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Citizen Science in the City?

Birding apps offer urban residents a unique path to engage with nature

When we think about the natural world, we don’t normally picture urban spaces. Most of the time, we probably conjure up meadows or forests, maybe with a stream or pond — or maybe the ocean coastline. Yet wildlife and natural areas can also be found, sometimes abundantly, in cities and suburbs, and increasingly this is where we are most likely to interact with them.

photo of Birds on FencePhoto by Michael Leland The biggest boost to “citizen birding” participant numbers has come from the use of eBird, an online reporting, cataloging, and data sharing application.

Citizen science organizations offer city-dwellers a unique way to engage with nature, beyond, say, having a picnic in a park, or taking a stroll along an urban waterway. These groups put interested citizens to work conducting scientific research, allowing them to make a contribution to the science that supports conservation — and to have fun doing it.

“Citizen scientists currently play active roles in a wide range of ecological projects, and their contributions have enabled scientists to collect large amounts of data at minimal cost,” writes Rachel E. McCaffrey, of theSchool of Natural Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson in Urban Habitats, an online ecology journal. “Because bird-watching is popular among members of the general public, bird-monitoring projects have been among the most successful at integrating citizen scientists.” Projects gathering data from bird monitoring are also among some of the more common urban citizen science projects.   

The biggest boost to “citizen birding” participant numbers has come from the use of eBird, an online reporting, cataloging, and data sharing application developed by a team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and partners at the nonprofit National Audubon Society. In May 2015 alone, eBird participants entered data for more than 9.5 million bird observations from more than 100 nations around the world.

Both well-known and novice birders have been using eBird to tap into their passion while also contributing to research. Noah Stryker, a famous birder and adventurer who set a world record in 2015 for the number of bird species seen in a year, writes: “Since its launch in 2002, eBird has revolutionized the way birders worldwide report and share their observations… Articles have been written about eBird with mind-bending titles like, ‘eBird Changed My …more

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Who Will Foot the Cleanup Bill for Bankrupt Coal Companies?

Many observers fear that the corporations will shift their huge liabilities for restoring land that has been mined to taxpayers

Coal’s share of the U.S. energy market is rapidly plunging. Low-cost fracking-generated natural gas has overtaken the use of coal at America’s power plants. Impending implementation of the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would place stringent regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions, has also helped to drive coal production to its lowest level in decades. Government sources predict further decline.

Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm, Acid-Mine DrainagePhoto by Jack PearceA Mushroom Farm site in North Lima, Ohio is plagued with acid mine drainage resulting from surface mining conducted in the 1980's. Eastern Ohio is home to over 1,000 abandoned underground mines.

Fifty U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy since 2012. Competition and more stringent environmental regulations played a role in this decline. But, just before coal prices collapsed, speculating top producers borrowed billions to finance unwise acquisitions. Now, unable to pay loan interest and principal, they have sought bankruptcy protection to restructure US$30 billion in debt. The bankrupt companies include Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Jim Walter Resources.

Last month Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s biggest private-sector coal producer, followed suit. Peabody seeks to restructure $8.4 billion in debt. Its capitalization has fallen from $20 billion in 2011 to $38 million at the time of bankruptcy.

Amid this turmoil, many observers fear that bankrupt coal companies will be able to shift their huge liabilities for reclamation, or restoring land that has been mined, to taxpayers.

Congress passed the Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, in 1977 to prevent such a scenario. But, in my view, state and federal coal regulators have failed to ensure that coal companies have enforceable financial guarantees in place, as the law requires.

I have interacted with the coal industry for 40 years, first as a government enforcement lawyer and then litigating issues relating to coal mine reclamation cases on behalf of conservation organizations and coalfield communities. I believe that if the unfunded liabilities of bankrupt coal companies are not covered by new guarantees and additional companies seek bankruptcy protection, there is a real chance that taxpayer-funded billion-dollar bailouts will be necessary to cover their cleanup costs.

Planning for reclamation

SMCRA was designed to prevent bankrupt coal companies from foisting onto …more

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Keepers of Giants

Kenyan orphanage rescues and rehabilitates young elephants stranded by poaching, returns them to the wild

Edwin Lusichi holds degrees in theology and computer science but has spent the last sixteen years working with orphaned youngsters. He monitors their diet, health, and general well-being until they are ready to go back into the wild. You see, Lusichi’s orphans are elephants and he is an elephant-keeper.

photo of elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife TrustPhoto by Kamweti Mutu An elephant keeper feeds a young elephant a special milk formula using coconut oil as a subsititute for elephant milk-fat.

“I came because I needed a job. But after some time it became a passion,” admits Lusichi, head keeper at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) in Nairobi, Kenya. He is one of thirty-odd elephant keepers who nurture a similar number of infant elephants and rhino at any given time. 

The Trust was established in 1997 by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her late husband, David Sheldrick, founding warden of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Informally known as the elephant orphanage, DSWT is one of only two foster centers in Africa that rescue and rehabilitate young elephants before returning them to the wild. (The other is the Elephant Orphanage Project in the suburbs of Lusaka, Zambia which cares for young elephants before relocating them to the Kafue National Park.)

Every morning Lusichi, 32, and his team don their green dust coats and khaki bucket hats, and take their young charges to browse in the thickets of Nairobi National Park, which surrounds the center.

Elephants calves cannot live without milk during their first three years of life. The youngest orphans have to be fed a specially-blended milk formula every three hours using gigantic bottles carted around in a wheelbarrow. As the calf's intake of vegetation increases, the frequency of milk feeds is reduced. It took Daphne Sheldrick, who was born and raised in Kenya, almost three decades to create the perfect milk formula. She ultimately determined that coconut oil is the best substitute for elephant milk-fat. 

In the evening, the elephants are escorted back to base where each one has its own sleeping stockade — sometimes the keepers stay with them overnight. “The young ones, as in under one-and-a-half years old, have keepers with them at night,” explains Lusichi. 

The baby elephants are rescued from all parts of the country after having been separated from …more

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Arctic Retreat

As Big Oil abandons the Arctic, pressure mounts on Obama to do more on climate change in the region

Sometimes it is hard to find good news on the climate. Take a quick look at a couple of today’s stories:

According to Australian researchers, five tiny Pacific islands, which are part of the Solomon islands, have completely disappeared due to rising sea levels, in what is being described as the “first scientific confirmation of the impact of climate change on coastlines in the Pacific.” Another six islands have had large swathes of land washed into the sea too.

photo of Arctic OceanPhoto by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center The US Coast Guard Cutter Healey in the Beaufort Sea as part of NASA’s ICESCAPE mission to study how climate change is impacting ocean ecosystems in the Arctic.

Elsewhere, one in five of the world’s plant species is said to be threatened with extinction, with climate change one of the factors along with farming and construction.

There is also bad news for caffeine addicts, with the news that scientists are warning that coffee is “at risk of running out by the end of the century as a result of intensive farming and climate change.”

Sometimes all this bad news seems overwhelming.

But there is good news too, which gives immense hope to those fighting Big Oil, especially in the Arctic: Big Oil is in full retreat from the region.

Once the Arctic was the seen as the last big untapped frontier for the industry. But rather than being full of black gold, the Arctic has proven to be one of the most expensive black holes for the industry ever.

Bloomberg reported this morning that after spending a whopping $2.5 billion for drilling rights in US Arctic waters, oil companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips have quietly relinquished their rights to some 2.2 million acres. This equates to nearly 80 per cent of the leases they bought nearly a decade ago.

This is truly significant: Peter Kiernan, the lead energy analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit told Bloomberg: “Arctic exploration has been put back several years, given the low oil price environment, the significant cost involved in exploration and the environmental risks that it entails.”

Oil giant Shell, which has already blown $8 billion on its misguided Arctic folly, relinquished 274 leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, although it is holding onto …more

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One in Five of World’s Plant Species at Risk of Extinction

But 2,000 new plant species are discovered every year, report reveals

One in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction, according to the first global assessment of flora, putting supplies of food and medicines at risk.

photo of DeforestationPhoto by CIFOR Agricultural land pushing up against the forest near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Habitat destruction is one of the biggest factors threatening plant species.

But the report also found that 2,000 new species of plant are discovered every year, raising hopes of new sources of food that are resilient to disease and climate change. New finds in 2015 included a giant insect-eating plant first spotted on Facebook and a 100-tonne tree hidden in an African forest.

The State of the World’s Plants report, by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, reveals that there are currently 390,000 species of known plants, with more than 30,000 used by people. However, more than 5,000 species have invaded foreign countries and are causing billions of dollars of damage every year.

“Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” said Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew, who led the new report. “Plants provide us with everything — food, fuel, medicines, timber and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. Without plants we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.”

The report is the first of what will be an annual benchmark analysis to set out what is known — and not known — about plants and highlight critical issues and how they can be tackled. “I am reasonably optimistic,” said Willis. “Once you know [about a problem], you can do something about it. The biggest problem is not knowing.”

The biggest factors threatening plant species with extinction are the destruction of habitats for farming (31 percent) — such as palm oil production and cattle ranching, deforestation for timber (21 percent) and construction of buildings and infrastructure (13 percent).

Climate change is currently a smaller factor — 4 percent — but is likely to grow. “I suspect we won’t actually see the full impact until 30 years down the line as it takes so long for plants, especially trees, to produce their offspring,” said Willis. One important by The Guardian – May 10, 2016

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The Fall and Resurrection of the Vosso Salmon

How biologists are racing to revive the ‘king of fish’ in Norway

High above the Bolstad Fjord, perched on a scaffold set into the cliff-top hut, Helge Furnes watched with the intensity of an osprey for a monstrous salmon to enter his trap of netting laid out on the river bottom. A pair of heavy stones, connected to the net by a system of ropes and pulleys, was hoisted up to the bottom of the hut. Once the fish entered the trap, Furnes yanked the end of the rope, setting off a chain reaction: The stones dropped towards the ground, their falling weight pulled up the lines tied to the corners of the net, and the trap closed, capturing the fish within.

Fishery BiologistsPhoto by Kevin Bailey Biologists Knut Vollset and Bjorn Barlaup ashore, and conservationist Helge Furnes in the skiff.

This method of fishing for salmon on the Bolstad Fjord, known as sitjenot, dated back at least 150 years. Furnes’s father also harvested the Vosso salmon. The fish are mostly gone now, and Furnes no longer fishes the sitjenot. The fishing huts sit, still perched on the cliffs or on poles above the fjord, like ghostly sentinels watching over the passage of the remaining salmon. 

The Vosso salmon is the stuff of legends. Once they were the largest Atlantic salmon in the world, based on average weight. Some behemoths tipped the scales at more than 36 kilograms. Catches of salmon in the Vosso River system were relatively stable for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, averaging about 12 tons per year. Then suddenly, in the late 1980s, the numbers began to nose-dive. The fishery collapsed in 1991 and was closed in 1992. For all practical purposes, the wild stock of Vosso River salmon went extinct. The “King of Fish,” as they had been called, were no more. 

The decline of Atlantic salmon was not unique to Vosso — similar decreases in other European salmon stocks occurred at about the same time. But what happened in Norway after the collapse probably couldn’t happen anywhere else.

When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1960s, Norway struck it rich. Enormous wealth was generated by sovereign control of the oil fields, leading to a system of taxation on oil extraction and direct production by the state-owned oil company. The Norwegians invested generously in infrastructure, social welfare, …more

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Preserving Half the Earth

In Review: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
By Edward O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 259 pages

Biologist and prolific writer Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus of Harvard University, has thrown down a challenge to humankind. In order to preserve the biological diversity of the Earth — all the plant and animal species that share our planet — we should set aside half the surface of the Earth in the form of biological preserves, with the remaining half devoted to human needs and resources.

Photo of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life Book Cover

A tall order!

In fact, several reviewers have objected to his new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, on the grounds that it is not specific about just how this immense shift in land use is to be accomplished. It’s true — Wilson argues for protection of large tracts of lands and waters to preserve our Earth’s biota, but does not present any pathway to get there.

But Dr. Wilson is not an activist or a planner; he is rather an advocate for the things he has studied and loved all his life, namely, the world’s diverse flora and fauna. Like many conservation biologists, he believes the measures we have taken so far to protect wildlife and wild lands simply aren’t enough. We have created preserves all around the Earth, but few are big enough or protective enough to ensure species’ survival. Furthermore, the long-term health of biological systems depends on the interchange of species and landscapes that are now chopped up and isolated from each other. As a result of this fragmentation, we continue to lose species around the world to extinction — species that can never be replaced.

Wilson’s concern also extends to the false thinking that humankind can now build its own artificial systems of crops and livestock for food, cities and towns for shelter, and reservoirs and other water projects to slake our civilized thirst. These human ecosystems are unlikely to be stable enough, Wilson argues, to survive very long. So even if our interest is purely selfish, we must preserve natural ecosystems to ensure humanity’s survival.

After all, humans are a part of the Earth’s living biosphere, and we cannot live for very long apart from it. Wilson explains: “We ourselves, our physical bodies, have stayed as vulnerable as when …more

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