Monday, November 21, 2011


Hello all.

You might be interested to see a few pictures I've taken over the last few weeks.  We've yet to have winter truly arrive here in Bloomington, and the first weeks of November have been quite pleasant.

Orchelimum vulgare, the common meadow katydid, on a rose blossom.
Note the large ovipositor and very long antenna.  These are what make katydids very easy to tell apart from grasshoppers.  Katydids are also often less drab than grasshoppers.  This photo was taken on November 8th, so you can see what I mean about it being mild this year.

Rather less glamorous, but no less important is this guy:

Probably Porcellio scaber, the common rough woodlouse, in my terrarium.
Could also be a member of the genus Armadillidium, though I don't recall if this one rolls up into a ball or not.  
Woodlice, pill-bugs, or sow-bugs (isopods) are ubiquitous little arthropods (indeed, a crustacean!) that live on detritus.  They eat organic matter, and are a useful part of my terrarium in this respect.  They are surprising long lived for being so small, and may live as long as three years.  There are many, many species of them.  If you scoop up a handful of moist leaf litter, you will almost certainly discover a few of these guys.  That's actually how I caught the two that are currently living in my terrarium.  Presumably two, anyway.  There is also an extremely secretive centipede, and it may have killed and eaten one of them, as I haven't seen it since I put it in there....

Monday, October 31, 2011

More about Bees

I remain thoroughly fascinated by bees.  I came across this lovely plate on google Reader the other day, and wanted to share it here:

Field book of insects
New York,G.P. Putnam's sons,

Very pretty bit of work, isn't it?   I've been hoping to get a picture of some of the bees/wasps that have built a nest in the rock wall near my driveway.  I haven't managed to get a good enough look at them to identify them well.  They could be a variety of mining or digging bee or ground nesting wasp.  They are on the fuzzy side, but have never been aggressive, are not terribly numerous, and similar in size to a honeybee.  I confess to having been very lax in pruning or pulling a lot of the late flowering Aster weeds in the yard, because I continued to see bees visiting them until it turned cold.  Given the continuing bad news for bees, I've been reluctant to deny the locals a food source, even if it doesn't look like much. 

If you're interested in bees, here are two guides produced by the Forest Service that can provide you with  more info.

And the more rigorous (and narrow) Bumble Bees of the Eastern US:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

SXSW: Finally my Final Thoughts.

My apologies, loyal readers.

Among the varied reasons I rarely travel is that fact that it tends to throw the rest of my life into some disarray.  Missing an entire week of classes and research responsibilities added substantially to that disarray, and the process of catching up.

I have also been turning over the conference, and attempting to figure out what I actually thought of the experience.  Even now, nearly a month after the fact, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

The last day of the conference, I did not attend any of the morning sessions, but took the time to mosey around Austin a bit, and see more of the city.  The final keynote was delivered by Philippe Cousteau Jr., and he did a fine job.  He told a few very good stories about how he arrived on the scene, beginning with the events that turned his grandfather from someone who was first an explorer into an environmentalist. His delivery sagged in a few points, and he dodged a fewer of the tougher questions put to him by the audience, but effectively delivered the core of his message, which lined up well with a lot of what was put forward by many at the conference:  That as a movement, environmentalism has stalled out because of the cultural divide in the US, and that if we wish to make progress, we have to put aside ideology to find common goals, and regain some lost ground.

And it's here that I run aground.  It's not that I disagree, because I don't.  But this is actually an incredibly difficult proposition, for individuals as well as organizations.  The political atmosphere in the US might be termed "ionizing"; even the most neutral proposition will be struck by outside forces and laden with charged political issues.  SXSWEco was full of rhetoric and statements about making common ground, setting aside ideological issues, and being practical... and that is all well and good. But how are we supposed to do this?

This is a strategy that one uses because of a lack of power and leverage.  It requires finding allies within the edifices of power to be effective.  This does not appear to be possible on a great many issues.  Anthropogenic Climate Change is regard as more or less a fact of life by the US military, who plan accordingly, but denied by the majority of hawks in the US government, to the extent of altering or suppressing EPA scientific reports for political ends.   How does one find common ground on issues with this crowd?  Particularly when working with an environmental group may open them up to criticism from within their own ranks?

So I remain torn.  I think that many of the discussion that were had at SXSWEco were useful, and needed to happen.  But the over arching theme of diversifying the message and setting aside ideological positions ultimately lacks practicality and vital substance.

I would consider attending again next year, on the hopes that more practical issues could be addressed (and assuming the costs come down, given that it was far more expensive than an event like ESA).  This might be unlikely to occur, given that SXSW as an organixation tends to focus on ideas and innovation, but implementation is incredibly important, and cannot be ignored in these discussions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day Two: Themes

Today has been a day of themes emerging from the apparent randomness of the various talks.
One hopes that this was planned by the organizers, but one never really knows.

The day began a bit late, with the Consuming Better: What Neuroscience Says About a Sustainable Future which echoed some of the sentiments of the keynote from Tuesday.  The primary gist is this:  You cannot expect humans to stop acting like humans.  The only thing you can do is engineer systems that take into account how humans actually behave and make decisions.

And that's an important idea.  Much of the root cause of a lot of the failures in environmental policy thus far have been because we try to push for how people to behave the way they should act, even when that seems to be in direct contradiction with how they do act. Most people simply don't want less. They don't want to live in a low energy society. The previous people who did live in such a society opted to create this one, and people make the transition from an agrarian life style to an urban one at an astonishing rate every day.

Neuroscience is showing us that human brains are not rational devices, but that they are somewhat predictable. Most humans tend towards outcomes that lend them perceived status relative to their peers, even if that means they are worse off, in absolute terms. This means that our brains will fool us: wine we believe to be expensive tastes better than wine we think is cheap.  We engage in conspicuous consumption.

Another interesting fact is that when you provide people with feedback, they shape their behavior to optimize that feedback signal.  Thus we drive a car more efficiently when we can see the mileage instantaneously (the Prius Effect).

If we can manage the energy problem (which is no small feat) and take these things about human nature into consideration, then we can go a long way towards having a more sustainable society.

Day One Part Two (All about Coal and Grass)

So, lunch time here at the conference, just saw a very interesting presentation about how bad people are at consuming less. But!  First I want to update about the end of the day yesterday.

One of the talks I was looking forward to seeing the most was also one of the shortest.
With the provocative title of "No More Coal: The business case of ending an industry", it was presented by Gil Friend, of Natural Logic.  He was apparently prepared to give an hour, but only had fifteen minutes, and so didn't bother with slides, and just read things off his phone.

For all that, his presentation was pretty good, as he clearly knew the material backwards and forwards.

Mr. Friend posited the idea that if we look at the global subsidies for the coal industry, they may amount to something like 200 billion US dollars (there are apparently not good data, so it's a ball park figure).  However, the industry only has a worth of approximately 150 billion US.  Which means that we, as a species, sink 50 billion dollars a year into an industry that ultimately is causing us a lot of problems, and which isn't even economically viable without subsidies.   Thus, he suggests we could do several things.  The most radical is to use that same subsidy money to buy out the mines, and shut them down.  This strikes me as phenomenally unlikely.  Another, potentially more viable option would be to simply end all subsidies, period.  This would do a couple of things:  it would drastically drive up the cost of coal, drive many mines out of business, and potentially level the playing field in the energy sector, giving renewables an opening to grab some market share.

However, and maybe he didn't discuss this because of time issues, it would also have the impact of driving up energy prices.  Many, many parts of the country use coal to generate electricity.  A drastic increase in price or decrease in availability would impact electricity production in ugly ways.  This would have the net effect of reducing consumption, but probably not in a way that would be beneficial to society, at least in the near term.

The next talk was also a fifteen minute number, delivered by Mark Simmons, from the SITES initiative talk.  He recycled some material, particularly about his desire to live in Middle Earth, rather than some ultra urbanized future.  In something of a recurring theme at this convention, he opened by talking about the carbon storage capacity of grasslands (which is only surpassed by wetlands), but then shifted gears to talk about other ecosystem services, and restoration projects.  In particular, he pointed out how much more durable and resistant to drought lawns made up of a mix of local grasses are than imported turf grasses.  He also discussed a restoration project here in Austin, bringing back some of the blackland prairie that has almost disappeared from the Texas landscape.  Perhaps the most interesting part, for me, were the slides showing the superior performance here in Texas of a mix of local grasses to the sedums typically used for green roof installations.  This wasn't too surprising, given some of the green roof literature I've seen, showing that a suite of local species often perform better than the generic sedum mix widely used, but it was nice to see none the less.

It was not, shall we say, a presentation that invoked deep thinking, but showed how relatively simple it can be to address a lot of the issues that we face as an increasingly urban species.

Later this evening, I'll post some updates about today's events, which so far are shaping up to be excellent. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Day One

So, Day One of SXSWEco, in lovely Austin, Texas.  Today was only a half day of content, perhaps to give attendees traveling into the city an opportunity to arrive today and not miss anything.
The first panel I decided to attend was "Living Laboratories: How Landscapes Give Back".  This was put on by some of the organizers of the Sustainable SITES Intiative.

SITES is essentially a LEED certification system for the great outdoors, intended to deal with the fact that most developed landscapes are something of a nightmare, ecologically speaking.  SITES is currently in the pilot phase, with approximately 150 projects scattered throughout the US, and a few in Europe (including Iceland, interesting enough). Based on the results from the pilot projects, the guidelines and scoring system will be revised, and then released for general use.  One of the very interesting things about SITES is the a focus on function and ecosystem services; it's not necessarily about restoring the original landscape, but creating and maintaining one that provides value to the human occupants by being a functional ecosystem.  One can get bonus points by planting natives, but it's not necessary and in a lot of cases, simply won't be practical.  And because landscape architects are involved, you can be certain there will also be an emphasis on aesthetics on most projects.  The main points of the program deal with the green part of the landscape (through a biomass density index, which is similar to leaf area index, but the scale has average values for eco-regions) and water.

The water issues addressed by the certification process are those most familiar to anyone who has worked with surface water in urban areas: controlling and reducing runoff from storm events, improving and protecting water quality, and restoring natural/appropriate stream geomorphology.  There is also a focus on water usage, particularly reducing the use of potable water for irrigation.  This provides a balance to the plant side of the equation, by penalizing for installing more biomass than the site can support without additional water inputs.

Soil was also dealt with briefly in the discussion (as I asked about it).  'Prime farmland' will not eligible for the program, unless it has already been developed or otherwise degraded and is no longer in agricultural use, and it sounded like some sort of soil management plan will need to be put in place along with the management and monitoring plans for the plant community and water components of the landscape.

One thing SITES will not deal with (at least immediately) is animal life.  This, according to Mark Simmons (when asked a challenging landscape ecology question), was because there was simply too much regional complexity for the program to deal with immediately.  Over time he thought it was likely that regionally focused animal habitat components will be developed and integrated into the certification.

Personally, I think SITES is extremely promising, and has potential to really deeply affect the way outdoor spaces are designed and maintained in the future.  We can hope--as Mr. Simmons said on more than one occasion--to at least do things less wrong.

Monday, October 3, 2011


So, I am currently couch surfing in Austin, attending the first SXSW Eco conference.

I will probably post updates relatively frequently, giving my thoughts and impressions of the event.

First, I will say this:  I am pretty sure that I am not the target audience for this event.
The cost of registration was quite high for a three day conference (though it has since been reduced), and likely priced out many academics, especially given that this is the first time this conference has been put on.

The schedule is an interesting mix of participants, with some focus on urban systems, and the business world has a strong presence. We'll see how things go.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bad News: Now in Video Form

Just to expand on the Arctic Ice Minimum issue a little bit:

A pretty nice (if depressing) little summation.

One of the things I think is very peculiar, and that seems to receive infrequent commentary is that the US military has no doubts about climate change issues.  Here we see a Navy scientist discussing an impending ice free Arctic in the summer.  This, of course, has serious strategic consequences for the Navy, and they take it seriously.  It's bizarre to me that one of the most trusted components of the US government could internally take a position different from that of the government at large, and that the public doesn't seem to know, or to care.  Very strange to me.

Of course, the unwillingness of people to accept data for what are ultimately political reasons is strange to me as well, even though it shouldn't be.
We are, after all, only a bunch of irrational, clannish primates.

(tip of the hat to P.Z. Myers for the video)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Good News, Bad News

One of the drawbacks of working in an environmental field and paying attention to the news in these fields, is that you don't often come into contact with much in the way of good news.

In the last few weeks, the Franklin's Bumblebee (Bombus franklini) was suggested for listing as an endangered species, though it may already be extinct.  If you happen to live in its range (Northern California and Southwestern Oregon, including urban areas) keep your eyes peeled for them.  None have been officially documented since 2006.

Image from the USFWS
Also recently, the Arctic sea ice may have reached a new record minimum. 
Reports on this are slightly conflicting, with a German research group stating (not the best translation, but totally readable) that this year is a new record low, and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center stating this is the second lowest extent.  Likely the two, slightly conflicting, findings will be ironed out in the near future, once the NSIDC release their more detailed analysis in October. But the trend of thinning ice and shrinking area is undeniable.  Another record was set in July this year, according to NOAA

It's difficult to say how this will ultimately impact the global climate, if the trend doesn't reverse itself (something that seems unlikely, but is possible). But there will be almost certainly be an impact, as reflective sea ice is replaced by sunlight-absorbing open water, dramatically altering the energy budget of the top of the world. 

One bit of news on the positive side: the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) re-introduction program seems to be doing well, and recently marked its 30 year anniversary.  Because the ecosystem of the American plains evolved with black-footed ferrets as part of it, returning the ferrets will do a little bit of work in returning parts of the prairie to a more natural, balanced state.  This is only a small piece of the puzzle, of course.  Much of the land that makes up the Great Plains is still missing natural fire cycles, bison, and nomadic hunter-gatherers (as the people who lived on the plains shaped that ecosystem long before the arrival of Europeans).  Not to mention that it has been inundated with non-native plants that we will never be able to remove.  

But I'll take a small victory any day. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Nature is a remarkable thing.

In particular, it is much more resilient than we sometimes think, and responds to things we do to it in subtle and surprising ways.  This is one of the themes, for me, of Urban Ecology.  People like to think of cities as completely unnatural, but they are often full of life earning an existence in every crack, open space, basement, and rooftop.

Sometimes, though, nature just responds to our bad behavior with beauty.
Take Glass Beach:

(image by photoscot, all rights reserved.)

These are the remains of untold glass objects chucked off a cliff and down into the sea near Fort Bragg, in California.  There was, apparently much more garbage as well, since cleaned up.  But the ocean took all that glass for itself, and made new stones from it, to pebble the beach with, and something beautiful and unexpected is the result.

You can seem more images, and read a bit more here.

(tip' o the hat to Meredith Yayanos for the link)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Advice about Chiggers

So. In the last few months, I've spent an awful lot of time thinking about chiggers.

As you may know already, chiggers are the juvenile stage of a mite.  The adults are harmless, and not interested in animals, but in order to mature, they need delicious animal flesh. To that end, they climb up things that smell tasty, and find a pore or hair follicle to attach themselves to, and go to town.

That's an important bit. Their mouth-parts can't actually bite you.  They need to use the preexisting holes in your skin to feed, which they do by injecting enzymes, and sucking out the cell soup that results.  Your body produces a response to this, and that's what causes the itching. Most of the time the chigger is long gone before you will even begin to itch.  Aside from the itching, they're otherwise harmless, at least here in the US. In Asia and around parts of the South Pacific you can acquire scrub typhus from chigger bites, which sounds like a pretty bad time.

I'm somewhat battle-hardened when it comes to the little guys, and the fact that I have not been without a least a dozen or so bites for the last few months hasn't been a big deal.  Going through a few weeks with many hundreds of them will do that to you.  I would like to offer you some advice if you live in chigger country, so that you don't have to go through that experience.

Firstly: Wear long pants.  Some of my research partners disagree on this, but that's mostly meant they got chigger bites on their underwear lines, rather than on their ankles. Chiggers will climb your legs until they hit a barrier of some kind, and then look for a spot to feed.  That can be your sock, or where your shoe meets your ankle, or what have you. Or it can be your underwear line.  Or past it.  Seems like a simple decision to me.  If you're constantly moving, only in chigger territory for a short time, or outside at times they're not very active (when it's cool, wet, or very, very hot), long pants tucked into your boots may be all you need.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What I've Been Up To

As I keep mentioning field work and related pitfalls on my blog, some of you may be wondering exactly what sort of research I've been working on.  It's fairly straightforward, as these things go:  The study is intended to investigate the relationship between social institutions and urban forest canopy cover/structure.  This is more exciting that it appears at first blush, I promise.

Two parts of that sentence may not make a great deal of sense to some folks.  So I'll explain precisely what is meant by "social institutions" and "urban forest", as the former may seem very broad, and the latter something of an oxymoron.

I have the excellent privilege of being loosely affiliated with the research institution run in part by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.  Her work with IFRI informs this research project, and it is IFRI's definition of social institution that we are making use of: "institutions are defined as rules that constrain human behavior, either by encouraging people to do x or not to do x" (IFRI Manual, 2008).  That includes both formal--city ordinances--and informal--the approval or disapproval of your neighbor--rules.  This is may be broader than you might have guessed!  Our research group spent many, many hours devising a survey intended to probe the particular institutions we are interested in, primarily Neighborhood Associations (NAs) and Homeowner's Associations (HOAs).  We are also trying to investigate to what extent individuals are influenced by their neighbors and how much these things may impact land management decisions, particularly as those decisions relate to trees.

Now for the "Urban" bit of urban forest.  The word conjures up different mental images for different people, which is somewhat problematic. For some the word urban conjures images of Metropolis or Gotham; hundreds of thousands of people, the inner-city, concrete, high rise buildings, a lack of open space, etc.  To others it might mean anything bigger than a town of a few thousand.  There are official meanings, for particular purposes, of course.  The US census has a complex, somewhat arcane definition that can lead to odd outcomes at times. But it is a definition.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Spy vs Spy

Japanese Beetle 2

You may recognize that bug right there, performing a little insect arabesque.  This is a Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), a long standing invasive beetle.  I remember seeing them in my Aunt's pool as a kid, where they would inevitably seem to get stuck and end up drowning, but not before trying to climb onto you with their pointy little beetle legs. It's been a while since I've seen one, but I suspect it's only because I haven't been looking.  While out doing field work I spotted this one, along with a flower crab spider, just barely visible around the bottom of the unopened thistle (slightly better picture of it here, I suspect it got a bit more than it was bargaining for when this beetle showed up).  Japanese beetles are notorious for being extremely unpicky eaters: as adults they'll chew up pretty much anything green, and can do serious damage during population peaks.

Interestingly, this one has chosen to settle down for dinner on another invader, the Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense).  The Canada thistle is a very, very common invasive weed in this area, particularly along rail road tracks and road sides (this picture is taken less than five meters from the edge of the road).  It's very good at crowding out other plants, and is extremely hardy.  In this instance, the Japanese beetle (which is not considered a major problem in Indiana) is performing a very slight service by attacking the unopened flower of this plant.  In the long run, it wont make much difference that this particular beetle stopped to eat this particular flower.  But it does illustrate that invasive management is often not a clear cut thing, as pest species can turn against each other, or perform useful ecosystem services (pdf).

You can read more about controlling Japanese beetles here (pdf), and here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Signs of Summer

Having been a Midwesterner my whole life, I have had the mixed blessing of four extremely distinct seasons.  This year, here in Bloomington, we've enjoyed a more than 100° Fahrenheit range in temperature between January and July.  Summer has always meant a few things to me:  tremendous thunderstorms, oppressive heat, and the endless droning of cicadas.  This year I have added a dubious fourth member to that hallowed list: chiggers.

I had never gotten a chigger bite that I can recall until a few years ago (I have still yet to get poison ivy, which I don't appear to be sensitive to):  I made the mistake of cutting through some high weeds when wearing shorts, and had a half dozen incredibly itchy little red dots to show for it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi: Update

I cannot in good faith go without writing an update on this issue, given the new information made available to the public.  Now, the worst sounding of these news stories (the first link) consists of unofficial information, leaked to the press.  The basic summary, according that news story (and since reported in a great many places, including the PBS Newshour) was that the fuel in Reactor 1 melted very shortly after the loss of power, and may have violated the integrity of the pressure vessel (there has been some throwing around of the word 'containment' in an unclear way in the press, which is not helpful).  There has also been a substantial uptick in the estimated amount of radiation released.

Now, a few points here:  Firstly, the last news story linked above suggests that TEPCO does not believe the pressure vessel was seriously violated, which is in line with what happened at Three Mile Island as I discussed briefly before. Second, all of the information reported thus far has been based on estimates of what took place, the size of potential breaches, new information obtained by the recalibration of instrumentation on site, etc.  What this means is that these new numbers are potentially not much better than the previous, and in keeping with much of the data presented by the Japanese, is something of a worst case.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

And now: space!

Saturn, and its various satellites, to be more specific.

Cassini has been a spectacularly successful mission, by any standard, documenting conditions on Titan, finding water geysers on Encedalus, providing clues to the forces that form and maintain Saturn's splendid rings, and much more.  It also has returned some of the most beautiful imagery of a member of the solar system thus far.

Enter Chris Abbas, who has taken the raw, uncorrected imagery, and produced a dazzling little film.  It's is absolutely gorgeous, and makes just about perfect use of the 'open source' Ghosts music project, by Nine Inch Nails.

CASSINI MISSION from Chris Abbas on Vimeo.

Watch it full screen.

(h/t to Warren Ellis!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Remember boys and girls...

Smashed House 1 by tertiarymatt
Smashed House 1, a photo by tertiarymatt on Flickr.
Mother Nature is tough, and she will cut you.

This is about a block from my house.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review: Crow Planet

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. New York: Little, Brown and Company P, 2009. 229 pp.

Among the native birds of North America, there is probably no more common or successfully adapted urban species than the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos. Corvids of many stripes have been the focus of much recent research and writing, as it has become clear that they are perhaps the most intelligent of birds. While many researchers have focused on more exotic species, such as the New Caledonian Crow, or the more rare and reclusive Common Raven, the American Crow has recently been the highlight of publications out of the University of Washington (by John Marzluff, in particular), and has been the subject of an episode of the television show NOVA. Nearly ubiquitous throughout North America and an extremely common and capable urban animal, the crow also makes a natural centerpiece for Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet, a book that is not so much about crows as it is one that orbits around them.

Haupt is a naturalist, educator, bird lover, environmental activist and writer living in Seattle. It is in this urban setting that she tells a story that is by turns a natural history of the American Crow, including some quite good advice on how to become a naturalist in the traditional sense of the word; a collection of interesting bits of literature and history in the field of naturalism; a philosophical musing on what it means to be a naturalist, an environmentalist, or a human being living in an urban environment; and a personal confession of her battle with her own fragile condition as all three.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Decline by Fall (part II)

As I mentioned, here is the second half of the bumblebee paper (first half here). This section is probably more accessible, as it's a good bit less technical.  A quick summary of the first half:  many species of wild bumblebees are in steep decline around the world, for as yet unknown reasons.  Potential sources of the decline may be parasites spread by commercially reared bees, the impact of pesticides (which are not typically lethal, but which may negatively impact colony health, and on which the research is very conflicted), and problems associated with habitat loss, foraging patterns, and when bees emerge.  The second part of this paper deals with how we might move to protect wild bees.  

Conservation of Bumblebees

The above factors (parasites, pesticides, habitat loss, and bee phenology) may interact in unknown ways to produce the worldwide decline of some species of bumblebees.  Because these bees are important for food production purposes and the maintenance of  current ecosystem structures dependent on their pollination activities, successful conservation efforts will need to mitigate as many potential negative factors acting on their populations as possible, until precise, species-specific causes can be determined, and more detailed conservation plans produced.   Steps such as reducing rates of parasitic infestation in commercial bumblebees are of obvious benefit to the stakeholders, while it may be more difficult to generate interest in others, such as active management of field margins, or a return to crop rotations involving fallow periods.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Five Lined Skink

So, yesterday I saw this guy in my recycling bin:

Five Lined Skink by tertiarymatt
Five Lined Skink, a photo by tertiarymatt on Flickr.

This is a male five lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), in his breeding colors.  He's also missing his tail, which is likely due to a neighborhood cat, or perhaps an opossum or skunk.  He was probably in there looking for bugs, since the cat food cans tend to attract them.

Also, part II of the bees paper will go up soon, probably later today.  I'm sure y'all just can't wait.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Decline by Fall (part 1)

I promised I was going to talk about things other than nuclear power, and lo: so it shall be written, so it shall be done.  Here, I present the first half of a paper I produced earlier this year, dealing with the fate of bumblebees.  I'm quite fond of the fuzzy little beasts.


While the mainstream press has been primarily focused on the precipitous decline of European honeybees (Apis melliferra) and the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder, wild native bees have also been suffering significant losses in numbers and range ( reviewed by Spivak et al. 2011, Williams and Osborne 2009).  There are some 4,000 species of bees native to North America, including bumblebees (Bombus spp), leafcutter bees (Megachile spp), mining bees (Andrena spp), mason bees (Osmia spp), and others, many of which are important pollinators of New World crops (Spivak et al. 2011).  I will focus primarily on Bombus species, as these are among the most studied of wild bees, and include species that are reared commercially worldwide for use as pollinators of plants such as tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and peppers (Capsicum spp) in greenhouses.

Across North America and Europe, wild bee losses have not been consistent, and the factors causing them are uncertain.  Some species appear to be more or less unaffected, while others have suffered large losses, possibly due to species-specific ecological processes (reviewed by Murray et al. 2009).  Three historically common, closely related North American Bombus species (B. occidentalis, B. affinis, B. terricola) have been shown to have large reductions in their home range (23-87%) and relative abundance, while other species have remained stable in their distribution and abundance (Cameron et al. 2011).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Next Generation

This won't be an argument for why Captain Picard is better than Captain Kirk (and anyway, why choose?).  This will instead be a post about why we should be looking towards new nuclear technologies and winding down the old.  We have a bad habit of decrying the problems of power plants built 40 years ago, and projecting those problems onto new plants.

There is some merit to this tactic in the case of the various flavors of Light Water Reactors that may be built in the future, as they are simply safer versions of old reactors.  However, there are other technologies out there that have higher inherent safety than a LWR.

There are, in my opinion, a few major contenders for technology: Liquid Fluoride-Thorium Reactors (LFTR, pronounced 'lifter', a type of Molten Salt Reactor), and flavors of Pebble Bed Reactors.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Things are looking rough for Fukushima Daiichi, but not all bad news

Earlier this week, some workers at the Fukushima  plant suffered from radiation burns when highly contaminated water got inside their protective clothing, as they waded towards a repair site. This prompted the ever cautious Japanese officials to warn that this might indicate a partial loss of containment.

My initial feeling about this was that it was very unlikely. Possible, yes, but not terribly likely, given that a breach of the pressure vessel would have drastically impacted efforts to circulate cooling water (pressure would drop rapidly and significantly, and probably stay down, regardless of how much water was pumped, for instance, which would be immediately detectable).  It appears that my gut feeling was correct.  While they haven't pinned down the source of the water yet, I'd put my money on damage to the reactor cooling system, which has likely developed a number of leaky valves, gaskets or pipes.  The cooling system plumbing has been exposed to multiple hydrogen explosions, earthquakes, debris, and the corrosive effects of seawater. Enough water has been moving through it for a long enough period that even a relatively small leak of water containing fission products from the reactor will have had time to accumulate to dangerous levels inside the plant.

This radioactive water poses a problem to workers, first and foremost, and will significantly complicate repair efforts.  Unfortunately, it may also pose a fairly significant environmental risk, depending on its source.  If the leaks are occurring in places where the leaked water can come into contact with hot components, or if the leaks are a mixture of steam and water directly downstream from the pressure vessel, then a small, but significant amount of  fission products (the main concerns are Cesium and Iodine, but in the long term, primarily Cesium 137, which has a half life of 30 years and has a decay chain that includes gamma decay) may be being dispersed from the plant.  Even small amounts can accumulate over time in the near vicinity of the plant, and make uses like agriculture problematic for the near term future. It should be stressed that only water soluble products are likely to end up in the cooling water, so that means no plutonium or uranium are likely to be dispersed by the leaks, which is a very good thing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, and a Crisis of Journalism

This was not what I had intended to write about in this blog, but better to begin writing in it than not writing in it, I suppose.  I will turn soon enough to matters of urban ecology, bees, soil preservation, and all manners of such goodies.

But right now I will be talking about Japan, nuclear power, and journalism.

Because frankly, much of the coverage of the situation has been deeply infuriating, as it boils down to a great deal of uniformed fear-mongering, at a time when there are other aspects of the disaster could bear more focus.  Even my beloved PBS Newshour has been guilty of this to some extent, though they have for the most part been quite reserved in their pronouncements, and their experts have mostly actually been experts.

But it's a clear indictment of the state of mainstream journalism, that they mostly can't get it together, and are choosing to focus on what is the flashiest, but ultimately likely to be the least important aspect of the aftermath of the Japanese quake and tsunami.