All posts by Garry Peterson

Prof. of Environmental science at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Climate of Man

Recently the New Yorker published “The Climate of Man” an excellent three-part series on climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert.

She covers ecological change, adaptation, flexible infrastructre, and global (and US) environmental politics.

Below are links and excerpts from each of the three articles. I suspect it will be a good book next year.

Part 1: Disappearing islands, thawing permafrost, melting polar ice;

By the time I got to the lookout over Sólheimajökull, it was raining. In the gloomy light, the glacier looked forlorn. Much of it was gray—covered in a film of dark grit. In its retreat, it had left behind ridged piles of silt. These were jet black and barren—not even the tough local grasses had had a chance to take root on them. I looked for the enormous boulder I had seen in the photos in Sigurdsson’s office. It was such a long way from the edge of the glacier that for a moment I wondered if perhaps it had been carried along by the current. A raw wind came up, and I started to head down. Then I thought about what Sigurdsson had told me. If I returned in another decade, the glacier would probably no longer even be visible from the ridge where I was standing. I climbed back up to take a second look

Part 2: The curse of Akkad;

“I gave a talk based on these drought indices out in California to water-resource managers,” Rind told me. “And they said, ‘Well, if that happens, forget it.’ There’s just no way they could deal with that.”

He went on, “Obviously, if you get drought indices like these, there’s no adaptation that’s possible. But let’s say it’s not that severe. What adaptation are we talking about? Adaptation in 2020? Adaptation in 2040? Adaptation in 2060? Because the way the models project this, as global warming gets going, once you’ve adapted to one decade you’re going to have to change everything the next decade.

“We may say that we’re more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it’s potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we’re not only more technologically able; we’re more technologically able destructively as well. I think it’s impossible to predict what will happen. I guess—though I won’t be around to see it—I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed.” He paused. “That’s sort of an extreme view.”

Part 3: What can be done?

“The amphibious homes all look alike. They are tall and narrow, with flat sides and curved metal roofs, so that, standing next to one another, they resemble a row of toasters. Each one is moored to a metal pole and sits on a set of hollow concrete pontoons. Assuming that all goes according to plan, when the Meuse floods the homes will bob up and then, when the water recedes, they will gently be deposited back on land. Dura Vermeer is also working to construct buoyant roads and floating greenhouses. While each of these projects represents a somewhat different engineering challenge, they have a common goal, which is to allow people to continue to inhabit areas that, periodically at least, will be inundated. The Dutch, because of their peculiar vulnerability, can’t afford to misjudge climate change, or to pretend that by denying it they can make it go away. “There is a flood market emerging,” Chris Zevenbergen, Dura Vermeer’s environmental director, told me. Half a dozen families were already occupying their amphibious homes when I visited Maasbommel. Anna van der Molen, a nurse and mother of four, gave me a tour of hers. She said that she expected that in the future people all over the world would live in floating houses, since, as she put it, “the water is coming up.”

The series ends:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing”

MA Biodiversity Synthesis released

Ecosystems and Human Well-being: the Biodiversity Synthesis Report, the first cross-cutting synthesis report from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has been released at an event at McGill University. The report can be downloaded from the MA web site for free (its 13.4Mb).

Key findings of the study are:

+ Biodiversity benefits people through more than just its contribution to material welfare and livelihoods. Biodiversity contributes to security, resiliency, social relations, health, and freedom of choices and actions.

+ Changes in biodiversity due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, and the drivers of change that cause biodiversity loss and lead to changes in ecosystem services are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. Under the four plausible future scenarios developed by the MA, these rates of change in biodiversity are projected to continue, or to accelerate.

+ Many people have benefited over the last century from the conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated ecosystems and from the exploitation of biodiversity. At the same time, however, these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of losses in biodiversity, degradation of many ecosystem services, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people.

+ The most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem service changes are habitat change (such as land use changes, physical modification of rivers or water withdrawal from rivers, loss of coral reefs, and damage to sea floors due to trawling), climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution.

+ Improved valuation techniques and information on ecosystem services demonstrates that although many individuals benefit from biodiversity loss and ecosystem change, the costs borne by society of such changes are often higher. Even in instances where knowledge of benefits and costs is incomplete, the use of the precautionary approach may be warranted when the costs associated with ecosystem changes may be high or the changes irreversible.

+ To achieve greater progress toward biodiversity conservation to improve human well-being and reduce poverty, it will be necessary to strengthen response options that are designed with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as the primary goal. These responses will not be sufficient, however, unless the indirect and direct drivers of change are addressed and the enabling conditions for implementation of the full suite of responses are established.

+ An unprecedented effort would be needed to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss at all levels.

+ Short-term goals and targets are not sufficient for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems. Given the characteristic response times for political, socioeconomic, and ecological systems, longer-term goals and targets (such as for 2050) are needed to guide policy and actions.

+ Improved capability to predict the consequences of changes in drivers for biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and ecosystem services, together with improved measures of biodiversity, would aid decision-making at all levels.

+ Science can help ensure that decisions are made with the best available information, but ultimately the future of biodiversity will be determined by society.

Biological Invasions Riskier than Thought

A new paper Invasion success of vertebrates in Europe and North America by Jonathan Jeschke and David Strayer from IES was published online in PNAS April 222.

Their paper examined patterns in to the introduction, establishment and spread of freshwater fish, mammals, and birds between Europe or North America.

Their paper produces a number of interesting results. First it suggests that risks from invasive species are much higher than previously thought. The 10:10 rule of thumb proposes that in the steps of establishment, spread only 1:100 introduced species should spread. This paper suggests it is 25X greater at 1/4.

This result is supported by their examination of other patterns shown below.

Graph from Paper

Figure 2. Proportions of introduced animals that establish themselves (establishment success) and of established animals that spread or are pests (spread success). The tens rule predicts a 10% success for either step (vertical dotted line). Planarians, alien terrestrial planarians established in the U.K.; insects, biocontrol insects, symbols denote different diets and propagule pressures; island mammals, mammals introduced to Ireland and Newfoundland ; Australian mammals; island birds, symbols denote different islands; continental birds, birds introduced to continental USA and Australia; world parrots, worldwide parrot introductions; E, NA vertebrates, European North American vertebrates according to Table 1 (this study); British animals, symbols denote different taxa; Austrian animals, symbols denote different taxa; German animals, symbols denote different native continents.

They also show that species movement between Canada and the USA and Europe is roughly equal, rather than it being mostly a Europe->N. America pattern.

Pleistocene Park: using grazing to produce a regime shift

Sergey A. Zimov has an article in the 6 May 2005 Science about his efforts to create a Pleistocene Park where recreated Pleistocene grazing will flip from a moss dominated system to grassland. Its a great example of a large scale attempt to flip a system from one alternative state to another.

Zimov writes:

This view means that the present Holocene climate of northern Siberia, particularly near the present tree line, is likely just now to be optimal for the mammoth ecosystem. If we accept the argument that the pasture landscapes were destroyed because herbivore populations were decimated by human hunting, then it stands to reason that those landscapes can be reconstituted by the judicious return of appropriate herbivore communities.

In northern Siberia, mainly in the Republic of Yakutia, plains that once were covered by tens of meters of mammoth steppe soils now occupy a million square kilometers. The climate of the territory is near optimal for northern grassland ecosystems. Thus, in principle, the ancient mammoth ecosystem could be restored there.

In Yakutia, we are trying to do just that. The government has adopted a program to restore the republic’s former biodiversity. One thrust of this effort has been through the nonprofit organization of Pleistocene Park–of which I am a founding member–on 160 km2 of Kolyma lowland. One-third of the territory is meadow, one-third is forest, and one-third is willow shrubland. Today, many of the animals of the mammoth ecosystem and grasses remain in northern Yakutia.

Reindeer, moose, Yakutian horses, recently reintroduced musk oxen, hares, marmots, and ground squirrels forage for vegetation, and predators, including wolves, bears, lynxes, wolverines, foxes, polar foxes, and sables, prey on the herbivores. However, strong hunting pressure has kept the overall number of animals low. Therefore, their influence on vegetation is small. The first step for Pleistocene Park, which we are just now initiating, is to gather the surviving megafauna of the mammoth ecosystem (initially without predators) within the part of the parkland that is rich in grassland. The second step will be to increase the herbivore density sufficiently to influence the vegetation and soil. As animal densities increase, the fenced boundary will be expanded.

The most important phase of the program will be the reintroduction of bison from Canada and subsequently, when the herbivores are sufficiently abundant, the acclimatization of Siberian tigers. In many regions of the Amur River basin, where this formidable predator survives, January temperature is as low as -25º to -30ºC. The tigers’ survival there is limited more by poaching and herbivore density than by climate. Scientifically, Pleistocene Park is important because it directly tests the role of large herbivores in creating and maintaining grassland ecosystems, something that can only be surmised but not proven from the paleorecord.

Science 282, 31-34 (1998)] also had a news story by R. Stone about the start of Zimov’s ambitious Pleistocene Park project: A Bold Plan to Re-Create a Long-Lost Siberian Ecosystem

Ecological Basis for Managing Ecosystem Services

Claire Kremen has a article Managing ecosystem services: what do we need to know about their ecology? in Ecology Letters (Volume 8 Issue 5 Page 468 – May 2005).


Human domination of the biosphere has greatly altered ecosystems, often overwhelming their capacity to provide ecosystem services critical to our survival. Yet ecological understanding of ecosystem services is quite limited. Previous work maps the supply and demand for services, assesses threats to them, and estimates economic values, but does not measure the underlying role of biodiversity in providing services. In contrast, experimental studies of biodiversity-function examine communities whose structures often differ markedly from those providing services in real landscapes. A bridge is needed between these two approaches. To develop this research agenda, I discuss critical questions and key approaches in four areas: (1) identifying the important ‘ecosystem service providers’; (2) determining the various aspects of community structure that influence function in real landscapes, especially compensatory community responses that stabilize function, or non-random extinction sequences that rapidly erode it; (3) assessing key environmental factors influencing provision of services, and (4) measuring the spatio-temporal scale over which providers and services operate. I show how this research agenda can assist in developing environmental policy and natural resource management plans.

Ecology needs more thinking like this paper if we need to develop our understanding of how to manage ecosystem services.

Environmental Economics and the Economist

The Economist has a long article on the importance of and advances in ecological valuation. They seem to have become fans of the work of the MA.

The article begins with an interesting example of the establishment of a market for ecosystem services associated with the Panama Canal:

AT the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal it is possible to watch the heartbeat of international trade in action. One by one, giant ships piled high with multi-coloured containers creep through the lock’s narrow confines and are disgorged neatly on the other side. If it were not for the canal, these ships would have to make a two-to-three-week detour around South America. That would have a significant effect on the price of goods around much of the world. It is therefore sobering to consider that each ship requires 200m litres of fresh water to operate the locks of the canal and that, over the years, this water has been drying up.

Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama, think that reforesting the canal’s denuded watershed would help regulate the supply. One of them, Robert Stallard, a hydrologist and biogeochemist who also works for the United States Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, has operated in the country for two decades, and knows the terrain well. A deforested, grass-covered watershed would release far more water in total than a forested one, he admits, but that water would arrive in useless surges rather than as a useful steady stream. A forested watershed makes a lot more sense.

Another problem caused by deforestation is that it allows more sediment and nutrients to flow into the canal. Sediment clogs the channel directly. Nutrients do so indirectly, by stimulating the growth of waterweeds. Both phenomena require regular, and expensive, dredging. More trees would ameliorate these difficulties, trapping sediments and nutrients as well as regulating the supply of fresh water. Planting forests around the Panama Canal would thus have the same effect as building vast reservoirs and filtration beds.

Viewed this way, any scheme to reforest the canal’s watershed is, in fact, an investment in infrastructure. Normally, this would be provided by the owner. But in this case the owner is the Panamanian government, and Panama is in debt, has a poor credit rating and finds it expensive to borrow money. And yet investing in the canal’s watershed clearly makes economic sense. Who will pay?

In the case of the Panama Canal, the answer may turn out to be John Forgach, an entrepreneur, banker and chairman of ForestRe, a forestry insurance company based in London. Mr Forgach’s plan is to use the financial markets to arrange for companies dependent on the canal to pay for the reforestation. Working in collaboration with several as-yet-unnamed insurance and reinsurance companies, Mr Forgach is trying to put together a deal in which these companies would underwrite a 25-year bond that would pay for the forest to be replanted. The companies would then ask those of their big clients who use the canal to buy the bond. Firms such as Wal-Mart, and a number of Asian carmakers, which currently insure against the huge losses they would suffer if the canal were closed, would pay a reduced premium if they bought forest bonds.

And then moves on to discuss a bit of the scientific background:

science is producing abundant evidence that the natural environment provides a wide range of economic benefits beyond the obvious ones of timber and fish. Ecologists now know a great deal more than they used to about how ecosystems work, which habitats deliver which services, and in what quantity those services are supplied. Last month, for example, saw the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first global survey of ecological services. Its authors warn that attention will have to be paid to these services if global development goals are to be met.

But the only way this can happen is if ecological services have sound, real (and realistic) values attached to them. As Valuing Ecosystem Services, a report written recently for America’s National Research Council, points out, the difficult part is providing a precise description of the links between the structures and functions of various bits of the environment, so that proper values can be calculated. What this means is that the more there is known about the ecology of, say, a forest, the better the valuation of the services it provides will be. Fortunately, according to two reports published by the World Bank (pdf ) at the end of 2004, significant progress has been made towards developing techniques for valuing environmental costs and benefits. There is, says one of these reports, no longer any excuse for considering them unquantifiable.

The valuation of ecosystem services is not without its difficulties. Nevertheless, the fact that there is a growing consensus about how and where it is appropriate is an important step forward for economists and environmentalists. In 1817, David Ricardo, a pioneering economist, noted that abundance in nature was rarely rewarded: “where she is munificently beneficent she always works gratis.” But if nature pays, who then will pay for nature?

Networks of Innovation

The New Yorker had an long (but I thought very interesting) article – Battle Lessons – some months ago on how soliders have developed novel learning networks/online communities to exchange knowledge about how to cope with constantly shifting guerrila war in Iraq.

From the article:

the Iraq that Wong found is precisely the kind of unpredictable environment in which a cohort of hidebound and inflexible officers would prove disastrous.

Yet he found the opposite. Platoon and company commanders were exercising their initiative to the point of occasional genius. Whatever else the Iraq war is doing to American power and prestige, it is producing the creative and flexible junior officers that the Army’s training could not.

The younger officers have another advantage over their superiors: they grew up with the Internet, and have created for themselves, in their spare time, a means of sharing with one another, online, information that the Army does not control. The “slackers” in the junior-officer corps are turning out to be just what the Army needs in the chaos of Iraq. Instead of looking up to the Army for instructions, they are teaching themselves how to fight the war. The Army, to its credit, stays out of their way.

In March of 2000, with the help of a Web-savvy West Point classmate and their own savings, [Majors Nate Allen and Tony Burgess] put up a site on the civilian Internet called It didn’t occur to them to ask the Army for permission or support. Companycommand was an affront to protocol. The Army way was to monitor and vet every posting to prevent secrets from being revealed, but Allen and Burgess figured that captains were smart enough to police themselves and not compromise security.

The sites, which are accessible to captains and lieutenants with a password, are windows onto the job of commanding soldiers and onto the unfathomable complexities of fighting urban guerrillas. Companycommand is divided into twelve areas, including Training, Warfighting, and Soldiers and Families, each of which is broken into discussion threads on everything from mortar attacks to grief counselling and dishonest sergeants. Some discussions are quite raw. Captains post comments on coping with fear, on motivating soldiers to break the taboo against killing, and on counselling suicidal soldiers. They advise each other on how to kick in doors and how to handle pregnant subordinates. Most captains now have access to the Internet at even the most remote bases in Iraq, and many say they’ll find at least ten or fifteen minutes every day to check the site. They post tricks they’ve learned or ask questions like this, which set off months of responses: “What has anyone tried to do to alleviate the mortar attacks on their forward operating bases?”

Little by little, the Army is absorbing and In 2002, West Point put Platoonleader on its server, and a year later added Companycommand; both sites now have military addresses. The Army also began paying the Web site’s expenses. It sent all four of its founders to graduate school to earn Ph.D.s, so that they can become professors at West Point, where they will run the sites as part of their jobs. And the Army is starting to pay the Web sites the sincerest form of flattery: in April, the commanding general of the First Cavalry Division, Major General Peter Chiarelli, ordered up a conversation site for his officers. Cavnet, as it’s known, exists only on siprnet, and is vetted, as an official Army site. “We had a guy put up something that wasn’t within the rules of engagement,” Major Patrick Michaelis, who created the site, told me, “and within half an hour the staff judge-advocate guys put a response up.” But, of all the Web-based means of sharing combat information, Cavnet is the most immediate. While call is used mostly in training units in the U.S., and both Companycommand and Platoonleader are intended to build leadership skills and share general tips and tricks about fighting in Iraq, Cavnet is oriented, Michaelis said, to “the next patrol, six to nine hours out.” Lieutenant Keith Wilson, for example, read a “be on the look out” posting about insurgents who were wiring grenades behind posters of Moqtada al-Sadr, counting on Americans to detonate the explosives when they ripped the posters down. He spread the word among his men, and a few days later a soldier whom he’d sent to peel a poster off a wall peeked behind it first. Sure enough, a grenade was waiting.

Predators, shifting subsidies, and regime shifts

The March 25th issue of Science published an interesting article on alternative stable states, ecosystem subsidies and introduced apex predators in Alaska – Introduced Predators Transform Subarctic Islands from Grassland to Tundra by Croll et al in Science, 307(5717) 1959-1961.

Alaskan alt states

From the abstract:

Top predators often have powerful direct effects on prey populations, but whether these direct effects propagate to the base of terrestrial food webs is debated. There are few examples of trophic cascades strong enough to alter the abundance and composition of entire plant communities. We show that the introduction of arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) to the Aleutian archipelago induced strong shifts in plant productivity and community structure via a previously unknown pathway. By preying on seabirds, foxes reduced nutrient transport from ocean to land, affecting soil fertility and transforming grasslands to dwarf shrub/forb-dominated ecosystems.

The paper not only provides an example of how a trophic cascade can flip the state of an ecosystem, but it also shows that such a flip can occur because a species changes the nature of an ecosystem’s connection to other ecosystems.

The article is a bit of the mirror image of Terborgh et al’s 2001 paper Ecological Meltdown in Predator-Free Forest Fragments that showed the consequences of fragmentation and predator loss on created islands in Venezuela.

The collapse of those island ecosystems is also due to changes in spatial connectivity. Predators formerly connected separate ecosystems, but flooding and the subsequent fragmentation prevented them from doing that.

State of the world’s ecosystems

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has started to release its reports. A statement from the review board and the main synthesis report have been released at a press conference and on the web.

The MA report shows that its undeniable that the human impact on the world’s ecosystems is large. For example, agriculture covers roughly 1/4 of the Earth’s land surface.

cultivated area of world
The extent of cultivated ecosystems across the globe.

There are a whack of news articles on the MA (e.g. BBC, Christian Science Monitor, SciDev.Net & Guardian)However, most of the focus is on the eco doom and gloom side of the reports (which is real) but is neglecting the more positive side of the report, which talks about what people can do and are doing to make things better. In particular how changes in ecological management can improve the economic productivity of ecosystems as well as the human well being of people who live in them. Also, I think, is the discussion of the strengths & weakenss of different approaches – and where and in what way technological and institutional changes appear to be most likely to be successful or unsuccessful is novel and useful. This issue is discussed further in a post on WorldChanging

For example, the MA scenarios present four different stories about the future. In several of the supply of many ecosystem services are improved (See figure blow).

Changes in Ecosystem services across MA Scenarios

Continue reading

Interview with Michael Pollan

From California Monthly, the alumni magazine of University of California, an interview with Michael Pollan, author of many good, systemically informed books and articles about food, plants, and people (e.g. an article about the US cattle industry). His book The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is a great exploration of the co-evolution of plants and people focussing on four plants – apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes – that people have relate to in different ways.

From the interview:

Let’s talk about science journalism.

Science journalism is more dependent on official sanction than any other kind. This has to do with the question of authority. In general, science journalism concerns itself with what has been published in a handful of peer-reviewed journals–Nature, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine–which set the agenda. This is fine when you’re covering scientific developments and new discoveries, but what happens when science itself is the story? We’re letting scientists set the agenda in much the way that we let politicians set the agenda.

Another problem is: How do you deal with dissident scientists? With, to take an example on this campus, [biotech critic] Ignacio Chapela. As a science journalist, I don’t know exactly where one stands to write the defense of Chapela in a mainstream newspaper after Nature and the scientific establishment have spoken against him. The journalist can’t do the experiments that would prove or disprove the contested science in this case. All we can do is quote other authoritative scientists; and the people who have the loudest voices tend to be the Nobel laureates and all those others who benefit most from the scientific consensus around biotechnology.

What is a dead zone?

It’s a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn’t gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it’s arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a “cheap meal” is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irridiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel–it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we’re defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it’s four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you’ve got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We’re paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn’t cheap at all.