Should We Let Pandas Go Extinct?

MinuteEarth provides an energetic and entertaining view of trends in earth’s environment – in just a few minutes!

By: Minute Earth.
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Attracting Beneficial Insects

I’ve written about the many benefits of insect hotels before, in terms of attracting pollinating and predatory insects to your space of cultivation.

As habitats of native bees, beetles, and butterflies are sometimes scarce, or in the way of cultivation, it is important to preserve refuges where these creatures can hide, and continue to symbiotically interact with your local ecosystem.

A number of solitary bees, and beetles like ladybugs–which pollinate fruit crops, and control aphids, respectively–live, have their young, and/or hibernate in hollow biological structures.

A solitary bee species, filling bamboo canes with mud to protect its larvae.

Dried “tubes” can be found all over the place in the spring, and are unfortunately often cleared from cultivated spaces: grasses, rushes, sedges, ferns, and flower stalks often leave behind a reasonably sturdy, dried hollow structure; I’ve also used cardboard tubing. 

These materials can be packed into a frame of sorts (I used a length of PVC pipe), along with things like bark, clay tiles, and conifer cones for spiders, in order to provide an array of habitats.

The insects and arachinids will move in and do the rest.

Beside the home-made “bee hotel” above, I’ve also hung up an old butterfly house. These kinds of structures provide shelter for migrating and local butterflies, and mimic the crevices in trees and rocks in which these insects would normally find shelter.

DIY Butterfly House

Between the bees, beetles, birds, moths, and butterflies, and the worms in my compost system, there is a house or habitat for almost every local beneficial creature: except for bats. As soon as one of my trees reaches a sufficient height, I will be putting in a bat house as well.

The benefits of having a biodiverse forest garden system are manifold: these organisms pollinate, decompose, control pest populations, and deposit both seeds and fertiliser. It is in my best interest to have them around, filling out their ecological niches.

Related: Insect Hotels


The Amazon Trees That Keep The Planet Cool

Within the botanical menagerie that makes up the Amazon rainforest, which is so important it’s frequently dubbed the “lungs of the planet,” scientists have pinpointed a small number of tree species that are doing the heaviest breathing as they help to slow global warming. Their discovery — that 182 species store half the rainforest’s woodbound carbon — suggests that the future of the world’s climate, and the contours of its coastal areas, are intertwined with the fate of this small portion of an estimated 16,000 Amazonian tree species.

The findings were published in Nature Communications following analysis of data covering 530 areas. The most common tree identified in the study, a variety of palm known to scientists as Iriartea, was also found to hold the most carbon. But the other 181 species identified as the most important for carbon storage weren’t necessarily the most common species in the rainforest. They were species that shared combinations of important features, being relatively abundant, long-living and large-growing.

Read more

Photos credit: Phil P Harris - Eric Pheterson - CIFOR

Honey bees will be fine. They are a globally distributed, domesticated animal. Apis mellifera will not go extinct, and the species is not remotely threatened with extinction. The National Survey of beekeepers released last week reported the lowest winter hive losses of the last 8 years.

The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of. Incredible losses in native bee diversity are already happening. 50 percent of Midwestern native bee species disappeared from their historic ranges in the last 100 years. Four of our bumblebee species declined 96 percent in the last 20 years, and three species are believed to already be extinct…  

That wouldn’t be a big deal, if commercial honeybees could pick up the slack. They can’t.  Managed honey bee colonies supplement the work of natural wild pollinators, not the other way around. In a study of 41 different crop systems worldwide, honeybees only increased yield in 14 percent of the crops. Who did all the pollination? Native bees and other insects.

^ This.

Acidic oceans linked to greatest extinction ever

Earth’s greatest extinction event happened in a one-two punch 252 million years ago. Research now suggests that the second pulse of extinction, during which nearly all marine species vanished from the planet, happened in the wake of huge volcanic eruptions that spewed out carbon dioxide and made the oceans more acidic.

The work, published in Science1, is the latest to try to pinpoint the causes of the ‘Great Dying’, at the end of the Permian period. The study uses chemical evidence in rocks from that period to calculate how quickly ocean chemistry shifted.

Clarkson, M. O. et al. Science 348, 229–232 (2015).

Trilobites survived for roughly 270 million years before disappearing at the end of the Permian period. Florilegius/SSPL/Getty

Cats are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the 100 worst non-native invasive species. […] They have caused or contributed to 14 percent of all modern bird, mammal and reptile extinctions.”

    - A Cat-Eat-Bird World


Noah Oasis - Vertical habitats from disused oil rigs

Oil rigs can be ugly things, and as they rust and decay they only become a worse blight on the ocean landscape. In an effort to change this, a group of Chinese designers - Ma Yidong, Zhu Zhonghui, Qin Zhengyu & Jiang Zhe - have produced a concept they call Noah Oasis; a vertical garden habitat that transforms rigs into something amazing. 

While the habitats would be shelters from the devastating effects of oil spills and other blights, they would also function as centres for research. At the top of the tower there would be large scale structures to allow for forest growth and places for birds to nest, with residential spaces and research wings in the middle sections, while beneath the water line large absorption lines (for drawing in spilt oil) would allow for the formation of reefs. 

They see their habitat functioning in three stages: 

“1. Short term strategy: absorption of spilled oil
when an oil spill incident happens, the floaters at the end of each pipe will immediately absorb the spilled oil covering the surface of the sea as an instant response.
2. Medium term strategy: habitat for marine life and migrating birds
the collected oil will be transported through the root-like pipes underwater to the central processor attached to the original rig, where the crude oil will be converted into catalyst for coral reef and produce plastic as building material. The catalyst will be transported back to the pipe to booster the growth of coral reef on its surface and the plastic will become the building material of the plastic-twig structure with the help of 3D printing and the injector. In this way, the project will become a habitat for vertical bio-habitat and help revive the biodiversity.
3. Long term strategy: shelter from future disasters
ultimately, when the sea level rises to a disastrous degree, the twig like structure would continue to remain above the sea level. Then the oil rig will become the noah oasis”

Whether the project is able to get off the ground or not remains to be seen, but this would certainly be a fantastic use of an otherwise decaying chunk of human waste. Can’t wait to see how it develops!

See more at: designboom

Environmental Science Day 1: What is Environmental Science?

Source: Google Timelapse Project 

Environmental Science is probably the most derived science we will be looking at here on Seven Days of Science; however, that does not make it any less important than any of the other disciplines we will be examining. Environmental science is the study of the environment and how to solve environmental problems. Our environment, to clarify, is the physical and biological factors factors along with their chemical interactions that affect an organism or a group of organisms. Since we are a global species, our environment is the entire planet. We as a species have had a profound affect on our environment, shown in the pictures above, in a relatively short period of time given the sheer amount of time our planet has existed. We are currently in the middle of a climate change crisis: our planet is warming at a rate quicker than organisms can adapt to cope with it. As such, we are currently in the middle of a mass extinction event. I think the importance of Environmental Science, therefore, as a field to include on 7DoS, is not only evident, but obvious. 

Environmental Science takes multiple different scientific disciplines and puts them all together to try and understand why the environment is changing and how we can fix environmental problems such as deforestation, climate change, invasive species, pollution, resource loss, the mass extinction, deglaciation, and so on. It is a science like any other, meaning that every conclusion has been reached through rigorous testing and study, and not merely through rhetoric. The multi-disciplinary examination of environmental problems has allowed for a significant amount of progress to be made in maintaining our environment since the 1960s and 1970s, however there is still a lot of work to go. It is of the utmost importance, furthermore, that we attempt to mitigate these environmental problems, as we as a species are exceptionally vulnerable to them. We rely on the planet’s stability to exist. There is no problem in our society more urgent than this. So as we cover our study of the environment and our current environmental crisis, we’re going to look at the various problems we are facing, and how to solve them. 

To do this, we will be looking at (once again) some key themes in environmental science: 

  1. The Earth is an interconnected system. Almost everything in the planet affects everything else in its actions, and even small changes to our natural surroundings can have profound effects on other lifeforms nearby. Natural systems themselves change over time and space and have since our planet was formed. 
  2. Energy and matter on the planet must cycle through our environmental systems. Energy, for example, has to cycle through food webs between the organisms in our community; however, as it does this it decreases at every step as the energy is used by an organism and is not available for the next step on the food chain to consume. Matter also cycles in our environment, from carbon to nitrogen to oxygen, and all react differently to climate change. Furthermore, no resource, whether it be energy or matter, is infinite. 
  3. Our planet’s environment and climate has changed dramatically over deep time, and understanding how various types of change have affected organisms on the planet can help to understand how changes currently occurring on our planet now will affect organisms today. 
  4. Sustainability is the idea that we must change our behaviors to those that can continue productively and indefinitely. Sustainability allows for biological systems to persevere over time and it is how life has continued on this planet for approximately 4 billion years (the exact date life evolved is… questionable). An important part of environmental science is figuring out how human activities can be changed to sustainable ones that will not further damage our environment and can persist for long periods of time. 
  5. Humans have had a profound effect on natural systems, changing our planet for the hundreds of thousands of years that we have existed on it. The technological age we currently live in has caused an extreme increase in these changes, dramatically affecting various aspects of our environment. 
  6. Human survival is what depends on environmentalism. There have been many mass extinctions and dramatic climate change events in our Earth’s history; life has always bounced back from them. However, human life depends on our current environment and the sustainability of that environment; this makes it essential that we not only curtail current problems, but manage our resources and current environment better. 

Since this science is so far-reaching and complex, it has a wide variety of disciplines that contribute to it: 

  • Biology (the study of life), including disciplines of biology: 
    • Zoology, the study of animals
    • Botany, the study of plants
    • Microbiology, the study of microorganisms
    • Ecology, the study of how organisms interact with their environment and each other (one of the most important contributors to environmental science. Though they are not identical, often they are made equivalent in the public mind.) 
  • Earth Sciences, the study of the Earth’s nonliving systems as a whole: 
    • Geology, as we know, the study of the Earth’s surface, interior processes, and history 
    • Paleontology, the study of fossils and ancient life 
    • Climatology, the study of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate 
    • Hydrology, the study of the Earth’s water resources 
  • Physics, as we know, the study of matter and energy 
    • Engineering, or making matter and energy useful to humans - environmental engineering focuses on making sustainable technologies that will improve life for humans and the environment 
  • Chemistry, as we know, the study of matter and the interactions of matter 
    • Biochemistry, the study of the chemistry of living things 
    • Geochemistry, the study of the chemistry of rocks, soil, and water 
  • Social Sciences actually contribute heavily to environmental science, as humans are an important part of it - social sciences being the study of human populations 
    • Geography, the study of the relationship between human populations and the Earth’s features
    • Anthropology, the study of the interactions of the biological, cultural, geographical, and historical aspects of humanity
    • Sociology, the study of human population dynamics and statistics 
    • Economics, the study of human production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services 
    • Political Science, the study of systems of government and the analysis of political activity and political behavior 

As you can see, we have a lot to tackle here at 7DoS to understand hour our planet is changing and what we can all do to make it more sustainable over time. So check in every Saturday to learn about environmental science, and why it is so important. 


Sources for the text:

A good, educational weekend read from The Guardian, making the case for “regnerative agriculture” over the more industrial (but apparently trendy) idea of “geongineering:”

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?

Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarter of current emissions.

The rest is here. Via Metafilter,

— rw

Pollen and clouds: April flowers bring May showers?

The main job of pollen is to help seed the next generation of trees and plants, but a new study from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M shows that the grains might also seed clouds.The unexpected findings demonstrate that these wind-carried capsules of genetic material might have an effect on the planet’s climate. And they highlight a new link between plants and the atmosphere.

A tree that holds pollen grains that Allison Steiner, an associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences; and her team of researchers at the University of Michigan believe can seed clouds. When the pollen gets wet from these trees, it breaks down into smaller particles that can hold condensation for cloud formation. Credit: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing       

Journal reference: Geophysical Research Letters

100 Trees a Year

Last September, I set a goal for myself to plant at least 100 trees a year, every year for the rest of my life.

Just today, I planted about that many oaks, apples, roses, and currants in gaps in the local forested area.

I planted seedlings grown from Danish oak trees, basal shoots from an apple cultivar that was bred in Denmark, seeds from a local gardener’s roses, and cuttings of my own Danish black and redcurrant bushes.

I am changing the ecosystem to one in which other people–as well as other animals–can easily forage, but trying to do so with local or locally-cultivated species as much as possible.

This isn’t an option everywhere, or even always a good idea: I currently live on an engineered wetland, and I’ve identified that the area has naturalised Japanese roses, Syrian plums, and North American dogwoods, in addition to indigenous edible species like elderberry and sea buckthorn.

As it isn’t pristine, untouched, ancient forest, I feel comfortable “disrupting” it by adding desirable fruit plants, especially around parks and pathways that are far from traffic, where people are more likely to want to pick wild fruit. 

In a few weeks, I will also have a few hundred seedling apple and pear trees that I will bike around and plant in public space as well: most of them won’t survive, but the ones that do will be those hardy enough to survive local conditions.

I’ve saved and planted every seed from every single apple or pear I have eaten this year, and I can already see a healthy crop of seedling trees coming up in the garden.

I don’t just give: I also take from the local area.

I’ve moved seedling trees that were doomed to be shaded out on the forest floor to places where they can attract local pollinators and birds into my forest garden.

On some level, I am merely hoping this is a balanced “give and take”–I plant much more than I move, always create a surplus–and I try to plant with both local ecology and local people in mind.

There is always a perceived “nature/culture” conflict between those two interests, but as we are ourselves animals, I more or less see what I do as a form of primate zoochory. Apes that aren’t very genetically dissimilar to us plant the fruit they prefer in the forests in which they live, so I have to figure it is within my rights as an organism to make my environment richer in nutritional resources!

I look forward to visiting this area in a decade or more, and literally seeing the “fruits” of my labour.

Help this blog plant 10 000 trees in 2015.