Tia Ghose: Can We Manage the World's Largest Organism?

Live Science:

Pando is a colony of quaking aspen that spans 106 acres (43 hectares) of south-central Utah. Because of an explosion of deer in the area, new sprouts from Pando are eaten before they have a chance to mature, and the venerable organism is at risk of dying out altogether. “The system is not replacing itself; it’s highly out of balance,” said Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and the director of the Western Aspen Alliance.

Eliminating or reducing common predators has consequences. 

Michael Casey: Loons Poisoned by Lead

Associated Press:

More than year after New Hampshire passed one of the nation’s toughest bans on using lead fishing tackle, loons are still dying from ingesting fishing weights and lures.

The 2016 law prohibits the sale and use of lead tackle in the state as part of an effort to revive the state’s loon population. But Loon Preservation Committee senior biologist Harry Vogel says eight loons have died this year from lead poisoning, up from two last year.

”The day this law was passed, we knew we would continue to see lead-poisoned loons,” Vogel said. “As long as Grandpa’s old tackle box is in the dusty corner of the garage, some people will just put lead tackle on the line and continue to fish. The hope is that it will become less and less common over time.”

From necropsy studies, I've estimated that between 100 and 200 Minnesota loons die each year due to lead poisoning.

James Kunstler: The Infinite Suburb is a Joke

The American Conservative:

Jun Cen

Jun Cen

In their visions of the future, the elite graduate schools of urban planning lately see a new-and-improved suburbia, based on self-driving electric cars, “drone deliveries at your doorstep,” and “teardrop-shaped one-way roads” (I think that means cul-de-sacs) as the coming sure thing. It sounds suspiciously like yesterday’s tomorrow, the George Jetson utopia that has been the stock-in-trade of half-baked futurism for decades. It may be obvious that for some time now we have lived in a reality-optional culture and it’s vividly on display in the cavalcade of techno-narcissism that passes for thinking these days in academia.

Exhibit A is the essay that appeared last month in The New York Times Sunday Magazine titled “The Suburb of the Future is Almost Here,” by Alan M. Berger of the MIT urban design faculty and author of the book Infinite Suburbia — on the face of it a perfectly inane notion. The subtitle of his Times Magazine piece went: “Millennials want a different kind of suburban development that is smart, efficient, and sustainable.”

Note the trio of clichés at the end, borrowed from the lexicon of the advertising industry. “Smart” is a meaningless anodyne that replaces the worn out tropes “deluxe,” “super,” “limited edition,” and so on. It’s simply meant to tweak the reader’s status consciousness. Who wants to be dumb?

“Efficient” and “sustainable” are actually at odds. The combo ought to ring an alarm bell for anyone tasked with designing human habitats. Do you know what “efficient” gets you in terms of ecology? Monocultures.

Kunstler at his best. Suburbia is a high-energy development form -- it can only exist with abundant and cheap energy. Suburbs are scaled-up, jazzed-up hunter-gather type communities. The original hunter-gather communities existed in the wilderness where one lived with one's tribe, and they were likely good places to live. However, our big-sized suburbs exist on our cities' outskirts with unknown and sometime friendly neighbors, eating land, wasting resources, and in troubled times often fostering a culture of fear.

Jim Robbins: Functional Biodiversity


Some scientists concluding that understanding the function of species can tell us more about ecosystems than knowing which species are present — a concept known as functional diversity. This idea is not merely academic, as scientists say that understanding functional diversity can play an important role in shaping conservation programs to enhance biodiversity and preserve or restore ecosystems.

“The trait perspective is very powerful,” says Jonathan Lefcheck, a researcher at the Bigelow Marine Lab in East Boothbay, Maine who studies functional diversity in marine environments. “Some species in an ecosystem are redundant, and some species are very powerful.”...

Some scientists now compare knowing which species are present in an ecosystem to knowing only which parts of a car are present. Functional trait ecology is a deeper dive into ecosystem dynamics to help understand how the parts come together to create a natural environment ...

Rachel Cernansky: Artificial sweeteners and polluted water


Artificial sweeteners pop up in products all over the grocery store, from diet soda to yogurt, to help people keep calories down and pounds off. It turns out their popularity has given artificial sweeteners — sucralose in particular — a purpose beyond helping with weight or carb control. Sucralose, and to some extent acesulfame, may also play a role in keeping water contamination down by helping researchers and water resource managers identify hot spots of pollutants in order to better manage them.

Sucralose is increasingly being used as what experts call a “tracer” — a substance that can help identify where contamination comes from. This ability is important for maintaining water quality, both in surface waters and in drinking water supplies...

A bigger concern is that sucralose concentrations will only increase, and it’s unclear what that will mean for ecosystems. Even less well-studied may be the effects of the compounds that form when sucralose does break down, which occurs to some extent despite how stable it is.

Reid Forgrave: Mining vs. Wilderness

New York Times:

Today Ely is home to a few thousand people, a place of long, hard winters that is, in the words of one resident, “not on the road to anywhere — we’re literally the end of the road.” People do not end up here by accident. For most of the town’s history, the main reason they came was to make a living off the rocks. The ore supported abundant mining jobs for generations.

For almost as long, however, people have been coming to this area for another reason, too: to visit America’s most popular national wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which encompasses roughly a million protected acres and thousands of lakes and welcomes 150,000 visitors annually. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is actually a land of 11,842 lakes, and that figure counts only those bigger than 10 acres. They are a legacy of the glaciers that retreated from the region about 10,000 years ago. As a result, the state has a significant fraction of the world’s supply of surface-available fresh water; 6 percent of Minnesota’s surface area is water, more than any other state.

Geological coincidence makes Ely — one three-square-mile town in the northernmost reaches of the continental United States — a focus of a national debate about the proper use of public lands. The place also distills the political fault lines in today’s America, pitting an angry working class against progressive activists. Just southeast of Ely, an international mining conglomerate has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade toward potential copper-nickel mines a few miles outside the Boundary Waters. The company — Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta — has drilled 1.6 million feet of core samples out of 496 holes to explore the deposit from which it soon hopes to process 20,000 tons of mineralized ore a day. The company believes the area’s valuable metals — copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver — can be extracted in an environmentally responsible way and can provide hundreds of jobs to the job-starved economy of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, along the northwestern coast of Lake Superior.

Is it a question of what is more important? Is the answer to this question dependent on the time horizon? Where are the best places to get our metals that each of us use? These types of questions we wrestle with as a community, and of course there are no easy answers. For us that value wilderness and lakes, we want to protect the quality of these valuable places and the risks associated with the mining are not worth it. For miners and would-be-miners, they wish to provide a means to support their family and enjoy the woods and lakes for recreation. They too do not do not want to destroy the quality of the lakes and wilderness. For the company, they wish to produce profits for the benefit of the CEO, other corporate cadgers, and shareholders. They don't wish to jeopardize those profits; however, the quality of the lakes and wilderness that remains after the extraction of precious metals is not important. 

BBC: Painted Lady Swarm


Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly

Scientists at the National Weather Service (NWS) first mistook the orange radar blob for birds and had asked the public to help identifying the species. They later established that the 70-mile wide (110km) mass was a kaleidoscope of Painted Lady butterflies.

Forecasters say it is uncommon for flying insects to be detected by radar. “We hadn’t seen a signature like that in a while,” said NWS meteorologist Paul Schlatter, who first spotted the radar blip.

Painted Lady Butterflies were very abundant this summer in Minnesota.

Dan Gunderson: In the Lake We Find What We Dump


A new study offers an explanation to the mystery of why pharmaceuticals and other chemicals are found in remote Minnesota lakes, far from developed land that would create contaminated runoff.

”These chemicals such as antibiotics, and anti-corrosives and endocrine active chemicals were being found in lakes where we might not expect them because there was no surrounding development,” said Mark Ferrey, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientist who, in search of an answer, collected snow, rain and air samples at three locations in the Twin Cities and had them tested for 126 chemicals.

Ferrey found 17, including DEET, cocaine, antibiotics, an anti-corrosion chemical, an x-ray contrast chemical and the pain reliever naproxen.

David Peterson: Lake Water Level Appeal

Star Tribune:

The state of Minnesota will appeal a landmark ruling on the excessive pumping of groundwater around White Bear Lake, saying it is “not supported by scientific evidence” and would “immediately halt important development” within five miles of the lake.

In a written statement Tuesday underlining the ruling’s potential to reach all across Minnesota, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said: “The DNR is strongly committed to protecting Minnesota’s many precious water resources, including White Bear Lake and its surrounding aquifers. We take that responsibility very seriously. But responsible, effective water management must be supported by sound science.”

Katie Crosby Lehmann, lead attorney in a team of lawyers that worked the case over several years’ time, said in a statement late Tuesday: “We stand by the detailed scientific evidence from the monthlong trial. As demonstrated by the [judge’s 140-page] opinion, the DNR has known of the problems caused by its permitting actions since issuing its own 1998 study and has concluded that the water use in the north and east metro area is not sustainable.”

Sarah Laskow: The Hidden Memories of Plants

Atlas Obscura:

In the study of the plant kingdom, a slow revolution is underway. Scientists are beginning to understand that plants have abilities, previously unnoticed and unimagined, that we’ve only ever associated with animals. In their own ways, plants can see, smell, feel, hear, and know where they are in the world. One recent study found that clusters of cells in plant embryos act a lot like brain cells and help the embryo to decide when to start growing.

Of the possible plant talents that have gone under-recognized, memory is one of the most intriguing. Some plants live their whole lives in one season, while others grow for hundreds of years. Either way, it has not been obvious to us that any of them hold on to past events in ways that change how they react to new challenges. But biologists have shown that certain plants in certain situations can store information about their experiences and use that information to guide how they grow, develop, or behave. Functionally, at least, they appear to be creating memories. How, when, and why they form these memories might help scientists train plants to face the challenges—poor soil, drought, extreme heat—that are happening with increasing frequency and intensity. But first they have to understand: What does a plant remember? What is better to forget?

Lizzie Wade: Human-Driven Evolution


During World War II, Londoners often sought shelter from German bombs in the city’s subway tunnels. There, they encountered another type of enemy: hordes of voracious mosquitoes. These weren’t your typical above-ground mosquitoes. They were natives of the Underground, born in pools of standing water that pockmarked the underground passageways. And unlike their open-air cousins, London’s subterranean skeeters seemed to love biting humans.

Fifty years after the war ended, scientists at the University of London decided to investigate the subway population. They collected eggs and larvae from subway tunnels and garden ponds and reared both populations in the lab. The outdoor mosquitoes fed on birds, but the tunnel bugs preferred mammal blood. And when the scientists put males and females from the different populations into close quarters designed to encourage mating, not a single pairing produced offspring. That sealed the deal: the underground mosquitoes were a whole new species, adapted to life in the subway tunnels people had built.

It’s stories like this one that got Joseph Bull thinking. As a conservation scientist at the University of Copenhagen, he hears a lot about how humans are driving other species extinct. If the current rate stays steady, the planet is on its way to its sixth mass extinction, a severe event on par with the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs. But he wondered whether there might be a flip side. Certainly people’s planet-transforming activities had to be creating new species, too. But how, and how many? Bull decided to see whether he could count all the new species humans had created or were on their way to creating, in a sort of mirror-image of extinction rates and endangered species lists.

Samantha Oliver: Lake Trends Mostly Static

University of Wisconsin: Center for Limnology

Over the last few decades, change has defined our environment in the United States. Agriculture intensified. Urban areas sprawled. The climate warmed. Intense rainstorms became more common. But, says a new study, while those kinds of changes usually result in poor water quality, lakes have mostly stayed the same.

The authors of the article, published online today by the journal Global Change Biology, assessed changes in measures of water quality, including plant nutrients and algal growth in in 2,913 U.S. lakes from 1990 to about 2011. The researchers found that, “despite large environmental change and management efforts over recent decades, water quality of lakes in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. has not overwhelmingly degraded or improved.”

Fred Pearce: Solving the Ozone Problem


Did the Montreal Protocol fix the ozone hole? It seemed so. With chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-eating chemicals banned, many scientists said it was only a matter of time before the ozone layer recharged, and the annual hole over Antarctica healed for good.

But 30 years on, some atmospheric chemists are not so sure. The healing is proving painfully slow. And new discoveries about chemicals not covered by the protocol are raising fears that full recovery could be postponed into the 22nd century – or possibly even prevented altogether.

In mid-September, the United Nations is celebrating the protocol’s 30th anniversary. It will declare that “we are all ozone heroes.” But are we patting ourselves on the back a bit too soon?

The ozone layer is a long-standing natural feature of the stratosphere, the part of the atmosphere that begins about six miles above the earth. The ozone layer filters out dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin cancer and damage many life forms. It may have been essential for the development of life on Earth.

Emily Nonko: The Roots of NYC Subway System Woes

Curbed NY:

New Yorkers now use a transit system in a state of emergency. The past few months have laid bare the enormity of the problems currently facing the century-old subways, from aging infrastructure to a lack of federal dollars available to help make things better.

Much has also been said about how the world’s largest public transportation system has gotten so bad—the lack of funding, of course, but also Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s penchant for prioritizing flashy projects over system maintenance, along with years of mismanagement within the MTA, an agency that’s admitted to misspent funding that doesn’t go toward maintenance.

But start looking at the decline of, and disinvestment in, New York’s rail lines—from the subway to commuter rails like the Long Island Rail Road—and you’ll find that those problems go back much, much further. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they seem to lead to one man in particular: Robert Moses.

Kirsti Marohn: Surveying Fish in Streams for Water Health


Chad Anderson and John Sandberg slosh through a muddy stream in hip waders, pausing occasionally to duck under overgrown branches or swat a mosquito.

Sandberg carries a long pole with a metal ring on the end. He moves it through the water, sending out an electrical current that temporarily stuns the fish. Anderson comes behind him with a net, scooping them up. “We want to capture every single species, every fish,” Anderson said. “The little species are sometimes just as important as the big ones...”

This slow and sometimes painstaking work is part of the MPCA’s effort to document and monitor all 80 of Minnesota’s major watersheds. The work has produced a wealth of data about the health of Minnesota’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Steven Verburg: Farm Pollution Exacerbated by Zebra Mussels

Wisconsin State Journal:

An explosion of the zebra mussel population in Lake Mendota this year could mean more foul-smelling shoreline slime and repeats of the major fish kill and vast bloom of toxic bacteria that hit Madison’s lakes already this summer, experts say.

Farm pollution is the main driver of this month’s surprisingly severe water quality woes, but the invasive mollusks now covering much of Lake Mendota’s bottom aren’t going to help matters.

“We’ve been shocked to see how many there are,” said Jake Vander Zanden, UW-Madison’s top expert on zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels change a lake by filtering food from water, which makes water clearer so that additional sunlight reaches the bottom. The sunlight, along with nutrients mussels excrete on the bottom, spur plant growth and the potential for more dead vegetation washing up and decomposing in smelly piles on shores, Vander Zanden said.

This year divers are finding a typical zebra mussel by-product — bottom-clinging mats of algae that look like green cotton candy — all over Lake Mendota, he said.

Kate Wagner: The Rise of the McModern


Rachel Sender

Rachel Sender

From busy rooflines to plastic shutters, mismatched windows to four-car garages, the McMansion has dominated the American suburban residential landscape for almost 40 years without a notable change in aesthetics. Many people know a McMansion when they see one. The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

How to identify a McModern, as per McMansion Hell:
-Single-family detached home
-Constructed from inexpensive materials, such as vinyl, stucco board, and veneers, rather than traditional materials such as stucco or reinforced concrete
-Contrasting exterior cladding materials and colors
-Attached garage and/or two-story foyer
-Sometimes features non-modern details like Tuscan columns or windows with stylized muntins
-Massing and rooflines may be over-elaborate, combining several roof forms, e.g. terrace, shed, “butterfly,” or “M-shaped”
-May include decorative forms like extruded walls or cantilevers clad in differing materials
-Windows are erratically sized and placed in “artistic” configurations without consideration for overall composition

See more from Kate Wagner at McMansion Hell

Carl Zimmer: A Plague Killing Deer and Elk

New York Times:

Dr. Zabel and his colleagues are developing plans to burn plots of National Park Service land in Arkansas and Colorado. If the experiments turn out as the researchers hope, they will spare some elk and deer a gruesome death.

Across a growing swath of North America, these animals are dying from a mysterious disorder called chronic wasting disease. It’s caused not by a virus or bacterium, but a deformed protein called a prion.

When ingested, prions force normal proteins in the animal’s body to become deformed as well. Over the course of months, prions can gradually wreck the animal’s nervous system, ultimately killing it.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chronic wasting disease. In the September issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, Dr. Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, and his former graduate student Aimee Ortega survey what scientists have learned about the slow-spreading plague.

It makes for ominous reading. “There’s a lot that we still don’t know and don’t understand about the disease,” Dr. Zabel said in an interview. Once chronic wasting disease gets a foothold, it can spread relentlessly. It’s now documented in 24 states, and continues to expand into new ranges. In some herds, as many as half of the animals carry prions.

Adam Rogers: Apple's New Headquarters is Old Culture


You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

Apple can't be good at everything. Steve Job grew up in a suburb and his formative experiences likely influenced his ideals of corporate headquarters.

Lucas Reilly: The Most Important Scientist You've Never Heard Of

Mental Floss:

For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself...

on the prairies and farms of central Iowa, a 2-year-old boy named Clair Patterson played. His boyhood would go on to be like something out of Tom Sawyer. There were no cars in town. Only a hundred kids attended his school. A regular weekend entailed gallivanting into the woods with friends, with no adult supervision, to fish, hunt squirrels, and camp along the Skunk River. His adventures stoked a curiosity about the natural world, a curiosity his mother fed by one day buying him a chemistry set. Patterson began mixing chemicals in his basement. He started reading his uncle’s chemistry textbook. By eighth grade, he was schooling his science teachers.

During these years, Patterson nurtured a passion for science ... Luckily for the world, the child who’d freely roamed the Iowa woods remained equally content to blaze his own path as an adult. Patterson would save our oceans, our air, and our minds from the brink of what is arguably the largest mass poisoning in human history.