Tag Archives: ecological engineering

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

quantifying ecological functions

Here is an interesting article on quantifying ecological functions. The main application appears to be wetland mitigation but the theory seems more general and could maybe be adapted to a variety of ecosystem restorations or creations.

Landscape consequences of aggregation rules for functional equivalence in compensatory mitigation programs

Mitigation and offset programs designed to compensate for ecosystem function losses due to development must balance losses from affected ecosystems and gains in restored ecosystems. Aggregation rules applied to ecosystem functions to assess site equivalence are based on implicit assumptions about the substitutability of functions among sites and can profoundly influence the distribution of restored ecosystem functions on the landscape. We investigated the consequences of rules applied to aggregation of ecosystem functions for wetland offsets in the Beaverhill watershed in Alberta, Canada. We considered the fate of 3 ecosystem functions: hydrology, water purification, and biodiversity. We set up an affect-and-offset algorithm to simulate the effect of aggregation rules on ecosystem function for wetland offsets. Cobenefits and trade-offs among functions and the constraints posed by the quantity and quality of restorable sites resulted in a redistribution of functions between affected and offset wetlands. Hydrology and water-purification functions were positively correlated and negatively correlated with biodiversity function. Weighted-average rules did not replace functions in proportion to their weights. Rules prioritizing biodiversity function led to more monofunctional wetlands and landscapes. The minimum rule, for which the wetland score was equal to the worst performing function, promoted multifunctional wetlands and landscapes. The maximum rule, for which the wetland score was equal to the best performing function, promoted monofunctional wetlands and multifunctional landscapes. Because of implicit trade-offs among ecosystem functions, no-net-loss objectives for multiple functions should be constructed within a landscape context. Based on our results, we suggest criteria for the design of aggregation rules for no net loss of ecosystem functions within a landscape context include the concepts of substitutability, cobenefits and trade-offs, landscape constraints, heterogeneity, and the precautionary principle.

wildlife range in urban areas

Here’s an interesting study finding a general rule across many types of wildlife that their range after urbanization decreases to between one-half and one-third of what it was before urbanization.

Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements

Animal movement is fundamental for ecosystem functioning and species survival, yet the effects of the anthropogenic footprint on animal movements have not been estimated across species. Using a unique GPS-tracking database of 803 individuals across 57 species, we found that movements of mammals in areas with a comparatively high human footprint were on average one-half to one-third the extent of their movements in areas with a low human footprint. We attribute this reduction to behavioral changes of individual animals and to the exclusion of species with long-range movements from areas with higher human impact. Global loss of vagility alters a key ecological trait of animals that affects not only population persistence but also ecosystem processes such as predator-prey interactions, nutrient cycling, and disease transmission.

One type of animal included in the study was deer in Pennsylvania. I also learned the name of the academic discipline that studies animal ranges and movements: movement ecology.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

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