Stories tagged ecology

Aug
20
2014

Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.
Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.Courtesy Craig Dietrich - Flickr
A huge solar energy farm in the Mojave Desert seems to be having one serious side effect: passing birds in flight are bursting into flames.

What's going on is that 300,000 mirrors on the ground are directing sunlight to huge towers that convert that energy into electricity. Bugs are attracted to the bright light from the mirrors drawing hungry birds to get into the path of the reflected light. And that concentrated light energy is causing the birds to catch fire, sometimes at a rate of one every two minutes. The flaming birds have been noticed since the plant powered up in February and its estimated that the total bird kill this year could top out at 28,000. Researchers estimated that one bird they found dead had been roasted by light beams that were nearly 1,000 degrees F.

Plans for building a second plant are on hold while investigators study the situation at the current site. What do you think? Is the potential of killing many birds a worthwhile cost for increased clean, "green" electricity?

Dec
10
2013

Wind power vs. eagle power: New regulations hope to spur more development of wind farms (above) by removing penalties power companies face if they kill bald eagles (below).
Wind power vs. eagle power: New regulations hope to spur more development of wind farms (above) by removing penalties power companies face if they kill bald eagles (below).Courtesy Jesus Martinez
In an interesting match-up between alternative energy sources and wildlife protection, wind energy appears to have come out the winner.

The Obama administration and the Interior Department last week decided it will waive penalties for up to three decades to wind energy farms that kill bald eagles in the generation of electrical power. The birds are killed when flying into the path of spinning wind turbine blades. Eagles in flight are especially susceptible to turbine blades as they're attention is often focused on the ground looking for prey rather than looking forward to see obstacles.

The new rule will give legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects if companies obtain permits and make efforts to avoid killing protected birds. If they end up killing more birds than estimated at the start of the project, additional safeguards for the birds would then kick in. Numbers of eagle kills would be reviewed every five years. Wind power companies would have to document eagle deaths caused by their blades, but that information would not be made public.

Proponents of the plan say it will free up companies to look into expanding wind farms and providing "cleaner" electrical power. Currently there are no protections against eagle kills, which might be limiting building new wind farms. Just last month a company was prosecuted for eagle killings at two wind farms in Wyoming.

Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but are still protected under two federal laws. Since 2008, official numbers peg eagle deaths due to wind turbine blades at 67. But that figure does not include eagle kills from the Altamont Pass in California, where a large wind farm is believed to kill about 60 eagles a year. Wind turbines can be massive, reaching up to 30 stories tall. Tips of the turbine blades can be spinning at speeds of 170 miles per hour on extremely windy days.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with the new regulation as it will allow it to more closely monitor the relationship between eagles and wind farms.

So what do you think? Is the price for increased "clean" electricity worth the cost of more eagle deaths? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Nov
20
2013

The glow is gone: A glowing lake in Puerto Rico has mysteriously gone dark in the past week. Scientists are trying to figure out why the lake has changed its night time behavior.
The glow is gone: A glowing lake in Puerto Rico has mysteriously gone dark in the past week. Scientists are trying to figure out why the lake has changed its night time behavior.Courtesy Ocean Island Travel
For the past eight days, a glowing lake in Puerto Rico has gone dark, puzzling scientists and tourism officials alike.

Construction on a new sewage treatment plant nearby has stopped as researchers are trying to figure out why the Fajardo Grand Lagoon at the Nature Reserve of Las Cabezas de San Juan in Puerto Rico has suddenly lost its glow. The lake, informally referred to as a lagoon, has long been a popular tourist stop at night. Kayakers have been able to cruise the waters and see the glow of bioluminescent microorganisms in the water. The creatures give off a glow when disturbed by a passing paddle or waving hand.

While some worry run off from the treatment plant under construction might be the cause of the darkness, others point to recent rains and high winds creating waves on the lake. In the short term, researchers are hoping to minimize as many factors as possible to be able to zero in on the cause.

A local group also collects water samples from the lake three times a week to record data including temperature, salinity and precipitation. That data will also be analyzed in this current study.

The lake also went nearly dark for a short time in 2003, but had since rebounded to it's original levels of glow.

So what do you think is happening in the lake to make it go dark? Share your ideas with other Science Buzz readers in the comments section.

Yup, it's Friday. Time for a new Science Friday video. Today: Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"The New York Department of Environmental Protection installed a prototype "algal turf scrubber" at once of its wastewater treatment plants in Queens. The scrubber--two 350-foot metal ramps coated with algae that grows naturally--is designed to use algae to remove nutrients and boost dissolved oxygen in the water that passes through it. John McLaughlin, Director of Ecological Services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Peter May, restoration ecologist for Biohabitats, explain how the scrubber works, and where the harvested algae goes."
Animal deaths map: Google Maps keep track of worldwide mass animal deaths.
Animal deaths map: Google Maps keep track of worldwide mass animal deaths.Courtesy Google maps
The mass deaths of birds in Arkansas last week (see post below) has opened up the larger question of how rare or unusual these occurrences are. Here's a link to a worldwide map that shows a round up of where mass animal deaths have happened recently. Click and draw your own conclusions.
Nov
05
2010

Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.
Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.Courtesy Nalini Nadkarni
Since 2004, scientist Nalini Nadkarni has enlisted prisoners to aid in her scientific research.

Don’t worry, it’s not cruel and usual punishment. The inmates aren’t being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs or try out some new method of electroshock therapy. Instead, the incarcerated offenders are part of Nadkarni’s research team. Nadkarni holds a PhD in Forest Ecology and is on the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of her inmate-aided research.

For one of Dr. Nadkarni'sDr. Nalini Nadkarni
Dr. Nalini NadkarniCourtesy Nalini Nadkarni
research projects, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, helped plant seeds of rare prairie plants then recorded data during the plants growth stages. The prisoners actually enjoyed helping out with the research. Not only did it give them a sense of doing something worthwhile, it connects them to something that’s sorely lacking in the old Graybar Hotel: nature.

For another project called Moss-in-Prisons (no Thor, your hero Randy has been picked up by the Tennessee Titans), Nadkarni recruited inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to help discover improved ways of cultivating slow-growing mosses.

"I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses; access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants; and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions," Nadkarni said.

If successful, the research could help replace ecologically important mosses that have been stripped from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, a sometimes illegal tactic that seems to be a favorite among some horticulturists.

In many cases, helping with the research isn’t just a way for inmates to pass time behind the brick walls and barbed wire of their confinement. It’s also a way to inspire them. One former inmate, who had worked with Nadkarni, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology after his release from Cedar Creek, and went on to give a presentation of the research he had done there at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Apparently, Dr. Nadkarni is on to something, and its importance is not lost on those still behind bars.

"It teaches me something," said one prisoner involved with Nadkarni’s prairie plant study. "It makes me work with people and it's just a new skill that I've learned."

Both science and prisoners benefit from this natural symbiosis taking place in such an unnatural setting. And other prisons have expressed interest in getting their inmates involved in Nadkarni’s research programs,

"Everyone can be a scientist,” Nadkarni says. “Everyone can relate to nature, everyone can contribute to the scientific enterprise, even those who are shut away from nature.”

SOURCES
NSF story and video
NSF press release

Oct
15
2010

California water wars
California water warsCourtesy Los Angeles
Every year, my friends in California give me a Mono Lake calendar. I will be there next week to see for myself how the Lake is doing. Mono Lake is recovering after the California Water Wars.

California water wars started 100+ yrs ago

Water diversion, speculation, and fighting has been going on in California for more than 100 years. About 110 years ago some of the visionary leaders in Los Angeles decided to dig canals all the way across the state to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and divert and carry its water to their growing city.

Battle in courts to save Mono Lake

Because the waters were diverted, the water level in Mono Lake started to fall, and the Mono Lake ecosystem became severely impacted.

In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect Mono Lake. The Committee (and the National Audubon Society) sued LADWP in 1979, arguing that the diversions violated the public trust doctrine, which states that navigable bodies of water must be managed for the benefit of all people. The litigation reached the California Supreme Court by 1983, which ruled in favor of the Committee. Further litigation was initiated in 1984, which claimed that LADWP did not comply with the state fishery protection laws.

"In 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) established significant public trust protection and eco-system restoration standards, and LADWP was required to release water into Mono Lake to raise the lake level 20 feet. As of 2003, the water level in Mono Lake has risen 9 feet of the required 20 feet. Los Angeles made up for the lost water through state-funded conservation and recycling projects." Wikipedia

Water scarcity will cause more wars

I read recently that a UN Development Program report predicted that Scarcity of water, over the next 25 years, will possibly be the leading reason for major conflicts in Africa, not oil.’

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Feb
06
2010

Brazil grants environmental license for Belo Monte dam

Belo Monte dam proposal on Xingu River
Belo Monte dam proposal on Xingu RiverCourtesy Kmusser

A controversial battle to flood 500 sq km of rain forest in order to provide clean energy for 23 million Brazilian homes appears to be over. The creation of the Belo Monte Dam is expected to begin in 2015 and is rumored to cost around $17 billion. When it is completed, Belo Monte would be third largest hydro-electric dam in the world.

Brazil's environment minister Carlos Minc has stated that those who win the bidding process to building contract and operate Belo Monte will have to pay around $800 million to protect the environment and meet 40 other conditions. EuInfrastructure.com

What are the other costs?

Lives of up to 40,000 natives who extract from the river most of what they need for food and water could be affected. The biodiversity within the area to be flooded would definitely be effected. Does the ever increasing need for electricity justify these hydro-electric projects? Over the next decade at least 70 dams are said to be planned for the Amazon region.

Jan
23
2010

Great Lakes fishing industry endangered

Asian carp
Asian carpCourtesy kate.gardiner
The commercial fishing industry in the Great Lakes, worth more than $7 billion a year, is threatened by Asian carp. Asian bighead (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and silver (H. molitrix) carp imported in 1970 to remove algae from catfish farms escaped into the Mississippi River during a flood. Since then they have outcompeted other fish. Along some stretches of the Illinois River, the carp make up 95 percent of the biomass. In December, the State of Michigan filed a lawsuit against the State of Illinois to close of locks between Chicago-area waterways and Lake Michigan.

"We cannot allow carp into the Great Lakes. It will destroy our Great Lakes fisheries, the economy," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in a prepared statement." New York Times

Supreme Court denies appeal to protect Great Lakes ecosystem

On Jan 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Michigan's request to block Asian carp invasion of Great Lakes (Scientific American). The Supreme Court didn't reveal any of the reasoning behind its ruling, which simply read: "The motion for preliminary injunction is denied."

White House appeal

Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, is "asking for an immediate summit at the White House with the administration to shut down these locks, at least temporarily, until a permanent solution can be found.”

The AP reported the White House response to be:

“The Obama administration clearly understands the urgency of this critical issue, and we look forward to meeting with them on the threat the Asian carp poses to the Great Lakes.” Dayton Daily News

If your answer is "Nothing, yet," then you might consider stopping by the museum.

Minnesota's Water Resources: Impacts of Climate Change
Dr. Lucinda Johnson, National Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota-Duluth
Thursday, April 9, 2009
7 - 8:30 pm in the Auditorium

Over the past 150 years, Minnesota's climate has become increasingly warmer, wetter, and variable, resulting in undeniable ecological impacts. For example, more recent changes in precipitation patterns combined with urban expansion and wetland losses have resulted in an increase in the frequency and intensity of flooding in parts of Minnesota. Learn about exciting new research which will develop a prediction model for future climate changes specific to Minnesota, and discover its potential economic and civic impact.

Check it out.