Climate change threatens to erode Illinois’ archaeological record

Read the full post from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

Climate-change-induced loss of the state’s cultural heritage is a social justice issue that will be felt most acutely by low-income Illinois citizens and Tribal descendant communities who have traditionally been the most marginalized. Many live in the most vulnerable areas. Doing nothing in the face of this crisis is not only inaction. It is a conscious choice to let the tangible links to history disappear forever. Given the scale of this challenge, what is the best way forward?

Nationwide initiative to accelerate energy upgrades for affordable housing

Residential Retrofits for Energy Equity (R2E2) will provide deep technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments as well as community-based organizations to jumpstart energy upgrades for single family and multifamily affordable housing, especially in frontline communities. These retrofits will lower utility bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve residents’ health, create good-paying local jobs, and help mitigate racial inequity.

R2E2 will kick off with training sessions in January for state, local, and community teams on scaling up building energy retrofits and leveraging the unprecedented federal funding available from COVID-19 relief programs, the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other sources. R2E2 is a partnership of the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Elevate, Emerald Cities Collaborative, and HR&A Advisors, with People’s Climate Innovation Center advising on centering equity in the project and its outcomes and on facilitating community-driven planning processes.

Salt Lake City’s efforts to fight pollution face a new challenge: Toxic dust

Read the full story from NBC News.

Declining water levels exposed much of the Great Salt Lake’s bed and created conditions for storms of dust laden with toxic metals that now threaten 2 million people.

Extinctions, shrinking habitat spur ‘rewilding’ in cities

Read the full story from the Associated Press.

Animal and plant species are dying off at an alarming rate, with up to 1 million threatened with extinction, according to a 2019 United Nations report. Their plight is stirring calls for “rewilding” places where they thrived until driven out by development, pollution and climate change.

Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded locations — sometimes with a helping hand. That might mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration pathways severed by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems. But after initial assists, there’s little human involvement.

Countries bet on forests and soils to reach net-zero

Read the full story from the University of East Anglia.

New research highlights the risks of countries relying on nature-based solutions to achieve net-zero. National climate strategies set out how countries plan to reduce emissions, for example by phasing out fossil-fuel use, to get to net-zero in 2050. The study found, once the bulk of emissions have been reduced, countries plan to ‘cancel out’ the left-over difficult to decarbonise emissions, such as those from agriculture, by using forests and soils to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Itchy eyes and a runny nose? It could be climate change

Read the full story from Rutgers University.

Researchers have simulated how climate change will affect the distribution of two leading allergens — oak and ragweed pollens — across the contiguous United States. The results may make your eyes water. Using computer models, the team found that by 2050 climate change significantly will increase airborne pollen loads, with some of the largest surges occurring in areas where pollen is historically uncommon.

Rotten meat could be easier to detect thanks to a new biosensor system

Read the full story at Concordia University.

To improve food safety, a group of Concordia researchers designed a new, inexpensive, reliable and consumer-friendly technology that identifies the presence of the toxin putrescine in beef. As its name denotes, putrescine is responsible for the noxious odours of putrefying meats, and, if consumed in large doses, can cause headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and heart palpitations. It has also been linked to higher risks of colorectal cancer.

USCC takes stance on PFAS

Read the full story at Biocycle.

“The US Composting Council (USCC), on behalf of an industry facing detrimental economic impacts from Per- fluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) found in all consumer products, is calling for bans on use of the chemicals and immediate research to study their impacts on plant uptake,” states the industry association’s positioning and guidance statement on PFAS issued on November 29.

Weasels, not pandas, should be the poster animal for biodiversity loss

A short-tailed weasel in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Jacob W. Frank, NPS/Flickr

by David Jachowski, Clemson University

At the United Nations biodiversity conference that opens in Montreal on Dec. 7, 2022, nations aim to create a new global framework for transforming humanity’s relationship with nature. The conference logo features a human reaching to embrace a panda – but from an ecological perspective, a weasel or badger would be a more appropriate choice.

Graphic of a girl reaching to embrace a panda
Logo for the COP 15 conference in Montreal, which was delayed from its original 2020 date due to COVID-19. Convention on Biological Diversity, CC BY-ND

Large mammals with widespread appeal, also known as charismatic megafauna, often represent the highest achievement in biodiversity protection. As the logic goes, saving the tiger, polar bear, wolf or lion means saving an entire ecosystem, since these species often have large ranges and may sit at the top of food chains.

But research shows that, relatively speaking, many large charismatic species aren’t doing that badly in North America. Wolves are repopulating California, where their last wild ancestor was killed in 1924. Cougars could become reestablished across the Midwest over the next several decades. Black bears have regained much of their range in the eastern U.S, to the point where many states have a bear hunting season. Similar stories are playing out across Europe, where even large carnivores like the lynx and wolverine are recovering.

For small carnivores like weasels, skunks and foxes, it’s a different story. These species and their relatives have equal or greater impacts on the ecosystems they inhabit than larger species like wolves. They even provide benefits for humans by preying on rodents that eat crops and infest our houses. Yet small carnivores are of increasing conservation concern because their populations are declining dramatically in many places.

Many threats but no single cause

While small carnivores don’t typically get as much public attention as larger species, conservation biologists have been trying to arrest their decline for decades.

For example, the black-footed ferret, a member of the same family as weasels and minks, has been on the U.S. endangered species list since the list was created in 1973. As recently as the early 1900s there were thousands of black-footed ferrets across western prairies. Today scientists estimate there are fewer than 400 left in the wild.

Two ferrets with black feet and eye masks, one peeking out of a pipe
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is breeding black-footed ferrets in captivity in northern Colorado. Restoring the endangered ferret is considered a key step in reviving prairie ecosystems. Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Recent evidence suggests that even the most common and widespread small carnivores are in decline. A 2005 study estimated that eastern spotted skunks, which are rarely seen today but historically occurred across much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, had declined in number by 90% over the preceding 50 years.

I led an effort in 2021 to determine the status of the most widespread of small carnivores in North America – weasels. We found range-wide decreases dating back to the 1960s that paralleled the decline of spotted skunks.

Scientists have a very poor understanding of what has caused losses of weasels and most other small carnivores. We suspect that many stresses may be involved, including changing farming practices, diseases and new carnivores like house cats, domestic dogs, raccoons and striped skunks that follow human development and outcompete or eat native small carnivores.

What we do know is that North America is not unique. Small carnivores are declining globally at an alarming rate. A 2021 review suggests that over the past couple of decades over half of all small carnivores have declined in number, and a quarter are at risk of extinction. Proportionally, these are the same levels of decline and endangerment as the better-publicized threats to large carnivores.

Short-legged ecosystem indicators

We also know that compared with larger species, small carnivores have shorter lives and use smaller areas. This allows them to respond quickly to even minor fluctuations in temperature, habitat change and food availability. In my research over the past 23 years, I have learned that these attributes make small carnivores sensitive indicators of even minor shifts in how well their ecosystems work.

A prime example comes from the Channel Islands off the coast of California, home to the diminutive island fox, a species found nowhere else on earth. In the late 1990s land and wildlife managers noticed a decline in island foxes, which coincided with the decline of bald eagles and arrival of golden eagles on the islands. Golden eagles preyed on the foxes, as well as on non-native wild pigs. At one point the fox population was reduced to fewer than 100 individuals.

Saving California’s island foxes required reconstructing an ecosystem that human actions had drastically altered.

Restoring island foxes was a complex initiative that involved reintroducing bald eagles – which prey on fish, not mammals – to the islands to chase off golden eagles; eradicating introduced pigs, which served as food for the golden eagles and altered the vegetation where the foxes sheltered; restoring shrubs and grasses; and breeding foxes in captivity, then releasing them. This effort is one of the most prominent examples of biologists intervening to reverse a species’ slide toward extinction.

More broadly, the island fox story shows that small carnivores can provide unique insight into the structure of ecosystems, because they are at the centers of food webs. Look at the diet of a fox or weasel and you have a great snapshot of how many species are present in that ecosystem.

Losing small carnivores can change ecosystems. Many small carnivores typically prey on small seed-eating rodents like mice and gophers. This reduces rodent impacts on plants and farm crops. It also helps to reduce the spread of tick-borne diseases, since small rodents can serve as hosts for infected ticks.

For these reasons, I and other ecologists argue that it makes sense to use small carnivores as barometers of ecosystem health. This would mean replacing polar bears with weasels as global warming poster animals, and keying in on ocelots rather than jaguars to understand how rainforest destruction is affecting wildlife.

While lions and polar bears are important, I believe ferrets, weasels and foxes deserve the same kind of protection and are a more precise tool for measuring how ecosystems are responding to a rapidly changing world.

David Jachowski, Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Clemson University

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