Category Archives: Ecological Management

Steve Carpenter wins Stockholm Water Prize

Big congratulations to my former post-doc advisor Steve Carpenter on winning the 2011  Stockholm Water Prize.  It is well deserved as Steve has done a huge amount of really innovative work on ecosystem dynamics, ecological economics, large scale ecosystem experiments,  and environmental management.

The prize citation writes:

Professor Carpenter’s groundbreaking research has shown how lake ecosystems are affected by the surrounding landscape and by human activities. His findings have formed the basis for concrete solutions on how to manage lakes.

Professor Carpenter, 59, is recognised as one of the world’s most influential environmental scientists in the field of ecology. By combining theoretical models and large-scale lake experiments he has reframed our understanding of freshwater environments and how lake ecosystems are impacted by humans and the surrounding landscape.

The Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee emphasises the importance of Professor Carpenter’s contributions in helping us understand how we affect lakes through nutrient loading, fishing, and introduction of exotic species.

“Professor Carpenter has shown outstanding leadership in setting the ecological research agenda, integrating it into a socio-ecological context, and in providing guidance for the management of aquatic resources,” noted the Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee.

The Stockholm Water Prize is a global award founded in 1991 and presented annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute to an individual, organisation or institution for outstanding water-related activities. The Stockholm Water Prize Laureate receives USD 150,000 and a crystal sculpture specially designed and created by Orrefors.

H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who is the patron of the Prize, will formally present Professor Carpenter with the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony in Stockholm City Hall on August 25 during the 2011 World Water Week in Stockholm.

SIWI, who gives the water prize have also posted an interview with Steve about his work on trophic cascades and resilience:

Japan’s cascading disaster

It is too early for a resilience analysis of Japan’s cascading disaster, but here are some links.  First on the fast variables, and then on the slow.

1) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is posting their continuously updated report on situation at Update on the Japan Earthquake web page.

2) Christian Science Monitor Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis

3) In his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos reflects on China’s Nuclear Binge.  Rapid building combined with poor monitoring and corruption is not a good recipe for nuclear safety.  He writes about the a recent corruption case of Kang Rixin:

His was a $260 million corruption case connected to rigged bids in the construction of nuclear power plants. Keith Bradsher, in the Times, wrote, “While none of Mr. Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making.”

4)  Miller-Mcune writes Nuclear Disasters: Do Plans Trump Actions? about a new report from Union of Concerned Scientists which says that U.S. nuclear regulators are way too complacent about the possibility of a catastrophe.

5) On the STEPS centre‘s blog  Andy Stirling writes about Japan’s neglected nuclear lessons:

So the most serious lesson already emerging outside Japan is about the pressures, driven by established nuclear commitments, to obscure information; compromise objectivity; and suppress political choice about energy futures. We may live in hope that there will come a time when more comprehensive and dispassionate attention will be given to the full global potential of viable alternatives to nuclear power. Many of these are manifestly more resilient in the face of technical mishap, natural disaster or deliberate acts of violence. Distributed renewable energy infrastructures, for instance, offer a way to avoid huge regulation-enforced losses of electricity-generating capacity when a series of similar plants have to be closed due to safety failings in any one. They minimise the compounding economic impacts of the knock-on self-destruction of massively expensive capital equipment, some time after an initial shock. They do not threaten to exacerbate natural disaster with forced precautionary evacuations of large tracts of urban industrial areas. And there is no scenario at all – unlikely or otherwise – under which they can render significant areas of land effectively uninhabitable for decades, let alone commit large populations to the potential long-term (and untraceable) harm of elevated low doses of ionising radiation.

Special feature on interdisciplinarity in Environmental Conservation on

Environmental Conservation has published a thematic issue on Interdisciplinary Progress in Environmental Science & Management (Vol. 37 Issue 04) which looks quite interesting.  The table of contents is below:

  • Berkes, F. 2010. Devolution of environment and resources governance: trends and future. Environmental Conservation 37:489-500.
  • Brunckhorst, D. J. Using context in novel community-based natural resource management: landscapes of property, policy and place. Environmental Conservation 37:16-22.
  • D’Agnes, L., H. D’Agnes, J. B. Schwartz, M. L. Amarillo, and J. Castro. 2010. Integrated management of coastal resources and human health yields added value: a comparative study in Palawan (Philippines). Environmental Conservation 37:398-409.
  • Evely, A. C., I. Fazey, X. Lambin, E. Lambert, S. Allen, and M. Pinard. 2010. Defining and evaluating the impact of cross-disciplinary conservation research. Environmental Conservation 37:442-450.
  • Fearnside, P. M. 2010. Interdisciplinary research as a strategy for environmental science and management in Brazilian Amazonia: potential and limitations. Environmental Conservation 37:376-379.
  • Hicks, C. C., C. Fitzsimmons, and N. V. C. Polunin. 2010. Interdisciplinarity in the environmental sciences: barriers and frontiers. Environmental Conservation 37:464-477.
  • Khagram, S., K. A. Nicholas, D. M. Bever, J. Warren, E. H. Richards, K. Oleson, J. Kitzes, R. Katz, R. Hwang, R. Goldman, J. Funk, and K. A. Brauman. 2010. Thinking about knowing: conceptual foundations for interdisciplinary environmental research. Environmental Conservation 37:388-397.
  • Newing, H. 2010. Interdisciplinary training in environmental conservation: definitions, progress and future directions. Environmental Conservation 37:410-418.
  • Ommer, R. E. 2010. The Coasts Under Stress project: a Canadian case study of interdisciplinary methodology. Environmental Conservation 37:478-488.
  • Ostrom, E. and M. Cox. 2010. Moving beyond panaceas: a multi-tiered diagnostic approach for social-ecological analysis. Environmental Conservation 37:451-463.
  • Perz, S. G., S. Brilhante, F. Brown, A. C. Michaelsen, E. Mendoza, V. Passos, R. Pinedo, J. F. Reyes, D. Rojas, and G. Selaya. 2010. Crossing boundaries for environmental science and management: combining interdisciplinary, interorganizational and international collaboration. Environmental Conservation 37:419-431.
  • Reyers, B., D. J. Roux, and P. J. O’Farrell. 2010. Can ecosystem services lead ecology on a transdisciplinary pathway? Environmental Conservation 37:501-511.
  • Szabo, P. 2010. Why history matters in ecology: an interdisciplinary perspective. Environmental Conservation 37:380-387.
  • Young, J and M. Marzano. 2010. Embodied interdisciplinarity: what is the role of polymaths in environmental research? Environmental Conservation 37: 373-375

BP wins ’2010 Accidental Earth Experiment’ Prize

Bill Chameides Dean of the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke awards BP his 2010 Accidental Earth Experiment’ Prize!!! on his blog the Green Grok.  His award recognizes that BP’s incompetence created a disaster that created novel conditions allowing scientists to learn how the Earth works.  He writes:

For the Environmental Scientist, the Ultimate Lab Is Earth

Science is at its core an empirical endeavor. You can come up with all the clever and compelling theories you want, but data gathered from experiments are and will always be the ultimate arbiters of truth. That presents a problem for environmental and Earth scientists. The only laboratory that accurately replicates the thing we study is our little blue planet.

As a result, environmental scientists are forever looking for real-world events that, like a chemist’s laboratory experiments, directly test specific aspects of the Earth system. For example, volcanoes that spew tons of small particles into the upper atmosphere and variations in sunspots provide unique experiments to test the accuracy of climate models built on the basis of our understanding of climate.

The Accidental Experiments

But natural events are not the only sources of environmental experiments. Humanity is now arguably the greatest driver of environmental change on the globe, and as a result is increasingly and inadvertently causing events that double as experiments for inquisitive environmental scientists.

Unfortunately these “accidental experiments” often carry devastating consequences, but nevertheless provide a kind of consolation prize in the form of unique data to learn about the Earth with.

Case in Point: The Oil Rig Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico Last Spring

We can all agree the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a mess. But let’s not forget it’s also a grand experiment. How else could we learn what happens when you dump billions of barrels of oil into the gulf roughly a mile below the surface?

For example, we’ve learned that some bugs that inhabit the gulf’s waters have been effective in gobbling up the stuff the blown wellhead spewed into their home turf. A paper published last year in the journal Science by Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues reported on the discovery of a heretofore unknown voracious hydrocarbon-eating microbe.

Just last week came another paper in Science, this one by John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues, which showed that other microbes had also made short work of most of the natural gas released from the blowout.

This is a great example of the natural system’s adaptability and ingenuity. Put a bunch of oil and gas in the ocean, and native bug populations swell to take advantage of it. I should note that we were somewhat lucky in this regard. The Gulf of Mexico was the beneficiary of an in situ population of bugs due to natural gas and oil seeps. Without these microbes the environmental consequences of the disaster (still the largest in marine history) would no doubt be worse.

Marine parks, forced removal and global politics

Mauritius suing UK for marine park around US airbase

The Internet version of BBC News just released notice that the island nation of Mauritius is suing UK for legislating a Marine Protected Area around British islands close to Mauritius (1000 km). The reserve is named Chagos Marine Park, argued by then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband to “double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection” (in April 2010). With its 545 000 sq-km area the are includes some 220 coral species (half the recorded species of the Indian Ocean), and more than 1,000 species of reef fish. However, the islands was before the 1960′s home to a local people that the British government forcefully removed to give space for a US military air base.

Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos
archipelago and the site of a
US military base. Photograph: Reuters

The reserve is therefore hotly contested demonstrating with all clarity the multi-level politics of any natural resource management or biodiversity preservation project, and the various and contested ways by which human and nonhuman relations are being forged. Parsing from three BBC News articles from 2004-2010 (see here), and The Independent (here), a short story can be given on how geopolitics, national and international efforts of protecting biodiversity, overlap with ‘local’ dynamics, and the dignity of a people.

US air base and forced removal

People of Chago protesting for the
right to return to their island.

In the 1960s the British island colony was leased to the US for an air base, which since then has been in use, not least during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In leasing the island the British government took actions that forcefully removed some 2000 people living on the island, and moved them to the neighboring nation Mauritius. The removal was accomplished through that the British government bought the only company employing people on the island, and then closing the company down leaving island people without an income. This was paired with blocking goods coming to the island, leaving people without income and food forcing them to move.

The forced removal of people has, it seems, been converted to an argument for the current high biodiversity and good state of the ecosystems observed at the islands. This in turn has of course been made into an argument for conservation. As reported by The Independent:

The absence of human habitation has been a key factor in the preservation of the pristine coral atolls, the unpolluted waters, rare bird colonies and burgeoning turtle populations that give the archipelago its international importance.

The removed island people, the Chagossians, have run a case before in the British courts to return to their island. In 2008, the British Law Lords voted 3 against 2 in favor of the British government, but islanders continue their case. Although some of the islanders express that they could – in the event of them returning – co-live with a nature reserve if only some fishing and use of the area was allowed, others mean that it “would effectively bar them from returning“. This interpretation was enforced by the recent diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, which also triggered the Mauritius government to sue the British government in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. In this cable, “[a] UK official is quoted as saying it should put an end to any possibility of the displaced islanders returning“, according to BBC News.

Scaled networks of power
This intriguing example draws together different networks and scales of power that generate not only dynamic debates, but also intervenes – and tries to intervene – in a certain physical space and its social-ecological dynamics. A recent move in political ecology has traced such scaled networks, partly drawing on actor-network theory, see e.g. work by Erik Swyngedouw [2, 3] and Nik Heynen.

In Chagos these scaled networks seems to be mainly shaped through historical connections to colonial power and empire ambitions, cold war geopolitics, scientific community networks of fact-making, national sovereignty claims, and local identity and claim-making.

Whereas local residents were robbed of their homes, dwellings and resources, the British government could earn money on the strategic position of this old colony lying close to the Middle East by leasing it to the escalating military ambitions of post-war US. A side-effect of this, it seems, was to sustain well-working ecological functions in the seas around the islands, preserving species and habitats being lost elsewhere due to fishing and other exploitation activities.

Enter the international community of scientists, that by the time of 1990′s had produced arguments and facts of why these types of protected areas are globally important for the protection of marine species on scales greater than just the islands. In confronting the many thousands of fishing vessels and distant fish markets that put global pressure on marine ecosystems, Marine Protected Areas are thought to function as havens and sources of species in networks of energy exchange and species interaction over greater spatial scales. A speculation is then that the quoted UK official, and Mr Milliband, could use the weight of these natural scientifically produced facts to effectively also put an end to the claims by the Chagossians, and come out as triumphant savers of the seas at the same time.

Similar cases of how scaled networks influence especially land-based protected areas are plenty in the literature, however, this is one of the most intriguing marine examples I have heard of. Furthermore, the current suing process by Mauritius, and the reason why Chago Archipelago again became news, is due to another novel network of power, namely WikiLeaks, whose activities continue to ripple through the interconnected world of media.

Note: The different articles from BBC News can be found here, here, here, and here. More on this news and the Chago Archipelago, see here.

Adaptive governance PhD and Postdoctoral positions @ UW Madison

One postdoctoral research and one PhD student position are available with Dr. Adena Rissman‘s research group in Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The job ad states:

The geographic setting for this project is the Yahara Watershed, an urbanizing agricultural watershed in southern Wisconsin, containing the city of Madison. Here and elsewhere, human needs for freshwater are growing as changes in climate, landscapes, the built environment and institutions alter water flows and quality in sometimes unpredictable ways. These changes affect ecosystem services related to freshwater, such as flows of freshwater for domestic, agricultural, industrial, recreational and other uses; regulation of floods; water quality; and aspects of human health. To strengthen conceptual frameworks and improve predictive capacity, our interdisciplinary project will integrate biophysical and social-economic aspects of regional water systems. The overarching question of our work is: How will ecosystem services related to freshwater vary and how can they be sustained in regional watersheds as climate, land use and land cover, land management, the built environment and human demands change? As a part of this overarching question, we ask: How can regional governance systems for water and land use be made more resilient and adaptive to meet diverse human needs? In what ways are regional human-environment systems resilient and in what ways are they vulnerable to potential changes in climate and freshwaters? These positions will focus on regional governance; adaptive management and decision making under uncertainty; spatial analysis and geovisualization; and the historical development of policy, politics, science and conservation interventions.

Applicants should have a prior degree in natural resources, geography, political science, planning, environmental policy, or related field. Previous research experience, social science background, and experience with coupled social and environmental systems are preferred. Experience with a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods are desired. Experience with ArcGIS, spatial analysis, and geovisualization desired but not required. Strong GPA, GRE scores, and oral and written communication skills are required. Applicants bringing diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the research program are encouraged to apply.

The PhD position will start Fall, 2011. Review of applications will begin December 20, 2010 and continue until an applicant is selected. Prospective PhD students should refer to the webpage for further information on applying to the UW-Madison.

The 2-year Postdoctoral Research position will begin in the Spring or Summer 2011. Review of applications will begin January 10, 2011 and continue until an applicant is selected.

To apply, email to the following in a single PDF document: cover letter, CV with undergraduate/graduate GPA and GRE scores, and unofficial undergraduate/graduate transcripts.

Dr. Adena Rissman, Assistant Professor

Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Toyama’s myths of information technology and development

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, a researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, presents 10 myths of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in development that persist despite evidence against them and suggests approaches to build successful projects that use ICT for development.

See also his lead article in a special feature on the Boston Review on “Can technology end poverty.” He writes:

We are in the midst of the largest ICT4D [Information and Communication Technology for Development] experiment ever. In 2009 there were over 4.5 billion active mobile phone accounts, more than the entire population of the world older than twenty years of age. The cell phone is overtaking both television and radio as the most popular consumer electronic device in history. Some 80 percent of the global population is within range of a cell tower, and mobile phones are increasingly seen in the poorest, remotest communities.

These numbers prompt suggestions that there is no longer a “digital divide” for real-time communication. Yet any demographic account of mobile have-nots will show them to be predominantly poor, remote, female, and politically mute. Whatever the case, if the spread of mobile phones is sufficient to help end global poverty, we will know soon enough. But, if it doesn’t, should we then pin our hopes on the next new shiny gadget?

What is Social Learning?

Ecology and Society has just published a clarifying new paper by Mark S. Reed and others What is Social Learning? (15(4): r1).  Reed and his co-authors argue that while social learning is becoming an increasingly important goal in natural resource management there is little consensus on what social learning actually is, and they attempt to provide a clear definition.

They write [formatting added by me]:

Social learning is often conflated with other concepts such as participation and proenvironmental behavior, and there is often little distinction made between individual and wider social learning. Many unsubstantiated claims for social learning exist, and there is frequently confusion between the concept itself and its potential outcomes. This lack of conceptual clarity has limited our capacity to assess whether social learning has occurred, and if so, what kind of learning has taken place, to what extent, between whom, when, and how. This response attempts to provide greater clarity on the conceptual basis for social learning.We argue that to be considered social learning, a process must:

(1) demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved;

(2) demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated within wider social units or communities of practice; and

(3) occur through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network.

A clearer picture of what we mean by social learning could enhance our ability to critically evaluate outcomes and better understand the processes through which social learning occurs. In this way, it may be possible to better facilitate the desired outcomes of social learning processes.

Phosphorus dynamics – mining vs. recycling

Global P consumption in Millions of Tonnes. Data from FAO.

Phosphorus is essential for sustaining humanity, because it is essential nutrient for producing food, and it is often a limiting nutrient for plant growth. Unlike nitrogen, it cannot be fixed from the air, and must be either recycled or mined.

Modern industrial agriculture relies on continual inputs of mined phosphor. How long phosphorus mining can last is quite uncertain. A new assessment of phosphor supplies suggests these are supplies are much bigger than previously thought.

A recent editorial in Nature Not Quite Assured (Oct 27, 2010)writes:

Reserves of the phosphate rock used to make such fertilizers are finite, and concerns have been raised that they are in danger of exhaustion. It has been argued, for example, that data from the US Geological Survey point to the available supplies peaking in as little as 25 years time (see Nature 461, 716–718; 2009). Because there is no substitute for phosphate in agriculture, this might present an urgent and substantial problem. But initial findings from the World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources study conducted this year by the IFDC, an international non-profit organization based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and formerly known as the International Fertilizer Development Center, suggest that phosphate rock deposits should last for between 300 and 400 years.

Accurate information about phosphate reserves is hard to come by, and the IFDC concedes that more work is needed to hone its estimates. The mining industry, governments and interested researchers should accept the organization’s invitation to collaborate in this process.

The phosphate issue runs beyond gaining assurances that total global supply will meet demand. There remain important concerns that phosphate and other fertilizers are being squandered in some parts of the world, whereas farmers in other regions cannot obtain them at a reasonable cost.

… current fertilizer-production methods fail to maximize the efficient conversion of phosphate rock into fertilizer. The supply of the rock is heavily concentrated in two nations, China and Morocco, on whose good faith the rest of the world relies for its phosphate supplies. That faith has been shaken by extreme price fluctuations in recent years.

Yet the heavy dependence of food production on fertilizers, inequalities of supply and the need for sustainable use of fertilizers — including recycling — are largely missing from discussions on approaches to sustainable development. They were only mentioned in passing, for example, at the United Nations’ world summit on food security in Rome last November.

Hydrologists, soil researchers and food scientists have begun to raise awareness of some of the issues surrounding phosphates. A discussion will be devoted to the topic at the Crop World 2010 meeting in London next week, in which researchers will be joined by industry and government representatives, including John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, who has worked hard to raise political awareness of food-security issues.

These efforts would be strengthened if an international body, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, started to seriously champion the issue of sustainable fertilizer use. The organization already tracks fertilizer demand and supply, and has produced reports on phosphate fertilizer use. It doesn’t have a specific programme for sustainable fertilizers, but its departments of agriculture and natural resources do some work in this area, giving it a base on which to build. It now needs to push this issue out from the sidelines and into the policy-making process that will shape the future of agriculture and sustainable development.

My colleague Arno Rosemarin believes that the assessment is wrong.  He has co-authored another assessment of phosphor supplies, and comments on the nature editorial:

The statement in the IFDC report that we have 300-400 years prior to depletion og phosphorus is based on a zero increase in extraction from now on. The rate of annual increase is presently in fact 3-4%. Extraction will hopefully decrease as we become more efficient, start significant reuse programmes, etc. But this will take decades and no UN governance or monitoring plan is in sight. The food security summits in 2008 and 2009 never mention the word phosphorus. The new data on increased reserves from IFDC are based almost entirely on a recalculation for Morocco giving them 10 times more phosphorus and 85% of the global capacity. But the estimates are based on a hypothetical calculation and economic viability does not figure in the calculation. There are no data on reserves from industry in the calculation since this is kept confidential.

Ecosystem ecologist Jim Elser followed with:

While this seems like welcome news, as Dr Rosemarin notes, the new estimate is entirely based on a revision of estimates for Morocco and seems to be derived from a 20-year old geological report and not on any new geological survey data. It is also important to note that the 300-400 year IFDC estimate for P depletion is a different event than the timing of “peak phosphorus”, which refers to the date when global P production will occur (previous estimates placed this timing for 2030-2040). It is likely that, even if this new reserve number for Morocco is correct and the P ore there is indeed of high quality and accessible, a production peak for P is likely only pushed back by a few decades. In any case, the key issue for any such commodity is PRICE and what remains to be analyzed is the likely future dynamics of P fertilizer prices in the face of the need to double food production by 2050 while simultaneously satisfying the burgeoning bioenergy industry. “Not quite assured”, indeed.
Is this any way to run a biogeochemical cycle?

Phd and Postdoc funding on marine protected areas

Helen Fox of WWF writes to tell me that:

WWF is offering Fuller Fellowships to support doctoral and postdoctoral marine protected areas (MPA) research in our marine priority geographies that shows promise to enhance scientific understanding of their ecological and social impacts.

She is also co-organizing a 1-day symposium New Perspectives on MPA Performance:
Linking Knowledge to Action
on November 5 which will be webcast.