tipping points and ecosystem collapse

This research presents seagrass meadows as an example of an ecosystem that seems to disappear suddenly, but actually reached a tipping point caused by chronic pollution.

Testing for thresholds of ecosystem collapse in seagrass meadows?

Ecological systems can be dynamic and unpredictable, with shifts from one ecosystem state to another often considered ‘surprising’. This unpredictability is often thought to be due to ecological thresholds, where small cumulative increases in an environmental stressor drives a much greater consequence than would be predicted from linear effects, suggesting an unforeseen tipping point is crossed. In coastal waters, broad-scale seagrass loss often occurs as a sudden event which is associated with human-driven nutrient enrichment (eutrophication). We tested whether the response of seagrass ecosystems to coastal nutrient enrichment represents a threshold effect. Seagrass response did follow a threshold pattern when nutrient enrichment (dissolved inorganic nitrogen) exceeded moderate levels, with a switch from positive to negative net leaf production. Epiphyte load also increased with nutrient enrichment, potentially driving this shift. Inadvertently crossing such thresholds, as can occur through ineffective management of land-derived inputs such as wastewater and stormwater on urbanised coasts, may help account for the widely observed ‘sudden’ loss of seagrass meadows. By identifying tipping points we may not only improve monitoring for adaptive management that seeks to avoid threshold effects, but also the restoration of systems that have crossed them.


It’s not as safe as advertised, according to Conservation Biology.

Glyphosate has become the most commonly used herbicide worldwide, with a reputation of being environmentally benign, non-toxic and safe to wildlife and humans. However, studies have indicated its toxicity has been underestimated, and that its persistence in the environment is greater than once thought. Its actions as a neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor indicate its potential to act in similar ways to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the organochlorine (OC) chemicals dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and dioxin. Exposure to glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides for both wildlife and people is likely to be chronic and at sub-lethal levels, with multiple and ongoing exposure events in both urban and agricultural landscapes. Despite this, little research attention has been given to the impact of glyphosate on wildlife populations, and existing studies appear in the agricultural, toxicology and water chemistry literature that may have limited visibility among wildlife biologists. There is a strong case for the recognition of glyphosate as an ‘emerging organic contaminant’ and significant potential exists for collaborative research between ecologists, toxicologists and chemists to quantify the impact of glyphosate on wildlife and to evaluate the role of biosentinel species in a preemptive move to mitigate downstream impacts on people.


genetically engineered algae

USEPA has approved a strain of genetically engineered oil producing algae to be tested outdoors.

On August 1, 2013, EPA received TSCA Experimental Release Applications (TERAs) R-13-0003, -0004, -0005, -0006 and -0007 from Sapphire Energy, Inc. to test five different intergeneric strains of the photosynthetic green algae Scenedesmus dimorphus in open ponds. The purpose of the field test is to (1) evaluate the translatability of the genetically modified strains from the laboratory to an outdoor setting, and (2) to characterize the potential ecological impact (dispersion and invasion) of the genetically-modified microalgae. The introduced intergeneric DNA sequences include certain metabolism genes and an intergeneric marker gene that enables detection of the microorganism from environmental samples. Also, different regulatory elements controlling expression of the genes were used, resulting in the five intergeneric strains. The field trials are to be conducted at the University of California San Diego Biology Field Station (BFS) in La Jolla, CA.



stealing used fast food oil

According to Bloomberg, theft of used fast food oil has become more common as its economic value has increased recently. There are a few interesting reasons for this:

Finding value in old grease isn’t new. For more than a century, the waste product has been processed into ingredients for everything from makeup and paint to pet food and livestock feed, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based National Renderers Association, which represents 51 companies with 205 plants in the U.S. and Canada.

What’s different is more cooking oil is being made into fuel. It’s now the largest use for old grease, at around 30 percent of demand. A 2007 energy law calls for American cars, trucks and buses to use escalating amounts of biofuels. Most of that is corn-based ethanol used in gasoline, but refiners also are making more biodiesel. Soybean oil is the primary raw material, followed by used grease and corn oil…

The rally in biodiesel is boosting the value of grease. Since Feb. 17, the fuel is up 12 percent to $3 a gallon, as of April 28. Further gains may be likely because of a trade dispute with competitors in Argentina and Indonesia, which may limit imports of biodiesel

So the value of, and therefore the incentive to steal, grease is on the rise due to a complicated set of factors involving fuel demand, government regulation, and international trade policy. If some of the biodiesel we are using in the U.S. is coming from palm oil plantations in the tropics, that adds another element to consider in the environmental benefits or costs of the technology. I also suspected that the typical burger joint owner who is paying someone to pick this stuff up doesn’t care all that much if someone else picks it up. From that person’s perspective, either way it goes away. I suppose the environment could be hurt depending on where it goes, and the licensed grease hauling industry gets hurt (and yes there is an industry association for that, called the National Renderers Association, and they are very concerned about this issue.

410 ppm

Climate Central says we have hit 410 ppm:

On Tuesday, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million (it was 410.28 ppm in case you want the full deal). Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years. It’s a new atmosphere that humanity will have to contend with, one that’s trapping more heat and causing the climate to change at a quickening rate…

“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”

Even when concentrations of carbon dioxide level off, the impacts of climate change will extend centuries into the future. The planet has already warmed 1.8°F (1°C), including a run of 627 months in a row of above-normal heat. Sea levels have risen about a foot and oceans have acidified. Extreme heat has become more common.

All of these impacts will last longer and intensify into the future even if we cut carbon emissions. But we face a choice of just how intense they become based on when we stop polluting the atmosphere.

So things are not only not getting better. They are not even getting worse at a slower rate. They are getting worse at a faster and faster rate, and our not-too-ambitious goal is to make them get worse at the same rate. High school calculus teachers are probably the only ones enjoying this.

Wikileaks and the NSA

Wikileaks has released a set of documents about NSA activities, which is covered by the Intercept. Here’s one tidbit:

The NSA, it turns out, likes to stay on top of the latest scientific developments. Writing at the end of 2004, an NSA cryptanalyst described her experience working as an intern, and using her cryptography skills, on looking for information about genetic sequencing in the signals intelligence collected by the NSA. “The ultimate goals of this project are to gain general knowledge about genetic engineering research activity by foreign entities,” she wrote, “and to identify laboratories and/or individuals who may be involved in nefarious use of genetic research.”

the chicken and the egg

This video purports to answer the question of the chicken and the egg once and for all. But really, it’s silly. Of course there were eggs of some sort long before chickens existed. The real question is what came first, the chicken or the chicken egg. And even that might seem obvious – at some point something that was not quite a chicken laid an egg, and the thing that came out was a chicken. But was that egg a chicken egg? You could say that if a chicken came out, it was a chicken egg. But imagine this – if you took an egg laid by a duck, I think we could all agree that would be a duck egg. But now imagine you use some genetic technology to change the duck embryo inside the egg from a duck to a chicken. Now is it a chicken egg or a duck egg. See, it is still ambiguous.

Time Chicken from Nick Black on Vimeo.

electric cars about to boom

According to Bloomberg, electric cars are set for a big boom by 2020 and could lead to a peak and decline in oil demand sometime in the 2020s.

Electric cars are coming fast — and that’s not just the opinion of carmakers anymore. Total SA, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, is now saying EVs may constitute almost a third of new-car sales by the end of the next decade.

The surge in battery powered vehicles will cause demand for oil-based fuels to peak in the 2030s, Total Chief Energy Economist Joel Couse said at Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s conference in New York on Tuesday. EVs will make up 15 percent to 30 percent of new vehicles by 2030, after which fuel “demand will flatten out,” Couse said. “Maybe even decline…”

“By 2020 there will be over 120 different models of EV across the spectrum,” said Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “These are great cars. They will make the internal combustion equivalent look old fashioned.”