Massive science-funding bill passes US Senate — but China focus worries researchers

Read the full story in Nature.

Scientists praise the budget boost slated for the National Science Foundation, but worry the legislation could dampen international collaborations.

Chief Industries, Inc. and Catahoula Resources announce agreement to advance carbon capture and sequestration in Nebraska

Read the news release.

Chief Industries, Inc. (“Chief”) and Catahoula Resources (“Catahoula”) have entered into an agreement to jointly develop carbon capture and permanent sequestration (“CCS”) within Nebraska…

Catahoula and Chief are currently evaluating CCS infrastructure investments that will enhance the sustainability and improve the economics of ethanol production through low-cost carbon storage within Nebraska. Work has already begun to evaluate favorable storage geology through Catahoula’s joint development arrangement with Battelle.

The company behind the viral fish tube — or salmon cannon — has a new project: Keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan using facial recognition technology

Read the full story in the Chicago Tribune.

There may come a day on the Illinois River when a fish swims up a chute, slides through a scanner, and, after being recognized as a feared silver carp, is sorted and removed, eventually ending up in a carp burger on your dinner plate.

Keeping invasive carp out of the Great Lakes has involved a series of less-than-silver bullets — from commercial fishing to carbon dioxide experiments to the forthcoming Brandon Road barriers near Joliet from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, fish recognition is entering the fray.

Engineered bacteria show promise for sustainable biofuel industry

Read the full story from Hiroshima University.

Acetone, a volatile solvent used for everything from removing nail polish and cleaning textiles to manufacturing plastics, could get a sustainability boost from a new strain of engineered bacteria.

Western fires are burning higher in the mountains at unprecedented rates in a clear sign of climate change

Heat and dryness are leaving high mountain areas more vulnerable to forest fires.

by Mojtaba Sadegh (Boise State University); John Abatzoglou (University of California, Merced) and Mohammad Reza Alizadeh (McGill University)

The Western U.S. appears headed for another dangerous fire season, and a new study shows that even high mountain areas once considered too wet to burn are at increasing risk as the climate warms.

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. West is in severe to exceptional drought right now, including large parts of the Rocky Mountains, Cascades and Sierra Nevada. The situation is so severe that the Colorado River basin is on the verge of its first official water shortage declaration, and forecasts suggest another hot, dry summer is on the way.

Warm and dry conditions like these are a recipe for wildfire disaster.

In a new study, published May 24, 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our team of fire and climate scientists and engineers found that forest fires are now reaching higher, normally wetter elevations. And they are burning there at rates unprecedented in recent fire history.

While some people focus on historical fire suppression and other forest management practices as reasons for the West’s worsening fire problem, these high-elevation forests have had little human intervention. The results provide a clear indication that climate change is enabling these normally wet forests to burn.

As wildfires creep higher up mountains, another tenth of the West’s forest area is now at risk, according to our study. That creates new hazards for mountain communities, with impacts on downstream water supplies and the plants and wildlife that call these forests home.

Map showing how high-elevation forest fires advanced uphill.
Forest fires advanced to higher elevations as the climate dried from 1984 to 2017. Every 200 meters equals 656 feet. Mojtaba Sadegh, CC BY-ND

Rising fire risk in the high mountains

In the new study, we analyzed records of all fires larger than 1,000 acres (405 hectares) in the mountainous regions of the contiguous Western U.S. between 1984 and 2017.

The amount of land that burned increased across all elevations during that period, but the largest increase occurred above 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). To put that elevation into perspective, Denver – the mile-high city – sits at 5,280 feet, and Aspen, Colorado, is at 8,000 feet. These high-elevation areas are largely remote mountains and forests with some small communities and ski areas.

The area burning above 8,200 feet more than tripled in 2001-2017 compared with 1984-2000.

Fire lights up a ridge behind a farm.
One of Colorado’s largest wildfires, 2020’s East Troublesome Fire, crossed the Continental Divide and was burning at elevations around 9,000 feet in October, when snow normally would have been falling. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Our results show that climate warming has diminished the high-elevation flammability barrier – the point where forests historically were too wet to burn regularly because the snow normally lingered well into summer and started falling again early in the fall. Fires advanced about 826 feet (252 meters) uphill in the Western mountains over those three decades.

The Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado in 2020 was the state’s largest fire in its history, burning over 208,000 acres (84,200 hectares) and is a prime example of a high-elevation forest fire. The fire burned in forests extending to 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) and reached the upper tree line of the Rocky Mountains.

We found that rising temperatures in the past 34 years have helped to extend the fire territory in the West to an additional 31,470 square miles (81,500 square kilometers) of high-elevation forests. That means a staggering 11% of all Western U.S. forests – an area similar in size to South Carolina – are susceptible to fire now that weren’t three decades ago.

Can’t blame fire suppression here

In lower-elevation forests, several factors contribute to fire activity, including the presence of more people in wildland areas and a history of fire suppression.

In the early 1900s, Congress commissioned the U.S. Forest Service to manage forest fires, which resulted in a focus on suppressing fires – a policy that continued through the 1970s. This caused flammable underbrush that would normally be cleared out by occasional natural blazes to accumulate. The increase in biomass in many lower elevation forests across the West has been associated with increases in high-severity fires and megafires. At the same time, climate warming has dried out forests in the Western U.S., making them more prone to large fires.

Illustration of two mountains showing fires higher, less snow and more dead trees
On average, fires have spread 826 feet (252 meters) higher into the mountains in recent decades, exposing an additional 31,400 square miles (81,500 square kilometers) of forests to fire. Mojtaba Sadegh, CC BY-ND

By focusing on high-elevation fires, in areas with little history of fire suppression, we can more clearly see the influence of climate change.

Most high-elevation forests haven’t been subjected to much fire suppression, logging or other human activities, and because trees at these high elevations are in wetter forests, they historically have long return intervals between fires, typically a century or more. Yet they experienced the highest rate of increase in fire activity in the past 34 years. We found that the increase is strongly correlated with the observed warming (view graph).

High mountain fires create new problems

High-elevation fires have implications for natural and human systems.

High mountains are natural water towers that normally provide a sustained source of water to millions of people in dry summer months in the Western U.S. The scars that wildfires leave behind – known as burn scars – affect how much snow can accumulate at high elevations. This can influence the timing, quality and quantity of water that reaches reservoirs and rivers downstream.

High-elevation fires also remove standing trees that act as anchor points that normally stabilize the snowpack, raising the risk of avalanches.

The loss of tree canopy also exposes mountain streams to the Sun, increasing water temperatures in the cold headwater streams. Increasing stream temperatures can harm fish and the larger wildlife and predators that rely on them.

Climate change is increasing fire risk in many regions across the globe, and studies show that this trend will continue as the planet warms. The increase in fires in the high mountains is another warning to the U.S. West and elsewhere of the risks ahead as the climate changes.

Mojtaba Sadegh, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Boise State University; John Abatzoglou, Associate Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced, and Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Ph.D. Student in Engineering, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It looks like a cheese grater, but this new Harvard building has environmental superpowers

Read the full story at Fast Company.

This extraordinary facade helps reduce the Science and Engineering Complex’s carbon emissions by 42%.

California will require Uber, Lyft drivers to transition to electric cars

Read the full story at The Hill.

Electric vehicles must account for 90 percent of ride-hailing vehicle miles traveled in California by 2030.

Standing dead trees in ‘ghost forests’ contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, study finds

Read the full story from North Carolina State University.

While standing dead trees in ghost forests did not release as much greenhouse gas emissions as the soils, they did increase GHG emissions of the overall ecosystem by about 25 percent, a new study has found.

Private equity’s falling out of love with plastic packaging

Read the full story from Reuters.

A decade ago, private equity couldn’t get enough of plastic packaging. They snapped up companies making bags, films and trays to contain everything from food and fashion to drink to drugs, drawn by reliable cash flows and consolidation prospects.

But now the sector’s not quite so in vogue. Many buyout firms are steering clear, and some of those holding assets are struggling to offload them at what they consider attractive prices, according to people involved in such deals.

This reversal illustrates how much the investment world has recalibrated itself in a matter of years, with environmental factors becoming dealmakers or breakers.

To protect ocean environments, ‘good enough’ might be the best long-term option

Local support might be the most important factor for a successful marine protected area. Anastasia Quintana, CC BY-ND

by Anastasia Quintana (University of California Santa Barbara) and Alfredo Giron Nava (Stanford University)

The Gulf of California – a sea near the western border of the U.S. and Mexico – is home to some of the world’s most incredible underwater landscapes. It generates 60% of Mexico’s fish catch, but overfishing is threatening its marine ecosystems and the people who make a living off them.

In 2012, a number of small fishing towns set up 11 small, temporary areas where fishing was banned to fight overfishing in the Gulf. When these marine reserves expired five years later, the towns nearby all voted on whether to keep or change them. One community, Agua Verde, voted to keep their nearby reserve of San Marcial and make it five times larger. None of the other towns expanded their reserves.

We are a social scientist and a marine ecologist, and together we study community-based fisheries management and conservation. We wanted to explore why one reserve was so successful while the others in the system were not. Our new paper, published on May 26, 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, shows how critical community support is to conservation efforts and how smaller reserves that are “good enough” ecologically can foster that support and lead to successful long-term conservation.

Lines on maps

In the past 15 years, marine protected areas have become the dominant tool for marine protection. Generally speaking, these protected areas restrict or ban fishing and harvesting in an area. They currently cover 7.66% of the ocean’s surface – about 5 billion football fields’ worth. Marine protected areas can increase fish number and size, rebuild nearby fisheries, build resilience against climate change and even reduce disease in marine species.

When conservationists and policymakers set out to design a new marine protected area, the old way of thinking was to find the best location for permanent protection. This focus often meant closing large areas to fishing, creating conflicts.

View looking over the bow of a boat on open water.
A fisher out on the water doesn’t see the lines that define a protected area. Anastasia Quintana, CC BY-ND

Historically, this tension has pitted scientists and fishers against each other – not the best when fisher compliance determines the success or failure of most marine protected areas. Often, “protection” amounts to nothing more than lines on maps in government offices while fishing continues unabated in the water. Even reserves that ecologists dub as successes can simultaneously be social failures, which ultimately threatens long-term ecological outcomes.

The 11 fishing reserves set up in the Gulf of California are an example of an alternative approach, where fishers decide what is an optimal marine reserve. Because the closures are temporary, fishers have the opportunity to test and adapt their designs over time. Instead of imposing large closures that the community might only begrudgingly accept, the idea was to go for something smaller that the community was excited about. Rather than being designed primarily by scientists and policymakers, local fishers – with assistance from the nonprofit conservation group Niparajá – led the effort themselves.

Two fishing communities, two levels of success

Marine protected areas often create a dilemma for fishers – the best areas to protect are often also the best to fish. When Niparajá approached the communities in Baja California Sur, different towns had varying levels of trust in whether the reserves would actually improve their fisheries.

A man holding a large blue and silver fish on a beach.
Local fishers, though not able to fish in San Marcial, were able to see the benefits of the MPA directly. Anastasia Quintana, CC BY-ND

In the town of Agua Verde, fishers had worked with Niparajá for years. Locals trusted the conservation group’s staff so much that they were willing to turn one of their valuable fishing areas into a reserve that prohibited all fishing. Unified by strong leaders, Agua Verde’s fishers designed San Marcial, the largest protected area in the network at two square miles (5.2 square kilometers).

Over five years there was a 30% increase in fish biomass within the reserve. In surveys, fishers reported that catch – which had been in decline for years – had stabilized. With such tangible benefits, when the time came to update the reserve, Agua Verde made it five times larger. The town also voted to create a second marine protected area nearly as big as the first one.

But total local control has a weakness – when fishers don’t trust the process, they aren’t willing to give up productive fishing grounds. We saw this with the reserve at Punta Coyote. Some fishers from the communities that designed this reserve had a history of conflict with Niparajá. Multiple towns also fished the same areas in this region so it was difficult for a single leader to coordinate the communities.

The communities around Punta Coyote ultimately designed a tiny reserve of 0.35 square miles (0.9 square kilometers) that covered a flat, sandy bottom – poor fish habitat. Not surprisingly, there was a negligible effect on fish numbers over the five-year period. When the protection expired in 2017, the fishers renewed but didn’t expand the closed area.

Compared to San Marcial, the other nine reserves were closer in size to Punta Coyote and fell in the middle in terms of ecological results. Every one was renewed but not expanded.

We discovered several mediating factors in these processes. Leadership was essential to create a unified vision. Also, fishers needed a way to see the benefits of the reserve for themselves. Four of Agua Verde’s fishers were recruited to count fish in the San Marcial reserve so they observed firsthand the ecosystem recovering.

Ultimately, we found that community-based conservation is a self-reinforcing process that works in feedback loops. In addition, a “good enough” initial design – that is, not aiming for the maximum possible ecological benefits while still making sure the reserves result in perceptible improvements – seemed to work best. It led to conservation success that in turn led to trust and pride in – and expansion of – the protected area. However, when conflict and mistrust led to poor design without clear benefits – like what happened with Punta Coyote – fishers didn’t gain trust in the process and didn’t expand the area.

A diagram showing a feedback loop of trust, design and ecological results.
Social and ecological feedback loops can strengthen or weaken marine protected areas. Anastasia Quintana, CC BY-ND

Trust leads to stronger support

Our findings about San Marcial and Punta Coyote challenge the need for optimal and permanent marine protected areas. Instead, we see marine protected areas as opportunities for collective action where “good enough” might in fact be better. However, poor design or lack of leadership can lead to a downward spiral for a protected area.

These findings are particularly relevant this year as the United Nations draws up its biodiversity framework for the next decade. The published draft document calls to expand coverage from 7.66% to a whopping 30% of the global ocean. Our work suggests that in some cases, one way to achieve more numerous and more effective marine protected areas is to give real power to the people affected by protection, start small and focus on building trust and making ecological results visible. While the protected areas might start small, they can grow much larger when local communities support them.

Anastasia Quintana, Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara and Alfredo Giron Nava, André Hoffmann Fellow, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.