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April 21, 2014

What Does The Environment Do For Us?

A lot of people that I've talked to or overheard in conversation when talking about why the environment should be saved in a "wilderness" state often give the beauty of nature or the transcendental experience of being in a wilder setting as reasons.  Many find peace of mind, artistic inspiration and a sense of connectedness with the universe wandering in the great out-of-doors.  Some also note that you need to save wilderness areas to provide habitat for the animals and plants that call those places home.  If you lose those places you'll lose the animals and plants as well.


All of these reasons are good reasons to preserve our natural inheritance, but for people who are more business oriented or who don't enjoy nature that much might not be convinced that these reasons are sufficient to override the necessity for development and resource harvesting.

I was reading an interesting paper from BioScience journal called, "Linking Ecology and Economics for Ecosystem Management" that tried to take a more quantitative approach to valuing ecosystem services for the purpose of taking into account what monetary value is being lost by developing natural ecosystems.  

A satellite image of deforestation
At the most fundamental level humans and most other organisms (perhaps some bacteria are exceptions) could not survive long without the complex networks of services that we provide for one another.  All lifeforms are totally interdependent and are players in complex cycles where everything gets used and recycled.

Ecosystem services are all the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems and the biosphere.  These services come in many forms and we'll go through many examples so that the next time someone, who maybe doesn't appreciate the beauty of nature, asks you why the environment should be preserved you'll be able to give some other, more utilitarian/anthropocentric, reasons.

Beyond beauty and the artistic/spiritual value of nature, and beyond the fact that many plants and animals call these wild places home, many people value nature for the purpose of all kinds of recreation from camping, hiking, canoeing, biking and other outdoor sports to photography, birdwatching, site-seeing, etc.  


At a more utilitarian level, we receive all of the necessities of life from the environment.  Everything we see in our homes and our communities came from the environment.  Perhaps it was metal ore from deep in the ground that was used to make railroad tracks, skyscrapers, bridges, machines, tools, parts in our cellphones and computers.  Perhaps it was coal, oil, or natural gas that now is being combusted to move our cars, trains, planes or to produce electricity.  Maybe it was wood cut down in the Pacific Northwest or the Amazonian Rainforest that is now our tables, desks, cupboards, bookshelves, doors or house-frames.  Maybe it was some plant harvested for food, drink, chemicals, lotion, medicine or fuel.  Maybe it was a medicinal herb that helps soothe a cold or a compound produced by a bacteria with anti-cancer properties.  Maybe it was some animal that was slaughtered for food, clothing, or apparel.  Everything comes from the environment whether near or far.  It can be fun to look at something like a computer and to try to deconstruct it down to its components and trying to guess where it all came from, how it was made, and who made it.

The provisioning of raw resources are more commonplace services that the environment provides, that many of us are aware of, though we may often forget them and take their complexity for granted (for instance, we might eat a cow, but what was necessary for that cow to survive?  It needed to eat grass, the grass needs sunlight, air, water, and good soil which requires bacteria and fungi which make nutrients accessible as well as worms that help nutrients cycle underground, and these worms, fungi and bacteria need things, etc.  It can get complex fast.), but there are other ecosystem services that many of us are not aware of though they are just as important, if not even more important.  

Nutrient cycling is one such extremely important, but ofter overlooked, ecosystem service that bacteria, fungi, protozoans, nematodes, and various other microorganisms as well as worms, and burrowing animals, etc., provide.  Nutrient cycling helps keep the soil fertile and often helps the soil retain moisture.  This is important for our crops as well as all plants which are the base of many food webs.  If nutrients didn't cycle, as a plant would grow its roots would deplete the soil in its vicinity.  The roots could grow longer to reach nutrients further and further away, but there is a limit to how long roots can grow.  The roots could also divide into a finer network to extract nutrients in the in-between places, but there is a limit to how finely divided a root system can become.  Thus, rather than the plant depleting its local area and eternally growing to reach nutrients further-and-further away, the nutrients come to the plant.  Bacteria and fungi make nutrients from atmospheric gases and transport those nutrients to plants in exchange for photosynthetically made sugars from the plant; worms and burrowing animals move nutrients from deeper levels to higher levels; decomposers breakdown dead organic matter into nutrients that the plant can use.  All of these processes make nutrients available to plants without the plant having to move or invest energy in growth.

Pollination and seed dispersal are another important, but often overlooked ecosystem service.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council approximately 30% of the world's crops are pollinated by bees alone.  Many plants require pollinators from bats and birds, to bees and butterflies to sexually reproduce.  Without this pollinator service many plants would soon die off and this would effect many other things like soil quality, climate, the gas composition of the atmosphere, and the number and kind of organisms that live off of plant matter in some way just to name a few.

Seed dispersion is necessary for many plants to increase their range size, to maintain genetic diversity, to increase the odds of rooting in fertile ground, to reduce local competition for resources, etc. and can be performed by insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals including humans.

Climate Control, atmospheric regulation and the regulation of the hydrological cycle are yet another often overlooked ecosystem services provided by many organisms.  These services are perhaps provided more subtly and seem more abstract, but in the absence of a favorable climate, atmosphere and water cycle much of life on Earth would perish.  We all contribute to atmospheric regulation.  All organisms respire and produce CO2 or a CO2 equivalent (even plants produce some CO2).  Other organisms, like plants, algae and some bacteria make atmospheric oxygen out of CO2, while other bacteria make methane and nitrogen gas.  Just how the chemical composition of the atmosphere is maintained is still somewhat of a mystery, but we all contribute in some way and benefit too.

Organisms effect their climate.  Let's take a forest as an example.  A forest tends to be cooler and more humid than a city.  There is even some evidence that forests, because they are cooler and more humid, might generate some of their own rain in a way similar to "lake effect" precipitation.  Additionally, because forests retain moisture, they tend to help water percolate deep and recharge underground aquifers.  This process also helps purify water.  For all of these reasons when forests like the rain forests are clear-cut the land tends to become much drier and hotter, prone to desertification and fires.  Thus, many of the climates we enjoy on Earth might, in part, be created by the organisms around us and we would be wise to maintain them so that all of Earth doesn't become a harsh, hot, barren desert. 

Organisms who provide biological waste regulation services just like your local garbage collector tend to be under-acknowledged for their efforts.  Decomposers and nutrient recyclers are constantly at work.  Could you imagine living on an Earth where nothing dead ever broke down?  The Earth would be a heap of all the bodies of the plants, animals and microorganisms that ever lived with no room to live and with all the nutrients tied up.  Luckily, there are decomposers and recycling-minded organisms (like fungi and bacteria) who break down dead things into their elemental parts so that the nutrients can be re-used to make the bodies of organisms living, growing and still yet to be born.

Other organisms get rid of, detoxify or store our waste and pollution.  Wetlands are very good at removing pollutants, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals from rivers and lakes.  Other organisms help purify the air by removing pollutants and storing them in their bodies.  Many bacteria in the soil break down many human-made chemicals and remove molecules from water, in a purifying process, as it percolates to underground aquifers that we then can use as drinking water or irrigation water.

Other ecosystem services also go unnoticed like the disturbance mitigation wetlands and mangrove forests provide against flooding and tidal waves, or wind breaking by trees, or the prevention of landslides and erosion by the roots of plants. 

Biological regulation like pest control by predators is an important ecosystem service that we receive.  If there were no checks and balances on organisms like mosquitoes, termites, mice, bacteria, pathogens, etc., Earth would be a very different place (probably a very miserable one).  Biodiversity is one of the best protections against disease-causing organisms because it controls their populations and limits the extent of their range as well as provides competition for their niche.

The biological world also provides genetic resources which are important for resilience.  Diversity is necessary for life to survive a dynamic and sometimes harsh environment.  In agriculture, crosses are often made in the lab between ancestral corn plants and modern versions of corn when varieties need to be selected that can survive droughts better or that can survive the attacks of certain pests better, for example.  Lately, scientists have exploited the genetic diversity of bacterial toxins for crop production by putting those bacterial genes in corn and other crops as an insecticide.

Science and society also benefit from the intellectual ecosystem services of education and imagination.  Would we ever have thought of the possibility of flying had we not seen birds and insects flying?  Would we ever have developed anti-biotics had Alexander Flemming not noticed that a fungus was creating compounds that were keeping bacterial colonies at bay?  Will we develop renewable energy sources in the future mimicking the processes of photosynthesis?

For all of the ecosystem services that organisms on Earth provide for us how many more are provided that we're unaware of?  Is it possible that there are many other services provided that we're not aware of?  Is this reason enough to try and protect the biodiversity that exists on Earth?

The Earth and its organisms do so many things for us, to keep us alive, that we don't have to work or pay for.  These ecosystem services range from artistic inspiration and peace of mind, to water filtration, climate control, atmospheric chemistry regulation and the provisioning of food.  It can truly be said that we humans are totally dependent upon the organisms of this Earth for survival.  It's probably wise for us to keep that in mind as we go forward in this modern age.

-Seth Commichaux

April 8, 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Blog Series Summary of 2014 Report


Global Warming/Climate Change is a contentious issue of modern times, but too important of an issue, with implications for everyone on Earth, to ignore and for us to remain uninformed about the scientific evidence and predictions about its consequences for us and the rest of the biosphere.  The scientific literature is building and consensus about its reality, as well as the evidence that its major driver is human activity, is growing.  Between 1970 and 1990 less than 1,000 scientific articles, books and conference proceedings were published about climate change in English.  However, by the end of 2012 there were over 102,000 and the number is dramatically increasing as more and more people are affected and become aware of global warming/climate change.  When you include scientific articles from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Australia, the number is even greater. (2)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a major organization founded by the United Nation's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has recently released (March 31, 2014) one of the most comprehensive reports and analysis of climate change to date.  It also includes some of the most sophisticated, scientific models for predicting future outcomes of Global Warming/Climate change.  I've taken it upon myself to read as much of the IPCC report as I humanly can and to write a blog series summarizing and citing its findings to inform you about the current state of science on the issue of Global Warming/Climate Change.  It was reviewed by 1729 experts from 84 countries, had 436 contributing authors from 54 countries and over12,000 scientific references were cited.  The panel made a conscious effort to have a diverse and fair representation of authors and reviewers, both in terms of gender and national background, to minimize political, religious and cultural biases. (1)



"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.  Human influence on the climate system is clear; it has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes." (2)  I mention here also the acidification of the ocean and the detectable rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane that can be directly attributed to the combustion of fossil fuels.

It is likely that the global mean temperature will continue to rise throughout the 21st century and that the "length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas."  "It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe."  (2)

Figure 1.  Showing the strong correlation between mean global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide increase

Figure 2. The periodic oscillations of carbon dioxide over the past 400,000 years and the uncharacteristic spike who's beginning strongly correlates with the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Three goals of the Working Group (WG) who wrote the IPCC report:
1) Detect and identify impacts of climate change
2) Identify what of climate change can be attributed to human activity
3) Predict and project effects of climate change into the 21st century

"As basic resources such as energy, land, food or water become threatened, inequalities and unfairness may deepen leading to maladaptation and new forms of vulnerability.  Responses to climate change may have consequences and outcomes that favor certain populations or regions.  For example, there are increasing cases of land-grabbing and large acquisitions of land or water rights for industrial agriculture, mitigation projects or biofuels that have negative consequences on local and marginalized communities." (2)

• Risks to Unique and Threatened Systems: biodiversity and many ecosystems such as polar and high mountain communities are at increased risk of adverse impacts from temperatures increase
• Risks Associated with Extreme Weather Events:  projected increases in droughts, heat waves, extreme high-water coastal events, a rise in sea-levels and floods, as well as their adverse impacts.
• Risks Associated with the Distribution of Impacts: “There are sharp differences across regions and those in the weakest economic position are often the most vulnerable to climate change."  However, the poor and elderly are vulnerable groups in developed and developing countries alike.
• Risks Associated with Aggregate Impacts: Whatever benefits come from less-severe winters and cold-spells will be dwarfed by the negative costs of excessive heat and more severe weather patterns.

Even if we adjust our behavior now we will not be able to avoid further impacts of climate change for decades to come, but if we don't adjust our behavior the magnitude of effects caused by climate change will likely make "adaptation impossible for some natural systems;" while humanity will likely suffer "very high social and economic costs." (2)

"the deployment of renewable energy technologies has increased rapidly in recent years, often associated with cost reductions that are expected to continue with advancing technology. Despite the small contribution of renewable energy to current energy supplies.....the global potential of renewable energy...(is)...substantially higher than the global energy demand. It is therefore not the technological potential of renewable energy that constrains its development, but rather economic factors, system integration, constraints, public acceptance, and sustainability concerns." (2)

"Economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters have increased, but with large spatial and (temporal) variability."  Disaster losses, fatality rates and economic losses due to climate related events are higher in developing countries.  "From 1970-2008....more than 95% of deaths from natural disasters were in developing countries."  "environmental degradation, unplanned urbanization, failure of governance or reduction of livelihood options result in increased exposure and vulnerability to disasters."  "improvements in governance and technology...(and)...more transformational changes are essential for reducing risk from climate extremes." (2)


Greenhouse gases and climate forcing:

"Human activities are the dominant cause of the observed increase in well mixed greenhouse gases (GHGs) since 1750 and of the consequent increase in climate forcing." (2)
  1. GHGs have continued to increase and at an accelerated rate since 1970. 
  2. Present-day (2011) abundances of CO2, CH4, and N2O exceed the range over the past
    800,000 years found in ice cores.
  3. Annual emission of CO2 from fossil fuels and cement production was 9.5 GtC in 2011, 54% above the 1990 level.
  4. More than 20% of added CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for longer than 1000 years.
  5. Cumulative CO2 emissions from 1750 to 2011 are 365 GtC (fossil fuel and cement) plus 180 GtC (deforestation and other land-use change). This 545 GtC represents about half of the 1000 GtC total that can be emitted and still keep global warming under 2 °C relative to the reference period 1861-1880.
  6. ***In 2010, GHG emissions surpassed 50 Gt CO2-eq (13.6 GtC), higher than in any previous year  since 1750. Most of the emission growth between 2000 and 2010 came from fossil-fuel use in the energy and industry sectors, and took place in emerging economies. This emission growth  was not met by significant GHG emission cuts in the industrialized country group, which continued to dominate historical long-term contributions to global CO2 emissions. In 2010,  median per capita GHG emissions in high income countries were roughly ten times higher than in low-income countries.***
Surface Temperatures:
  1. Global mean surface temperature increased by 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C over the period 1880–
    2012 (linear trend) and by 0.72°C over the period 1951–2012. Each of the last three decades (from 1983 to 2012) has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. 
  2. More than half of the 1951-2010 temperature increase is due to the observed
    anthropogenic increase in GHG (Greenhouse Gases).
  3. The projected near term (2016-2035) mean surface temperature increase is 0.9–1.3 °C, and the long term (2081-2100) ranges from 0.9–2.3 °C to 3.2–5.4 °C.
  4. Global temperatures during the last interglacial period (~120,000 years ago) were never more than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. By 2050 the global warming range is 1.5°C to 2.3°C above the 1850-1900 period based on the range across all...models.
  1. Precipitation (global annual averages) will increase as temperatures increase, and the contrast between dry and wet regions and that between wet and dry seasons will increase over most of the globe.
  2. High latitudes will experience more precipitation;many moist mid latitude regions will also experience more; while many mid latitude and subtropical arid and semiarid regions will experience less.
  Extreme temperatures and precipitation:
  1. Extreme high temperatures (20-year return values) are projected to increase at a rate similar to or greater than the rate of increase of summer mean temperatures in most regions.
  2. In the long term heat waves will occur at higher frequency and longer duration in response to increased seasonal mean temperatures.
  3. With global warming, the frequency and intensity of heavy/extreme precipitation events will increase over most mid latitude land and over wet tropical regions.
Floods and droughts:
  1. In many regions, historical droughts (last 1000 years) and historical floods (last 500 years)
    have been more severe than those observed since 1900.
  2. The frequency and intensity of drought has increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa, and it has decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950.
  3. There is low confidence in attributing drought changes to human influence.
Tropical cyclones, storms, and wave heights:
  1. The frequency and intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic has increased since the 1970s.
  2. The maximum wind speed and precipitation rates of tropical cyclones will increase.
  3. Circulation features have moved poleward since the 1970s, including a poleward shift of storm tracks and jet streams.
  4. With global warming, a shift to more intense individual storms and fewer weak storms is projected.
  5. Mean significant wave height has increased over much of the Atlantic north of 45°N since 1950, with winter season trends of up to 20 cm/decade.
  6. Wave heights and the duration of the wave season will increase in the Arctic Ocean as a result of reduced sea-ice extent. Wave heights will increase in the Southern Ocean as a result of enhanced wind speeds.
Ocean warming, stratification and circulation:
  1. Overall, the ocean has warmed throughout most of its depth over some periods since 1950, and this warming accounts for about 93% of the increase in Earth's energy inventory between 1971 and 2010.
  2. The upper ocean above 700 m has warmed from 1971 to 2010, and the thermal stratification has increased by about 4% above 200 m depth.  Anthropogenic forcings have made a substantial contribution to this upper ocean warming.
  3. To date there is no observational evidence of a long-term trend in Atlantic Meridional  Overturning Circulation; and over the 21st century it is projected to weaken but not undergo an abrupt transition or collapse.
Ocean acidification and low-oxygen:
  1. Oceanic uptake of anthropogenic CO2 results in gradual acidification of the ocean. Since 1750 the pH of seawater has decreased by 0.1 (a 26% increase in hydrogen ion concentration).
  2. Aragonite under-saturation becomes widespread in parts of the Arctic and Southern Oceans and in some coastal upwelling systems at atmospheric CO2 levels of 500–600 ppm.  (This means that many shellfish's shells (such as mollusks) as well as coral's will dissolve in the acidity of the ocean.)
  3. Oxygen concentrations have decreased since the 1960s in the open ocean thermocline of many regions. By 2100, the oxygen content of the ocean will decrease by a few percent.  (This could cause the suffocation of many lifeforms who separate oxygen from the water when they respire underwater.)
Figure 3. A coral on a beach
Sea ice:
  1. The annual Arctic sea ice extent decreased at a rate of 3.5 to 4.1% per decade between 1979 and 2012.  The average Arctic winter sea ice thickness decreased between 1980 and 2008.
  2. Over the past three decades, Arctic summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented and Arctic sea surface temperatures were anomalously high, compared with the last 1,450 years.
  3. With global warming, further shrinking and thinning of Arctic sea ice cover is projected, and the Arctic Ocean will be nearly ice-free in September before 2050 for the high-warming scenarios.
  4. Annual Antarctic sea ice extent increased by 1.2 to 1.8 % per decade between 1979 and 2012.  The scientific understanding of this observed increase has low confidence. With global  warming, Antarctic sea ice extent and volume is expected to decrease (low confidence).
Ice sheets, glaciers, snow cover and permafrost:
  1. During periods over the past few million years that were globally warmer than present, the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets were smaller.
  2. The Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets have on average lost ice during the last two decades,  and the rate of loss has increased over the most recent decade to a sea-level rise equivalent of 0.6 mm/y for Greenland and 0.4 mm/yr for Antarctica.
  3. Almost all glaciers world-wide have continued to shrink since the mid-20th century.  
  4. Over the last decade, most ice was lost from glaciers in Alaska, Canadian Arctic, Greenland Ice Sheet periphery, Southern Andes, and Asian Mountains.  Current glacier extents are out of  balance with current climate, and glaciers will continue to shrink even without further warming.
  5. Snow cover extent has decreased in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in spring.
  6. Permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s: observed  warming was up to 3°C in parts of Northern Alaska and 2°C in parts of the Russian European North.
Sea level rise:
  1. During the last interglacial period, when global mean temperatures were no more than 2°C  above preindustrial values (medium confidence), maximum global mean sea level was, for  several thousand years, 5 m to 10 m with substantial contributions from Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets.
  2. The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.
  3. Global mean sea level has risen at an average rate of 1.7 mm/yr from 1901 to 2010 and at a faster rate, 3.2 mm/yr, from 1993 to 2010 (this current rate is approximately 1.26 inches/decade).
  4. If global warming exceeds a certain threshold resulting in near-complete loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet over a millennium or more (confidence not assessed), global mean sea level would rise about 7 m.
  5. The magnitude of extreme high sea level events has increased since 1970. Future sea level  extremes will become more frequent beyond 2050, primarily as a result of increasing mean sea level.
Climate patterns:
  1. Models project an eastward shift of El Niño temperature and  precipitation variations over the North Pacific and North America. El Niño remains the dominant mode of inter-annual climate variability in the future, and the El Niño precipitation anomalies will intensify due to increased moisture.
  2. Monsoon onset dates become earlier or do not change and monsoon retreat dates delay,  lengthening the monsoon season. Reduced warming and decreased precipitation is projected in the eastern tropical Indian Ocean, with increased warming and precipitation in the western, influencing East Africa and Southeast Asia precipitation.

"A continuation of current trends of technological change in the absence of explicit climate change mitigation policies is not sufficient to bring about stabilization of greenhouse gases. Scenarios, which are more likely than not, to limit temperature increase to 2° C are becoming increasingly challenging." (2)

Sources Cited:

1) http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_FactSheet.pdf
2) The IPCC's WG II 5th assessment report on climate change (March 31, 2014)

-Seth Commichaux

March 14, 2014

Juniper-Pinyon Forests On The Move!

In Utah, a forest has been on the move.  The Pinyon-Juniper forest has been expanding.  

A forest might seem frozen-in-time unless it's a windy day, but on other timescales trees are quite active.  Many plants move in circadian cycles or in response to sunlight.  Plants with tendrils like bean plants will reach out into their surroundings with their tendrils until they find something to grab on to, like a bean pole, at which point they will steady themselves and continue to grow upwards.  But these timescales are much too short for a forest to move.  For a forest to move it may take many, many generations.  Depending on the trees involved this may take tens, hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years.  It seems, trees might just have a different sense of time than we do.  The human perspective is limited by the fact that most of us will only live 80 years or so.  A juniper in California is believed to be over 3,000 years old and it isn't unusual for local Pinyons and Junipers to reach several hundreds of years old.  This still isn't very old compared to the age of the Earth (~4.5 billion years old).  It is hard to imagine how much change has occurred over such a long history.  Regardless, Pinyon-Juniper forests are dynamic when viewed at a speed of a hundred years per second, moving north and south, east and west, up mountains and then down again as the environment changes.

It's hard to know what the landscape was like a thousand years ago, or ten thousand, or a million, or a billion, but there is evidence that the majority of Pinyons and Junipers were living much farther south than today, only reaching as far North as Arizona, by the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago (it's weird to think that during this time period giant sloths, wooly mammoths and saber toothed cats might've been moving amongst the same kind of Pinyon-Juniper forests that we see today.  Things change fast!).  It would be interesting to see if, back in the ice age, the Pinyons and Junipers grew to the same size or if they even looked the same as modern versions, knowing that climate and species-interactions affect the expression of genes and thus the way the trees would've looked.

Today, Pinyons and Junipers can be found from Mexico to Montana @ altitudes from 3500'-9000' in dry environments receiving ~10"-22" of precipitation a year.  Generally the forests are composed of Colorado Pinyon with one or a combination of One-Seed Juniper, Utah Juniper, Alligator Juniper, and Rocky Mountain Juniper.

As the climate changes, organisms change their ranges in response.  Also, when ecosystem composition changes or when the relationships between organisms changes, oftentimes so do the ranges of the organisms involved directly or inadvertently.  These ecosystem, compositional changes and range-shifts can happen quite fast (hundreds or thousands of years) compared to geologic time scales (millions and billions of years).  Thus, 10,000 years from now the junipers and pinyons might have moved to other areas of the continent.

More recently, meaning from 12,000 years ago until up to about 150 years ago, immigrants from Asia (the Native Americans) helped shape the range of the Pinyon-Juniper forest by cutting it down for firewood, using the pine nuts of the pinyons for a major food source as well as not controlling fires as stringently as we do today.  With the arrival of European and American explorers, pioneers and many other immigrants, tree densities initially decreased especially during the mid-nineteenth century when many Pinyons were cut down.  This was done for two reasons: For one, it undermined many Native American groups who used pine nuts in the Great Basin for a major food staple in their diet.  Secondly, the pinyons were used to make charcoal for ore-processing.  Eventually, these activities were discontinued and the Pinyon-Juniper forest began to increase its range and density.  Pinyon-Juniper forests have expanded their ranges up-slope into ponderosa pine forests and down-slope into grass and shrub communities (especially sagebrush steppe).  Much of this recent expansion can be attributed to our controlling wildfires, overgrazing grasslands and shrub-lands with domestic herds, and human-induced climate change with its corresponding increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. 

For the most part, Pinyons and Junipers have a hard time getting their offspring to move to new areas and for their seeds to germinate without a little help.  Thus Pinyon-Juniper forest movement is actually the result of the activity of symbiosis.  For Pinyons, the Pinyon Jay is the major disperser of seeds.  It takes about 2.5 years for the Pinyon seeds to mature.  The Pinyon Jay uses the mature Pinyon pine nuts as a food source, but it also has a useful (useful for the Pinyons) habit of burying the seeds for storage.  This is especially useful for the Pinyons if the Pinyon Jay forgets about its stashes (not so useful for Pinyon Jays, but it seems one's mistake is another's fortune).  These buried seeds have the best chance of germinating and growing to adulthood.  Indeed, Pinyon seeds will rarely germinate in the wild unless they are cached by jays or other animals.  It seems that the Pinyon Jay has a habit of burying these stashes of seeds at the base of Juniper trees.  If you walk through a Pinyon-Juniper forest you often see the Pinyon trees growing right next to the Junipers, as if they were growing from the same hole.  This is because Pinyons need nurse plants to grow and Junipers tend to be nurse plants for Pinyons.  A nurse plant according to wikipedia "is one with an established canopy, beneath which germination and survival are more likely due to increased shade, soil moisture, and nutrients. Thus, the relationship between seedlings and their nurse plants is commensal. However, as the seedlings grow into established plants, they are likely to compete with their former benefactors for resources."

For Junipers, Jackrabbits and rodents (and coyotes to a lesser degree) are the main seed dispersers.  Depending on the species of Juniper, the seeds and fruits may take 1,2 or 3 years to mature.  The scarification of the seeds that occurs in the guts of the animals who eat the berries of the Juniper, as well as the excrement the seeds get balled up with before being dropped off at some new location in the environment all seem to be necessary for the successful germination and propagation of Junipers.

Many other animals use Pinyon-Juniper forests for habitat like Deer, Elk, Magpies, etc.  It is also important habitat for many winter-migrating birds.

Many farmers, ranchers, range-managers and others see the expansion of Pinyon-Juniper forests as a nuisance, even as a danger, because it is a fire hazard and crowds out grasses and shrubs for grazing of domestic animals.

Various studies show, however, that though overly dense stands of Pinyon-Juniper trees do in fact crowd out grasses and shrubs, and can pose a fire hazard, their complete elimination doesn't provide the healthiest habitat either.  Creating a patchwork, savannah-like forest seems to provide the most habitat for native animals and plants who are reliant upon these forests while also maximizing the amount of grasses and shrubs for grazing purposes.  If the trees are cut too thin or dispersed, they can't easily reproduce and replace themselves with newer generations nor can they provide adequate cover for animals and birds who use these trees to hide, rest, shelter, and nest.  Before we began to micro-manage wildfires, it seems that Pinyon-Juniper forests were evolved to withstand regular, but limited fires every 50-100 years, the forest requiring about 80-90 years to re-establish itself after such a fire.  If fires are too frequent or too large the trees can't regenerate their populations (the Utah Juniper requires about 30 years to reach sexual maturity).

After fires, the former Pinyon-Juniper forest goes through a many-years-long, ecological process of succession to get back to the forest ecosystem.  The year of or directly after the fire only perennial grasses grow.  After a few years, the perennial grasses start being joined by shrubs and after a decade or so grasses and shrubs are joined by trees.  Oftentimes, in these circumstances, sagebrush serves as a nurse plant for young Junipers who will then in turn be nurse plants for Pinyons.  As the trees get bigger they start displacing shrubs and grasses.  Thus we see that even on a shorter timescale of just a few decades that the environment is still dynamic and shape-shifting.  One species displaces another while paving the way for others to establish themselves.  Because of ecological succession, if there isn't occasionally a fire, or some other disturbance, the Pinyon-Juniper forest will eventually crowd out many other species of grasses and shrubs which in turn support a whole community of other animals and plants.  Thus for an ecosystem to be healthy and diverse, some disturbance is necessary.

As of late, we've been experiencing more frequent droughts.  With human-induced and natural climate change an on-going process, we might even see more droughts.  This is bad for Pinyons.  One study I read found that Pinyons have a 6.5 times greater mortality rate than Junipers during and following droughts.  This means that Pinyon-Juniper forests are slowly becoming Juniper-dominated forests, Junipers being more drought tolerant.  This is bad for the organisms that depend upon Pinyons like Pinyon Jays, other avian seed-dispersers, rodents, rabbits, deer, fungal and bacterial symbionts, etc. as well as the Pinyon-Juniper community which will generally be affected in unpredictable ways.

If I've conveyed anything to you, I hope it is the fact that environments are dynamic and mobile.  They change composition and direction in response to the climate and by the influences of interactions with other organisms (like humans!).  While a community, like a flock of birds, may move very fast in response to a change in weather, migrating South for the Winter for instance, other communities, like a forest, are just as sensitive to local conditions, but they move much more slowly (with the help of seed dispersers), perhaps taking hundreds or thousands of years to shift their range.  Locally, the community may change composition even faster after a disturbance such as a fire, going through a process of ecological succession. 

Life is ever-dynamic and amazingly adaptable!

-Seth Commichaux

Sources Cited:










February 21, 2014

What Lives On A Sloth

There is a small, furry creature creeping at a snail's pace up in the branches of the cacao trees of Costa Rica (found in various regions of Central and South America)!  It's a three-toed sloth! Like all creatures, this sloth has an amazing life-story to share with you, but we only have enough space here to hear one tale.  I read a story about a scientific study in the New York Times about why three-toed-sloths make a dangerous journey to the forest floor.  Being a good journalist I had to ask the sloth a rude question to see if the story was true.  I asked, "Why do you only go to the bottom of the tree once a week just to go to the bathroom?"  (Ever seen a sloth blush?  Neither have I.  They're very composed afterall.)  Let's listen to the sloth's response.

Hello?  Hello?  Can you hear me?  This is Sloth here.  No up here.  Look up higher in the trees.

Credit: New York Times

Hello there.  I do say that's not a very couth question to ask a respectable sloth like me, but if you insist on knowing I'll tell you. 

We sloths are very slow.  A normal speed for us is about .15 mph and we have a tendency to be a bit snoozey, sleeping 15-20 hours a day.  Don't laugh, it's not that we're lazy.  No, no, no.  You see we have a very restricted diet of leaves and leaves aren't very nutritious.  Not to mention, many of them are toxic at that.  Because we live off of plant matter we have to let the leaves ferment in our guts; that means that we have to wait for microorganisms like bacteria, archaeans and fungi to break it down into little bits that we can digest.  In fact, we have the slowest metabolism in the whole mammal class.  It's the lack of nutrition and our slow metabolism that cause us to move so slow.

So, you wonder, if we three-toed-sloths are so slow, why do we leave the safety of the trees once a week to go to the bathroom at the forest floor when feral dogs, coyotes and panthers could so easily snatch us away (1/2 of all our deaths occur on the ground afterall)?  Firstly, we need to separate ourselves from our two-toed-sloth cousins who never leave the safety of the trees to go #2.  Look out below!  But that is because our two-toed cousins move a little faster than we do and they eat a more diverse diet than just leaves including fruits and animals.  On the other hand, we three-toed-sloths, if you remember, have a very poor diet of just leaves.  We leave the safety of the trees for the sake of our diet you could say.

Scientists used to think we were just fertilizing our favorite trees.  Ha Ha Ha.  But the real reason is that when we climb down the cacao trees and go to the bathroom a whole bunch of moths come out of our fur and lay their eggs in our poo.  P U!  I hope they plug their noses.  When the moth eggs hatch the larvae eat the dung to grow.  When the larvae are full grown they go flying up into the canopy of the forest to find one of us three-toed-sloths to call home.  You see, these moths are special moths to us.  They live nowhere else in the world, except in our fur.  That makes them pretty special and us pretty special too.  When we groom, our claws move so slow that the moths can move out of the way without being harmed and over 100 of those moths can be living in the fur of just one of us!

Why are there moths living in our fur you might ask.  Well as it turns out, when they die in our fur the bacteria and fungi on our body decompose them into nutritious molecules that are nitrogen rich, but we don't eat that.  Rather, the algae growing on our fur absorb the nitrogen compounds and other nutrients.  Our fur is great for growing algae; it has little cracks that collect water when it rains.  Algae like living in water and because our hairs collect water in those little cracks, the algae like living on and in our hairs where the water is.  The algae growing on our fur kind of gives some of us a green tint. 

Credit: pitt.edu
Now this is where it gets tasty and this completes the long answer as to why we climb down trees at great personal risk to go to the bathroom once a week.  If you weren't following because you're snoozey likes us, let's recap.  We three-toed-sloths have moths that are found nowhere else in the world living in our fur.  When we go poo they lay their eggs in the dung and then climb back aboard as we climb back up.  When their eggs hatch and their larvae have grown into moths, they fly up into the trees looking for one of us to live on.  When one of these moths dies in our fur it is decomposed by bacteria and fungi that live on our bodies too.  The algae growing in the rainwater-filled cracks of our hairs absorb the nutrients released by the decomposition of the moths.  You could say we're growing an algae garden on our fur, because we eat that algae.  That's right, we eat the algae that grows on our fur.  Why?  Because, though algae has about the same amount of carbohydrates and protein content as plant leaves, it is much richer in lipids, and this gives us energy.  So, we supplement our nutrient-poor and energy-poor diet of leaves with our algae gardens.
That's it.  That's why we climb down our cacao trees to go to the bathroom even though there's a great risk that we'll get eaten by panthers, coyotes and feral dogs down there.  Friends will make you do crazy things, but the truth is that our moths would go extinct if we didn't make that trip so that they could lay their eggs.  And without those moths living in our fur, we wouldn't be able to grow algae gardens to supplement our poor diets and we might starve. 
Credit:  New York Times

So there you have it.  Crazy isn't it, who we need in this world to survive.  What we have to do to help others and to receive in turn.  Maybe we need each other in some peculiar, convoluted way too?  See you later!  Thanks for listening!  You know where to find me; just look up and I'll be hanging around in my cacao trees.

Credit: World Land Trust

-Seth Commichaux


New York Times.  The Sloth's Busy Inner Life.  Nicholas Wade.  January 28, 2014.

Proceedings of the Royal Society.  Jonathan Pauli, Jorge Mendoza, Shawn Steffan, Cayelan Carey, Paul Weimar, Zachariah Peery.  A Syndrome of Mutualism Reinforces the Lifestyle of a Sloth.  2014. 



February 13, 2014

What Goes Around comes Around

Hey Folks - We want to note that the Green Fork Utah blog does not necessarily reflect the views of USEE.  It is a venue to prompt discussion and critical thinking and the articles are created and posted by staff, interns and volunteers.  Please check out the blog below by our wonderful volunteer, Maizy Anderson, and tell us what you think in the comments!  We'd love to have an open and respectful discussion.
The USEE Staff

Have you ever wondered where your empty water bottle goes after you throw it in the trash? The bottle could end up buried at a landfill, burned in an incinerator, or it could end up belted around a young sea turtle. However, there is another place you may never expect the plastic to end up: inside your own body. Nature functions by building up and breaking down, and we are continually putting trash in the earth that nature cannot digest. An average American generates 4.6 pounds of trash per day, which translates to 251 million tons per year. (EPA) This is about twice as much trash as other countries accumulate. The biggest contributor to our dissipating eco systems is plastic; a substance that is totally at odds with the environment. It’s critical that we take responsibility for the trash we produce if our species and eco systems are to survive.
ImageThe majority of trash in America ends up being sent to a landfill. Landfills are not created to break down trash; they are created to bury it. Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. By sending excessive amounts of trash to landfills, we are polluting the air that we have to breathe in order for us to survive.
When the trash starts to overflow in the landfill, some cities have it sent to an incinerator where it can be burned. There is no sorting process before the trash is burned; everything goes in. When plastics are incinerated, the chemicals that are released are known as dioxins. Dioxins can enter the body by inhalation, or by consuming animals that have inhaled the dioxins. “When dioxins enter the body they can cause skin rashes, mild liver damage, cardiovascular deterioration, infertility in men and women, and degeneration of the endocrine system.” (Banerjee 3) It is nearly impossible to eliminate these dioxins from our bodies. However, women can get rid of them by having a baby. Sadly, these dioxins are passed on to the infant and can cause severe deformities, and a shorter life for the child.
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was sailing through the North Pacific Gyre when he made a heartbreaking discovery. In Moore’s article Trashed, he said, “As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.” Somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent of the trash accumulating in the ocean is post-consumer waste from the land. Typically, the trash is swept into the ocean by storms and wind. The wind-driven, swirling current of the North Pacific Gyre gathers plastics and other trash, slowly moving it towards the center of the region, creating an island. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a leading flotsam expert, named this accumulation of trash the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The GPGP might be the biggest body of pollution in the world today. The patch mostly consists of pelagic plastics, formed from plastic bags and plastic bottles. Some researchers and scientists have estimated the patch to be twice the size of Texas, but no one really knows. The sun breaks down the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, which makes it difficult to judge the size of the patch. Since Moore’s discovery, he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Moore has revealed that in numerous sampled areas, plastic concentration is 7 times higher than Zooplankton. Basically, there is more trash than life in parts of our oceans.
Image “Whether it’s an algae-sifting whale or a fish-eating seal, small pieces of plastic are mistaken for food at all levels of the food chain. Greenpeace estimates that one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die in the Garbage Patch each year.” (Dumas 2) Most people don’t realize that what they do can affect the environment thousands of miles away. Essentially, these plastics can and do end up in the human body by consuming seafood. Eskimo women in Alaska are being told to give their babies formula because their milk is toxic due to eating fish that are high up on the food chain. However, everyone in the population today has plastic chemicals in their body. If the earth can’t digest plastics, neither can humans.
In the documentary Garbage Island, Moore said, “The earth can’t spit it [plastic] out, unless we stop putting it in.” So what is the best way to dispose of plastics? The answer is very simple: recycle. Recycling reduces the amount of methane emissions that are produced in landfills, leading to much cleaner air for the environment and for us to breathe. Recycling also reduces the amount of dioxins released from burning plastics in incinerators; which will improve the health of species and environments near by. Not only does recycling protect and conserve the land and animals, it also helps us sustain human life. Altogether, recycling gives generations to come an opportunity to see and learn about all the beautiful creations of our world.

Works Cited
Banerjee, Tirtho. “Molecules of Death.” Down to Earth. Aug. 31 2001: 32-39. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 01 Dec 2013.
Dumas, Daisy. “Landfill-On-Sea.” Ecologist (London, England) Vol. 37, No. 7. Sept. 2007: 34- 37. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 01 Dec 2013.
Charles Moore, “Trashed. Across the Pacific Ocean, plastics, plastics, everywhere.”Natural History magazine. November 1993. Web. 3 December 2013.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Municipal Solid Waste.” Website. 2 Dec 2013. Web. 4 Dec 2013.
VICE Production ” Garbage Island: An ocean full of plastic.)” Documentary.
YouTube. YouTube, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

-Maizy Anderson

February 11, 2014

Monarch Butterflies in Trouble

"On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned." (1)
"This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse." (1)  2013's migration had the lowest number of Monarchs on record and the downward trend in the population is truly a cause for concern and rectifying action.  Scientists are truly worried that within a few years the great migration of the Monarch to Mexico may be over.
Part of this decline may be attributable to the irresponsible and excessive use of pesticides across the United States which directly kill the Monarch Butterflies or compromise their health and ability to fly the many hundreds of miles on their remarkable journey.  Neonicotinoids, a neuro-toxic family of insecticides developed by Shell and Bayer, are strongly implicated in the decline of honey bees and likely have detrimental effects on butterflies as well.  That these compounds are neuro-toxic should cause humans pause, seeing how we have neurons too. 

Particularly detrimental to the Monarch's habitat, the use of herbicides that kill all plants except genetically modified crops designed to survive the onslaught.  This practice has destroyed much of the milkweed populations which are the sole food on which the larvae feed.  "One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed." (1)

Another cause contributing to the decline of Monarchs is the loss of native vegetation along their migratory route.  Especially in recent years where '"the price of corn has soared....driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes." (1)
Additionally, people living along the migratory route of the Monarchs are developing the land at a rapid pace, replacing fields with houses, highways and parking lots, while planting lawns and plants that may have brightly attractive colors, but which are unusable for Monarchs.  This loss of land and appropriate nutrition may be causing the butterflies to die of exhaustion or malnourishment or might make them more susceptible to disease.  Numerous watch groups for the butterflies and other beneficial insects encourage homeowners to plant native flowers that will actually give sustenance to the butterflies as they make their migratory journey! 

Migratory Route of Monarch butterfly

Besides the fact that Monarchs are important pollinators for our crops and for native flora and despite that they are mobile links that connect resources and services between ecosystems, why should we care that we might be seeing the end of one of the greatest annual insect migrations in the world?  How about the value of wonder and insights into the mysteriousness of life?

"In North America they make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. There is a northward migration in the spring.  The monarch is the only North American butterfly that migrates both north and south as the birds do regularly, but no individual makes the entire round trip." (2)  Sometimes the roundtrip migration can take as many as 4 or 5 generations.

Think about that for a minute.......  Say it's August for a Monarch in Iowa.  Somehow  our brave butterfly can tell the time of year and realizes that it's time to go.  How does she know it's time to go?  No one knows, but she starts travelling South.  Maybe she gets to Kansas where she lays an egg on a milkweed before dying.  The larvae hatches and grows into a butterfly and somehow she knows that she needs to be migrating too.  Not only that she needs to migrate, but where ever she finds herself she knows exactly what direction to go.  She flies further south and perhaps makes it to South Texas where she lays an egg on a milkweed plant before dying.  The next generation grows up and picks up right where her mother left off and flies to a specific forest in Mexico where all the migrating Monarchs from the East United States converge at nearly exactly the same time no matter if they started in Iowa or Maine, Mississippi or North Dakota.  No matter where they migrated from up North they converge in this forest in Mexico almost always on or near the Day of the Dead celebration that takes place on October 31, November 1 and November 2.  How do they know where to go?  How can they have such a remarkably precise sense of time?  How does one generation know where to pick up where the previous generation left off? 


Scientists know that Monarch Butterflies are astronomers.  They keep track of the position of the sun in the sky and use it as compass adjusted to a circadian clock in their antennae.  Additionally, "new research has also shown these butterflies can use the earth's magnetic field for orientation. The antennae contain cryptochrome, a photoreceptor protein sensitive to the violet-blue part of the spectrum. In the presence of violet or blue light, it can function as a chemical compass, which tells the animal if it is aligned with the earth's magnetic field, but it cannot tell the difference between magnetic north or south. The complete magnetic sense is present in a single antenna." (2)

But despite all of these sensory organs, it still doesn't elucidate how the butterflies use these tools to get where they need to go or how they know where to go.  This multi-generational migration is a personal symbol of mine for having a purpose and a sense of meaning, for though each butterfly may not know why it is where it is or why it has the urge to travel, it is fulfilling a greater purpose which is the great migration of the Monarch.

An appropriate variation on a cliché might be, 'you don't know what you've lost until it's gone.'  But what's worse is the fact that we might lose a butterfly that has a story that inspires wonder, study, inquiry and mystery.  How many other species might be lost from this world preventably, by our actions, whose life story could reveal incredible insights into what it means to be alive?

-Seth Commichaux

February 10, 2014

Should USEE Adopt an Office Pet?

I have an idea that I would like to share... 

Josh, Carolyn, and I were brainstorming ways to spark people’s interest in USEE and environmental education, particularly during outreach and tabling events. We were trying to think of ways to attract people to our organization’s table and get them interested in our projects, programs, and environmental education in general.

The idea hit me…

USEE should adopt an office pet!

Think of the animal as a mascot that would assist USEE in exciting people about environmental education in Utah.

We would have to choose the right animal for USEE: one that is non-controlled, native to Utah, easy and inexpensive to care for, happy in domesticated living situations, comfortable around groups of people, easy to transport, and easy to adopt/find.

USEE would love to hear from you. Is this a good idea? Is this a bad idea? What type of animal would you recommend? We could always consider alternatives to using a live animal, like using mounts, skins, skulls, wings, feathers, pictures, etc. to gain interest. Do you think one of these alternatives would have the same effect in attracting attention from people?

Click the link below to discover the benefits, along with standards, for using live animals in environmental education: