Tag Archives: ecosystem services

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:

Biophilic Cities

Biophilic Cities is a group trying to create “cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites. Biophilic cities value residents innate connection and access to nature through abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy the multisensory aspects of nature by protecting and promoting nature within the city.” This seems a bit big picture and visionary, but they also have some practical resources such a collection of codes and ordinances used by various cities.

freshwater salinization syndrome

The National Academy of Sciences has a new study out on “freshwater salinization syndrome“. If I understand it correctly, it goes something like this: Air pollution and acid rain leach minerals like calcium out of all the concrete we use for pavement and buildings. All the road salt we apply leaches minerals like calcium out of soil and replaces it with sodium. The result is a lot more minerals like calcium in freshwater, which changes its alkalinity, or in high school science terms, its pH and ability to resist changes in pH.

Salt pollution and human-accelerated weathering are shifting the chemical composition of major ions in fresh water and increasing salinization and alkalinization across North America. We propose a concept, the freshwater salinization syndrome, which links salinization and alkalinization processes. This syndrome manifests as concurrent trends in specific conductance, pH, alkalinity, and base cations. Although individual trends can vary in strength, changes in salinization and alkalinization have affected 37% and 90%, respectively, of the drainage area of the contiguous United States over the past century. Across 232 United States Geological Survey (USGS) monitoring sites, 66% of stream and river sites showed a statistical increase in pH, which often began decades before acid rain regulations. The syndrome is most prominent in the densely populated eastern and midwestern United States, where salinity and alkalinity have increased most rapidly. The syndrome is caused by salt pollution (e.g., road deicers, irrigation runoff, sewage, potash), accelerated weathering and soil cation exchange, mining and resource extraction, and the presence of easily weathered minerals used in agriculture (lime) and urbanization (concrete). Increasing salts with strong bases and carbonates elevate acid neutralizing capacity and pH, and increasing sodium from salt pollution eventually displaces base cations on soil exchange sites, which further increases pH and alkalinization. Symptoms of the syndrome can include: infrastructure corrosion, contaminant mobilization, and variations in coastal ocean acidification caused by increasingly alkaline river inputs. Unless regulated and managed, the freshwater salinization syndrome can have significant impacts on ecosystem services such as safe drinking water, contaminant retention, and biodiversity.

It’s a little ironic that this is happening to fresh water at the same time we are worried about ocean acidification. There is also a larger context to me though – even if our waters meet numerical standards we set for water quality, they just don’t have the same chemistry, biology, or links to the land that they used to. This would still happen even if we were able to eliminate all pollution that is directly toxic to aquatic life.

is nature doing fine?

A new book by Chris D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (the link is to the New York Times review), argues that ecosystems are adapting to human-induced change. The argument seems to be that there are winners and losers in terms of species, and the Earth is headed for a future dominated by less diverse, more tolerant species. It may be true that rats, pigeons, cockroaches and jellyfish see a bright future for themselves, but I still have an ethical problem and a practical problem. The ethical problem is that humans are knowingly destroying species and ecosystems that have existed more or less throughout the 10,000 year or so modern history of our species. Sure, in another 100,000 or million years it will all have changed with or without our intervention, but if you believe these ecosystems have any intrinsic value, then what we are doing is wrong. The practical problem has to do with ecosystem service. Our standard of living depends on a lot of free and low cost help from nature – to name just a few, pollination, fertile soil, rainfall, groundwater, fisheries, breathable air and reasonable temperatures. If these were taken away suddenly, the rats and pigeons might be fine but we might find that we are not among the more adaptable species.


I like this article from Italy a lot because it represents a practical approach to focusing on ecosystem services in urban areas.


Target 2 of the European Biodiversity Strategy promotes the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystem services < (ES) as well as the restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems by creating green infrastructure (GI). The purpose of the this research is to present a GI proposal that combines the delivery of regulating services with the restoration and ecological reconnection of urban forests and trees in a densely urbanised context.

The project area covers about 3 000 ha in the urban sector of the metropolitan area of Rome and the GI components consist of 533 ha of areal green spaces and of more than 500 km of road verges. Planned interventions include forest restoration and tree plantations, with a varying service supply according to type and condition of the different components. Potential natural vegetation (PNV) models and dispersal potential of representative forest species, together with structural and functional vegetation models for the enhancement of air pollutants removal, guided the selection of the species to be promoted and of the planting pattern. Environmental benefits of the proposal include more than 30 ha of restored urban forests, about 15 000 planted individuals of native oaks, a sevenfold improvement in ecological connectivity and halved isolation between green spaces. On the other hand, the expected socio-economic benefits include almost 300 000 potential beneficiaries of the improved air quality and avoided costs for damages to human health that range between 40 700 and 130 200 EUR per year.

Notwithstanding their preliminary character, these estimates allowed the proposal to highlight the relationship between GI and public health. Moreover, they showed the economic and social effectiveness of nature-based solutions in comparison with further development of grey infrastructure. These results promote the definition of a national GI strategy in Italy.

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • 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.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

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

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • 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.


Large Igneous Provinces and mass extinction

Ars Technica has an article on Large Igneous Provinces, which are volcanic eruptions so large (occurring every 15 million years or so on average) they are thought to be the main culprit behind most mass extinctions. Lava and toxic gas can be bad but are not enough to explain mass extinction. They can actually cause large-scale global cooling on a short time scale (a decade or so) due to particulate emissions, but that effect also is not enough to explain mass extinction. The way they are thought to cause global mass extinction this is by burning underground fossil fuels on an enormous scale, causing catastrophic climate change that species cannot adapt to (including global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, which kick in after the shorter-term cooling effect has run its course, and last a lot longer).

I was also wondering about volcanic activity versus comet and asteroid strikes. The article addresses that too:

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseasesgalactic gamma raysdark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

Those asteroid (or comet) impacts have captured the public imagination ever since 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez found global traces of iridium, which they inferred to be extraterrestrial, at the geological boundary that marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The identification of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico soon after sealed the deal. Impacts have been proposed to explain other mass extinctions, but there’s very little actual evidence to support those links. In the words of researchers David Bond and Stephen Grasby, who reviewed the evidence in 2016: “Despite much searching, there remains only one confirmed example of a bolide impact coinciding with an extinction event…”

Volcanism, on the other hand, has coincided with most, if not all, mass extinctions—it looks suspiciously like a serial killer, if you like.

According to the article, the rate of fossil fuel burning is similar to what humans are doing now. So it follows that natural ecosystems could collapse this time too. That would be a catastrophe in itself, but how resilient can our species and food production systems be compared to all the others that have come and gone before us?

Sounding the alarm on biodiversity

What’s the elevator pitch to convince a skeptic that biodiversity is important? To people who value nature for its own sake and believe it is immoral to destroy it, maybe it seems as though the pitch should not be needed. But it’s needed, considering the difficulties communicating the practical/economic case against global warming when that case should be fairly obvious (reliability of the food supply; cost of food, energy, and water; cost to protect, relocate or abandon coastal cities; impacts of extreme weather, drought and fire inland).

Of course, the practical/economic case to fight biodiversity loss has to do with how much our civilization relies on free ecosystem services, and has neither the level of technology nor wealth to replace them in the near term. I believe many people will respond to the ethical case too, and more would if we emphasized ethics more in children’s education. But this paragraph is already too long for an elevator pitch now, isn’t it.

Here are a couple articles that talk about bolstering both the science and the communications.





October 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
  • U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
  • 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.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
  • Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
  • Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.

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

  • A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
  • 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.
  • I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.

I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.

The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.