Aquarius under pressure

In the current budget climate, the world’s only dedicated undersea marine lab – employed by scientists Navy divers and even astronauts– may not last much longer.

Steve Squyres may have devoted the last two decades of his life to Spirit and Opportunity, the two robotic rovers on Mars, but recently, he spent a couple of weeks living at the Aquarius Reef Base, 63 feet undersea in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Working on NASA’s Extreme Environments Mission Operation (NEEMO) in both 2011 and 2012, Squyres, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, joined astronauts undersea to figure out just how to do “field geology” on a near-earth asteroid. The neutral buoyancy of the undersea world provides a nearly perfect analog to deep space, especially when combined with living in the cramped quarters of the sea lab. When not in use by NASA once a year, marine biologists use it to study ocean acidification and coral reef ecology, among other things. But in the current budget climate, the world’s only dedicated undersea marine lab just lost its federal funding, and its future is uncertain.

Donning a black and yellow wetsuit, Squyres stretches his limbs on a small boat anchored just above Aquarius, anxious to get in the water. The aquanauts put on tanks, fins and weight belts. It’s time for splashdown.  One by one, each takes a giant stride off the boat into the sea before descending to the 81-ton, yellow, school bus-sized lab and living space (which quite resembles the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, though Aquarius is stationary and perched on legs).

While several journalists scuba dive around the lab peering through the portholes, the aquanauts enter through the ‘wet porch.’ They strip off their wetsuits and change into dry clothes before getting settled in the lab, which is equipped with wireless internet, hot showers, air conditioning, a microwave, refrigerator and six bunks. Their workday has just begun.  Around twilight, Squyres and David Saint-Jacques, an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency, plunge back into the ocean – which lit up with bioluminescent microorganisms. “The bioluminescence was like blue-green sparks flying from our fingertips as we moved our hands through the water,” Squyres says – quite a start to an undersea adventure.

In operation since 1988 and in its present location since 1992, Aquarius Reef Base is owned by the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by staff from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) – though with current budget issues that is about to change. The lab operates year-round, providing a station for scientific teams who stay undersea for up to two weeks at a time. By living undersea for days at a time, scientists – or astronauts as the case may be – can accomplish substantially more work in a cost-effective manner since surface divers can only dive for a couple

of hours per day, while “saturation” diving aquanauts can work as long as they want. The Aquarius is used for marine science research, long-term observation of coral reefs, outreach and education, training of NASA astronauts and Navy divers, and a platform for testing undersea technologies, according to Karen Kohanowich, NOAA’s Program Director for Aquarius.  Through long-term research and monitoring programs at the lab, scientists have discovered the importance that sponges play in removing nitrates from ocean water, how coral reefs are responding to ocean acidification due to climate change, and a conclusive link between a coral pathogen and terrestrial runoff.

Yet the Aquarius faces a precarious future. “It has been limping along for awhile now. I’d be very surprised if Aquarius survives,” laments Ellen Prager, former Aquarius chief scientist, who resigned in 2010 over frustrations that UNCW and NOAA were not supporting it as they should, while still expecting top-notch science. Author of Chasing Science at Sea, and Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime, Prager hails the Aquarius as a national gem. “This idea of living underwater is such a wonderful thing. But if you don’t have someone in Washington championing the program, it’s very hard to keep it going in a climate like this.” Her words were precocious, spoken just months before the federal budget cut all funding to the Aquarius for 2012. The lab scrambled to get funds to continue for the rest of the year, but the lab is “zero funded and terminated in the President’s budget” for 2013 and the foreseeable future, according to Tom Potts, UNCW Aquarius Director. The lab is in a desperate search for alternate sources of funding.

Funding woes

Even though the Aquarius lab is primarily used by scientists and science missions year-round and falls under NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration Research (OER), the last time NOAA allocated direct science support to Aquarius was in 2006 (although a handful of scientists have received small grants from NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and Coral Reef Conservation Program). In the past, the Aquarius received between $1 and $2.7 million annually from NOAA for maintenance and basic operations, and NOAA frequently delivers funds –including staff salaries – after UNCW’s Aquarius budget is ‘in the red’ (last year funds came through in May). So what keeps the lab afloat – or undersea, as the case may be?

Interestingly, the Aquarius gets a majority of its funding for its scientific missions from one NASA NEEMO mission and one U.S. Navy mission each year. NASA and the Navy pay a day rate to UNCW, and these monies go into a bank account, which varies between $200,000 and $400,000, which essentially funds Aquarius’ scientific research for the year.  Contrast the approximate $3 million this lab gets to the $450 million NASA estimates that a single Space Shuttle mission costs. Because of the budget woes, UNCW has stepped down as the host institution as of the end of 2012, and they are in the final stages of negotiating a new organization to take over, possibly a for-profit company, according to Potts. He will likely continue on as Director.  Whether they will ever receive another penny from NOAA is an open question.

“NOAA does support the Aquarius, and that funding is at risk,” says NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “It’s increasingly challenging to fund research and to keep our very important ocean programs healthy with significant pressures on our budget.”

In the past, when the Aquarius’ funding was slashed for a given year, the habitat goes into “warm storage” where it sits on the ocean floor with a very minimal workforce to maintain it, and no operational missions. “One of the reasons that Aquarius is probably still on the bottom is that it’s more expensive to remove it – at least in the short term,” says Potts.

Besides budget woes facing ocean research programs, the Aquarius is also threatened because of a national debate over whether remotely operated vehicles should replace human exploration – the same debate happening in space science circles. Prager laments that NOAA devotes a much larger portion of its budget to the Okeanos Explorer, a ship that uses Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore the sea floor.

A truncated mission

On October 25th, 2011 a powerful tropical storm intensified into Hurricane Rina, headed straight for the Florida Keys. Although the aquanauts still had several days left in their planned operation, NASA made a call to abort. Scientific diving has an outstanding safety record, and they did not want to change that. The aquanauts began their 17-hour decompression inside a sealed-up Aquarius before returning to the surface the next day. “There was a real sense of unfinished business after NEEMO 15 ended,” says Squyres, who was named NASA Advisory Council Chairman just days after the mission ended.  Squyres was able to return again for the full two weeks of NEEMO 16 in June 2012, which went, pardon the pun, swimmingly. “All the lucky breaks went our way. We had beautiful conditions, all the equipment worked, the mission went for the full duration, and we achieved everything we set out to do. It was one of the most complex missions ever attempted at Aquarius, and it really showed what you can accomplish at a facility like that.”

When agencies like NASA and NOAA work together, everyone benefits. NASA has brought advanced technology that the Aquarius benefits from, such as the high-bandwidth communication gear on the Life Support Buoy topside and cameras inside the lab, and NOAA benefits from the top-notch Communications that NASA always brings in for the missions they complete. Joint missions like this, Prager says, exemplify exactly what federal agencies should be doing – leveraging funding and working together – although ocean exploration and technology development typically gets the short end of the budget stick.

“People ask me all the time why we are not further along in undersea technology and it is clearly a lack of investment. Look at what happened at the BP oil spill,” Prager laments.  Could more investment in ocean exploration, marine science and technology help avert or curtail such ocean disasters?  Perhaps. “Not to say that space exploration isn’t valuable and inspiring and fantastic, but if you look at the magnitude of what we spend on space exploration compared to what we spend on ocean exploration, we spent a minuscule amount on the oceans,” says Prager. “Yet it’s is the only planet we can live on. And it’s mostly covered in oceans.”

Many agree that losing the Aquarius, already the last remaining undersea laboratory, would be a sad day, indeed. “It would be a travesty to marine science that the world’s only undersea habitat, whose cost is miniscule, would be shelved,” says Todd. “You know from past history — there were many habitats in the world, and now there’s one – if a habitat goes out of the water, it won’t go back in.


You can donate funds to the Aquarius Reefbase at their website, (available after October 1, 2012) or the Save the Aquarius Reefbase crowdsourcing site:


Regal return

Desert bighorn sheep are being restored to the mountains of West Texas.

Solstice Moon and Sunrise, Elephant Mountain WMA, Texas

Solstice Moon and Sunrise, Elephant Mountain WMA, Texas

Against a magenta sunrise, the winter solstice moon — full and white — sinks into the western horizon. Several dozen folks stand bundled up at the base of Elephant Mountain, a flat-topped 6,225-foot monolith rising more than 2,000 feet above the Chihuahuan Desert. Witness to the glorious dawn on the solstice, a day historically celebrating rebirth and a return to light, I can feel the collective anticipation of the events soon to unfold.

On all accounts both practical and symbolic, it seemed the perfect day for returning desert bighorn sheep to the Bofecillos Mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park on the Texas-Mexico border, where they had been absent for the past half-century.


Desert bighorn sheep on top of Elephant Mountain, West Texas

“Every time we drove by, we would say, ‘There ought to be sheep in those mountains,’” says Mike Pittman, Trans-Pecos wildlife management area project leader overseeing the relocation. Bighorns disappeared from Texas around 1958, and restoration efforts began in earnest in the 1980s. Although bighorns are not yet in all of their former habitats, the return of the flagship species represents one of the state’s biggest wildlife victories. It involved an uncommon cooperation between hunters, private landowners, government agencies and conservationists.

When I visited the region just three months before, in September, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) biologist Froylan Hernandez showed me around the 23,147-acre Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which has become a natural breeding ground for the bighorns. Although the WMA has a self-guided driving tour, the 2,200-acre grassland plateau on top is often closed to the public except for guided hunts, research activities and field days. I witnessed something few ever will: bighorn herds up close atop the mountain.

A bighorn ram on Elephant Mountain

A bighorn ram on Elephant Mountain

We clambered through the willowy grass as ethereal fog came and went, hiding the bighorns from view. “The mountain makes its own weather,” Hernandez explained. The desert’s wet season lasts from July through September, bringing occasional thunderstorms, low clouds and fog. We tried to get close to a half-dozen females and a lamb on a ridge, but when we arrived where they were literally moments before, the cloud lifted and they were halfway across the mountain, eliciting our raucous laughter. These sheep can dash like silent lightning through the pale yellow grasses.

As we continue our exploration, Hernandez shows me where the sheep nibbled “ice cream plants” — a colloquialism for their preferred vegetation: mountain mahogany, Wright’s silk tassel and the spring flowers of yuccas. Desert bighorns can survive with little fresh water, getting what they need from vegetation. These fleet-footed animals prefer habitat with mountain slopes greater than 60 percent, which helps them elude predators such as mountain lions and coyotes.


Froylan Hernandez looks through the clouds to spot bighorn sheep.

Watching the agile sheep leap across narrow ledges is like watching the Cirque de Soleil. How can they do that without falling to their deaths many feet below? The answer lies in their hooves, which have rubbery soles that grip rocky surfaces, giving them an uncanny ability to leap wildly but land safely.

As Hernandez tells about the bighorns, it’s clear how much he loves his work. He interned at Elephant Mountain in 2000, and 10 years later, he leads the bighorn restoration for TPWD.

“If you find a job you love, you won’t have to ‘work’ a day in your life,” he says happily.

As we walk and observe, he shares the bighorn’s history. One subspecies of desert bighorn once roamed the mountains of West Texas — Ovis canadensis mexicana — but was extirpated throughout the state by 1958 from unregulated hunting, domestic livestock diseases and habitat loss and fragmentation. Although humans have not destroyed the mountaintops, we have modified the valleys in between with roads, cities and fences that limit the ability of bighorns to move from range to range. As a result, when bighorns disappear from a mountain range, there’s little chance for recolonization.

And that brings us to this winter solstice, a day for new beginnings. The cold air nips at my skin, but that will change as the day goes on. Excitement over the first sheep captured pulses through the whole crew, which includes several Texas Bighorn Society volunteers, students and a professor from Sul Ross State University, TPWD biologists, veterinary scientists and a few photographers and reporters. By moving some individuals from one mountain range to another, humans go from being the bighorn’s No. 1 threat to No. 1 hero — even if the individuals being relocated may experience what some of us jokingly call the sheep version of an alien abduction.


The sheep version of an “alien abduction”

Imagine their point of view: While happily walking through their desert scrub home, bighorns suddenly find themselves ensnared in a net, legs tied, blindfolded. Then their bodies lift off the ground and fly through the air. What in their experience or evolution could have prepared them for this? The helicopter pilot flies down the mountain with up to three tethered beasts dangling below. They are gently placed on the ground, whereupon strange creatures (that would be us) take blood and fur and, yes, even perform an anal probe for the purpose of taking temperature and a fecal sample.


After the helicopter captures the sheep on Elephant Mountain they are taken to the staging area.

Elephant Mountain WMA came into existence in 1985 when rancher and Texas Bighorn Society member C.G. Johnson donated Elephant Mountain Ranch to Texas. Biologists brought 20 bighorns from Sierra Diablo to Elephant Mountain in 1987, and they have blossomed into a population of 165 today. Elephant Mountain is now home to the bighorn portion of the annual Grand Slam — a five-day guided hunt, determined by lottery, for Texas’ big four game animals: white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep.

Truly, this is a story where the passion and conservation ethic of hunters led to the restoration of a species. Only about 16 of the oldest rams out of an estimated population of 1,500 are hunted each year. In addition, bighorn hunters put their money where their mouth is. The Texas Bighorn Society auctions sheep hunts and other items, using the money for its annual work project — usually installing automated wildlife guzzlers. In addition, proceeds from TPWD bighorn hunting licenses, Grand Slam tickets and an excise tax go toward research, management, monitoring and relocation efforts. It’s one of few completely self-sustaining wildlife restoration programs.

When the first sheep arrive at the helipad, we receive an unwelcome mouthful of dust, but then get to work. The plan is to capture 40 animals — mostly females, since they will give birth in spring, but also some rams.

A team of volunteers unhitches each sheep from the helicopter, then carries them one by one to the four stations standing ready. I work with TPWD biologists Mike Sullins, Mike Janis and Jonah Evans. After removing the hobbles binding a sheep’s feet, we lift the animal onto a special stretcher, guiding each leg through a hole to immobilize it. I gently hold the sheep’s head to one side so vets can take blood and look for parasites.

We take a hair sample and attach a radio collar before moving the sheep into a transport trailer. Everyone learns the routine quickly; once a sheep is off the helicopter, it gets handled for less than five minutes.


At the staging area hair samples are taken and a radio collar attached.”

Their bodies seem small and fragile under our “alien” care. Horns on the female, or ewe, stay small and pointed, but a mature ram’s horns weigh up to 30 pounds and seem gargantuan for an animal whose body is only 200 pounds, similar to a white-tailed deer. During breeding season, rams use their bony skulls and tough horns in impressive battles that can last up to 24 hours. Only similarly sized males fight, charging at each other from distances of up to 20 feet, then head-butting. These battles can mean life or death, but the winning male mates with all the females, so their heavy horns pay off — at least for a lucky few.

Around midday, Pittman makes the call to stop and move the 29 sheep we have, and continue the effort the next day. All ewes are together in one trailer, while the rambunctious rams have their own wooden boxes. The trailers head south for almost two hours before turning off toward some of the most magnificent mountains I have seen — colorful, rugged and picturesque.


All ewes are together in one trailer for the trip to the release site.

The release site at Panther Canyon lies just feet from the Mexico border, and in December, TPWD, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the international cement company Cemex — which owns the land across the border — signed a memorandum of agreement for joint wildlife restoration and management. Cemex is already engaged in bighorn restoration in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, with former TPWD employees Billy Pat and Bonnie McKinney heading the program.


Panther Canyon

Those who came here for the release stand on either side of the trailer, anxiously waiting. The gate is opened, and a dozen ewes come charging out, running straight up the mountainside. Others hesitate, but with a little encouragement, they all head up the slopes. The rams come next, and with a little help, the regal bighorns have all gone to their new home. Cheers erupt from those standing by. It’s a fitting end to a perfect winter solstice, the day for looking forward to a brighter tomorrow.

“I don’t think the capture could have gone better,” says Louis Harveson, director of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, who will monitor bighorn movements in the park. “Will they all just go to Mexico?” he wonders, glancing at the nearby Rio Grande. Some may head back to Elephant Mountain, 55 miles north as the crow flies. Everyone involved hopes the bighorns will stay, breed and establish a new population.


A ewe makes a leap towards her new home.

Despite clear success, the effort remains far from complete. “We are only halfway to the goal,” Hernandez says. “Bighorns historically lived in 15 or 16 mountain ranges. Right now we have 1,500 animals in seven mountain ranges — the Beach, Baylor, Sierra Diablo, Van Horn, Eagle, Black Gap–Del Carmen ranges and Elephant Mountain.”

We can now add the Bofecillos to that list, and with it the opportunity to witness wild bighorns prancing around the rock ledges of Big Bend Ranch State Park, one of the state park system’s crown jewels — not unlike the bighorn itself.

The big chill in the Bering Sea

For more on the Bering sea, revisit Wendee’s reports from the Bering Sea.

Although the planet as a whole has been warming — the past decade was the warmest since instrumental records began in the 19th century — natural climate variability still steals the show from time to time, causing some regions to buck the global trends. The Bering Sea — where temperatures have been on a roller coaster ride in recent years — offers an example of what regional variability looks like up close.

The Bering Sea, west of Alaska, is one of those regions of the globe that has experienced some of its coldest temperatures on record during the past four years — a downturn after experiencing the area’s warmest six years on record between 2000 and 2005. As depicted on Discovery Channel’s popular show “The Deadliest Catch,” the stormy region’s fisheries feed a large portion of North America, with lucrative crab, pollock, halibut, salmon, and cod industries.

As part of a $52 million project funded by the National Science Foundation, more than one hundred scientists have been studying how climate change affects this important ecosystem. The story of why the Bering Sea has recently become colder helps illustrate an aspect of climate science that frequently results in misunderstandings between scientists and the public: not every part of the world will warm due to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or warm at the same rate.

Until about four years ago, the Bering Sea was warming up like most of the world’s oceans. “It was extremely warm there not that long ago, and now we’ve got a few years that are really cold in the context of a climate still really warm globally,” says Nathan Mantua, a climate scientist at the University of Washington.

“The reason you can have these shifts regionally is because atmospheric circulation changes, and sometimes you get dramatic regional changes that go against global trends.”

Research has shown that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation — a long-term atmospheric circulation pattern — is largely responsible for the Bering Sea’s recent temperature flip-flop, though other factors also play a role. Most people are familiar with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which includes El Niño and La Niña, but the PDO differs in two ways. First, it typically operates on longer time scales, shifting every 20 to 30 years, rather than six to 18 months with El Niño. The PDO has its primary effects on the North Pacific region with secondary effects in the tropics, while El Niño is the opposite.

The PDO was first described by fisheries scientist Steven Hare in 1996, when he, Mantua, and three other University of Washington scientists linked its oscillations to variability in Coho and Chinook salmon production in the Pacific Northwest. With a one to three year lag, during warm phases of the PDO, salmon in the Pacific Northwest tend to fare poorly, and the trend reverses when the PDO shifts to its cool phase. Interestingly, the PDO appears to have the reverse effects on Alaskan salmon production — so when the Pacific Northwest salmon boomed recently, previously thriving Alaskan runs declined across the state.

While the third-highest Chinook salmon returns were recorded in Oregon and Washington in 2010, the Commerce Department issued a “fishery failure” determination for the Yukon River Chinook salmon in Alaska. The declaration paved the way for federal assistance to Alaskan communities that suffered economic damages from the lackluster commercial fishing season. This year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is predicting the fifth-largest Columbia River fall Chinook salmon return since at least 1948.

The PDO shifted into a warm phase in 1977, widely documented in the scientific literature as a “regime shift” that affected everything from weather patterns to fish in the sea. Around 1998, the PDO shifted back to a cool phase, which begs the question, if the PDO shifted into a cool phase, why did the Bering Sea warm right around that same time? This is where the story gets a little messy.

Firstly, scientists say the PDO does not have uniform effects across the Pacific. The warm phase is associated with warm temperatures along the western coast of North America, but cool ocean temperatures in the center of the North Pacific, and vice versa for a cool phase. Secondly, within the predominant longer-scale oscillations, the PDO has shorter one to five-year oscillations. And lastly, just as large-scale, long-duration climatic patterns like the PDO affect weather patterns, ocean and air temperatures, shorter-term, lesser-known influences also affect year-to-year patterns in the Bering Sea.

In this case, research has shown that winter weather plays a dominant role — specifically wind direction.

“It’s almost as simple as which way the wind blows,” says Mantua. Every summer, the Bering is ice-free, but as colder weather arrives, ice forms at the border between the sub-Arctic and the Arctic. How far south it extends into the Bering Sea each year depends in large part on how far the winter winds push it. Scientists call this “sea ice advection.”

“More wind out of the north brings especially cold air that drives the [winter sea] ice to lower latitudes,” says Mantua. “If the winds are mostly out of south, they’re bringing mild air from lower latitudes to higher latitude parts of the Arctic.” A study led by Jinlun Zhang of the University of Washington recently confirmed that the PDO, combined with winter sea ice advection, might explain much of the variation in the Bering’s water temperatures.

Winter sea ice extent, in turn, affects the entire ecosystem. More winter sea ice means a large “cold pool” exists during spring and summer — a frigid footprint left behind by the melted sea ice. In warm winters with little sea ice, as in 2000 through 2005, the cold pool can be virtually nonexistent. This affects everything from the tiniest zooplankton to marine mammals, fish, and seabirds.

“The next question is, what is it about climate that causes changes in wind?” asks Mantua. “The surface wind variability is strongly influenced by the pressure difference between the high pressure area in Eastern Russia and the Aleutian Low. The PDO is well correlated with the Aleutian Low, but not the Russian High. So the PDO is a significant part of the story, but not the only part of the story.”

Scientists do not yet have any reliable way of predicting how the PDO will change in the future, as they do with the better-studied El Niño. In the meantime, year-round ice cover in the Arctic continues to decline every year, and global average land and sea surface temperatures continue to rise.

And even as some folks get lost amidst these erratic global climate and weather patterns, the reality is that the interaction between manmade climate change and natural cycles like the PDO is complex. “I think a lot of people are confused by it. They think, ‘how can you have these fierce winters in the Eastern U.S. or Western Europe if we’re facing global warming?’” poses Mantua. “The simple answer is that there’s a lot of regional variation that may be completely independent of global warming.”

In other words, the simple answer is there are no simple answers.

Below, view a slideshow of researchers studying the Bering Sea from on board the RV Thompson last summer.

Wendee Nicole, a Houston-based science writer, spent a month on board the RV Thompson in the Bering Sea last summer, blogging and reporting for Nature. She also wrote about the Bering Sea Project for BioScience. Homepage photo from flickr/naturemandala

Can eating less meat curb climate change?

A conservation-minded Texas mom assesses her contribution to climate change, one meal at a time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThree years ago, I stood atop the Franklin Mountains at dusk, gazing over El Paso, Texas and gritty Ciudad Juárez, its third-world neighbor south of the border. I had just taken a gondola ride up the mountain, but as the lights in the houses of some 2.5 million people flickered on, I started to feel uneasy.

There I was: Comfortable, warm and happily digesting a hamburger, when right across the Rio Grande people lived in desperate conditions with rampant crime. Something about this juxtaposition of indulgence and poverty made me edgy.

Already, our planet’s 6.8 billion people include 1 billion hungry and 1.6 billion overweight, and scientists’ best predictions have the population rising to 9 billion by 2050 before leveling off. How will we feed so many people without utterly ravaging the Earth?

Here’s the dilemma: As people improve their lot, first they start consuming more food, primarily grains and tubers, and then diets shift to energy-rich vegetable oils, sugars, and meat. Raising these foods on large scales – particularly meat – requires more land, water and energy, and it creates more pollution than grain crops or veggies alone.

“We are in essence eating the world’s tropical rainforests and savannas,” University of Minnesota ecology professor David Tilman told me. But it doesn’t have to be this way. “There is no reason for even one more acre of rainforest to be cut. If we farmed them properly, the lands that have already been cleared could fully meet global food demand for at least the next 50 years,” he said.

Tilman and colleagues modeled how our diet will affect the world by 2050, warning that agriculturally-driven environmental change will rival that from a warming climate. If trends continue, people will be exposed to more pesticides, and we will run out of fresh water for irrigation. Increased fertilizer use will salinize soils and raise the number of aquatic low-oxygen “dead zones.” The loss of natural ecosystems to agriculture will exceed the land area of the United States, leading to biodiversity loss and species extinctions. They conclude that food demand could be lowered “if the trend toward diets rich in meat were reversed.”

Perhaps I was feeling guilty over my hamburger. It’s easy to bemoan runaway population growth, but as an American I contribute disproportionately to global consumption, and hence environmental degradation. In a New York Times essay, University of California-Los Angeles professor Jared Diamond calculated that Americans consume 32 times the resources than those in developing countries. Food plays a huge role in this.

iStock_000006319746_ExtraSmallFor more than 25 years now, I have lived in Texas, land of the longhorn, home of famous BBQ beef. My ex-husband gently swayed me from teenage vegetarianism back into carnivory. We raised two kids, now teens themselves, who prefer a helping of cow, pig or chicken with every meal, thank you very much.

Ah meat, it’s a national obsession: Meat Lover’s Pizza, lunch meat, hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled ribeye, fried chicken. Americans eat twice the recommended daily allowance of protein. The result? We “eat like an SUV,” say University of Chicago scientists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin. The average American diet adds an extra ton and a half of CO2-equivalent emissions per capita annually compared to a vegan diet. That’s significant when the annual total for an average American is 4 tons.

Livestock contributes 18 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide, according to the oft-cited United Nations report, Livestock’s Long Shadow. Much of that value comes from rainforest deforestation, and most of the rest comes from cow burps and liquefied manure. Some have criticized the report, but report co-author Dr. Pierre Gerber says, “We fully maintain the 18 percent.”

The U.S. EPA estimates that 6 percent of our greenhouse gases come from all agriculture, but we also have a disproportionate number of vehicles and smokestacks. Nicolette Niman, vegetarian rancher and author of Righteous Porkchop, argues that it’s misguided to blame American beef for rainforest destruction.

Tilman disagrees. “What we eat in the U.S. has global impacts, whether or not we directly consume beef from Brazil,” he says. “We use about half of our farmland to grow grains for animal feed. Were we to eat less meat or eat more environmentally efficient meat, we would export more grains, and this would decrease the demand for crops that are an underlying driver of tropical deforestation.”

iStock_000012290242_ExtraSmallA 2009 study commissioned by Compassion in World Farming and conducted by European academics determined that we can feed 9 billion people without any further habitat loss using organic, humane methods, with no factory farms. This challenging task would require reduction of meat consumption, particularly in developed nations.

This brings to mind a childhood memory. One harvest day, I watched Dad place an Araucana rooster on a stump, and with one fell smack, off came its head. True to story, the headless chicken flopped around, blood sputtering It enthralled and revolted me in equal measure. I decided not to eat our chickens. Dad was not thrilled. “It’s so much healthier than store-bought chicken,” he pleaded, to no avail. I still wanted meat, but only from a package.

I retained that mental disconnect between animals and meat for most of my life. Then last year, reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, I connected my diet to problems with animal welfare, pollution, worker injustices and the power of Big Ag. I made a vow to avoid factory-farmed meat. Given the high price of sustainably raised and humanely harvested meat, this single mom now eats mostly vegetarian.

“It makes sense from all perspectives – health, environmental, animals – for Westerners to reduce their meat and dairy consumption,” says Niman. “Farmers and ranchers who are raising higher quality meat can command a premium and be rewarded for their good work.”

I may not be able to personally change agricultural policy, slow global population growth, or invent technological innovations to curb global climate change, but I can modify my diet. With three meals a day, every day, it adds up.

Wendee loves to share her knowledge and her passion for magazine writing in her online writing class.

Photo credits: iStockphoto |

Volunteers Can Restore Coral Reef

Jan. 19, 2011 — Coral reefs around the world have suffered from coral bleaching, pollution, physical damage, overfishing, and ocean acidification, to name a few. And although people have started to restore some reefs, few scientists have systematically studied the best way to go about returning life and color to the corals.


Elkhorn Coral
Image courtesy of NOAA

Graham Forrester, a professor of natural resources at the University of Rhode Island, changed all that. He monitored volunteer efforts to restore a once-thriving coral reef in the British Virgin Islands, while documenting the growth and survival rates of the threatened species of elkhorn coral being restored.

“We picked the elkhorn coral because it has declined severely, and is now listed under the Endangered Species Act,” explains Forrester. “This approach has been tried with other coral species. It is most often done with fast-growing branching corals because pieces break off the branches naturally during storms, so there is a naturally available supply of small coral pieces that can be transplanted.” The goal was to figure out whether volunteers could ultimately help restore corals simply and inexpensively using these coral fragments. “We focused on the general question, when storm-generated coral fragments appear, is it beneficial to use them for restoration?'”

It turns out that the volunteer efforts paid off. Restoring elkhorn coral is as simple as moving broken fragments of coral and reattaching them to barren reefs. Forrester’s study, recently published in the journal Restoration Ecology, showed that the transplanted coral had higher growth and survival rates compared with reefs that didn’t get assistance.

University of Rhode Island undergraduate student Lindsay Harmon transplanting elkhorn coral.Credit Dr. G. Forrester

University of Rhode Island undergraduate student Lindsay Harmon transplanting elkhorn coral.
Credit Dr. G. Forrester

“Our findings were that securing the fragments to the reef dramatically improves their growth and survival, moving them to a new site has no effect, there weren’t big differences between the methods used to attach corals to the reef, and that clearing away seaweed improves the growth of transplanted fragments,” says Forrester. “So the bottom line, with a little practice and training, volunteers should be able to make coral ‘gardens’ and this should accelerate the recovery of damaged reefs.”

Silence of the Pikas: Part III

Silence of the Pikas: Part I
Silence of the Pikas: Part II
Silence of the Pikas: Part III

Originally published in BioScience, January 2010

Dec.15, 2010 — Into the Field

Since 2007, Moyer-Horner has set out every June through September with field assistants he trains in the ways of the back country. Two by two, they go out to find talus fields, systematically search for signs of pika, and document their findings. It’s not a bad life, hiking through the wilds of Glacier National Park for up to a week at a time, carrying all their gear on their backs, sleeping under the stars, caching their food from grizzlies. Though his ultimate goal involves modeling the impact of climate on pikas, his preliminary data have shown some interesting trends. “Pikas are widely distributed throughout the park in almost all the available habitat,” he said. “The density does vary, and the factors that seem to be involved are elevation and aspect, which also goes along with the hypothesis that temperature seems to be a limiting factor for them. One of the more interesting results is that densities are lower at low elevation, but also low at high elevation. It looks like pikas are kind of squeezed into intermediate elevations.”


Pikas make their home on talus fields.

Signaling distress

Once the researchers find a talus field to survey, for 30 minutes the pair look for pika scat, hay piles, or pika themselves. For particularly large fields, they would break it up and survey portions for 30 minutes at a time. “Sometimes talus fields are located in places surrounded by tons of vegetation, so there’s a lot of bush-whacking, a lot of route finding,” Moyer-Horner says. Usually, they hear pikas before they see them.
[audio:|titles=pika sound]Listen to Pikas

The pika has a unique high-pitched warning call, a single high-pitched “eeep!” Sometimes one is followed by another in the distance. I hear eeps here and there on Divide Peak where I’m clambering about, and I stop and try to spot one. We keep quiet, and sure enough, I spot the pika on a rock, crying out as if I’m an oversized weasel. Once it realizes I mean no harm, it scurries about its business.


Pikas blend in very well with the talus, and spotting one is sometimes like a game of Where’s Waldo? Photograph: © Wendee Nicole

Moyer-Horner tells me about one time that he brought a National Geographic film crew out to scout for pikas. “We found a hay pile and I was kneeling down talking about hay, and this pika came up and started chewing on my pant leg. It would dart away, dart back, chew on the other pant leg. I’d never had a pika continue to be that close.” I’ve read other accounts where they stockpile backpack straps and such, mistaking them for vegetation. They can be fearless in gathering up food, since they have to create a hay pile some three to four feet thick. And despite the challenges they face, they have one thing going for them: When you finally spot one, you can’t resist the urge to say, “aww.” They’re absolutely adorable.


Pikas are unique among alpine mammals in that they gather up vegetation throughout summer — including flowers, grasses, leaves, evergreen needles, and even pine cones — and live off the hay pile throughout winter, rather than hibernating or moving downslope.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based nonprofit, petitioned the USFWS to list all U.S. subspecies of the American pika as threatened, and seven subspecies as endangered, citing data gathered by Beever and other scientists over the past decade. After a preliminary 90-day review, the USFWS announced in May 2009 that evidence may warrant listing, and began a more comprehensive 12-month review. However, after the completion of this review, in February 2010, the USFWS decided that listing the American pika or the recognized subspecies as endangered or threatened was not warranted. Moyer-Horner says the listing seems more about convincing politicians that pikas are a symbol of climate change, because the science seems clear. “There’s enough evidence to say that pikas are going to be among the first mammals to be adversely affected by climate change,” he said.

If they had decided to list the pika, “It might [have marked] a real big policy change in how we use the threatened species label and, in turn, how we deal with those threats,” says Moyer-Horner. “In the past, they looked at whose numbers are very low or whose habitat is gone. To list a species like this that is still really wide-spread and doing pretty well, but to list it under the probable future in which they will be affected, opponents worry that might open the floodgates.”


“When you finally spot one, you can’t resist the urge to say, “aww.” They’re absolutely adorable.” –Lucas Moyer-Horner

Test case, pass or fail?

If the pika had been listed it would have been the first species in the lower 48 states to be deemed endangered owing to climate change, and it would have served as a test case for how the federal government would deal with this new world. The Bush administration listed the polar bear as threatened in its Alaskan habitat in 2006, but added a special rule preventing the federal government from taking actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions in order to help the species. President Obama upheld this in a May 2009 decision. How the present administration will handle the pika’s dilemma raises the question, without imposing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and other human contributors to global warming, how would a federal or state agency even go about protecting declining habitat that is simply warmer? What do you do about a reduced snowpack?


Sometimes called cony, mouse hare, rockrabbit, or whistling hare, the pika has a narrow niche.

“I think one of the take home messages is that what we’ve observed are real shifts in patterns of endangerment for species, especially relative to other mammals,” Beever says. “This species has lived in remote areas, for the most part, across its range, it’s not harvested, and it’s not probably as immediately affected by contaminants as other species, so you would expect it wouldn’t be having any problems. And in a physical sense, the habitat of these guys hasn’t changed at all.”

In other words, you can look at a map of a mountain and find talus slopes, and the pika should live there. But more and more, they don’t. “Wildlife habitat models typically assume that habitat loss is a real strong reason why things are endangered,” Beever says. But global warming changes things. “These models assume you can remotely sense habitat and have an understanding of the status and trends of species. Although that is a good start, this shows you’re going to need a more nuanced approach.”


Can the pika become a symbol of what is happening to the planet?

In the end, saving the American pika, like other disappearing creatures, will require both cut-and-dried laws and the passion people have for saving them. The furry farmers of mountain vegetation, innocently going about their business as the Earth warms, may become an icon for what humans are doing to the planet. “They have a charisma that people that spend time in the mountains have an affinity toward,” Beever says. The absence of these day-active mammals is felt by those accustomed to hearing them in the mountains or, for Where’s Waldo? aficionados, spotting them.

Beever writes in an article for Conservation Biology (“Ecological Silence of the Grasslands, Forests, Wetlands, Mountains, and Seas”) about the visceral response he feels when visiting sites that pikas no longer occupy: “Among the range of reactions I experienced, the strongest was a pronounced awareness of silence. … Just as the movie Silence of the Lambs haunted viewers because of the defenselessness of the serial killer’s victims, there is something unsettling about the ecological ramifications indicated by the silencing of nature’s sounds.”

Photo credits: JR Douglass/NPS | Wendee Nicole | Christine Duchesne/NPS | JR Douglass/NPS | iStockphoto | JR Douglass/NPS |

Silence of the Pikas: Part II

Silence of the Pikas: Part I
Silence of the Pikas: Part II
Silence of the Pikas: Part III

Originally published in BioScience, January 2010

Dec. 8, 2010 — The cause of extirpations

Island biogeography theory says that “species are predicted to remain on large islands and islands that are not very isolated from mainland [habitat],” explains biologist Erik Beever, who did much of his work while a graduate student under Dr. Peter Brussard, at the University of Nevada-Reno. Using multiple logistic regression in an information-theoretic framework using AICc, he and colleagues found pika populations persisted in mountain ranges with more talus habitat available — supporting one prediction of island biogeography theory — but pikas were not more likely to persist at sites closer to the Rocky Mountain or Sierra Nevada “mainland” ranges.


Pikas mainly live on rocky mountain sides. This Pika makes its home in Sequoia National Park.

“Here, isolation doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re lost or not,” Beever says. Not only that, “the sheer size of a mountain range in this case isn’t very predictive of patterns of loss. [And] if we count the amount of habitat, that’s less important than these climatic influences.” Ultimately, the factors most strongly associated with pika disappearance were climatic; specifically, warmer and drier sites, which tended to be lower down the mountains. In another study published in Ecological Applications, Beever, University of Colorado researcher Chris Ray, and other colleagues revealed that acute cold stress and chronic heat stress (in other words, cold snaps and overall hotter summers) affect pika more than individual very hot days.

“The problem with global warming is that if [pikas] lose [their] snowpack, which provides insulation in winter, they freeze to death, and if the ambient air temperature heats up too much in summer, then they fry. That’s the challenge,” Dr. Mary Peacock says, assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, who has studied pika population genetics. “They’re already at the top of the mountain. If you heat it up substantially, there’s no place for them to go.”


Moyer-Horner found pikas occupied 85 percent of all talus fields in the park, including this one on Glacier National Park’s Highline Trail. Photograph: © Wendee Nicole

Species with either short lifespans or a certain degree of phenotypic plasticity, whether it’s variation in behavior, physiology, or other characteristics, may be able to adapt to changing climate, but it seems unlikely that the pika will be able to adapt quickly, or at all, to such radical shifts in climate. Besides their narrow niche, they have few offspring and are relatively long-lived for their size, living up to seven years. When juveniles disperse, they go to the closest unoccupied territory, and that means pikas in neighboring territories are often relatives. Nevertheless, Peacock’s work has shown they have a healthy degree of genetic diversity, though other studies are under way.

“Early work using mark and recapture by Andrew Smith showed they didn’t move far. We found pikas are actually quite fluid across the larger landscape,” Peacock says. “If there is enough continuous talus at high elevation, you can get a lot of connectivity over multiple kilometers. One individual is not moving two kilometers in its lifetime, but small movements over time will show a very connected population genetically.”

Since pikas have already started disappearing from low-elevation sites at more southerly latitudes, Moyer-Horner wanted to look at fine-scale mechanisms of how changing climate may affect pikas in an untrammeled area, farther north from the Great Basin. “I wanted to look at an area where pikas should still be quite abundant,” Moyer-Horner said. “Because of the northern latitude, it’s earlier in that [disappearance] curve. Can we begin to identify early warning signs that pikas are going to be extirpated from patches?”

Mechanistic modeling

Most studies predicting animal response to climate change model the “empirical niche” of an animal and rely on regression, which merely correlates certain factors with a species’ presence or abundance. Niche Mapper™ gets at mechanisms and can model different behaviors; for instance, the need to seek shade if the outside temperature or body temperature rises above a certain level.

“With regression, all you know is that there are certain environmental factors associated with pika activity, but you don’t really know why,” Moyer-Horner says. “We might use the empirical niche modeling [regression] to discover that pikas tend to be found in places that are cooler, but with mechanistic modeling, you can look at why pikas are not in places that are too hot. Maybe when days are too hot, pikas don’t have the necessary time available to collect enough vegetation to last through the winter. Niche Mapper™ can predict time available for foraging.” This fine-scale mechanistic approach may help conservation biologists and policymakers more accurately pinpoint just how to help save the species.


Pika With Tongue Sticking Out, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

Since Porter started working on the math behind Niche Mapper™ in the 1960s and 1970s, the model has proven useful in a variety of habitats for both ectotherms and endotherms; in fact, he has a slightly different model for each. “We’ve spent a great deal of time going into the field and testing the models, from deserts to bogs to snowy landscapes, so we could accurately calculate the temperatures available to animals. That’s the first step,” Porter says. He has since modeled scenarios from the physiological requirements of dinosaurs, given their size and the past climate, to predicting the spread of disease by mosquitoes.

“With Niche Mapper™, we take an animal and treat it like an engineer would. It’s this big, it has to have certain inputs, certain outputs. It has certain basic physiological needs,” Moyer-Horner says. “We model the energetics of a pika by setting up a model organism, then plugging in known physiological characteristics — things like insulation properties, size, reflectivity of fur, and the body temperature that it needs to maintain. Then we can input environmental variables such as temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, vegetation type, and topography.” The model then calculates what metabolic rate an organism must maintain, as well as other traits such as water loss and food requirements, in present and future climate scenarios. It can also model the past.

Into the Field with John and Wendee: Silence of the Pikas: Part III

Photo credits: iStockphoto unless otherwise noted

Silence of the Pikas: Part I

Silence of the Pikas: Part I
Silence of the Pikas: Part II
Silence of the Pikas: Part III

Originally published  in BioScience, January 2010

Will the American pika become the first species in the lower 48 states to be listed under the Endangered Species Act owing to global warming?

Nov. 29, 2010 — I’m 2000 meters up Divide Peak in Montana’s Glacier National Park, clambering around a steep talus slope, looking and listening for signs of American pika (Ochotona princeps). A diminutive alpine-dwelling rabbit relative, the pika is front and center in the news about climate change.  In January 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was nearing the end of a 12-month review to determine whether to list any of the United States’ 31 sub-species of American pika as threatened or endangered specifically because the Earth is warming.


Pikas mainly live on rocky mountain sides. This Pika makes its home in Sequoia National Park.


Pikas blend in very well with the talus, and spotting one is sometimes like a game of Where’s Waldo? Photograph: © Wendee Nicole

I joined University of Wisconsin graduate student Lucas Moyer-Horner in a biologist’s version of Where’s Waldo?, looking for the tan, potato-sized fur-balls amidst the mountaintop boulder field. Moyer-Horner has systematically documented pika distribution throughout the entire park over the past three years. The detailed survey will allow him to plug his data into a cutting-edge biophysical computer model called Niche Mapper™ developed by his adviser Warren Porter, which uses physiological, weather and spatial habitat data to predict a species range in different climate scenarios.

Lucas Moyer-Horner

Lucas Moyer-Horner looks for pika signs on Divide Peak in Glacier National Park. Photograph: © Wendee Nicole

Regression analyses can statistically correlate pika presence or abundance with certain variables, but this mechanistic model can get at why. It helps pin-point what physiological and behavioral mechanisms might affect pika populations as the warming climate continues to melt Glacier’s namesake glacier. According to scientists, the park’s glaciers will disappear within 10 years. In the mid-20th century, the park had 150 glaciers. Today, there are 26.

Making hay while the sun shines

Pikas are unique among alpine mammals in that they gather up vegetation throughout summer — including flowers, grasses, leaves, evergreen needles, and even pine cones — and live off the hay pile throughout winter, rather than hibernating or moving downslope. But increasingly warm temperatures may drive them to the brink: the high-energy mammals can overheat and die at temperatures as mild as 25 degrees Celsius if they can’t regulate their body temperature by moving into the cooler micro-climate under the talus. And since they already live near the tops of mountains, when a particular talus field’s micro-climate becomes inhospitable, they simply have nowhere to go.

Sometimes called cony, mouse hare, rockrabbit, or whistling hare, the pika has a narrow niche. They live only in talus fields, and these must lie adjacent to alpine meadows or other vegetation so they have access to plants for food and hay farming. The talus rock fields must have boulders of a certain size; scree, a similar habitat with smaller rocks, won’t do. Rocks provide safe haven from pikas’ main predator, weasels. But perhaps more important, the interstices between the rocks provide both a cool, moist micro-climate where pikas cool down during hot summer days and also the perfect sanctuary in which to settle during the long winter’s night. They don’t huddle together like many other mammals, as far territorial and solitary throughout the winter, guarding their hay piles with their lives. As a snowpack settles over the land, it insulates the Earth and maintains a certain underground temperature at which pikas can survive, just below freezing. With warming temperatures reducing snowpack in many mountainous areas, in a strange twist of fate, global warming can cause pikas to freeze to death. Moyer-Horner has come across several half-eaten hay piles in which the animal most likely perished midwinter.


Sometimes called cony, mouse hare, rockrabbit, or whistling hare, the pika has a narrow niche.

Biologists have dubbed mountaintop habitat patches “sky islands” because the valleys in between are as uninhabitable as the sea for nonmobile alpine species. This creates an ideal scenario to test the predictions of one of ecology’s key theories: island biogeography. Individual pikas have a relatively limited distance they can disperse, around two kilometers, so they can’t just shift from one mountain to another. At the population level, they’re stuck on a particular mountain range. In the 1990s, biologist Erik Beever and colleagues surveyed pikas throughout the hydrographic Great Basin — a heart-shaped 500,000 square kilometer inter-montane plateau dotted with 314 mountain ranges, incorporating parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona — and were unable to find pikas near 6 of the 25 locations that they had occupied during the early 20th century. In the current decade, pikas have apparently been lost from several additional sites in the Basin, leaving only 60% of the original sites still occupied. Was the cause of pika extirpations climatic, anthropogenic, or biogeographical?

Find out the answer in Silence of the Pikas: Part II

Photo credits: iStockphoto unless otherwise noted

Mimicking Mother Nature

Nov. 19, 2010 — Frank Fish was browsing in a Boston sculpture shop a few years ago when he noticed a whale figurine. His first thought was, “This isn’t right. It’s got bumps on the leading edge of its flipper. It’s always a straight edge.”

Fish, a West Chester University professor specializing in the dynamics of locomotion, was surprised because all flippers he knew of had straight edges — including those of dolphins, penguins and even most whales. The straight-edge blade is also shared by ceiling fans and most industrial blades and rotors. But the store manager showed him a photo of a humpback whale, and sure enough, it had tubercles on its flippers. Humpbacks have a unique habit of catching fish in a bubble net that they create by diving deep and swimming in a spiraling circle, and Fish speculated that the tubercles may somehow give them a hydrodynamic advantage.

[flv: 480 368]Video courtesy of Whale Power

Turns out he was right. After testing a scaled-down flipper replica in a wind tunnel, Fish and colleagues Loren Howle and Mark Murray found the tubercles reduced drag by 32 percent and increased lift by 6 percent compared with a smooth-edge flipper. The bumps have the same effect on rotors and blades in air — a revolutionary discovery in aerodynamics. Fish co-patented so-called “Tubercle Technology” and in 2005 he helped found Whale Power, a company that is building energy-efficient windmills using scalloped-edge blades. The technology could eventually improve energy-efficiency for any machine that uses turbines, fans or pumps.

Fish is among an increasing number of scientists, inventors and companies turning to the natural world to help them create better, more sustainable products and to find solutions to some of humanity’s most vexing problems. The concept is called biomimicry and the idea behind it is simple: Over the millennia, living organisms in the natural world already have tested and solved many of the challenges humans are grappling with today.

“People are looking for ways to reduce material use, get away from toxic substances and reduce energy use. When they hear about biomimicry, they realize it’s an R&D program that’s been going on for 3.8 billion years,” says biologist Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Guild, a Montana-based consulting firm that provides research and guidance on natural solutions for some of the country’s largest companies and government agencies.

In her landmark 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus issued a call to action, urging people to engage not just in shallow biomimicry — copying nature’s forms — but to push for deep biomimicry where manufacturing processes follow nature’s lead of sustainability. The ideal industrial loop, she says, would work as seamlessly as a redwood forest, where one’s processed wastes become food or input for another and nothing is wasted. In the book, Benyus also compiled dozens of examples of how people are emulating natural processes.

Velcro, for example, one of the most famous products to come from mimicking nature, was created by a Swiss engineer in the 1940s after observing how cockleburs got stuck in his dog’s fur. Three decades later, a German botanist discovered that lotus leaves contain tiny waxy bumps that cause water to bead up and run off the surface, washing and cleaning the leaves in the process. The discovery has since inspired a number of waterproof products including Lotusan, a self-cleaning paint that keeps the outsides of buildings free of algae and fungi.

burr velcro

The burrs that get stuck in your dog's coat were the inspiration for Velcro, the stuff that gets stuck on your socks in the washer.

More recently, scientists from the University of New South Wales discovered a revolutionary antibacterial compound in a type of red algal seaweed that lives off the coast of Australia. Bacteria form slimy biofilms but require a “quorum” to congregate, and so they constantly communicate with one another. The seaweed stays bacteria-free by emitting the compound furanone, which jams the bacteria’s communication sensors. Mimicking that natural action, the Australian company Biosignal created cleaning fluids that keep surfaces bacteria-free without killing them, which is a breakthrough because its use does not lead to the evolution of antibiotic resistance, as has happened with the proliferation of so many antibacterial cleaning compounds. So far, furanone works on various bacteria, including staphylococcus and vibrio, which causes cholera. It also works on the bacteria that corrode pipes, leading to oil spills.

lotus leaves

Thanks to the tiny waxy bumps that cause water to bead up and run off the surface of lotus lea for giving us water proof clothing.

In another flip on tradition, Mercedes-Benz recently modeled an ecologically friendly, fuel-efficient concept vehicle called the Bionic Car after the yellow boxfish, a squarish tropical creature found in reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Traditionally, aerodynamic cars have been built long and lean, but it turns out the boxfish has a drag coefficient nearly equal to that of a drop of water, which has one of the lowest drags possible. The automobile company not only borrowed from the boxfish’s boxy but aerodynamic shape but also from its unique skeletal structure that protects the animal from injury, making the car safer by putting extra material in certain parts of its frame and economizing by lightening up the load elsewhere.

Black-spotted boxfish

The yellow box fish redefined aerodynamics.

Another product, the UltraCane, was developed not long ago as a result of research at the University of Leeds in Great Britain to help the blind “see” by utilizing the echolocation systems of bats. The cane emits an ultrasonic sound that bounces off objects, allowing vision-impaired people to develop a mental picture of where and how far away objects are—and hence better navigate around them.

In Zimbabwe, the architectural design firm Arup Associates modeled the country’s largest office complex, Eastgate Centre, after the passive cooling system used by African termites in their mounds. Termites farm fungus that they must keep at a precise 87 degrees F, while outside air varies from 35 degrees at night to 104 by day. To accomplish this amazing feat, termites constantly plug and unplug cooling vents that create convection currents, drawing air through the mound as needed. The Eastgate Centre builders copied this model, using fans and chimneys to shunt hot air out, and ground-level cavities to allow cooler air in — a concept known as passive cooling. Without any modern heating or air conditioning, the facility uses only 10 percent of the electricity of a conventional building its size. The energy-cost savings trickle down to tenants, who pay 20 percent lower rent than in neighboring buildings.

eastgate passive cooling

The local termites inspired Eastgate's cooling system. Termite mounds include flues which vent through the top and sides, and the mound itself is designed to catch the breeze. As the wind blows, hot air from the main chambers below ground is drawn out of the structure, helped by termites opening or blocking tunnels to control air flow.

Eastgate passive cooling used by the local termites inspired Eastgate’s cooling system. Termite mounds include flues which vent through the top and sides, and the mound itself is designed to catch the breeze. As the wind blows, hot air from the main chambers below ground is drawn out of the structure, helped by termites opening or blocking tunnels to control air flow.

Elsewhere, scientists are turning to Mother Nature for inspiration for other energy-related materials. To increase the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by solar panels, for instance, a University of Florida researcher is developing a coating for the panels based on the structure of moth eyes, which reflect little light. In China and Japan, scientists are modeling more efficient solar cells after the scales on butterfly wings, which serve as highly effective, microscopic solar collectors.

The benefits humans gain as a result of such research provide a strong argument for conserving wildlife. “Protecting plant and animal habitats means also preserving the wellspring of ideas for the next industrial revolution,” says Benyus, who in 2007 was named by Time magazine as one of its “International Heroes of the Environment.”

That same year, she also founded the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which urges companies to donate a percentage of their profits to the habitat from which their biomimicry-inspired products come from. “We must become nature’s apprentice at this point,” she says, “and part of that path has to be preserving the wild places we now realize are the homes of geniuses.”

Originally published in National Wildlife Magazine, 2009

A Grass Roofs Effort

Oct. 13, 2010 — Imagine grass, wildflowers, shrubs, or even trees sprouting from your rooftop. Get as wild as you want — from meadowy plots to dynamic gardens stocked with waterfalls, trails, and benches. Far from a fanciful ecotopian dream, these modern versions of ancient sod roofs are now popular throughout Europe. Once relegated to the dusty pages of history, green roofs are  now making a comeback.

An elevated refuge in a sea of concrete, the vegetation creates habitat for birds and butterflies, reduces storm-water runoff, and creates a weather buffer that helps the roof last twice as long as standard ones. But it is the green roof’s capacity to cool ambient air temperatures and reduce energy demand that caught the attention of the EPA. In 1997, the agency initiated the Urban Heat Island Mitigation Initiative, with pilot green-roof projects in cities around the United States. A “heat island” results when a city’s asphalt, buildings, and rooftops absorb the sun’s rays and then release the energy at night, making the air 6 to 8 degrees hotter than in the surrounding countryside. Since higher temperatures hasten smog formation, the EPA initiative was created to reverse the urban warming trend. The idea is that reducing temperatures will help lower energy use, which in turn will mean less power-plant emissions like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.

wendee nicole report

In 2001, a 20,300 square-foot green roof was installed atop Chicago’s City Hall. When compared to an adjacent normal roof, City Hall’s green roof was nearly 100 degrees lower, and contributed to $5,000 in annual energy cost reduction, in addition to improving air quality and reducing stormwater runoff.

Relatively minor greenifications can have a significant impact on urban air pollution. EPA computer simulations for Los Angeles suggest that increasing green space by 5 percent and replacing dark roofs and asphalt with lighter surfaces could lower summer temperatures 4 degrees— resulting in 10 percent less smog and $175 million in energy savings per year.

By providing insulation, green roofs can help heat as well as air condition. In winter, green roofs can freeze, so they carry a slight heating penalty, but they still yield a net energy savings. When temperatures plummet below freezing, the roof surface remains at 32 degrees — an advantage in very cold climates.

U.S. companies are beginning to install green roofs commercially, but so far high expense prevents them from greening individual residential roofs. However, do-it-yourselfers can put up their own at a sliver of commercial costs. Linda Velazquez, who recently designed a green roof for a nature center as part of her landscape-architecture degree at the University of Georgia, suggests starting with a test plot on a shed, playhouse, garage, or even a birdhouse.

That’s what Tom Liptan did. A storm-water specialist in Oregon, Liptan wondered if green roofs would reduce runoff. In 1996, he installed one atop his 10-by-18-foot flat-roof garage. After adding 2-by-4s to the walls, plus cross-bracing the roof for additional structural support, Liptan waterproofed the roof by rolling out a sheet of pond-liner plastic (available at home-improvement stores). He laid newspaper above and below the plastic for added protection against punctures, then piled on two to three inches of soil from his yard and covered it with mulch. He placed boards around the roof edges to hold the plastic and soil in place, then planted native vegetation from his yard, including drought-tolerant, shallow-rooted sedums. Total cost: $80. Today, Liptan’s green roof holds nearly an inch of rainfall, and the garage measures up to 15 degrees cooler than outside.

wendee nicole report

Sedum spurium is a drought-adapted plant often used for low-maintenance green roofs. (Photo Copyright © G.A. Cooper at USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.)

Because retained water greatly increases the weight load after a rain, it’s important to have a structural engineer determine how much weight your roof can bear, or how much additional structural support is needed, before greening on your own. A meadow-like roof veneer requires significantly less structural support than a heavily landscaped garden like the 20,300-square-foot green roof atop Chicago’s city hall. In 2001 the building was retrofitted and its roof stocked with trees, shrubs, plants and vines. Flat or low-slope roofs work best, but green roofs have been successfully planted on steep housetops, too.

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During a Penn State 2003 study, temperatures were measured on both green and dark roofs. Both kinds of roofs warmed during the day and cooled overnight. While dark roofs cooled slightly more overnight, however, they warmed up much more during the day than their green counterparts. At their warmest, the dark roofs reached roughly 70 degrees Celsius, whereas the green roofs only reached about 40 degrees. (Graph courtesy Stuart Gaffin

Whether a green roof requires watering beyond the rain it absorbs will depend on the vegetation used. Shallow-rooted, self-seeding native plants that can survive both drought and drenching will need little if any watering. Grasses, succulents, roadside wildflowers, and shallow-rooted sedums that grow on rocks are all recommended by landscape-architect Velazquez.

Many people wonder whether a vegetated rooftop will cause water, and possibly dangling roots, to drop through their ceiling. Not to worry: Commercial installers use specialized layers for drainage, root barriers, insulation, and waterproofing, and do-it-yourself projects can get by using shallow-rooted plants, a few inches of soil, and a layer of newspaper and waterproofing plastic, as Liptan did.

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Although longer-lived than a standard roof, a vegetation-covered roof is more complex, and its components mitigate both urban heat and urban runoff. Water that would otherwise reach a storm sewer is trapped by the green roof’s soil and vegetation. (Image Copyright © American Wick Drain Corporation.)

Inspired by Liptan’s initiative, Portland now offers tax credits for installing green roofs. Chicago, Seattle, and the state of Maryland provide similar incentives. If you’re not ready for a full-scale green roof, hydroponics and container gardening offer innovative ways to vegetate one’s rooftop as well. With a little effort, urban residents can turn swaths of tar and gravel into colorful carpets of greenery.

Originally appeared in Sierra Magazine, May/Jun 2001