Tag Archives: ecological engineering

Sierra Club vs. Allan Savory

I was thinking some more about my post on woolly mammoths. That article bought into the idea that large predators will keep a herd of large herbivores bunched and on the move, which can in turn preserve and even restore a grassland ecosystem, with great effects for biodiversity and even carbon sequestration. It’s a nice idea, and incredibly cool to think about when the large herbivores are mammoths and the predators are dire wolves. But unfortunately, modern science seems to be shitting all over the idea that cows shitting all over can ever be a good thing. Here is an article from Sierra Club with the basics.

Pleistocene Park

This Atlantic article is about Pleistocene Park, an idea to restore functioning grassland ecosystems that existed during the last Ice Age, complete with woolly mammoths. The mammoths are supposed to keep the grassland from turning into forest, and the grass in turn is supposed to reflect more light and heat, thereby preserving the permafrost.

If this intercontinental ice block warms too quickly, its thawing will send as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere each year as do all of America’s SUVs, airliners, container ships, factories, and coal-burning plants combined. It could throw the planet’s climate into a calamitous feedback loop, in which faster heating begets faster melting. The more apocalyptic climate-change scenarios will be in play. Coastal population centers could be swamped. Oceans could become more acidic. A mass extinction could rip its way up from the plankton base of the marine food chain. Megadroughts could expand deserts and send hundreds of millions of refugees across borders, triggering global war…

Research suggests that these grasslands will reflect more sunlight than the forests and scrub they replace, causing the Arctic to absorb less heat. In winter, the short grass and animal-trampled snow will offer scant insulation, enabling the season’s freeze to reach deeper into the Earth’s crust, cooling the frozen soil beneath and locking one of the world’s most dangerous carbon-dioxide lodes in a thermodynamic vault.

A lot of the article is about the process of genetically engineering the mammoths. Apparently, we know exactly what mammoths looked like because people have found plenty of intact frozen specimens. I didn’t know that some isolated pockets of mammoths survived until just 2,000 years ago, compared to tens or hundreds of millions of years for the dinosaurs. So there is really no comparison there – they are just cold-adapted cousins of elephants. The plan is not necessarily to clone extinct mammoths, but simply to edit the genes of modern elephants to give them the mammoth traits, then turn them loose and let them adapt and evolve a bit more in the wild.

In another interesting section, it talks about how nutrient cycling in temperate and cold-climate grasslands is much faster than in forests at the same latitudes, rivaled only by tropical forests. And large herbivores are critical both because their digestive systems are where a lot of that cycling takes place, and they also favor grass by keeping trees in check.

Another interesting claim is that Africa is the only continent with large herbivores left because the animals there evolved alongside humans for millions of years, whereas animals in temperate climates did not and were not prepared for humans when they came.

Finally, there’s this:

The park will need to be stocked with dangerous predators. When they are absent, herbivore herds spread out, or they feel safe enough to stay in the same field, munching away mindlessly until it’s overgrazed. Big cats and wolves force groups of grazers into dense, watchful formations that move fast across a landscape, visiting a new patch of vegetation each day in order to mow it with their teeth, fertilize it with their dung, and trample it with their many-hooved plow. Nikita wants to bring in gray wolves, Siberian tigers, or cold-adapted Canadian cougars. If it becomes a trivial challenge to resurrect extinct species, perhaps he could even repopulate Siberia with cave lions and dire wolves.

Yes, dire wolves are a thing.


David Quammen (author of one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction) has a long article in National Geographic about Yellowstone National Park which touches on some of the same things.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is bigger than any other park complex in the lower 48 states. And size matters. A resonant study published in the journal Nature back in 1987, by a young ecologist named William Newmark, revealed that among 12 national parks and park complexes in the western United States, all except two had lost mammal species in the years since they had been established, but that Greater Yellowstone, as the largest, had lost fewer species than almost all others. Most of those local extinctions had resulted not from direct human persecution—as the wolves of Yellowstone had been persecuted to oblivion—but from the natural processes of extinction characteristic of islands: When habitat is constrained within a limited area, animal populations remain small, and small populations tend to wink out, over time, because of accidental factors such as disease, fire, hard weather, and bad luck. Greater Yellowstone had lost less of its mammal diversity by natural attrition than had small parks such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Mount Rainier. Its size, evidently, had served it well.

Newmark’s original work has been challenged in some particulars during the decades since, but its basic conclusion remains sound: Size matters. The size of the Yellowstone complex helped preserve big, fearsome, wide-ranging, combative animals such as the grizzly, each one of which demands a large territory. No other park in the lower 48, apart from Glacier National Park along Montana’s Canadian border, now supports robust populations of the three greatest living North American carnivores—the grizzly, the wolf, the mountain lion—as well as such other predaceous animals as the wolverine, the coyote, the bobcat, and the red fox. Yellowstone is our wildest park south of the border complex that includes Glacier, in part because it’s our biggest.

The other good thing about geographical bigness is that, besides giving space to large predators with broad territorial needs, it usually encompasses habitat diversity as well as sheer space, thereby sheltering a greater variety of creatures at all levels of size, living all modes of life.

Because I am interested in island biogeography and I like the idea of having seminal papers at my fingertips, I looked up the Newmark article mentioned above.

A land-bridge island perspective on mammalian extinctions in western North American parks
Nature 325, 430 – 432 (29 January 1987); doi:10.1038/325430a0

In recent years, a number of authors have suggested several geometric principles for the design of nature reserves based upon the hypothesis that nature reserves are analogous to land-bridge islands. Land-bridge islands are islands that were formerly connected to the mainland and were created by a rise in the level of the ocean. Land-bridge islands are considered supersaturated with species in that the ratio of island to mainland species numbers is higher than expected from the area of the island. As a result, the rate of extinction should exceed the rate of colonization on a land-bridge island, resulting in a loss of species that is suggested to be related to the size and degree of isolation of the island. If nature reserves are considered to be similar to land-bridge islands, because most are slowly becoming isolated from their surroundings by habitat disturbance outside the reserves, several predictions follow. First, the total number of extinctions should exceed the total number of colonizations within a reserve; second, the number of extinctions should be inversely related to reserve size; and third, the number of extinctions should be directly related to reserve age. I report here that the natural post-establishment loss of mammalian species in 14 western North American national parks is consistent with these predictions of the land-bridge island hypothesis and that all but the largest western North American national parks are too small to retain an intact mammalian fauna.

It’s easy to get depressed. Even if we preserved a lot of big open spaces, left them completely alone, and there were no such thing as pollution or climate change, a smaller nature would still be a less healthy nature. The only silver lining is that if we had a really thorough knowledge of how the shapes of preserved lands and the connections between determine their ecosystem health, we could theoretically come up with land use policies and practices to produce the best possible ecosystem health in the remaining space available.

There is research going on in this area:

A simplified econet model for mapping and evaluating structural connectivity with particular attention of ecotones, small habitats, and barriers
Wei Houa, Marco Neubertb, Ulrich Walzc
Landscape and Urban Planning
Volume 160, April 2017, Pages 28–37

Small habitats and ecotones are recognized as key structures in preserving biodiversity and maintaining landscape connectivity. However, most analyses of landscape pattern have not fully accounted for these elements. This leads to an underestimation of the landscape heterogeneity, especially at the local scale. This research aims to evaluate the structural connectivity for a source habitat (i.e., forest) with particular consideration of the roles of ecotones, small habitats, and barriers. A multi-buffer mapping procedure based on vector data is applied on two comparative test sites for mapping ecological networks (econets) which are composed of forest patches, ecotones, corridors, small habitats, and barriers. On this basis, several indices are proposed for quantitative evaluation of structural connectivity of econets. The application of the indices show that our approach can be useful for analyzing econet connectivity and identifying the roles of critical landscape elements, for example the barriers’ effect on overall forest connectivity. Within an econet, ecotones function as extension of forest edges which can increase the intrapatch connectivity; small habitats play the role of stepping stones which can enhance interpatch connections among forest habitats. The proposed econet model provides a generalized illustration of landscape connectivity and can be used to compare and monitor forest pattern.

May 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • There are scary and seemingly reckless confrontations going on between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Indian Ocean. And yet, it is bizarrely humorous when real life imitates Top Gun.
  • The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • Obama went to Hiroshima, where he said we can “chart a course that leads to the destruction” of nuclear weapons, only not in his lifetime. Obama out.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • I try not to let this blog get too political, really I do. But in an election season I just can’t help myself. This is a blog about the future of civilization, and the behavior of U.S. political, bureaucratic, and military elites obviously has some bearing on that. In May I mused on whether the U.S. could possibly be suffering from “too much democracy“, Dick Cheney, equality and equal opportunity, and what’s wrong with Pennsylvania. And yes, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, TRUMP IS A FASCIST!
  • The world has about a billion dogs.
  • It turns out coffee grounds may not make good compost.

April 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. government’s dominant ideology of free trade and globalization may have roots in U.S. government propaganda designed to provide hidden subsidies to Japan and Korea, our Cold War allies in Asia. And resulting financial deregulation in the 1990s may have been the beginning of the end for the U.S. empire.
  • A new study says that ice melting in Antarctica could double sea level rise projections in the long term. Meanwhile, in the short term, the drought in Southeast and South Asia is getting more and more severe.
  • Robert Paxton says Trump is pretty much a fascist. Although conditions are different and he doesn’t believe everything the fascists believed. Umberto Eco once said that fascists don’t believe anything, they will say anything and then what they do once in office has nothing to do with what they said.

3 most hopeful stories

  • Brookings has a new report on encouraging innovation in the water sector. A lot of it is just about charging more, and it should be fairly obvious why that is politically controversial even if it is the right thing economically. But the report did have an explanation of decoupling (p. 28) which I found helpful. Decoupling is an answer to the puzzle of how a utility can support conservation without losing its revenue base.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy says the technical potential of solar panels is to supply about 39% of all energy use. And electric cars may be about to come roaring back in a big way.
  • Better management of agricultural soil might be able to play a big role in carbon sequestration.

3 most interesting stories

“transitioned” infiltration basins

Here’s an interesting article about an infiltration basin that has failed in its infiltration function and “transitioned” into a wetland. Interestingly, the researchers determined that it still performs a stormwater management function, while also performing ecological functions.

Ecological assessment of a transitioned stormwater infiltration basin

Infiltration basins are stormwater control measures (SCMs) widely employed for urban stormwater management. A transitioned infiltration basin is a failed infiltration basin that has gradually transformed into a wetland- or wetpond-like practice. The transitioned basin was found to effectively control the storm runoff flows and volumes, and improve the discharge water quality, thereby reducing the downstream hydrologic and pollutant loads on most occasions. Qualitative assessment of the site showed presence of wetland and non-wetland vegetation, small animals, and some potential for cultural benefit. The ecological evaluation demonstrated that runoff management and habitat provision in a sub-urban setting enhance the overall functionality of this new type of SCM ecosystem. A functionality assessment guide was developed for assessing infiltration basins considered to have failed. The Level-1 assessment includes visual criteria such as hydrophytic vegetation, hydric soils, hydrologic regime modification, and design check. The rapid assessment plans developed in this study can be applied to determine the ecological and stormwater management functions and benefits of failed/transitioning/transitioned basins, and may be adapted for other similar SCMs.

A lot of us engineers assume that green infrastructure will have a useful service life and then eventually fail. This is in keeping with the idea of infrastructure, which needs constant maintenance to keep it from wearing out, or else eventually wears out and has to be replaced. But green infrastructure is supposed to be a designed ecosystem. Ecosystems can change over time but they don’t exactly wear out, in fact their functions tend to stay stabilize or increase over time. So if we really understand an ecosystem thoroughly and are able to design it, we should be able to anticipate and even control these changes. An example would be planting deep rooted, self-mulching plants that keep the soil of the infiltration basin loose and permeable for the long term. But even if there is a limit to that, you could let it gradually transition to a forested and/or wetland condition in a controlled way over time.

So here’s an idea I have to build streetside rain gardens on the cheap. Take a typical sad, compacted tree pit where a tree recently died or was removed (sadly, very, very common here in Philadelphia). Remove a foot or so of soil, or at least down to a few inches below street level. Throw in a handful of seeds like clover, daikon radish, prairie grasses, horseradish, or anything else aggressive, deep-rooted, perennial or self-seeding. Throw in an acorn or other tree seed (why not pick something edible). Now wait a year or two for all this to grow and begin to loosen up the soil and create some organic matter. When the plants have established themselves, go back and cut a hole in the curb to let water in. Gradually, the tree will grow and shade out the smaller plants. With this system, you get a functioning ecosystem in a few years with maybe $5 worth of seeds, and a lot of patience. If it doesn’t grow, you can afford to throw in another $5 worth of seeds.

January 2016 in Review

I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.

3 most frightening posts

  • Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
  • Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.

3 most hopeful posts

3 most interesting posts

  • There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
  • Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
  • The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”


connectivity and corridors

From Conservation Biology:

Connecting science, policy, and implementation for landscape-scale habitat connectivity

In an increasingly fragmented world, networks of habitat corridors are critical to support movement of organisms between habitat patches and the long-term persistence of species. The science of corridor design and the policy of corridor establishment are developing rapidly, but often independently. Here we assess the links between the science and policy of habitat corridors, to better understand how corridors can be effectively implemented, with a focus on a suite of landscape-scale connectivity plans in tropical and sub-tropical Asia. Our synthesis suggests that the process of corridor designation may be more efficient if the scientific determination of optimal corridor locations and arrangement is synchronized in time with the achievement of political buy-in and policy direction for corridor designation. Land tenure and the intactness of existing habitat in the region are also critical factors –optimal connectivity strategies may be very different if there are few, versus many, political jurisdictions (including commercial and traditional land tenures) and intact versus degraded habitat between patches. We identify financing mechanisms for corridors, and also several important gaps in our understanding of effective corridor design including how corridors, particularly those managed by local communities, can be protected from habitat degradation and unsustainable hunting. Finally, we point to a critical need for quantitative, data-driven models that can prioritize potential corridors or multi-corridor networks based on their relative contributions to long-term metacommunity persistence.

July 2015 in Review

I’m experimenting with my +3/-3 rating system again this month, just to convey the idea that not all stories are equal in importance. The result is that July was a pretty negative month! Whether that reflects more the state of the world or the state of my mind, or some combination, you can decide.

Negative stories (-21):

  • In The Dead Hand, I learned that the risk of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s was greater than I thought, and the true story of Soviet biological weapons production was much worse than I thought. (-3)
  • Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, among others, are concerned about a real-life Terminator scenario. (-2)
  • I playfully pointed out that the Pope’s encyclical contains some themes that sound like the more lucid paragraphs in the Unabomber Manifesto, namely that the amoral pursuit of technology has improved our level of material comfort and physical health while devastating the natural world, creating new risks, and leaving us feeling empty somehow. (-1)
  • Bumblebees are getting squeezed by climate change. (-1)
  • The Cold War seems to be rearing its ugly head. (-2)
  • There may be a “global renaissance of coal”. (-3)
  • Joel Kotkin and other anti-urban voices like him want to make sure you don’t have the choice of living in a walkable community. (-2)
  • I think Obama may be remembered as an effective, conservative president, in the dictionary sense of playing it safe and avoiding major mistakes. Navigating the financial crisis, achieving some financial and health care reforms, and defusing several wars and conflicts are probably his greatest achievements. However, if a major war or financial crisis erupts in the near future that can be traced back to decisions he made, his legacy will suffer whether it is fair or not. (-0)
  • We can think of natural capital as a battery that took a long time to charge and has now been discharged almost instantly. (-3)
  • James Hansen is warning of much faster and greater sea level rise than current mainstream expectations. (-3)
  • Lloyd’s of London has spun a scenario of how a food crisis could play out. (-1)

Positive stories (+7):