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Rebuilding the Natural World: A Shift in Ecological Restoration by Richard Conniff: Yale Environment 360
17 MAR 2014: ANALYSIS
Rebuilding the Natural World:
A Shift in Ecological Restoration
From forests in Queens to wetlands in China, planners and scientists are promoting a new approach that incorporates experiments into landscape restoration projects to determine what works to the long-term benefit of nature and what does not.
by richard conniff
Restoring degraded ecosystems — or creating new ones — has become a huge global business. China, for instance, is planting 90 million acres of forest in a swath across its northern provinces. And in North America, just in the past two decades, restoration projects costing $70 billion have
attempted to restore or re-create 7.4 million acres of marsh, peatland, floodplain, mangrove, and other wetlands.
This patchwork movement to rebuild the natural world ought to be good news. Such projects are, moreover, likely to become far more common as the world rapidly urbanizes and as cities, new and old, turn to green infrastructure to address problems like climate change, flood control, and pollution of nearby waterways. But hardly anyone does a proper job of measuring the results, and when they do, it generally turns out that ecological restorations seldom function as intended.
A 2012 study in PLOS Biology, for instance, looked at 621 wetland projects and found most had failed to deliver promised results, or match the performance of natural systems, even decades after completion. Likewise,
A new study finds more than 75 percent of river restorations failed to meet minimal performance targets.
an upcoming study by Margaret A. Palmer at the University of Maryland reports that more than 75 percent of river and stream restorations failed to meet their own minimal performance targets. “They may be pretty projects,” says Palmer, “but they don’t provide ecological benefits.”
Hence the increasing interest in what Alexander Felson, an urban ecologist and landscape architect at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, calls “designed experiments” — that is, experiments designed by ecologists and incorporated into development and landscape restoration projects to test which alternative approaches work best — or whether a particular approach works at all. The idea is both to improve the project at hand, says Felson, and also to provide a scientific basis for making subsequent projects more successful.
At first glance, the designed experiment idea might seem to echo practices that already exist. Environmental consultants have been a part of most development projects for decades. But they almost never do long-term research on a project, says Felson. “Adaptive management,” the idea of continually monitoring environmental projects and making steady improvements over time — or “learning by doing” — has also been around in ecological circles since the 1970s. But a recent survey in Biological Conservation found “surprisingly few practical, on-ground examples of adaptive management.” In part, that’s because “long-term investigations are notoriously difficult to establish and maintain.”
To deal with that challenge, Felson proposes incorporating ecologists into the design team, so that designers and ecologists build a relationship and complement each other’s strengths from the start. As part of its Million Tree Initiative, for instance, New York City was proposing in 2007 to plant almost 2000 acres of new and restored forest over a ten-year period. The project fit the city’s sustainability agenda to reduce air pollution, sequester
As part of New York’s Million Tree Initiative, a scientific team proposed experiments for the planned forests.
carbon dioxide, control stormwater run-off, and provide wildlife habitat.
But planners didn’t have much basis for determining which species were more likely to achieve those goals, or where to plant them. The usual feedback about whether an urban tree planting project is successful boils down to a single question: “Are they alive or are they dead?” Nor could science provide much guidance. A literature search turned up only a single long-term study of new urban forests planted with native tree species.
So Felson and a team of scientists and designers proposed designed experiments for New York’s planned forests — plantings with different species, in varying configurations, some with compost or other amendments, some without — to learn what worked best.
The proposal represented a compromise between two sensible but contradictory ideas. On the one hand, it is widely accepted that the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago — or, failing that, right now. On the other hand, Felson writes, you “would not build a wastewater treatment plant if it did not achieve water-quality standards, so why plant an urban forest without knowing that it performs the intended function?”
Because experimental plots are not typically scenic, the ecologists worked with park managers to disguise the test plots within a more natural-looking forest. The first test forest went in at Kissena Corridor Park in Queens in 2010, and a second at Willow Lake in 2011, on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair.
The ambition is to study traits like carbon sequestration and how species patterns change over decades. But the study is already producing results that may be useful within the context of the Million Tree Initiative, according to Felson and Yale co-authors Mark Bradford and Emily
The Chinese park features a terraced system of 21 ponds, designed to filter urban runoff.
Oldfield: If the goal is to get trees to canopy height as quickly as possible, for instance, competition from shrubs will actually make them grow faster, not slower. Some trees, like basswood, do better in more diverse plantings; others, like oaks, prefer less diversity. Compost doesn’t seem to make much difference for the first two years but kicks in during year three.
The designed experiment idea has begun to turn up in restoration projects around the world, notably in China. The northeastern city of Tianjin, for instance, was struggling in 2003 to deal with a 54-acre former shooting range that had become an illegal dumping ground and was also heavily polluted by urban runoff. It hired Kongjian Yu, founder of the Beijing design firm Turenscape, who had trained at Harvard with Richard T.T. Forman, a leading thinker in urban landscape ecology.
The result, Qiaoyuan Wetland Park, opened in 2008, with none of the great lawns and formal plantings seen in conventional Chinese parks. Instead, Yu’s design features a naturalized landscape of ponds, grasses, and reeds, with walkways and viewing platforms for local residents.
Traditional landscape design in China is “based on art and form,” says Yu. “My practice is to find a scientific basis.” The park features a terraced system of 21 ponds, designed to filter urban runoff as it moves through the site. Yu calls it “peasant” landscaping, based on traditional rice farms. But the ponds are of different sizes and depths, with the aim of monitoring how
As urban crowding increases, cities may require new projects to deliver multiple ecosystem services.
each microhabitat affects water quality, PH values, and the character of the evolving plant community.
Ecologists on staff at Turenscape and Yu’s students at Beijing University do the monitoring. Among other results, they recently reported that three families of Siberian weasel now call the park home, a remarkable development in a city of 7.5 million people. Yu acknowledges that the experimental results don’t hold much interest for city officials, who have sometimes tried to replace “messy” reeds with playgrounds and formal plantings. But Yu has employed the results from Tianjin to improve his subsequent projects, which also incorporate designed experiments.
The pell mell pace of urban development in China, combined with the often catastrophic environmental after-effects, together create a demand for landscape designs that do more than look pretty, according to Yu. The usual engineering solutions — for instance, “larger pipes, more powerful pumps, or stronger dikes” to handle monsoon flooding — often just aggravate other problems, like the water shortages and falling groundwater levels that now afflict 400 Chinese cities. Yu sees naturalized landscapes as urban “green sponges” to retain and filter water, with designed experiments to show whether or not they deliver the promised services.
The goal of incorporating designed experiments more broadly in restoration and development projects is likely to meet resistance on both sides. Developers may regard ecologists as natural adversaries, and research as a costly nuisance. The idea of working within the agenda of developers and government agencies may also strike some ecologists as a fatal compromise.
But China is no means the only place with rapidly worsening environmental issues. As urban crowding increases worldwide and the effects of climate change become more evident, cities may require every new development or restoration project to deliver multiple ecosystem services. The stricter financial standards of the green marketplace will also oblige project managers to demonstrate that those services are real and quantifiable.
“There are certainly problems with what we’ve been doing in restoration projects, but it doesn’t mean we should stop,” says Franco Montalto, a Drexel University environmental engineer who has written about the designed experiment idea. “We should be trying to figure out what doesn’t work and stop doing that, and figure out what does work and do more of it. That’s what you learn from experiments.”
POSTED ON 17 MAR 2014
24 FEB 2014: ANALYSIS
Is Weird Winter Weather
Related to Climate Change?
Scientists are trying to understand if the unusual weather in the Northern Hemisphere this winter — from record heat in Alaska to unprecedented flooding in Britain — is linked to climate change. One thing seems clear: Shifts in the jet stream play a key role and could become even more disruptive as the world warms.
by fred pearce
This winter’s weather has been weird across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Record storms in Europe; record drought in California; record heat in parts of the Arctic, including Alaska and parts of Scandinavia; but record freezes too, as polar air blew south over Canada and the U.S., causing near-record ice cover on the Great Lakes, sending the mercury as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius in Minnesota, and bringing sharp chills to Texas.
Everyone is blaming the jet stream, which drives most weather in mid-latitudes. That would be a significant development. For what happens
to the jet stream in the coming decades looks likely to be the key link between the abstractions of climate change and real weather we all experience. So, is our recent strange weather a sign of things to come? Are we, as British opposition leader Ed Milliband put it this month while surveying a flooded nation, “sleepwalking to a climate crisis”?
The story gets tangled because trying to identify long-term trends amid the noise of daily weather is hard.
The U.K. Met Office, which keeps a global weather watch, said in a rushreport put out in mid-February that we are experiencing a “hemispheric pattern of severe weather,” and that the events are linked. The most extreme days of the U.S. cold event, for instance, coincided with some of the most intense storms over the U.K. And physically the connection is through the polar jet stream, which the report said showed a “persistent pattern of perturbations” — in other words, it ran wild.
The polar jet stream is a narrow stream of fast wind circling the globe from west to east at the top of the troposphere from 7 to 12 kilometers up, and usually between 50 and 70 degrees north. It forms where cold, dense air from the Arctic meets warmer and less dense air from mid-latitudes. At the
Climatologist Jennifer Francis links ‘this bizarre winter’ to changes in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic.
boundary, winds rush in to equalize the pressure difference. The earth’s rotation diverts these winds to travel eastward.
As the jet roars around the world, it drags weather systems with it. Most of Europe’s weather rides in under the jet stream from the Atlantic, and most of the western U.S.’s weather comes from the Pacific in a similar manner.
This year, the jet has been unusually far north in the Pacific, bringing balmy weather to Alaska. But across the Atlantic it has been unusually far south, unusually persistent, and 30 percent faster than normal. It has sent more than 30 storms, many of them much larger and more intense than normal, crashing into the shores of Britain in the past three months. With the storms have come high winds and heavy rains almost every day, delivering amounts of precipitation unseen in records going back more than a century — and probably exceeding anything else in the last 250 years, according to the Met Office report.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago this month, climatologist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University linked “this bizarre winter” to climate change, and in particular to changes in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic. “Weather patterns are changing,” she said. “We can expect more of the same.”
Francis notes that the Arctic has been warming faster than the rest of the planet in recent decades, driven by melting ice that replaced reflective white surfaces with dark, energy-absorbing ocean. That is expected to continue. While lower latitudes will also warm, the result will be to reduce the temperature gradient between polar and mid-latitude air that drives the jet. So, says Francis, we can expect the jet to slow. A slower jet is generally more meandering and inclined to get “stuck,” delivering unchanging weather.
There is one problem with this analysis as regards recent events, says Tim Woollings, who researches atmospheric dynamics at Oxford University in England. While the jet stream has indeed been “stuck” for the past two months, delivering cold weather to North America and storms across the Atlantic, it is not slow and meandering. Across the Atlantic at least, it has been fast and remarkably straight. “That is the exact opposite to the weak meandering jet of your hypothesis,” Woollings told Francis in an email exchange last week that both shared with Yale Environment 360.
That certainly doesn’t prove Francis wrong. Woollings agrees that Francis’s prediction of a stuck meandering jet looks very like the situation in the Pacific this winter. But it does complicate claims that this winter’s
Britain’s Met Office says the real driver of recent climate patterns has been the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean.
extremes can be blamed on man-made climate change.
So what is going on? The Met Office came to the conclusion that the real driver of the action in recent months was not in the Arctic or the Atlantic, but far away in the western Pacific Ocean. The jet stream, remember, is a global wind, circling the earth. This winter, the jet stream over the Pacific has been deflected much further north than usual. This, according to the Met Office, is likely a consequence of some combination of heavy rains over Indonesia, warm Pacific waters, and unusual pressure systems.
The displaced Pacific leg of the jet stream dragged warm air up over Alaska. But, once east of the Rockies, it met the dense cold air of the Arctic and plunged south. A long way south — as far as Texas at times. This southward excursion of the jet brought freezing weather across much of the U.S. But it also brought that cold polar air into contact with warm southerly breezes. Thus the temperature gradient at the boundary between polar and non-polar air was exceptionally great. At times, says Francis, Arctic air was meeting tropical air as the polar jet coalesced with the sub-tropical jet, which forms where tropical air meets air from the north.
The scientists agree that this exceptional temperature difference dramatically speeded up the jet stream as it pushed out over the Atlantic on its unusually southerly trajectory. A fast jet stream is usually also a straight jet stream. And the southerly route allowed the surface air it pulled along to pick up unusual amounts of moisture evaporating from the warm waters of the Atlantic.
The result was that the jet slammed a long succession of intense storms into southern England, where they would normally hit Scotland or miss the U.K. altogether. The storms contained huge volumes of moisture. And, to add to the tumult, the fast winds across the Atlantic also whipped up big waves and tidal surges; so in places record flood flows coming down rivers met flood waters coming off the sea. Parts of Britain were submerged.
Where does this leave us on climate change? It is no great surprise that there is confusion. Weather is weather. It is always changeable, with a large
Scientists remain uncertain about how the major features of world’s weather will respond to global warming.
random element. Stuff happens. The Met Office notes that the winter’s weird weather has a range of causes besides the jet stream, including unusual upper atmosphere winds over the North Pole, and anomalies in the eastern Pacific that have delivered severe drought to California. There is, the Met Office says, no compelling evidence from this winter to suggest that there is a new emerging pattern.
But that doesn’t mean nothing is going on. Long-term trends are hard to spot, and natural variability is still generally dominant over the subtle changes in climate, or “average weather.”
Yet there are some instances where attribution is possible. For example, climate researchers have persuasively argued that a few intense heat waves — such as the one that killed 70,000 people in western Europe in 2003 — would have been highly unlikely without the added impetus of global warming. But for weather extremes other than rising temperatures, unambiguous attribution of even extreme events is very hard to make, whatever the suspicions that something is up.
Climate scientists remain very uncertain about how most of the major features of the world’s weather will respond to global warming. The climate will change, for sure, but exactly how is a tough call.
El Niño, the Asian and African monsoons, Atlantic hurricanes, the jet streams: The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued last October, puts a big question mark over the likely trends for all of them. And while Francis suggests the polar jet stream should slow as the Arctic warms, the IPCC noted that most climate models predict a faster polar jet.
Actual trends so far don’t tell us much. According to the Met Office, the number of storms crossing the Atlantic in a normal year is no higher today
MORE FROM YALE e360
With prominent scientists now calling for experiments to test whether pumping sulfates into the atmosphere could safely counteract global warming, critics worry that the world community may be moving a step closer to deploying this controversial technology.
than 150 years ago. But Xiaolan Wang of Environment Canada, a government agency, last yearreported evidence that winter storms are becoming stronger over the North Atlantic. This may not have anything to do with the jet stream, however. These storms could just be picking up more moisture from an Atlantic that is now substantially warmer than in past decades.
Data from weather stations around the world reveal more extreme precipitation events — and more droughts, too. This is firmly in line with the predictions of climate models and is “what is expected from fundamental physics,” says the Met Office. A warmer atmosphere will contain more energy, and more moisture from evaporation, says Woollings. It already does. And, in general, more energy and moisture will mean wetter storms in many places.
Weird weather is definitely on the agenda, and the jet stream is very likely to be an important part of it. The nightmare scenario is that Francis will be proved right about the jet stream becoming more “stuck” in a particular trajectory, but that, as happened this winter, it will get stuck while traveling at express speed and bringing strong winds and heavy rain with it. The Met Office says the Francis scenario “raises the possibility that disruption of our usual weather patterns may be how climate change may manifest itself.” If so, that would indeed unleash the perfect storm.
Why Canada Needs To Stop Embracing Corporatocracy
Canada is in denial of her true self. We have been co-opted by a globalized corporatocracy.
This chosen self-negation is exacting a heavy toll. We have arguably lost our democracy, and our much of our sovereignty, in addition to cultural pluralism, biodiversity, and economic self-determination.
The facilitator of this “corporate coup” is a toxic mental landscape.
Transnational corporations and their political lobbyists wilfully co-opt the language of human rights as a subterfuge for retrograde supranational agreements that deny democracy, as well as economic and cultural self-determination. We are daily bombarded with false terms such as “free trade” and “private sector” to the point where we internalize (subliminally?) incorrect meanings.
Ubiquitous “free trade” rhetoric infers freedom and prosperity even as it delivers the opposite. Protectionist agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) enable the outsourcing of labour to authoritarian regimes where human and labour rights are much lower. The movement of capital is protected and deregulated as jobs, public health, environmental, cultural, and human rights disappear.
Investor-state laws effectively subordinate a country’s economic and political self-determination when international and domestic laws or regulations are perceived to be an impediment to corporate profits. Unelected supranational arbitrators make decisions and the public is often left paying the bill. Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with Council Of Canadians, explains in John Bonnar’s article, “Toronto activists oppose Trans-Pacific Partnership and corporate globalization” : “Within all these trade deals there is an investor rights chapter that lets companies sue countries when they feel their profits have been harmed, … giving corporations more rights than anyone else in this country and any other country.” Trew cites Calgary’s Lone Pine Resource’s lawsuit against Canada as an example:
“(Lone Pine Resources) first disclosed last week that it intends to sue the Canadian government for at least $250-million under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which allows investors from the U.S. and Mexico to take government policies or actions that hurt their interests before a panel of arbitrators, (Globe and Mail, Nov. 22, 2012.)
In its notice of intent, Lone Pine charges that the government’s move, ‘without a penny of compensation,’ violates NAFTA’s provision that companies facing expropriation should be reimbursed. Lone Pine also charges that Quebec’s move unfairly pre-empts the conclusion of the province’s ongoing study on the safety of fracking.
The Quebec government’s move to cancel a natural-gas exploration permit for deposits beneath the St. Lawrence River last year was “arbitrary, capricious and illegal,” according to the U.S. energy company challenging the move under the North American free-trade agreement.”
(Lone Pine Resources is incorporated in Delaware, U.S, a known tax haven, but has its headquarters in Calgary.)
The “private sector” rhetoric infers independence and freedom, yet it is highly socialized — the 2008/09 bailouts would be a case in point — by the public sector. Additionally, as public funds flow into the “private” sector, corporations return the favour by capturing legislatures and engineering self-serving laws and regulations — or the absence thereof — to entrench their monopolies and their anti-public behaviours. Bruce Livesy explains in “Tax Dodge: Gildan Activewear” how Canada’s Gildan corporation avoids paying taxes: “By moving its factories overseas, Gildan managed to cut its Canadian tax rate down to nothing in the past four years, despite earning profits of $95 million in 2009, $196 million in 2010, $224 million in 2011 and $144 million last year.”
Currently there is a host of anti-democratic corporate-power agreements being negotiated behind closed doors, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China , the CETA, as well as agreements with India, Japan, Honduras, and South Korea. Each of these (largely secret) deals promises to enrich and empower foreign investors to the detriment of local economies and public spheres. Outcomes, such as those resulting from the 20 year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will likely include and exacerbate some of NAFTA’s symptoms,
* increased inequality between rich and poor nations
* increased inequality within rich and poor nations
* an exodus of good-paying manufacturing jobs
* collapsing small farm incomes
Corporate globalization entrenches parasitical monopoly capitalism. In agriculture, for example, large agribusiness monopolies, often funded by international banking institutions, push out smallholders — thereby reducing economic diversity — so that they can grow monoculture cash crops for export. Consequently, people are displaced, and nation states lose their food sovereignty. Mexico now imports most of its food.
Globalized monopoly capitalism also reduces biodiversity. Ahmed Djoghlaf,
secretary-general of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, explains that if the continued accelerated trajectories towards biodiversity losses continue, we can expect “total disaster”, and the disaster includes the economic realm. Djoghlaf explains that “in immediate danger”, are the 300 million people who depend on forests for their livelihoods and the more than 1 billion who depend on sea fishing for their livelihoods.
Of equal importance is cultural diversity and the respect for international and national laws that enshrine rights of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Anthony James Hall, author of The American Empire And The Fourth World, argues that we need to recognize and affirm aboriginal and treaty rights throughout the world to build what George Manuel referred to as the Fourth World. Such a world would value unity in pluralism, and be a counterbalance to the totalitarianism of globalized neoliberal capitalism, sometimes referred to as the corporatocracy.
Hall poses the question, “Will we grapple with the substance of our inheritances from history or will we continue to retreat into the black hole of memory loss, the willed amnesia that facilitates the on-going neo-liberal revolution of the New World Order?”
Canada is currently grappling with this question as it continues to deny and negate aboriginal and treaty rights at home and abroad.
Activists of Fourth World pluralism from countries such as Honduras are pushing back, at great cost, against the international reach of Canada’s neo-liberal agenda that denies and negates aboriginal and treaty rights. In this video, Alfredo Lopez of the Honduran Garifuna Collective describes the shackles that we are imposing on his community.
The oppression of the Garifuna is an outward expression of Canada’s wilful amnesia that denies its own pluralism, and its unmitigated embrace of the monoculture of globalized neoliberal corporatism.
There are steps that can (and must) be taken to push back against these converging totalitarian trajectories. A paper entitled “Towards an Alternate Trade Mandate for the E.U — an invitation to participate” offers a comprehensive list of ideas.
All steps should be considered. Listed below are two of the most salient ones :
1) ensure a transition to a low-carbon economy
2) stop pushing for the deregulation of financial services and the privatisation and deregulation of public goods like water, health and education, but improve the quality of and access to these goods, for example, through partnerships among public authorities.