. This ecosystem supports an incredible diversity of wildlife, including 250 bird species (50 percent of all bird species west of Mississippi and more than a quarter of bird species in the U.S. and Canada), 74 species of mammals, 17 species of bats, 10 amphibian species, and 27 species of reptiles. Sadly, junipers are also dying (in lesser numbers so far) from extreme heat and drought. When I started my walks, I did not realize that there existed an old–growth forest in the New Mexican desert.

Every time I call my mom in India she complains about how hot this summer has been. This year we had the hottest first six months globally since recording began in 1880. In Santa Fe, we broke the June high temperature record with a 100oF (average high is 83oF), the July record with another 100oF (average high is 86oF), and with 95oF already we’ve tied the August record (average high is 83oF).

So it is no surprise that many of our remaining live piñons are again oozing soft yellow pitches. As it happens, these piñons were blooming last year and now they have beautiful green cones that will mature with nuts. These piñons are fighting–and–fruiting right now for their survival but they are infected and will die.

Even reforestation is taking on a different meaning in the twenty–first century. Young piñon trees have little chance of surviving extreme heat and drought. Each time I drive on Cerrillos Road to get to Interstate 25, I see a line of recently planted piñons, but some of the young trees are already dead, and I surmise the others might be infected.

If we lose our remaining piñons in the coming decades due to global warming, how would we then talk about the tree that has been ecoculturally most significant for New Mexico and its Native American communities for thousands of years?

Forests Are Dying Across the American West and All Over the World

In 2004, Michelle Nijhuis reported in High Country News that several species of bark beetles were ravaging forests all across the American West. The black spruce, white spruce, ponderosa pine, lodglepole pine, whitebark pine, and piñon have all been devastated by recent bark beetles epidemic. Scientists now suspect that by killing our forests, these beetles are also altering the local weather patterns and air quality.

Earlier this year, the U.S. senate had scheduled a hearing on the bark beetle epidemic, but, angered by the passage of the healthcare bill, Senate Republicans canceled the hearing on March 23. The hearing was finally held on April 21. Senator Mark Udall (Democrat-Colorado), co–sponsor of the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, wrote in his senate blog, “The infestation is a critical public health and safety issue for the people of Colorado and has been called the worst natural disaster our region has seen.” The bill names twelve states affected by the epidemic: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This list should also include Alaska, where spruce bark beetles have destroyed very large areas of spruce forests, some of which I saw during my time there.

The hearing mainly focused on offering tens of millions of dollars of federal assistance to remove dead trees from affected areas to avoid potential forest fire damage. Ecologist Dominik Kulakowski, who testified, thought it was an unproductive approach and said that if the government focuses on trying “to make a wholesale modification of forest structure over large landscapes,” it could be ecologically damaging.

Was the hearing a case of destroy and then clean up – a common practice in our now global consumerist culture?

In March, Jim Robbins reported in Yale Environment 360 that global warming is killing forests across the American West as well as in many parts of the world. So I asked my colleagues for local observations.

In 2006, I spent time in Old Crow, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Arctic community in northern Yukon, Canada. At that time I knew nothing about the forest death that was happening in the southern Yukon. In a recent email to me, Roger Brown, the Forestry and Environmental Manager of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, wrote, “Canada’s largest ever documented spruce bark beetle outbreak began 18 years ago and is continuing to affect our forests in the southwestern Yukon. Approximately 380,000 hectares of our white spruce dominated forests have been affected, with almost 100 percent mortality of the forest canopy in some areas. Our oral history research has suggested there is no traditional knowledge that speaks about such extensive tree deaths in the past.”

In early June, as United Nations climate negotiators were wrapping up their unsuccessful meeting in Bonn, Germany, Anne-Marie Melster, founder and co-director of ARTPORT, wrote from Valencia, “Here in Spain, at the Mediterranean coast, the picudo rojo (red palm weevil) is attacking and killing tens of thousands of palm trees.”

About the same time, Ananda Banerjee, a conservation journalist from New Delhi, emailed me. “The sal forest in north-central India is home to the endangered tiger,” he said. “In the last few years there has been wide spread destruction and felling of infected sal trees, from the attack of a pest beetle called the sal borer. We have around 1,10,000 sq. km area of sal forest in India, but the green cover is gradually depleting due to this pest and due to illegal harvest of sal as timber.”

If you are interested in a broad scientific understanding of forest deaths from global warming, you can read an article published earlier this year in Forest Ecology and Management. It is worth noting the names of countries listed in the article with forest mortality data that have been recorded since 1970:

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Uganda, USA, and Zimbabwe

Global warming skeptics would point to the fact that trees have died in the past from insect outbreaks and droughts, and so this is part of a natural climate cycle. But this time around something is very different: Forests are dying simultaneously in many places around the world in all forest types, and the intensity and rapidity with which they are dying in some places is of epic proportions.

As I started thinking about our dead forests, I wondered: Do we really need another story of global warming devastation? Haven’t we heard enough about melting glaciers and icebergs, retreating sea ice and disappearing polar bears? Then something tugged on my shoulder: Are we not to mourn the deaths of so many trees? But we mourn that which we knew and cared for. We did not know these trees. My hope has been to introduce to you the trees as ecological beings beyond their usual association as board–feet–for–lumber.

Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals, that depended on those trees. The number of these must be in the tens of billions. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can’t see and will never know? This massive loss must be considered a catastrophic global warming event.

Our “Carbon Sinks” Are Becoming “Carbon Sources”

Consider for a moment the top two carbon sinks of our planet. Oceans absorb more than 25 percent of the CO2 humans put in the air, and forests absorb almost the same amount. By doing so, our forests and oceans together make living possible on this earth for life as we know it now. All of that is changing rapidly and for the worse.

Didn’t we learn as kids in school that CO2 in the atmosphere is good for trees because it acts as a fertilizer and helps them grow? Increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from industrialization indeed may have aided more trees to grow in the past century. But such short–term gain has already faded away and turned into disaster. All three of the largest forests of the world are rapidly losing their carbon sink capacities.

The Siberian taiga is the largest continuous stretch of forested land on earth. It extends from the Urals in the west to the Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East. Ernst–Detlef Schulze of the Max–Planck–Institute for Biogeochemistry has studied this taiga for 30 years. He calls it “Europe’s green lungs,” as these trees soak up much of the CO2 emitted by European smokestacks and automobiles farther west. Long stretches of extreme droughts have resulted in unprecedented forest fires that destroyed vast swathes of the taiga. Major deforestation is also happening there to fuel the need of (now) emerged economies such as China. And the fir sawyer beetle, larch bark beetle, and Siberian moth have also damaged large areas of the taiga.

This year Russia is experiencing the hottest summer ever, which has resulted in deadly forest fires with smokes over Moscow that made international headlines. Boreal forests of eastern Siberia are also ablaze with intense fires. Scientists have recently detected a poisonous ring around the planet created by an enormous cloud of pollutants that are being released by raging forest fires in central Russia, Siberia, and Canada.

In November 2007, I went to the Sakha Republic of Siberia with Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Arctic Alaska. While camping with the Even reindeer herders in the Verkhoyansk Range, the coldest inhabited place on earth, we experienced temperatures of minus 65oF (without wind–chill) and were told that January temperature dip to minus 90oF. We also spent time with the Yukaghir community at Nelemnoye along the Kolyma River, made infamous by Stalin’s Gulag camps. We learned that even in such a cold place, the Siberian permafrost is melting rapidly during the summer months due to warming.

In Siberia, with the destruction of taiga and thawing of permafrost, the ghosts–of–gulags are ready to strike back at us with a deadly carbon bomb that we know little about.

The North American boreal forest stretches across U.S. and Canada from Alaska in the west to Newfoundland in the east, making it the second largest continuous forested ecosystem on earth. It is now confirmed that a lodgepole pine forest in British Columbia, Canada, that died from bark beetles outbreak has transformed from being a small net carbon sink to being a large net carbon source. We can probably say the same for all the other bark beetles infecting dying forests across the west.

The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on earth and stretches across nine countries – Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. I’ve never been to the Amazon, but I’m learning that forest fires, droughts, and deforestation have already destroyed very large areas of this forest. The Amazon is in great trouble: Scientists are predicting that a 4oC temperature rise would kill 85 percent of the Amazon. With climate inaction so far, we are heading rapidly toward such a reality.

The news is equally bad for our oceans, which are now struggling to keep up with the rising CO2 emissions from human activities. By absorbing all that CO2 the oceans are becoming horrendously acidic, threatening the survival of marine life. To make matters worse, methane that is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas is being released in enormous quantities from some of our oceans, including the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, due to thawing of subsea permafrost there, and the Gulf of Mexico, due to BP’s unforgiveable spill. Two studies have shown methane concentrations in some areas of the gulf reached 100,000 times higher than normal with few hot spots close to a million times higher. And recently we learned that 40 percent of the world’s phytoplankton died in the last 60 years due to global warming, raising the question, “Are Our Oceans Dying?

Our natural carbon sinks are losing the battle with global warming, increasing human CO2 emissions, and extreme oil–and–gas drilling. Every citizen of our planet should be asking the question: Who or what will capture the carbon that we continue to emit? And every government ought to address this question as the most urgent priority if we are to ensure life on Earth.

Our New Climate Movement

Last month the U.S. Senate finally put an end to the climate bill. Since then several opinion pieces have been published, including articles in Yale Environment 360, Grist, TomDispatch, The Nation, and The Hill. Some of these point out why the U.S. climate movement failed, while others call for a new movement.

Global warming is a crisis: for all lands, for all oceans, for all rivers, for all forests, for all humans, for all birds, for all mammals, for all little creatures that we don’t see… for all life. We need stories and actions from every part of our earth. So far, global warming communications have primarily focused on scientific information. I strongly believe that to engage the public, we need all fields of the humanities. It is to this end that I founded ClimateStoryTellers.

And there is much action: globally, 350.org and Climate Justice Movement; nationally, organizations such as Center for Biological Diversity; and state-based initiatives such as New Energy Economy in New Mexico. These groups give us hope that a bold – not weak – climate movement will continue to move forward with renewed energy.

Our task is to make the collective global voice louder and louder until ignoring such loud cacophony will not be an option by our governments. Global warming is not something we can solve with good behavior and healthy lifestyles. It will require major government action to control pollution–and–polluters and to start a low–carbon–society.

I’ll end with two simple questions:

Will the economic–and–comfort–needs of our species always trump the survival–needs of all other species that also
inhabit this Earth?

&

By not taking serious action on global warming, is humanity committing a colossal crime against all other lives on Earth?

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, activist, and founder of ClimateStoryTellers. His desert photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition, “Where I Live I Hope To Know,” at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth (May 14–August 28, 2011) and in group exhibitions “(Re–) Cycles of Paradise” at the Centro Cultural de España in Mexico City (November 11, 2010–January 16, 2011) and “Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment” at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (April 18–August 28, 2011). His arctic photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition “Resource Wars in the American Arctic” at the School of Fine Art Gallery at Indiana University in Bloomington (October 22–November 19, 2010) and in group exhibition “The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (September 24, 2011–February 19, 2012). Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled “Arctic Voices.” You can visit his website by clicking here.

[Note on photographs: To view Subhankar’s forest death photos from New Mexico click here. This album was curated to accompany this piece.]

[Note for readers: I’d like to thank my long–time collaborator and the editor of this piece Christine Clifton–Thornton; to Roger Brown, Anne-Marie Melster, and Ananda Banerjee for sharing their observations for this piece; and always to Tom Engelhardt for his support and inspiration.]

Copyright 2010 Subhankar Banerjee

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