Black-backed woodpeckers depend on dead trees for food and shelter. Photo credit: Rachel Fazio
In California, dead trees are big news. In June, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 66 million trees had died since 2010 as the state has experienced a prolonged drought. Drought stress has weakened trees’ natural defenses to native bark beetles, resulting in a pulse of tree mortality. Yet amid all of the media coverage of the tree mortality, there has been little mention of the ecological importance of dead trees.
Dead Trees are Vital
Dead trees can remain standing for decades or more and a standing dead tree—known as a “snag”—provides great habitat for wildlife. Birds and mammals make their homes in openings carved within snags, while wood-boring insects that feed on snags provide the foundation of the food chain for a larger web of forest life, akin to plankton in the ocean.
With so much life abounding, it doesn’t seem right to call a snag “dead.” We commonly associate that word with meaning the end of one’s useful life and yet when a tree becomes a snag, it actually reaches a pinnacle of its beneficial role in the ecosystem. In other words, snags are a vital and vibrant part of the forest.
When many snags are created together in what is known as a “snag forest,” it produces some of the highest levels of native biodiversity of any forest type. Some forest animals, such as black-backed woodpeckers, depend on finding places with large swaths of snags. Unfortunately for them, unlogged snag forests have become quite rare.
Even within areas of high tree mortality, there is a mixture of green trees interspersed with snags. Photo credit: Chad Hanson
The Deficit of Dead Trees
From the perspective of the timber industry, a snag in the forest is a waste, so timber companies and the Forest Service have spent decades cutting down snags as quickly as possible. As a result, there is now a significant lack of snags in our forests and this shortage is harming woodpeckers, owls and other forest wildlife. For them, the recent pulse of snag creation is good news.
At first glance, 66 million dead trees may seem like a very large number, but it is important to remember that there are 33 million acres of forest in California, so the total effect of the recent pulse of tree mortality has been to add an average of only two snags per acre. To put that number in perspective, forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags. For example, California spotted owls use forests with eight to twelve snags to nest and rest and they prefer even higher levels of snags in the areas where they gather their food. And black-backed woodpeckers depend on snag forests with at least several dozen dead trees per acre. These points and many others were addressed in a letter from scientists to California Gov. Brown in February.
Cashing in on Fear of Fire
Despite the ecological benefits from the recent pulse of tree mortality, logging advocates have been eager to cut down the snags. In attempting to sway the public to support large-scale logging, they have not highlighted the wildlife habitat created by these snags or the overall snag deficit, but instead they have stoked fears that dead trees will cause severe wildfires. This claim is generally presented by portraying the trees only as “fuel” for fire. Depicting trees solely as “fuel” is a simplistic and misleading approach that reduces the natural complexity of the forest to a single dimension, resulting in erroneous assumptions about what really occurs.
In fact, dozens of published scientific studies of what actually happens when beetle-affected areas burn show that dead trees do not cause severe fires. One recent study even found that areas with tree mortality burn at lower severity than green tree forests. Dr. Dominick DellaSala of the Geos Institute recently published a synthesis of this research and concluded, “There is now substantial field-based evidence showing that beetle outbreaks do not contribute to severe fires nor do outbreak areas burn more severely when a fire does occur.”
The results of the field research are inconvenient for those who try to use tree mortality as a justification for more logging. For example, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, made no mention of these studies in his June press release about the California tree mortality. Instead, he falsely claimed that the tree die-offs “increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires” and then he used that claim to lobby for increased funding for his agency.
The biomass power industry in California is also trying to cash in on this fire scare regarding dead trees. Biomass power facilities generate electricity by burning trees and other vegetation. This process is remarkably inefficient, with biomass burning facilities contributing to global warming by emitting more carbon per unit of energy produced than coal or natural gas facilities. (Moreover, in contrast to biomass power, renewable energy sources that don’t burn carbon—such as roof-top solar—have no emissions). Biomass power is also economically inefficient, requiring substantial taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies, as well as regulatory loopholes, to keep biomass facilities in business. Thus, the current use of fear of fire to try to justify subsidized logging of snags to fuel biomass facilities is bad news for the climate and taxpayers, as well as for forest ecosystems.
A New Understanding of Forest Diversity
Rather than allowing logging proponents to exploit fear and misinformation about fire, we have a collective opportunity to learn from the current pulse of tree mortality and develop a greater understanding of the full diversity of California’s forests. Dead trees, including large patches of snags, are a vital part of the forest. We should appreciate them, along with the natural processes that create them, such as beetles and wildfires. While forest protection efforts have historically focused on green trees, forests come in a variety of colors that also deserve protection, including trees with brown needles and trees with blackened bark. Their diversity provides the basis for a diversity of forest life.
A new study found that viral levels in Rio’s water are 1.7 MILLION times what Europe or the U.S. consider “worrying.”
With the Olympic Games just around the corner in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, doctors are warning athletes to keep their mouths closed while in the water. The reason? Well, a 16-month-long study which determined viral levels in the city’s water to be 1.7 MILLION times what Europe or the US consider to be “worrying.”
The mind-boggling reality is a result of raw sewage being pumped into the water. In fact, it’s estimated that ingesting just three teaspoons of the water is enough to many anyone seriously ill.
The news is especially concerning for the athletes that participate in water sports, such as rowing and sailing. Distractify relays that Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and the Gloria Marina are among the most contaminated places in the area. At the Lagoon, where rowing will take place, scientists found 1.73 billion adenoviruses per litre. Compare that to a location like California – a U.S. state that some of the most polluted water – which has viral readings in the thousands.
Effects of swallowing the toxic water may result in stomach and respiratory illnesses. In addition, heart and brain inflammation are also concerning possibilities. The most frightening aspect of this news is the fact that antibiotics would be useless against these viruses.
According to Dr. Valerie Harwood of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, 16 months of vigorous testing found that 90% of all locations had high levels of the viruses.
The physician states:
“That’s a very, very, very high percentage. Seeing that level of human pathogenic virus is pretty much unheard of in surface waters in the US. You would never, ever see these levels because we treat our waste water. You just would not see this.”
Credit: LA Times
Olympic athletes aren’t the only ones in danger, obviously. Many of the beaches, according to Dr. Harwood, are also contaminated. Her advice to the half a million tourists who will flock to the city? Avoid putting your head under water. Swimmers who ingest the water get “violently ill.”
Sadly, even the sand isn’t believed to be safe. Harwood advises parents to keep their your kids from playing in the sand because samples of sand from beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema revealed viruses which could pose a health risk to babies and toddlers.
“Both of them have pretty high levels of infectious adenovirus. You know how quickly an infant can get dehydrated and have to go to the hospital. That’s the scariest point to me,” said Dr. Harwood.
Olympic officials insist that the water is safe, but this latest finding by the Associated Press indicates otherwise. Hopefully, this news serves as a wake-up call for the rest of the planet to adopt more sustainable habits before other waterways become toxic and polluted.
Stop and smell the roses or grab some food or chat with locals on the nation’s longest greenway. Soon, traveling from Florida to Maine and back won’t require a car.
The East Coast Greenway will stretch from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida, a 2,900-mile distance. The project will provide non-motorized users a unique way to travel up and down the East Coast through 25 cities and 16 states. Walkers, cyclists, runners and other active-transportation users will be able to travel on a continuous, firm and paved greenway with a route specifically designed to give travelers a traffic-free experience, East Coast Greenway Alliance, the non-profit organization behind the project.
“Our route has been chosen to provide the traveler with an ever-changing, interesting and scenic landscape, whether urban, suburban, small town, industrial or rural,” the organization states on its website.
The greenway will provide access to public transportation as well as points of interest encountered along its route.
The alliance has been working on this project since the early 1990s, Seeker reported. It wasn’t until last year, though, when the project really picked up some steam. Construction of the greenway relies on local development, giving each state or locality ownership over their stretch of the path. Separate pieces will then be connected to complete the greenway.
So far one-third of the greenway has been built. The East Coast Greenway Alliance plans to add complementary and branching routes to the project in the future.
“It’s about seeing America at the right speed, where you can take in all of the culture around you,” Dennis Markatos-Soriano, alliance executive director, told CityLab. “And you don’t have a windshield between yourself and the community.”
As the price of installing solar has gotten less expensive, more homeowners are turning to it as a possible option for decreasing their energy bill. Project Sunroof wants to make installing solar panels easy and understandable for anyone.
Project Sunroof puts Google’s expansive data in mapping and computing resources to use, helping calculate the best solar plan for you.
As urban populations continue to rise, innovators are looking beyond traditional farming as a way to feed everyone while having less impact on our land and water resources. Vertical farming is one solution that’s been implemented around the world.
Vertical farms produce crops in stacked layers, often in controlled environments such as those built by AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey.
AeroFarms grows a variety of leafy salad greens using a process called “aeroponics,” which relies on air and mist. AeroFarms’ crops are grown entirely indoors using a reusable cloth medium made from recycled plastics. In the absence of sun exposure, the company uses LED lights that expose plants to only certain types of spectrum.
AeroFarms claims it uses 95% less water than a traditional farm thanks to its specially designed root misting system. And it is now building out a new 70,000 square foot facility in a former steel mill. Once completed, it’s expected to grow 2 million pounds of greens per year, making it the largest indoor vertical farm in the world.