Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sea Level Rise in the Chesapeake Region

Last week the National Wildlife Federation issued a detailed report on the potential effects of sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay. The report assumes a mean sea level rise of 11 inches by 2050 and 27.2 inches by 2100. This represents the high end of the IPCC's most recent climate forecast. Some climatologists, such as James Hansen, predict that the sea level will rise much faster – up to 5 meters by 2100. The Delmarva Peninsula is particularly vulnerable to sea level changes because of its flatness and long coastline. Around the Chesapeake, sea level rise is exacerbated by land subsidence since so much water is diverted for agriculture.

With a 27.2-inch sea level rise, the Chesapeake Region would lose many of its characteristic habitats. Tidal marshes on the whole would decline by 36% – with many freshwater marshes turning into saltmarsh. Tidal swamps would decline by 57%. Over 167,000 acres of dry land would disappear. Ocean and estuarine beaches would each decline by more than half. In their place would be over 266,000 more acres of open water.

Within the Chesapeake Region, one of the most vulnerable places is the area around Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The peninsula surrounding Blackwater currently consists of a diverse mixture of freshwater marshes, swamps, coastal forest, and agricultural lands. By 2100, most of the freshwater marshes and swamps would disappear. They would be replaced mostly by saltmarsh and open water.

You can get some idea of how the Blackwater region would change by looking at the maps below. As you can see, most of the refuge – the area enclosed by the purple line – would be under water by 2100. Such a drastic change in habitats would force the waterfowl that currently winter around the refuge to look elsewhere. Where they would go remains to be seen.

Blackwater area now

Blackwater area in 2050

Blackwater area in 2100

All maps were produced by the National Wildlife Federation for the report. (Click to enlarge)


Friday, May 30, 2008

Loose Feathers #152

Snowy Egret at Nest / Photo by David Hall (USFWS)

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hunting on Foot

Pterosaurs hunted more like storks than like skimmers.

Clearing the Boreal Forest for Profit

At the beginning of May, I – like many birders – was disturbed to learn of the deaths of 500 ducks in a oil tailings pond in Alberta. The pond was owned by Syncrude, a company with a long record of ducks dying in its waste ponds. Toxic tailings ponds are one of many environmental hazards produced by mining tar sands for oil. The tar sands lie in the midst of the boreal forest, which provides important habitat for many North American bird species and supports the livelihood of indigenous people. Mining the tar sands for oil requires clearing the forest and draining its wetlands. [Update: The Boreal Birds Blog shows where the ranges of two bird species, Canada Warbler and Short-billed Dowitcher, overlap with mineral claims, including tar sands.]

Companies like Syncrude are supposed to restore natural habitat after they have finished mining it for tar. However, the process has been extremely slow; after 41 years of mining, 0.2% of the disturbed land has been reclaimed. Instead, the oil companies and the Canadian government have prioritized clearing and mining the tar sands as quickly as possible.

The 85-page report entitled Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation is a critical review of current policies and practices governing oil sands reclamation. The researchers found woefully inadequate reclamation progress, astonishing rates of toxic tailings creation and no proven way to clean them up. The researchers also found that the security deposits made by companies to guarantee reclamation may be inadequate, forcing Canadians to foot the bill for reclaiming vast areas of mined and disturbed boreal forest....

Oil sands mining is transforming northeastern Alberta. By the end of 2007, oil sands companies had cleared or mined more than 470 square kilometres of boreal forest. More than 3,000 square kilometres of boreal forest is already leased for mine development. Meanwhile toxic tailings lakes, already 50 square kilometres in size, are projected to grow to 220 square kilometers — an area five times the size of Sylvan Lake, Alberta.
The full report is available from the Pembina Institute (pdf).

So who profits from razing and mining Alberta's boreal forest? Two-thirds of tar sands oil is destined for the United States, and American companies are the main investors in Syncrude. While other companies were there first, ExxonMobil has pushed them aside and recently installed its own management team to expand mining [link via Gristmill]. This is the same Exxon that still refuses to compensate Alaskans for harm caused by the Exxon Valdez spill.
Why is an American oil company, the biggest in the world, with annual revenue of $390 billion, calling the shots at Canada's biggest oil-sands producer? Syncrude, founded in 1964, when commercialization of the oil sands wasn't economically viable, epitomizes the tangled web of partnerships and deals that is Alberta's energy sector. The company has seven partners, but Syncrude's biggest shareholders are a pair of Calgary-based operators, Canadian Oil Sands Trust and Imperial Oil Ltd., which together own a 61.7% stake. It's through its controlling position in Imperial that Exxon has become master at Syncrude.

The planned expansion at Syncrude from 350,000 bbl. per day to 500,000 bbl. may have been too important for Exxon's future to leave to anyone but the A-team from Texas. "My job is to build a strong operational foundation," says Katinas, whose previous assignments have taken him to Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the U.K. In addition to Syncrude and Imperial, the biggest operators in the oil sands are Suncor Energy Inc., a Canadian-owned company, and Albian Sands Energy Inc., a joint venture of Shell, Chevron Corp. and Marathon Oil Corp. This tight clutch of companies accounts for 75% of all production in the oil sands.
Time seems blissfully unaware of the environmental problems caused by excavating and processing tar sands for oil. Instead it describes the industry's potential in glowing terms, as "Venezuela north – without the loopy President and the deadweight national oil company as unwanted partners" and "the new Saudi Arabia ... right on the U.S. border." While the article makes a brief reference to a Greenpeace protest and greenhouse gas emissions, it brushes such concerns aside.

Tar sands oil is one of several dirty fuels being promoted to reduce U.S. dependence on oil from Asia and South America. Like liquid coal, tar sands oil requires much more energy and water to produce than traditional crude oil. Again like liquid coal, fuel derived from tar sands also produces higher amounts of greenhouse gases when it is burned. Tar sands oil contributes too much to climate change and entails too much wanton habitat destruction to be a serious long-term energy source.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #76 is up at Wanderin' Weeta.

Habitat Priorities in Connecticut

This morning Sphere linked to an interesting article in the Courant about a biologist conducting a multi-year census of bird populations in Connecticut. One of the more interesting findings is that the state's resident bird population shifts from northern Connecticut to southern Connecticut during the winter. As a result he argues that coastal forest habitats are the most important habitat types to preserve.

"What it tells us is the principal winter reservoir of our species is coastal forests," Craig said. "And those are the ones that are most under siege from developers."

In fact, Craig argues that, with only so much money available for land preservation, it is the forests of Southern New England, coastal and inland, that ought to get all the attention, even if it means abandoning efforts to preserve other habitats like prairies or marshes....

It is, he said, time for what might be called eco-triage, a most unconventional point of view that puts Craig at odds with most other biologists.

High-quality hardwood forests, he argues, are the single most valuable remaining habitat left in the region, and every effort should be directed at preserving them. Prairies of taller grass, which support some wildlife species like grasshopper sparrows — birds that have become extremely uncommon in Southern New England — can't be a priority.

"Is that the kind of thing you really want to invest dollars and effort into here? The grasshopper sparrow is one of the most abundant species of birds on the continent," Craig said. "In the East, they are not doing well, of course, because the land use has shifted. Is there anything practical you can do about that? Probably not."
The article gives the impression that his views on grassland preservation are not widely shared and quotes one biologist in disagreement. I think that coastal forests – and coastal habitats generally – are extremely important, and states along the Atlantic Coast should do what they can to preserve what is left of them. (From personal experience, my best winter birding experience are typically along the coast.) Regional diversity, though, is important too. Maybe the local populations of grassland birds are not globally signficant, but they are part of our natural heritage and, as such, deserve protection.

In addition, I suspect that exurban development will soon reach a high water mark, if it has not done so already. High energy prices, particularly high gas prices, are already affecting how much Americans drive, and that has implications for where we live. A retraction in the market for exurban and suburban housing could make it easier for more habitat types to be protected, so that land managers do not need to make the triage choices that Craig envisions.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Saving Resources

Cartoon by Tom Toles.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Small Savings for a Big Loss

Red-necked Phalarope at Arctic NWR (USFWS Photo)

Drilling in Arctic NWR is one proposal that never seems to die, even with the change of leadership in Congress. Over the past decade, the stated rationale for drilling has shifted; these days the talk is about how Americans would save money by opening ANWR to the oil industry. To that end, Senator Ted Stevens requested the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration to estimate how much ANWR oil would reduce the overall price of oil.

The EIA released its report this week, with the news that ANWR wells, at peak production, would reduce the price of crude oil by $0.75 per barrel. That's barrel, not gallon. With a barrel producing 44 gallons of petroleum products, that would probably work out to a savings of about $0.02 per gallon of gasoline. Oil from the refuge would not hit the market for ten years, when those values would presumably be worth much less.

Since the cost savings was unimpressive, the report cited other reasons for opening the refuge.
However, even if drilling has a negligible effect on prices at the pump, opening ANWR to production has other positive effects for Alaska, said Philip Budzik, one of the authors of the report.

For one, it keeps the Alaska pipeline operational past 2030, Budzik said, which means that oil producers might continue to explore smaller, less lucrative North Slope prospects simply because they have a way of getting their oil out of the state. That means oil production will continue to be a mainstay of the Alaska economy.

And if ANWR oil replaces foreign oil barrel-for-barrel, that means the U.S. is importing less oil, Budzik said, and fewer oil imports mean a stronger U.S. dollar.
The likelihood of such a proposal passing is now far less than it was a few years ago, but bills and amendments to open ANWR keep getting introduced. The Senate rejected one bill to drill in ANWR last week, but a similar bill was introduced in the House this week. It would be far more useful if our senators and representatives would provide better funding for public transportation or find other ways to reduce oil consumption.

Environmentalists like me oppose opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because it is a wilderness area, one of the few places along the U.S. Arctic coastline that is not yet subject to oil exploration. The red-necked phalarope pictured above is just one of many bird species that occur at ANWR. I may never see it myself, but I, like many other birders, do see species that breed at the refuge every winter. A few such species (with their approximate migration routes) are shown in the image below.

click to enlarge

Friday, May 23, 2008

Loose Feathers #151

Cape May Warbler / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Cost of Inaction

When it comes time to implement any sort of conservation measure, we often hear the familiar mantra that conservation will hurt the economy. This is certainly the case for wildlife protection. Last week, Secretary Kempthorne raised the objection in his decision to list polar bears as threatened but not address climate change, the chief cause of their decline. This week, Governor Palin of Alaska cited the same issue of economic harm as the state filed a lawsuit to overturn the listing.

The same holds true for climate change, even beyond wildlife protection. Never mind that EPA studies indicate that the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act would have minimal impact on the economy. Any measure to conserve energy and reduce emissions is met with howls of protest over the supposed economic devastation it would wreak. When that bill reaches the Senate floor, I expect that we will hear more of the same.

What gets lost in the noise is that climate change will have serious economic consequences if it goes unchecked. Economists at Tufts University concluded that aggressive action to reduce emissions would be less costly than to ignore climate change.

The Tufts study included a "bottom-up" analysis of the economic impacts in four categories and found that by 2100, annual costs would be $422 billion in hurricane damage; $360 billion in real estate losses, with the biggest risk on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, particularly Florida; $141 billion in increased energy costs; and $950 in water costs, especially in the West. (The estimates are expressed in today's dollars.)

That adds up to an annual loss by 2100 of 1.8 percent of gross domestic product, or GDP, the sum of the nation's output of goods and services.

The study's "business as usual" scenario, in which emissions of greenhouse gases continued at an increasing rate, was taken from the high end of the range of likely outcomes of inaction described by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year. The Tufts study also incorporated some later scientific findings.

The study projected that the average temperature would increase by 13 degrees Fahrenheit in most of the United States and by 18 degrees in Alaska in the next 100 years, bringing more severe heat waves, hurricanes and droughts.

The report also forecast stronger hurricanes as a result of higher sea surface temperatures; sea level rises of 23 inches by 2050 and 45 inches by 2100 that would inundate low-lying coastal areas; and higher air conditioning bills in the Southeast and Southwest that wouldn't be offset nationally by lower heating bills in the North.

The authors of the Tufts study also used a revised version of the model used by Nicholas Stern for his 2006 assessment of the cost of inaction on a global scale. Using that model, the Tufts economists found a U.S. loss of 3.6 percent of GDP by 2100.
The full report can be found here.

Almost all climate forecasts are given as a range of probabilities, with upper and lower bounds. The fact that this report used the IPCC's upper projection rather than the mean projection means that the economic impact could be somewhat less than the report's conclusions. There are also some areas of uncertainty in projecting the consequences of a warmer climate. For example, how much climate change will affect tropical cyclones is still subject to debate.

At the same time, some potential impacts seem to be excluded from the study's estimates. Climate change is likely to harm agricultural output (especially in the developing world) since many crops will not grow well at higher temperatures and severe droughts will become more common. Also excluded were costs associated with the effects of higher temperatures on human health. Meanwhile, loss of biodiversity – driven in part by warmer temperatures – has been estimated to cost 6% of the world's income.

All of these issues need to be front and center in the coming debate over how to forestall climate change. I believe that the human cost and loss of biodiversity should provide a powerful moral basis to take action and reduce our emissions. But we should not let denialists and opponents of reform appropriate economic arguments for themselves.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review: The Young Birder's Guide by Bill Thompson

Recently I received a review copy of a new field guide for older children (8-12 years old). The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, by Bill Thompson III, aims inspire children to take more interest in the natural world. Thompson comes from a family of birdwatchers; his parents founded Bird Watcher's Digest and his wife, Julie Zickefoose, also paints and writes about birds. (I have reviewed one of her books on this blog.) Thompson wrote this field guide for his children and tested the book on his 11-year-old daughter's classmates.

The Young Birder's Guide begins with a useful introduction, which is a simplified version of what one might find in introductions to bird identification for adults. The guide introduces concepts such as narrowing down species by size and shape and includes advice about where to look for birds. It also provides some tips for helping birds, such as reducing use of harmful chemicals and keeping cats indoors.

The heart of the book consists of species accounts. Most species are given their own pages, except for a few that are paired. Each species page includes:

  • photographs of the most common plumages
  • a line drawing by Julie Zickefoose
  • text with basic information on identification and distribution
  • a range map
  • a "WOW!" factoid, which is typically something unusual or distinctive about the species, such as the flight speed of an unladen turkey.
I am partial to painted illustrations for my own use, but the photographs for this guide were selected well and should provide an adequate basis for identification in combination with the text. The black-and-white illustrations by Julie Zickefoose add further identification clues and show each bird engaged in some typical behavior. They are especially helpful when some field marks are not obvious from the photographs.

The species order generally follows taxonomy, but Thompson often departs from evolutionary relationships to group species based on appearance or habitat. Thus horned lark and snow bunting, two birds that often forage together on open fields in winter, appear on facing pages. This feature ought to be helpful for beginning birders; when I started birding I often wished that guides were grouped by habitat to reduce page-flipping.

Only 200 bird species are included in this guide (as opposed to over 400 in the 4th edition Peterson and 650 for the eastern Sibley). Many warblers and sparrows are missing, including some easily-identified common migrants like black-throated blue and chestnut-sided warblers. The guide's coverage of gulls, shorebirds, seabirds, and flycatchers is also limited.

For most young readers this selection will be beneficial, as it will help them identify birds more easily and more accurately. If you live in the far north or deep south, the missing species might be a disadvantage. My recommendation is to check out this book's species coverage in a bookstore before buying if you live outside the continent's middle latitudes – roughly south of the boreal forest and north of Florida. If it has most of the common species for your area, then The Young Birder's Guide is an excellent option. If this guide lacks common species from your area, it might be better to try one of the more comprehensive guides (like Peterson's), or an appropriate regional guide instead.

Bill Thompson III, The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Pp. 256; illustrations, range maps, glossary, and index. $14.95. ISBN: 0547119348.

See also: Young Birder's Guide Companion (Download Version)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More Tampering?

Last December, Stephen Johnson of the EPA denied California's request to set its own emissions and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Under an exception to the Clean Air Act, California may set its own standards, and other states may follow them, as long as the state standards are approved by the EPA. Now it appears that Johnson was ready to approve California's standards until the White House interfered with the decision. The news comes as a result of an EPA official's testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA can reject a waiver only if the administrator finds California's request falls short of one of several criteria. One of them is that the state doesn't need the standards "to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions."

Johnson has said there was nothing unique about California's situation that supported issuing the waiver. He testified in previous congressional hearings that he alone made the decision.

The memo said that Burnett, who is EPA's associate deputy administrator, told the committee that in the late summer and early fall of 2007: "I was under the general impression that the administrator was very interested in a full grant of the waiver."

Burnett said that Johnson also wanted him to explore a middle-ground option between a full grant of the petition and a denial. "I think that the level of his interest increased. . . following the various meetings that we had both within the agency and within other parts of the executive branch."

Burnett said that he and everyone else at EPA who gave opinions about the decision recommended a full grant of the waiver.

He said that Johnson told him why he changed his mind, but Burnett did not answer when asked what the reason was.
The accusation of tampering will not be news to anyone who has followed this administration's approach to environmental policy. There has been a long pattern of delay, obfuscation, and interference when a decision could impact corporate interests, whether the decision involves greenhouse gases, wildlife protection, or public health. The situation is so egregious that unlikely allies are starting to band together in opposition to the administration's policies.

Monday, May 19, 2008

New Red List Released

The 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has been released. BirdLife reports on the new results for bird species.

The 2008 Red List makes grim reading with 1,226 species of bird now threatened, and eight species newly uplisted to Critically Endangered, the highest threat category. Of the 26 species that changed category owing to changes in their population size, rate of decline or range size, 24 were uplisted to a higher level of threat. These include widespread continental species like Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata and Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata, both previously of Least Concern, and now regarded as Near Threatened in a global context.

In Australia, Mallee Emuwren Stipiturus mallee is undergoing a very rapid population decline, and its habitat is now so fragmented that a single bushfire could be catastrophic. Years of drought, particularly in the southern and western parts of the species’s range, have affected the health of the vegetation on which it relies and has almost led to the emuwren’s extinction in South Australia where the last significant population comprises 100 birds confined to 100 km².

In the Galápagos Islands, Floreana Mockingbird Nesomimus trifasciatus is confined to two islets off Floreana. Its population has declined from an estimated maximum of 150 individuals in 1966 to fewer than 60, and is now at risk from extreme weather events. As a result it has been uplisted to Critically Endangered.

In Papua New Guinea, deforestation caused by a rising demand for the cultivation of palm oil has led to species such as New Britain Goshawk Accipiter princeps being uplisted to a higher threat category.
A common theme among the species whose status worsened is the impact of climate change. Warmer average temperatures directly affect birds in many ways, such as longer and harsher droughts and stronger storms, both of which degrade critical habitat. Climate change also affects birds by changing the ranges or breeding times for many of the plants or prey species that birds require for food or shelter. These factors have varying effects on common species, but with rare or threatened species, they can push birds closer to the edge.

Here is the list of status changes for bird species. Here is a list of the birds in the U.S. and Canada that are listed as Endangered, Critically Endangered, or Extinct in the Wild. (Many birds on the U.S. list are from Hawaii.) If you want more detail on a particular species or group of species, you can find it through BirdLife's Datazone, which includes factsheets for all of the species in the database.

Information about other taxa on the Red List are available at the IUCN Red List website.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Plovers Washed Out

Last week's storms washed away many of New Jersey's piping plover nests.

  • 14 of 21 nests monitored by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation were destroyed.
  • 2 nests at Long Branch lost half their eggs.
  • 9 nests were washed out at Sandy Hook, 2 nests were flooded but still being incubated, and 2 nests were unaffected.
  • 1 nest in Holgate was washed out.
It is still early enough in the breeding season that piping plovers can try nesting again. Storms are one of many threats that piping plovers face. Others include predators, fireworks, harassment from beachgoers, and being run over by trucks.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Something's missing

A short-tailed (common) grackle at the birdbath.

Most birds molt feathers a few at a time, so that no group is entirely unrepresented at any given time. I suspect that this grackle lost its tail in a narrow escape from a predator, possibly a neighborhood cat.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Loose Feathers #150

yellow warbler nestYellow Warbler Attends to the Nest / Photo by Fred Deines (USFWS)

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #75 is online at Gallicissa.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Polar Bears to Be Threatened

The Interior Department has decided to list the polar bear as a threatened species. It is the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act due to the threat of climate change. This is also the first listing announced since Kempthorne became Secretary of Interior in 2006. (Remember, the department has changed the rules so that species have to meet an excessively high standard to be listed.)

Today's decision cites the loss of Arctic sea ice as a cause of the polar bear's decline in recent years. Government studies predict that two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by mid century. Still, Kempthorne doesn't want anyone to get any crazy ideas:

But the designation will come with a qualifier: an administrative letter that will have conditions to "keep from harming the economy."

Kempthorne said that the Endangered Species Act shouldn't be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and that the listing will not "set backdoor climate policy."

"That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA," Kempthorne said.

"This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting."
Without such regulation of emissions, it remains to be seen what practical effect this listing will have.

Update: It appears that the polar bear is not the first listed species whose decline is caused by climate change. Press releases from 2006 cite warmer ocean temperatures as a reason for listing elkhorn and staghorn corals, two Caribbean species.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Riverside Park Hawk Nestlings Dead

In the comments on a previous post, a reader linked an article about the apparent death of three red-tailed hawk fledglings in Riverside Park (NY).

The body of only one young hawk — or eyas — has been recovered so far. The city’s avid bird-watchers have confirmed that the other two babies are not in their West Side nest and are feared dead as well.

“It’s so devastating,” said Dr. Leslie Day, who recovered the body of one of the chicks on Sunday and kept it refrigerated to preserve it.

On Monday morning, Dr. Day, a naturalist who teaches at the Elisabeth Morrow School and the Bank Street College of Education, gave the body to a friend, the photographer Lincoln Karim. Mr. Karim planned to drive to Delmar, N.Y., near Albany, and turn the corpse over to Ward B. Stone, who runs the Wildlife Pathology Unit of the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Mr. Stone was expected to perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death.
Over the past few days, there has been a running discussion on the fate of the Riverside Park hawks at the Pale Male Irregulars blog. The latest post reports that the necropsy indicated that the recovered chick died from acute lung hemorrhage. That suggests the hawks ingested rat poison, but the chick still needs to be tested for toxins to confirm this suspicion. The Urban Hawks blog, which first mentioned the potential nest failure at Riverside, has photos of the three Riverside eyasses while they were still alive. I expect that both blogs will post about the tests as results become available. Readers who are interested in following the story should check there for updates.

Update: The Riverside Park hawk nest fell down, and birders recovered the remaining two dead nestlings and sent them to Audubon for testing.

Monday, May 12, 2008

McCain on the Environment

Some readers might be interested in this review of McCain's environmental record. In terms of voter scorecards he does not register very well. According to the article, the League of Conservation Voters gives him a 24% lifetime score. (Clinton and Obama both get an 86% lifetime score.) Scores alone are of limited usefulness since they mask individual priorities and (to some extent) the machinations necessary to pass legislation. So it helps to delve into the details.

The senator from Arizona has been resolute in his quest to impose a federal limit on greenhouse gas emissions, even when it means challenging his own party. But he has also cast votes against tightening fuel-efficiency standards and resisted requiring public utilities to offer a specific amount of electricity from renewable sources. He has worked to protect public lands in his home state, winning a 2001 award from the National Parks Conservation Association for helping give the National Park Service some say over air tours around the Grand Canyon, work that prompts former interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt to call him "a great friend of the canyon." But he has also pushed to set aside Endangered Species Act protections when they conflict with other priorities, such as the construction of a University of Arizona observatory on Mount Graham....

"Look, he always balances what are the environmental implications of these enterprises and what are the economic benefits that could come from them," Holtz-Eakin said. "That is, in general, an approach which may be harder to read than a flat ideological X or Y, but it's how he reads these things, it's how he evaluates these kinds of decisions." ...

For the most part, McCain follows a fairly instinctive approach to deciding environmental questions. In recent interviews he has said he thinks the government should list polar bears as endangered because shrinking sea ice threatens their survival, that sharks deserve protection because they're a crucial part of the marine food web, and that the nation needs to act on climate change because it risks an environmental catastrophe if it doesn't.

The senator does not boast an extensive staff of experts on these issues, however, and doesn't delve into the scientific and policy details the way former vice president Al Gore or some of his Senate colleagues do. In one conversation on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, he voiced his frustration with activists who oppose nuclear power plants....

As a result, many advocates said they remain uncertain as to how McCain would tackle environmental issues if elected president this fall. They are still waiting to see whether he will vote in favor of Lieberman's latest climate bill, which is headed to the Senate next month.
The article seems to have run in preparation for a speech on environmental policy that McCain is giving today. Here is a preview.

My impression in reading these is that McCain is not as outrightly hostile to the environment as some other members of his party, but that conservation is not a strong priority. Time will tell if that impression is correct. Unfortunately, coverage of the candidates' plans has been limited, with few questions on climate change and conservation during debates and interviews. Better coverage would give us a better sense how candidates would handle environmental protection.

See also his advisor's op-ed.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

High Gas Prices

Here is Stephen Colbert on the causes of high gas prices:

[Link here if video fails to embed.]

On a related note, the rise in gas prices has led more people to use public transportation.

Mass transit systems around the country are seeing standing-room-only crowds on bus lines where seats were once easy to come by. Parking lots at many bus and light rail stations are suddenly overflowing, with commuters in some towns risking a ticket or tow by parking on nearby grassy areas and in vacant lots....

Some cities with long-established public transit systems, like New York and Boston, have seen increases in ridership of 5 percent or more so far this year. But the biggest surges — of 10 to 15 percent or more over last year — are occurring in many metropolitan areas in the South and West where the driving culture is strongest and bus and rail lines are more limited....

Transit systems in metropolitan areas like Minneapolis, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco reported similar jumps. In cities like Houston, Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte, N.C., commuters in growing numbers are taking advantage of new bus and train lines built or expanded in the last few years. The American Public Transportation Association reports that localities with fewer than 100,000 people have also experienced large increases in bus ridership.
Public transit still accounts for a very small portion of overall commuting trips. However, a surge in ridership could encourage more cities to invest in new or expanded systems and thus encourage higher ridership. That would go a long way towards reducing carbon emissions and urban traffic congestion. It would be even better if increased ridership encouraged investment in regional rail.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

World Series of Birding

Patrick found this old video from the Daily Show in which Steve Carell reports on the World Series of Birding. Or, rather, he distracts some teams while they are trying to find birds – all in good fun, of course. Enjoy!

Good luck to the Sandy Hook Century Run and all the other teams heading out today!

[If the video does not embed properly, you can find it here.]

Friday, May 09, 2008

Arctic Tern

Photograph: Hinrich Baesemann/dpa/Corbis

This Arctic Tern is one of sixteen photographs of migratory birds presented by The Guardian in honor of World Migratory Bird Day / International Migratory Bird Day. Arctic Terns fly the longest known annual migration of any animal species.

This year, the festival is May 10.

Loose Feathers #149

House Wren / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Bird news and links
  • Great tits are adjusting to climate change by nesting earlier. Tits at Wytham Woods near Oxford have been banded and their nests monitored since 1947. On average, they now lay eggs two weeks earlier than in 1961. The earlier nest date allows birds to take advantage of an earlier peak in caterpillar availability due to the warming climate. It appears that the British great tits, unlike continental great tits and North American wood warblers, are able to adjust their breeding dates based on ambient temperature and food availability.
  • Other birds have not adjusted as successfully; 41 percent of Europe's 522 migratory waterbird populations are declining.
  • Scientists discovered a new bird ancestor, Eoconfuciusornis zhengi, in northern China. Its feathers are fairly well-preserved compared to other fossils. The new specimen was probably better able to fly than Archaeopteryx, as it had a skeletal and muscular structure closer to modern birds.
  • Audubon California worked out a deal to protect a colony of 80,000 tricolored blackbirds, one of the largest remaining in the world.
  • Towns in Japan are trying to discourage crows from nesting on utility poles since the nests cause power outages. Crow populations have soared there in recent years. (link via Aydin)
  • Male herring gull embryos appear to be more sensitive to their environment than female embryos, leading to delayed hatching and poorer fledging condition.
  • Beauty the Bald EagleWildlife rehabilitators in Idaho are preparing to attach an artificial bill to a bald eagle. Its original bill was shot off by a hunter. (The "bird recovery center in Anchorage" mentioned in the article is Bird TLC.)
  • Also, via Bird TLC, an eagle that survived the Exxon Valdez spill died this week, twenty years after it was rescued.
  • The San Bernardino County Museum and National Forest Service have launched a study of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher to determine the causes of its decline and its habitat needs.
  • Environmentalists near Edmonton are trying to relocate a power line that causes numerous bird deaths from collisions.
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
  • According to a recent National Geographic survey, U.S. consumers rank last in following green habits. Here is a simplified Greendex if you want to test your own habits.
  • You can reduce your impact by producing and discarding less waste. Many products can and should be recycled. Food waste can be turned into compost for gardens or houseplants.
  • Electronic waste is being dumped illegally in west Africa, where people (often children) break it up for scrap without taking proper safety precautions. As a result they are exposed a host of dangerous toxins.
  • Tropical insects may suffer the worst effects of climate change, since they have more difficulty regulating their body temperature than other organisms.
  • A new report shows that the EU's biofuels policy is likely to cause environmental harm around the planet. Clearing land for biofuel feed stocks represents a threat to natural habitats.
  • The Lieberman-Warner climate bill appears moribund.
  • Enviroblog: Cheatsheet: Phthalates
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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Penguins Have DDT

Adélie PenguinsThe extent to which humans have managed to poison the planet is scary. In the latest case, the pesticide DDT has been found in Adélie penguins in Antarctica, a place where DDT was never sprayed.

A 1964 survey found modest amounts of the pesticide in Adélie penguins, and Geisz's team expected to see even less four decades later. Instead, her team found DDT levels unchanged in birds that live near the continent's western peninsula.

As DDT crawls up the food chain, from plankton to krill to penguins, it breaks down into a sister molecule called DDE. The more DDE in an animal, the longer the chemical has been around, Geisz says. But her team recorded low levels of DDE in the birds, suggesting a fresh source.

Geisz couldn't figure out where the DDT came from until she looked back at glacial records. In the 1950s and 60s, Antarctic glaciers swelled, potentially locking in chemicals like DDT.

However, average winter temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have warmed 6 °C the past 30 years, and glaciers now melt faster than they grow. A recent study noted elevated levels of DDT in glacial runoff.

As the continent's western ice sheet melts, the DDT drips back into the ecosystem at a rate of 1 to 4 kg per year, her team estimates.
The levels of DDT and DDE present in the Adélie penguins are too low to cause much harm. However, the findings indicate the presence of other harmful chemicals being released as the glaciers melt. The Arctic and Antarctic are visibly pristine landscapes, but the pollutants we release in warmer regions all migrate there eventually.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stream Restoration to Reduce Nitrates

A team from the University of Maryland found a way to measure some benefits of urban stream restoration:

Using state-of-the-art techniques in a long-term study, Kaushal's team injected stable isotope tracers into restored and unrestored sections of an urban stream, and measured how microbes in the streambanks naturally absorb nitrate and convert it into inert nitrogen gas. By analyzing those samples, the team was able to determine in-the-field nitrogen reductions by stream microbes through a process known as denitrification.

The research showed that stream restoration techniques that "reconnected" the banks to the stream doubled nitrogen removal rates by microbes, and reduced nitrogen levels in ground water by 40%, contributing to significantly lower nitrogen levels in the stream compared to unrestored conditions. Getting water out of the stream channel into denitrification "hot spots" in floodplain wetlands helped improve water quality.
Reducing waterborne nitrates is particularly important in the Chesapeake Bay region. The bay suffers from large dead zones during summer months due to a lack of dissolved oxygen. Hypoxia is caused by algae that feeds on the excessive nitrates and phosphates that flow into the bay year-round. Cleanup efforts have failed to meet their goals for reducing nitrate content in the watershed because there are so many sources scattered over such a large area. Faulty sewer systems, agricultural fertilizers, and lawn fertilizers are the main culprits.

Urban stream restoration is only part of the solution to improving the health of our watersheds. It looks like one that could benefit urban wildlife, as well as ecosystems downstream.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Long Record of Duck Deaths

Today there is a bit more news on the 500 ducks killed at a Syncrude tailings pond in Alberta. This is not the first such incident. Researchers with the Boreal Songbird Initiative have recorded many bird deaths in tailings ponds over the past 30 years.

-At least 15 species of waterfowl have already been documented as having been killed on Syncrude Tar Sands tailings ponds along with an amazing 22 species of non-waterfowl.
-Research at tailings ponds in the late 1970's based on once a week surveys of two Syncrude tailings ponds observed at least 100-300 birds killed annually. Since this was based only on birds observed floating or on the sides of the ponds once a week there was clearly a larger number of birds that sunk or were unobservable so these numbers represent a minimum mortality from only two tailings ponds.
-At single tailings pond sites, research has documented tens of thousands of waterfowl and other wetland-dependent birds migrating over in periods of weeks during spring and fall migration.
-Based on research at the Alberta tar sands tailings ponds it is well documented that birds are most likely to land on the ponds at night, under weather conditions that restrict visiblity and when surrounding natural lakes and ponds are frozen under such conditions there is a very high risk of large numbers of casualties because waterfowl and shorebirds and other wetland dependent birds normally travel in flocks that can regularly number into the hundreds and sometimes into the thousands or tens of thousands. The conditions under which these large mortality events are likely to occur are also periods when it is unlikely that the ponds are monitored in order to observe mortality events. Because of this it is highly likely that mortality events like this may have occurred more frequently than reported.
The duck deaths are a major embarrassment and potential legal liability for Syncrude and other companies invested in boreal tar sands mining. Even before the incident, tar sands lobbyists had been trying to overturn a recent provision in U.S. law that forbid the use of liquid fuels with a higher carbon lifecycle than conventional gas. Canadian government ministers have been trying to reassure the Canadian and American publics that they are investigating the incident very seriously despite Syncrude's public apology.

Mercury in Marshes

The Baltimore Sun shows the key role that wetlands play in cycling mercury from air pollution into water and then into fish.

Mercury isn't created by marshes. The element occurs naturally in rocks, dirt and coal, and it floats into the air when coal is burned in power plants and factories. This airborne form of the metal, called inorganic mercury, doesn't usually get into people, Mitchell said.

The metal becomes a health hazard when it's changed by microorganisms that multiply in the oxygen-deprived muck at the bottoms of rivers, lakes and wetlands. In this mud, bacteria transform inorganic mercury into methylmercury, which is at least 10 times more toxic and collects in the bodies of animals.

Tainted worms are gobbled by small fish, and these are eaten by big fish - such as tuna and shark - that are eventually eaten by humans. The methylmercury accumulates as it moves up the food chain, with the toxicity multiplying 10-fold at each step.
The Smithsonian researchers at the center of the article see the production of methylmercury as something that artificial wetland designs need to alleviate if possible. In particular, how the planners handle mercury will influence the outcome of a 12,000-acre wetland construction project at Blackwater NWR. The wetlands are planned to remove some of the carbon dioxide being emitted by those same power plants that are causing the problem.
Mitchell said natural wetlands - such as Kirkpatrick Marsh, owned by the Smithsonian research center - should be left alone so the wildlife is not disturbed.

But to the east, on the other side of the Bay Bridge, the federal and state governments are studying a vast wetlands-building proposal at the Blackwater refuge. Funding for this effort could come in part from power companies that face new state greenhouse gas limits and want to build wetlands as a way of "offsetting" their pollution.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will look carefully at the mercury-producing potential of the proposed Blackwater wetlands as they are designed, said John Sherwell, manager of DNR's power plant research program.
The article mentions a few methods of remediation, such as adding charcoal to wetland beds to reduce mercury and building new wetlands on gravel to increase the flow of oxygen and discourage bacteria. Ultimately, reducing mercury at the source would help more.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Reducing Emissions on the Local Level

Today's Post highlights ways in which states and cities are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Officials in King County and other places are rethinking the way their communities grow and operate, all with an eye toward reducing their overall carbon footprint. After decades of policies that encouraged people to move out to the suburbs in pursuit of larger homes and bigger back yards, some policymakers are now pushing aggressively to increase urban density and discourage the use of private cars.

In Massachusetts, the state demands that developers calculate and disclose the climate impact of their projects. In California, Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. has sued communities and power companies for failing to offset the greenhouse gases generated by their expansion plans. And Washington, D.C., officials are installing a new trolley line and bike rental kiosks in an effort to cut back on car trips within the city.

Even though national politicians are beginning to eye a federal carbon cap more seriously, the flurry of activity in state and local jurisdictions highlights a little-noticed reality: Most of the measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will be enacted outside the nation's capital.

"The vehicle for delivery, in terms of achieving greenhouse-gas reductions, is often going to be the states," said Ian A. Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "It's going to happen through things like building codes, utilities and zoning."
To some extent that is how it should be. States and cities have more flexibility to adapt to local conditions that might make some changes harder and others easier compared to other regions. We still need federal action, however, because not all regions are equally interested in reducing emissions. The Southeast has particularly lagged behind; six southeastern states would be the world's seventh-largest source of greenhouse gases if they were a separate country.
"This region is a major part of the problem," said Oliver A. "Trip" Pollard, land and community program leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "So far, we are not a major part of the policy solution."

As the Southeast continues to grow -- North Carolina, with a population of 8 million, is projected to add another 4 million residents in the next 20 to 25 years -- people are spreading out rather than concentrating in cities, which translates into longer commutes....

Most other Southeastern states are accelerating their carbon emissions by expanding roads and curtailing public transit projects. Officials are planning to expand a highway in northwest Atlanta to 23 lanes, even as they missed a deadline to install new commuter rail lines.
I grew up in a town that was developed prior to World War I, so it was designed to be convenient for the transportation available at the time: feet and streetcars. All houses are within easy walking distance of the main avenue, which has public transportation (buses) and retail, and almost all properties have sidewalks so that walking is safe. Neighboring towns developed later, after World War II, and therefore show signs of car-oriented development: cul-de-sacs instead of a grid, with no sidewalks, often far from any type of retail or transportation. Suburban and exurban development still favors the latter pattern. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through greater use of mass transit will require not just providing the transit, but also orienting land use patterns to ones that favor energy savings. Denser, more walkable development will reduce car use (and associated emissions) a lot more than simply adding a few extra bus routes.

The Post article also mentions that some cities are trying to account for bicycle commuting as a formal part of public policy. Washington, D.C., in particular, has been experimenting with a bicycle-sharing program analogous to similar programs in Europe. As with public transportation, widespread adaptation of bicycles requires that transportation and land use planning accommodate their use. As with mass transit, denser developments with shorter commutes will favor bicycle over car use. More importantly infrastructure and proper driver education needs to be in place for bicycle commuting to be safe. Safety can be a problem even in places that encourage bicycling.
On streets clogged by pollution-emitting cars, buses and trucks, New York City’s quest to establish reasonably safe cycling paths by adding to its roughly 300 miles of bicycle lanes has been welcomed by cyclists. But the lanes are often battlegrounds between cyclists and drivers who seem undeterred by the clearly demarcated paths.

Although city regulations forbid cars from blocking bike lanes — a violation that carries a $115 fine — those rules are routinely ignored by drivers who use the lanes as parking spots, loading zones and places to pick up passengers. Such maneuvers have enraged cyclists who say they are unlawful, rude and dangerous.
Bicycle lanes are a start, but a lot more needs to happen to make bicycle a safer means of transportation.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Alberta Ducks Update

The incident in which 500 ducks died in an oil waste pond is still under investigation. Of the hundreds of oiled ducks, only five survived the initial landing. Of those five, three have since died. In the meantime, another oiled duck was found by a hunter far away from the tailings pond.

On Tuesday evening, native hunter Roland Campbell discovered an oil-coated duck in Wood Buffalo Park, about 250 kilometres away from the tailings pond.

Campbell said he was shocked when he went to prepare a duck for his dinner.

"I assumed it was mud when I first killed it, it was covered in oil," he said.

"I took a better look at this duck and that's when I noticed he was all full of tar on his stomach and feet."

Campbell gave the duck to Environment Canada's office in Fort Chipewyan. Federal park rangers are out searching for other contaminated birds in the area.

The oil on the bird will be tested and compared with samples taken from the tailings pond belonging to Syncrude Canada.
The finding may indicate that other oiled ducks have yet to be found.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Loose Feathers #148

American Black Duck / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Bird news and links
  • Continuing research posits a chemical mechanism that helps birds navigate according to Earth's magnetic field. The finding is based on laboratory experiments and has not been confirmed in actual birds.
  • Three Asian vulture species could be extinct within 10 years unless the veterinary drug diclofenac is completely eliminated. The white-backed vulture has lost 99.9% of its population since 1992; long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture have each lost about 97% of their populations. The drug has been banned by the Indian government, but it continues to be used.
  • You might want to be careful of other visitors in national parks and wildlife refuges. The Bush administration wants to revoke the federal ban on carrying loaded and concealed weapons on federal parkland.
  • Eating meat that contains fragments of lead shot may pose risks for humans as well as California condors.
  • Greenland allowed an extra month of hunting at its seabird breeding colonies this year. Some of Greenland's indigenous people rely on seabird meat for their livelihood; others hunt for pleasure.
  • Wings Over Wetlands tracks bird migration along the Africa-Europe flyways.
  • Drilling in Arctic NWR has reared its ugly head once again, in the form of Sen. Ted Stevens. (See Gristmill for why this is pointless.)
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news and blogging
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