26 May 2015

A bike and beach day

Though my heart is with Refugio Beach in California, which is currently undergoing an oil spill and clean-up efforts, I found myself captivated by another marvelous beach in this weekend. A Saturday of brilliant sunshine and beautiful warm weather after a week of rain prompted an unplanned bike trip to Falkensteinerstrand, 16km of winding beautiful bike paths to the north of Kiel. A few wrong turns necessitated some pidgin German direction-asking, which ended up being amazingly helpful (and coherent!) despite substantial limitations on my part.

A beautiful way to celebrate a day of sunshine in the north.

25 May 2015

Coal Oil Point Reserve: steeped in oil

The current oil spill along the Santa Barbara coastline is impacting Coal Oil Point Reserve, a beautiful native plant and wildlife reserve where I worked during my last year in California. I led groups as a tour guide and wrote about it over at Hawkmoth Mag. Coal Oil Point Reserve are sharing updates about the oil impact and clean-up on their Facebook page, where you can follow along.

Meanwhile, take a moment to appreciate this beautiful misted coastline from the reserve (last summer, pre-spill):

Oh, but see that oil platform out there? It's like a lurking dark rain cloud on a bright horizon. That's where the oil came from in this current spill, although the operators of the platform (Venoco, Inc.) are different from the ones who own the pipeline that ruptured (Plains All American Pipeline). The oil is sent from the platform to the mainland via pipes operated by Venoco, Inc. (these guys seem to have a fairly good track record); and once onshore, it enters Plains pipelines. These are the bad guys. Plains All American Pipeline. The guys who don't give a crap about safety and environmental regulation, and who can't be bothered to set up the basic precautions to avoid a spill. It was of course their pipeline that ruptured, and which is painting the coastline black with oil and tar.

As a note, the platform is called Platform Holly, and I would always introduce it in a joking way in my tours. Platform Holly, Tour Guide Holly. Ha ha.

Oil on the Californian Coastline and in my heart

Last week, an oil pipeline on the California coast ruptured and poured 105,000 gallons of crude oil onto the coast and into the ocean near Santa Barbara. It's not known for how long oil was pouring out of the pipe, but what is know is that the oil company did not have an automatic shut-down valve on the pipes, and it did not have county oversight which would have required such a valve.

What Plains All American Pipeline did have was an over-inflated sense of confidence, despite previous mechanical problems on the pipe on either side of the rupture point. And this is not the only instance of disregard for safety regulations they have shown: Plans All American Pipeline has a terrible history of oil spills, with 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. This is not a company that should be in charge of oil extraction anywhere on this valuable planet.

Because this is what the real tragedy of the spill is: the environmental cost. Once oil has been released into the ecosystem, it can never be fully removed. The chief executive of Plains All American Pipeline has vowed that they will help clean up until "everything has been restored to normal" - but that's just not possible. "Normal" is not something that happens again after an oil spill. The impacts of oil spills last for years, if not decades.

Why such long-lasting impacts? In high concentrations, it can poison animals through ingestion, or drown them by getting caught in feathers and fur. This usually happens during the early stages of an oil spill. But as the oil continues to spread out from the initial spill site, and disintegrate into smaller and smaller particles that are invisible to the naked eye, it continues to have a profound effect. This "invisible" oil can seep into sand, reefs, and beaches, smothering small organisms that form the foundation of ecosystem food webs. And it impacts organisms higher in the trophic web, as well: even in small amounts, oil can impair the development of fish eggs and embryos.

These impacts on organisms cause a long-term bottom-up shift in the ecological landscape. Imagine: out of 100k gallons of oil poured into the ocean, how much of that has already begun to seep into the sands of the Santa Barbara coastline? How much has already been carried off by tides and wave motion, and is no longer recoverable? Effects of this spill will be seen for years to come. What Plains All American Pipeline (and many companies before it) has done is literally irreversible.

The sad thing is: making Plains All American Pipeline pay out for this probably won't make much of a difference to their future behavior. After all, they've paid out for 175 other violations and spills over the last 9 years and it doesn't seem to have made much of a difference to their attitude toward environmental and social responsibility, so why should we think they'll learn another lesson this time? What we need to do is change how we talk about regulation and enforcement of oil companies and their pipelines: we have to fight these spills long before they even happen. Better yet, maybe one day soon we'll finally talk about scaling back these activities in favor of greener options (but that's a whole other conversation). Meanwhile, we need to make sure that irresponsible entities like this one can't slip through the cracks.

California, my heart is with you even if I can't be there in body.

11 May 2015

Kiel sunshine

Enjoying these beautiful sunny days in Kiel, and the gorgeous bike paths running through it.

06 May 2015

Earthworm enthusiasts

Back in December we had an amazing seminarist come to speak to us in Poitiers, which was a very bright light on what was at that point a rather bleak academic horizon. Patrick Lavelle, a prominent French earthworm scientist residing and working in Colombia, spoke to us about soil sciences via the principles of James Lovelock's earth-as-a-system Gaia Theory. In other words, he presented the soil as an underground world of inter-species cooperation (rather than competition) fuelled by the tireless work of soil's greatest ecosystem engineer: the earthworm.

Two of my classmates and I summed up his week-long seminar in a few blog posts for the IMAE website: mine, on competition versus cooperation, you can find below (and here); Laura & Lina's, which will give you a good background on types of earthworms and their function, is here (and feel free to dig through the blog archives to get a better glimpse into our IMAE world - that's short for "International Master in Applied Ecology" in case anyone's forgotten!).

Competition versus Cooperation Under the Ground

Among the first topics a biologist studies is Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos in 1859, and his subsequent (very famous) Theory of Evolution. This theory, which outlines the process by which organisms speciate over time, is based on the idea that competition drives species interaction. In other words, the competition for food, water and nutrients causes species to evolve certain characteristics that allow them to outcompete surrounding organisms, and achieve a higher probability of survival. In our seminar with Patrick Lavelle, however, we were introduced to a very different view of species interaction: that the relationship that predominantly governs species interaction is cooperation.

Cooperation versus competition is a controversial viewpoint for Darwinian biologists: the idea that competition drives speciation is widely accepted. Take, for example, the rainforest: the relentless competition for sunlight and a spot in the canopy has favored the evolution of (tens of) thousands of different kinds of plant species, from opportunist pioneer species that grow rapidly when canopy space opens, to epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) that grow on tree branches high in the canopy. Bizarre species such as the strangler fig achieve their spot in the canopy by subterfuge: they start their life as epiphytes, and then send roots down to the ground that strangle their host tree and steal its place in the canopy. Meanwhile certain tree species produce flaky or toxic bark that prevents plants from growing on them and strangling them or weighing down their branches. It is easy to describe adaptations such as these in terms of competition.

During our time with Professor Lavelle, we were encouraged to look at systems like this from a different viewpoint: rather than being defined by competition, these systems could be defined by collaborative symbioses between species. Take the example of the rainforest, again: the pioneer species that grow rapidly in clearings usually grow after a large tree has fallen, which provides them with sufficient nutrients to grow. By germinating and filling the gap immediately, the pioneer species capture and store important and limited nutrients from the fallen tree, such as phosphorous, before these nutrients are washed away by rain and permanently lost from the forest. As the pioneer trees grow, slower-growing secondary species have time to establish: when the pioneer species fall after 10 or 15 years, the secondary species are sufficiently mature to grow and achieve the canopy. They, in turn, can capture phosphorous and other minerals from the fallen primary species. The rapid drive to grow and fill space in the rainforest, therefore, can be considered a system to maintain nutrients: preventing the loss of valuable phosphorous from the rainforest.

To test whether we supported the idea of competition or cooperation, Professor Lavelle presented us with a scenario involving earthworms. In a field in Fiji there are two species of earthworm: one large, and one small. The small worms leave small pellets/aggregates; and the large ones leave large pellets. Soil samples were taken from the field, and the distribution of pellets was mapped in the white and green grid to the left. The white squares indicate soil containing small pellets, and green squares indicate soil with large pellets. Our exercise was to predict the relationship between the two species of earthworm, based on the distribution of their pellets.

An interpretation of the relationship based on competition might assume that one of these species has an advantage: maybe the small worms are unable to break down large pellets, and therefore cannot move into areas that have been occupied by the larger worms. If the larger worms are able to break down small pellets and leave large pellets behind, then they are gradually excluding the smaller worms: only one earthworm species can exist in this space.

An interpretation based on cooperation would look like this: the small worms can break down the large pellets, and the large worms can break down the small pellets. So each mutually supports the other species: the two earthworm species can coexist in this space.

What do you think?

04 May 2015

Into the Tropical Rainforest

In which we visit cloud forests and rainforests, and navigate the slippery and difficult terrain of development, conservation, and the battle between resource extraction and native rights, in two parts.
Part II. Into the Heart of the Rainforest (rather epically long... get comfy!)
On the forest floor
Down, down, down into a warmer wetter world, where showers are fruitless, and where the gurgles and caws and cackles of the jungle surround you as you walk in the heavy shade of the understory. This is the tropical rainforest: specifically, the Amazon.

Ecuador's Amazon is a green wealth of biodiversity: the wildness of the rainforest is the pinnacle of the evolutionary arms race that drives speciation. The competition for limited light and nutrients has spurred uncounted adaptations amongst the rainforest's plants: epiphytes grow on other plants to be closer to the canopy, palms shift position using a "walking" root system to pull themselves a few centimeters across the forest floor into patches of sunlight. Some pioneer species shoot up rapidly in the gaps opened by fallen trees, and have a short 10- or 15-year lifespan. Others grow slowly, waiting for those rapid-growing pioneers to die and make space: these trees dominate the second growth canopy. With all the challenges they face in the rainforest, their lifespans are often little more than 250-300 years.
Vines and lianas rope from tree to tree, and mosses grow from roots up to leaves: some trees shed their bark regularly in order to shake off epiphytes that might become too heavy and break a branch. Others produce toxins to discourage unwanted guests, such as the strangler fig. This is one of the most dangerous epiphytes to host. Starting off innocently enough, it soon sends down woody roots from its perch in the canopy to the ground, which gradually ensnare the host tree in a lethal web. Even as the roots tighten and cut of the host tree's growth, they steal nutrients and water at the forest floor. When the host eventually collapses inside the strangler's new matrix of woody root, its decomposing material feeds the strangler's growth. This is an interaction that blurs the line between parasite and predator.

Walking palm (left) and strangler fig (right)
Amidst all this plant competition grow hosts of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, not to mention the bacterial richness that populates the soils. The short life spans and rapid overturn of the trees in the rainforest mean that the landscape is in a constant state of flux: therefore the animals that inhabit this ecosystem are well adapted to seize opportunity and react to rapid changes. Ants from the Amazon are famously aggressive, for instance: this derives from the constant flooding. When the rivers rise, ants and other insects are forced up into trees, where they wait until the water subsides; when they return to the ground, they need to be ready to fight for their territory.
The overground wealth of the Amazon is undeniable, as one pauses to appreciate the incredible complexity of ecosystems that have evolved there. But the underground wealth is also rich: or, at the least, it is profitable in a way that the overground wealth currently is not. There is oil under the Amazon, and it is valuable.
Black gold in the Amazon
Oil companies have been active in the Ecuadorian Amazon for decades: from the 1960s to the 1990s, Texaco (now owned by Chevron) extracted oil with wild disregard, leaving unlined and unprotected pits of oil and "product water" (a contaminated byproduct of oil extraction) to seep into groundwater sources and poison overlying ecosystems. Cities popping up at the fringes of the drilling area rapidly began to experience health issues. A lawsuit out of the contaminated region Lago Agrio has spent decades fighting for compensation from Chevron for health complications and loss of agricultural productivity in the area.
More recently, Spanish company Repsol has been the main player in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where it has been granted oil concessions in Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its biodiversity.
Yes, you did read that right. UNESCO biodiversity hotspot. National Park. Oil concession.
Wait. What?
I mean, the risks of oil to environment are countless: the pollution by Texaco resulted in ecological devastation in the Lago Agrio region. Crops wouldn't grow, and when they did grow they had low-level concentrations of toxins in them. Imagine how those toxins move upward through the food web and accumulate, all just from spillage or leakage of crude oil and product water. And there's another risk posed by oil: open flames blaze high above extraction sites all over the eastern Amazon. They are burning up natural gas, a byproduct of oil production that cannot be returned into the oil wells (like product water), and which is not abundant enough to be sold for profit. So it is burned away. Think about the sheer number of Amazonian insects that have flown into these flames. How many uncounted species have gone extinct, flying into those bright lights over the Amazon at nighttime?

In short, oil is bad news.
But then remember: Ecuador is a country that has faced and continues to face many social issues, including poverty. Money from oil could potentially be a huge boon for the economy in addressing the socioeconomic problems; and newer technologies combined with better regulation make oil extraction vastly less environmentally destructive. Using money from oil to address socioeconomic problems could even alleviate further environmental pressures caused by poverty, such as deforestation.
So, drill for oil, no? Address Ecuador's socioeconomic problems to support the Ecuadorian people, all while protecting local biodiversity and potentially increasing conservation potential... right?
Oil and indigenous rights
To answer this question, let's back up and introduce the other important players in Yasuní National Park and the Ecuadorian Amazon: the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. In particular, the Huaorani, a group that has been heavily impacted by oil extraction during the last half century. Traditionally semi-nomadic, relying on subsistence hunting using spears and blowguns, their lifestyle has changed radically since the presence of oil companies in Yasuní National Park, in a way that has been devastating for the surrounding rainforest.
Early decades of oil exploration in the eastern Amazon were met with strong resistance from Huaorani, to the point that it was difficult even to enter, let alone establish oil infrastructure in the region. To overcome this obstacle, oil companies began to use alternative means of infiltrating the rainforest: during the 1950s and 60s, many Huaorani were relocated away from the main areas of oil exploration and into sedentary lifestyles by means of missionary work (check out how culturally appropriate that was, here and here). In the new missionary-run communities, many Huaorani suffered deadly exposure to polio and other new diseases. Protests occurred. The oil companies fell into a pattern of resolving these protests via placatory gifts such as food, guns, or access to various services. Services include access to health-care that's probably better than what most Ecuadorians receive, the right to hitch lifts with oil vehicles along the oil access roads in Yasuní, and construction of local infrastructure for Huaorani settlements. The relationship of the current oil company, Repsol, with the Huaorani is lauded as a successful compromise between oil and indigenous interests.
So what then are the impacts of this drastic reorganization of the Huaorani-Yasuní landscape with oil present?
For a start, this exchange has resulted in a bizarre and patronizing dynamic between the oil companies and the Huaorani; this is coupled with a devastating loss of cultural identity. Traditional knowledge about medical plants is vanishing due to full reliance on oil-provided health care. Sedentary lifestyle combined with influence from the outside world has generated the need for money within the previously non-monetary Huaorani communities. Provision of guns has caused a shift away from traditional hunting practices.
And this is where the social impact begins to generate a devastating ecological impact.
The empty forest
This access to oil roads and to commercial markets outside of the park, combined with the new necessity for money, has caused an illegal market of wild meat to develop. Remember: the Huaorani were always subsistence hunters. But thrown abruptly into a situation where they have been expected to operate within the same parameters as the western world (job, income, money), they have begun to hunt more and to sell the meat at this local meat market. Tapirs, monkeys, peccaries, and more: meat for the market. The traditional hunting of rainforest species is rapidly expanding.
What's more, the ability to hitch rides with oil company vehicles along the access road is allowing vast amounts of meat to be hunted and transferred to this illegal market; much vaster quantities than if the hunters had to pack the meat out by foot. And this radically-increased hunting is extremely concentrated – remember the previous semi-nomadic lifestyles that the Huaorani led? That was to reduce hunting pressure in any one location – once they had inhabited one area for a few years, they would move Now, with the Huaorani's sedentary lifestyle, their hunting is concentrated close to the communities and along the oil access road: this imposes a heavy and unabated pressure on the species that live there.
This is generating what's called "empty forests": areas of the rainforest that literally don't have animals in them. And it's not just the big mammals that are vanishing; the absence of these animals is affecting the presence of other smaller species. Consider salt licks, for instance: these are open patches of mud that animals (from large to small) visit and eat from in order to get critical nutrients into their diet. In areas where large animals visit the salt licks, plants are trampled down and the area is kept clear so that smaller animals (bats, small birds) can easily access the site. In areas where large animals are absent, the salt licks can become rapidly overgrown, and inaccessible to the smaller animals. So they move to areas where they are still able to access that kind of resource. They leave behind an empty forest (articles on this concept here and here).
Think about that for a moment. Critical seed dispersers – the animals that eat fruits and then excrete the seeds elsewhere – are gone. Herbivores and other species that control certain plant species – they are gone too. The nutrients added to the soil from animal excretion, or the deposition and movement of organic material by animals carrying and dropping leaves or fruit – gone. Plant communities are changing, in the absence of these factors: distribution and abundance are shifting, without animal communities to shape them.
The many faces of oil impact, and the task of the Applied Ecologist
So in addition to the direct impacts of oil that can occur via contamination of soils and groundwater, the Ecuadorian Amazon is seeing profound secondary effects through the influence that the oil companies have had on Huaorani communities. Hunting is bleeding the forest dry of its animals, and changing the dynamics of the ecosystem –driven by the presence of oil in the Amazon.
It poses an unsolvable problem. Oil can be extracted without spillage, without contamination of groundwater, without any (severe) direct environmental complications. Technology has advanced to allow relatively low-impact oil extraction to occur. But it is so much harder to prevent the kind of social impacts observed through this case study with the Huaorani: there is no way to undo the damage that has been done to the their communities, and thus no way to undo the damage being done to surrounding ecosystems by their new hunting patterns.
There are more Huaorani in the Amazon, and other indigenous nations as well. What happens when oil exploration dives deeper into Yasuní National Park, and deeper into the Amazon? What happens when more access roads are established, making room for more human settlements and more hunting, cutting new strips of "empty forest" through the rainforest?
This was our question as we explored the rainforest for the week we were there. We hiked along the trails and observed the elegant distribution of species as governed by light availability and proximity to floodplains. We climbed through the canopy via stomach-dropping rope bridges, and felt the full baking forest of the tropical sun – of which a mere 3% reaches the forest floor. The precious driver of evolution and speciation in this incredible biodiverse landscape.

And we tried to look at this stunning landscape through the eyes of ecological managers: not pure conservation, not pure resource extraction, but a medium based on sustainable management. Oil will continue to be extracted in the Amazon – this is undeniable. Arguably it should be stopped – how can we even think of sacrificing the overground ecological wealth for the underground, when that wealth has such profoundly negative consequences environmentally, socially and culturally? But then think: we are over 7 billion people on the planet, and will be 8 billion by the 2020s. These resources will continue to be used, and pressure on them can only increase. Fighting it is not likely to slow or stop it (don't get me wrong - we should actively protest this kind of misuse of ecologically wealthy areas, and fight to preserve these rich areas of conservation). But where it's clear that resource use will continue no matter the objections, our responsibility becomes something new: not to stop it, but to ensure that it is being done sustainably. Set a precedent for minimal impact, which can reconcile the extremes of conservation and exploitation.
Do you think it's possible?