Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Hey Moses – we can split water too!

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a new catalyst for splitting water. Here’s why this is big news:

One of the great strengths of renewable energy is their consistency and predictability. Yes, wind and solar have periods when they’re not generating power (with some exceptions like certain solar thermal designs), but the sun is available for a set amount of time every day, and wind blows in predictable patterns where turbines are placed. These predictable patterns make it easy to balance the grid, and to calculate how many units are needed to meet demand.

But here’s a little secret. All sources of power are intermittent. There is no power plant, coal, nuclear, or gas, that is available 100 percent of the time. The electrical grid is built with this in mind.

A well functioning coal plant, will not be available 44 days of the year.

For nuclear, it’s 36 days, as well as 39 days for refueling every 17 months or so.

Wind power has a failure rate of only 2 percent, and units rarely go down all at once.

[Read more…]

Steps on the path, showing the way

In my last non-music post I talked about the world of possibilities opened up by renewable energy, and the fact that we could fairly easily generate more power than we currently need, and use that for other projects to make the world a better place. This is a theme I’ll be returning to fairly often in the foreseeable future, and in this post, I want to set aside possibilities, and look at what’s actually happening in some places around the world today, because some places are already taking the serious steps toward that better world.

[Read more…]

Food for thought: beyond meeting demand

Usually when people talk about converting to renewable energy, the conversation covers what it would actually take to replace fossil fuels. It’s a good conversation to have, and a lot of good work has gone into working out how much surface area would need to be devoted to wind and solar, what other sources of power could be used, how much it would cost in the short term, and how much it would save in the long term. The end result of all this is that converting the United States – one of the highest per-capita energy consumers in the world – to renewable energy is entirely doable. The only thing lacking is political will.

That said, why stop at what’s needed?

[Read more…]

Oceanoxia 2.0: Introductions

From the webcomic XKCD: W stick figure is shown sitting at a desk typing hard on a computer. From out of the frame, someone says

I have to fix this!

This blog was born of frustration in 2010.

At the time, I had been following climate science and climate change politics for a few years, and it was astonishing to me that so many people in the public debate seemed to think that a little sea level rise was the worst-case scenario. Sure, Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had discussed what would happen if all of Greenland melted, but that has never been a genuine expectation for the 21st century, and the conversation six years ago was all about stopping or even reversing global warming by 2050. In other words, no danger of Greenland melting that much. Hell, at that point people were being called alarmist for talking about two feet of sea level rise. In some circles they still are.

So I wanted to provide some perspective. I wanted to show how alarming the future could be, if things really got bad.

The most obvious worst-case scenario is represented by the planet Venus, but I wasn’t sure if it was even possible to boost the greenhouse effect enough to broil Earth like that. The scenario I started with was one that has been proposed as a possible cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction, also known as The Great Dying. You can go look at my first blog post to learn more, but here’s a brief summary:

There are a number of factors at work that can create dead zones in anybody of water, meaning there’s not enough dissolved oxygen to support most life. Under those anoxic conditions, anaerobic bacteria can thrive, emitting hydrogen sulfide instead of carbon dioxide. This, in turn, makes the water poisonous to most organisms, and can spread the dead zone. It is theoretically possible for most or all of the planet’s oceans to end up like this, and if that did happen, that hydrogen sulfide could eventually leak out onto the land masses. This scenario would create a massive die-off in the oceans, followed by a less massive (but still huge) die-off on land. This is the pattern found in the fossil record from The Great Dying.

So that was the kick-off to my blog, and the inspiration for the title (Ocean+anoxia=Oceanoxia). After that post, I went on to describe, or partially describe other kinds of worst-case scenarios. I didn’t cover all of them, but I touched on a few.

Over the years since, I’ve been involved in communicating climate science in a few different ways. One, as indicated by the XKCD panel above, was in internet comments sections. Much of it was probably fruitless, but there were a few conversations that made me feel that I was helping to change minds.

I also helped form a “climate working group” with some of my friends in the New England Quaker community, in which I had been raised, and of which I was still a part at the time. We went around to various Quaker meetings in New England, gave presentations, and held discussions about climate change and actions that could be taken. In working on those presentations, I moved from a focus on the worst-case scenarios to a more balanced approach, touching briefly on how bad things could get, and then moving on to look into how good we could make things, if we really tried.

This last approach has stuck, to a degree. It’s hard to know whether we’ll get there, but from what I’ve seen of existing and emerging technology, we have the capacity to build a society that has control over its impacts on the planet, and has a higher standard of living for both humanity and the rest of life on Earth. That’s the goal, and if we don’t really try for it, I think there is a real possibility of human extinction. Big carrot, big stick.

For the past few years I’ve also been working as a science curriculum developer for a non-profit company that has me designing ways to help teachers cover the science of climate change. The teams I’m on have focused both on the biological impacts of climate change – what’s happening right now in the natural world – and on the array of potential solutions and adaptations that are available to us.

At this point, Oceanoxia has become a combination of things. Some of it is the original topic – the real doom and gloom stuff that’s always lurking under the surface of any discussion about climate change. Some of it is about the amazing technology we have, and what a wonderful civilization we could create, if only we took the time. Some of it is about debunking misconceptions and myths, or discussing politics, or misguided efforts to “fix” things. Some of it is about culture, philosophy, and psychology.

One of the most common complaints I hear from climate deniers is that no matter what happens, there seems to be a way to blame it on climate change. It’s an understandable complaint, but it seems to come from a failure to grasp the scale of what’s happening to our planet. Climate affects everything about life on earth. Not just ecosystems and their inhabitants, but also human culture. Our clothing, our architecture, our annual celebrations, our political upheavals, and even our languages – all of that is influenced, to some degree, by the climate. So when that climate changes, that means that everything else changes with it in one way or another.

This is a blog about climate change, which means it’s hard to say what any given post will be about. I’m excited to settle in to my new home on Freethoughtblogs, and I’m looking forward to the boost in motivation I get from any change in scenery. Welcome to Oceanoxia 2.0, and stay tuned!