Veronique Greenwood: The Beauty and Wonder of Duckweed

New York Times:

Kay Nietfeld/DPA

Kay Nietfeld/DPA

Duckweeds are humble-looking plants whose tiny, brilliant green globules spangle ponds all over the world. Some duckweeds are the smallest flowering plants in nature.

Scientists working in Brazil have just discovered that one duckweed, Wolffia columbiana, has a surprising talent. In Biology Letters this Wednesday, the authors report that this duckweed can likely hop entirely intact from wetland to wetland by hitching a ride in the feces of birds.

William Laurance: Improving Environment Impact Assessments

ENSIA:

Illustration by Kelsey King

Illustration by Kelsey King

The EIA is the frontline of environmental protection in most countries. It’s a legal requirement placed on a developer to measure the impact on nature of their proposed development. If that impact includes anything the government has pledged to protect, such as a threatened species, then the development may be halted or redesigned to avoid the impact.

Or that’s the idea, anyway. The only problem is that the EIAs are rarely stopping bad projects. All around the world we see a growing catalog of cases where EIAs are giving green lights to developments that should never see the light of day — projects that are destroying irreplaceable habitat or threatening the last representatives of endangered species.

Here are eight things we can do to help:...

Walker Orenstein: Status of Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline

Minnpost:

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Calgary-based Enbridge is close to building a crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota’s lake country after its plans received key approval from state energy regulators this year. But despite the green light from the Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge has yet to break ground for its $2.6 billion, 337-mile Minnesota portion of the Line 3 project. That’s because the company still faces several government hurdles and legal challenges to moving the pipeline ahead...

Environmentalists opposed to the route worry a spill could pollute the Mississippi River’s headwaters or other nearby lakes and waterways in the region. The pipeline is also expected to run through some remote territory, increasing concern that it would be difficult to quickly catch and fix a spill.

In an email, Juli Kellner, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, said the final route through Minnesota “reflects years of environmental and cultural studies, plus extensive engagement efforts with Tribes, individual landowners and local communities resulting in more than 50 route changes of the line.”

Karla Lant: The National Lakes Assessment

Environmental Monitor:

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The EPA (and others, such as this separate analysis from Dr. Dina Leech) are now reporting on observations of conditions and changes from 2007 to 2012. For most indicators, no change occurred, but changes in total phosphorus, two algal toxin indicators, and a physical habitat indicator are exceptions.

“While EPA did not observe changes in the condition categories for the nutrient phosphorus, Leech et al. 2018 found an 18.2 percent decline in the percentage of oligotrophic lakes (very clear lakes with less than 10 μg/L of total phosphorus) and an overall increase in the median concentration of phosphorus across all lakes,” comments Lynn. “The NLA 2012 Assessment Report observed a change within algal toxin measures. An analysis of cyanobacteria cell density, a measure of the density of cells that could produce cyanotoxins, showed a statistically significant increase (+8.3%) in the percentage of lakes in the most disturbed category between 2007 and 2012. The NLA identified a significant increase in the detection of microcystin among lakes in 2012 (+9.5%). However, concentrations of this algal toxin remained low and rarely exceeded WHO recreational levels of concern (<1% of the population) in both assessments.”

The NLA 2012 Assessment Report also found fewer lakes in the least disturbed category and more lakes in the moderately disturbed category for the habitat complexity indicator—which has to do with lakeshore habitat and buffering qualities.

Michael J. Coren: Monarch Butterflies in the West

Quartz:

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There’s not much to be grateful for after the great Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count this year. The three-week volunteer effort in California dispatches scores of volunteers to hunt in their woods, backyards, and fields in search for the colorful migrating butterfly. This year, signs of trouble came early.

Far fewer of the insects were heading south this year, and those that have arrived did so a month late, according to Xerces, a non-profit conservation group for invertebrates. One researcher said it was the fewest monarch butterflies in central California in 46 years. Surveyors at 97 sites found only 20,456 monarchs compared to 148,000 at the same sites last year, an 86% decline. It’s possible more insects will make the journey late this year, says Xerces, but that now seems unlikely.

Tim Vernimmen: Our Freshwater is Getting Saltier

Scientific American:

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Salts that de-ice roads, parking lots and sidewalks keep people safe in winter. But new research shows they are contributing to a sharp and widely rising problem across the U.S. At least a third of the rivers and streams in the country have gotten saltier in the past 25 years. And by 2100, more than half of them may contain at least 50 percent more salt than they used to. Increasing salinity will not just affect freshwater plants and animals but human lives as well—notably, by affecting drinking water.

Sujay Kaushal, a biogeochemist at the University of Maryland, College Park, recounts an experience he had when visiting relatives in New Jersey. When getting a drink from the tap, “I saw a white film on the glass.” After trying to scrub it off, he found, “it turned out to be a thin layer of salt crusting the glass.”

Ian Urbina: Poisoned Wildlife & Tainted Meat

New York Times

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Aiming a rifle loaded with a copper bullet rather than the standard type made of lead, Chelsea Cassens fired at an elk from 70 yards away, hitting it squarely behind its shoulder. To avoid spooking the animal if it was only injured, Ms. Cassens waited several minutes before approaching as her father needled her skeptically, suggesting her newfangled ammunition might not have immediately killed it...

“Her bullet did the trick just fine,” Mr. Hughes, 63, conceded, adding later that he also planned to switch from lead to copper bullets, a transition more and more hunters are making amid mounting evidence that lead bullets are poisoning the wildlife that feed on carcasses and polluting the game meat that many people eat.

If you hunt and use lead, then moving to copper and other non-toxic ammo is the conservative thing to do.

Eric Freedman: Mercury Levels in the North

Great Lakes Echo:

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Mercury levels remain high in the lakes, rivers and fish of the western part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula despite a substantial decline in airborne mercury emissions over the past 30 years, according to scientists from Michigan Technological University and the Environmental Protection Agency...

The study said, “One of the worst landscapes for mining mercury releases is into a wetland environment.” It identified five problem areas in the Lake Superior Basin in particular: the U.P., Northeast Minnesota and Ontario’s Thunder Bay, Nipigon and Wawa regions.

Curt Stager: Walden Pond's Mud

Nautius:

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I see no whirligigs here this early in the year, but they are easy to spot on a lake such as Walden when the water is still and they can gather in close, swirling clusters. They overwinter on the bottom and emerge in spring to breed, producing new generations that grow to fingernail length within a few weeks. Each beetle uses flattened legs to paddle quickly through the thin surface film, guided by compound eyes that are each divided, with one-half aimed above the water line and one-half below. Most fish leave whirligigs alone because they leak bitter chemicals when handled, and I have seen newly stocked brook trout, brazen and ignorant from life in the hatchery, snatch whirligigs from below and then spit them back out again like slippery watermelon seeds. Whirligigs often gather in groups that help to discourage predators by pooling more watchful eyes in one place, and the whirling dances within the clusters are not as random as they seem. The individuals on the perimeter are generally searching for fallen gnats, emerging midges, or anything else edible, and they emit ripples like radar to home in on struggling prey. In adult swarms, those closer to the center are more likely to be cruising for mates, using their ripples to communicate with one another and avoid collisions.

Much more has been said and written about Thoreau’s philosopher-poet side than his naturalist side, but as a scientist I am more interested in the latter. The journals that he kept from 1837 to 1861 were so full of natural history observations that they might have become a major scientific work if he had not died of a lung ailment at age 44. He probably thought so, too. Two months before his death in 1862 he wrote a letter to a friend, saying, “if I were to live, I should have much to report on Natural History generally.”

During the winter of 1846, Thoreau drilled more than a hundred holes through the ice of Walden Pond and lowered a weighted line to produce what may be the first map of the floor of an American lake, thereby identifying Walden’s deepest point in the western basin near his cove. In August 1860, he also sent a thermometer down in a stoppered bottle to measure the layered structure of the water column, a first formal analysis of the thermal stratification of the lake. He was amazed at the temperature difference between the upper and lower layers, and he speculated on what it might mean for the resident fish. “What various temperatures, then, the fishes of this pond can enjoy,” he wrote. “They can in a few minutes sink to winter or rise to summer. How much this varied temperature must have to do with the distribution of the fishes in it.”

A great article about the stories that the mud of a lake tells a scientist.

John Myers: BWCAW turns 40

Duluth News Tribune:

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It passed the U.S. Senate in the last minutes of the last day of a Congressional session that may have been its last chance to pass.Democrats were in power in Minnesota and in Washington, and several Minnesotans were in President Jimmy Carter’s administration when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act passed Congress on Oct. 15, 1978. That included Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, whose department oversaw the U.S. Forest Service that managed what was then the BWCA.

The issue of wilderness, the definition of what wilderness should be in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, was dividing the party at home, and DFLers were anxious to put the issue behind them.

After years of rancorous debate, the Senate quietly passed a version of the bill late at night on Oct. 4, 1978, by a voice vote, with no record of who voted yes or no. Eleven days later, after an all-night session, the House passed the bill 248-111 early on a Sunday morning... The Senate concurred at 12:30 p.m. that Sunday afternoon. By 3 p.m. everyone had adjourned to go home. Carter quietly signed the BWCAW bill into law Oct. 21.

The article is a reminder of the struggles it took to designate this wonderful place for enjoyment of wildness. The struggle continues.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: What is an Invasive Species?

FiveThirtyEight:

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This isn’t just trivia. Invasive species control is always expensive, and you only get the resources to launch a full-court press against a plant or animal — like the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the last six decades to get sea lamprey populations under control — on the rare and shining occasion when everyone in power agrees on what “harm” is. And so the definition of invasive species has also created fights within the biological sciences. In 2011, Mark Davis, a biology professor at Minnesota’s Macalester College, published an essay in Nature in which he and 18 co-authors argued that the field of invasion biology had become too weighted toward viewing all non-native species as bad and worthy of eradication. “Harm,” he argued, had come to mean “change.” “And, boy, this world is a bad place to be if any change is viewed as bad,” Davis told me.

Mark Schapiro: Uphill Battle for Clean Water in Corn Country

Yale E360:

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“Health trumps politics,” said Iowa State Senator David Johnson before taking the stage at a raucous rally in Des Moines last winter to support strengthening the state’s water quality. In the marble rotunda of the state capitol, he rose to denounce the nitrogen and phosphates that have been flowing in ever-increasing quantities into Iowa’s public water supplies — and was cheered by the small crowd of family farmers, concerned mothers, and his new political allies, the legislature’s drastically outnumbered Democrats. Johnson had been one of the longest-serving Republicans in Iowa until he left the party to become an independent in 2016 after defying it repeatedly on one of the most divisive issues in Iowa — the integrity of the state’s water.

Iowa’s nitrogen load has been accelerating despite more than $100 million spent by the federal and state governments to rein it in. Starting in 1999, the concentration of nitrogen in the state’s major waterways has increased almost 50 percent, according to a study from the University of Iowa, published last spring in PLOS One. The battle over Iowa’s water had long been posed as one between rural and urban interests, until Johnson, whose district is one of the most thinly populated and heavily farmed in the state, came along...

More than 750, or 58 percent, of the state’s rivers and streams do not meet federal water quality standards and are designated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as too contaminated for swimming or consuming fish caught there — making a state once renowned for its lattice of waterways into a mess of inaccessible creeks, streams and lakes. Another 23 percent fall into a category of being “potentially impaired,” which the state defines as, “waters in need of further investigation.” Ninety-two percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of phosphates in the state’s waterways, says the DNR, come from farms and animal feedlots.

Jonathan English: How to Fix American Mass Transit

CityLab:

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The maps illustrate the vast swaths of urban areas untouched by full service bus routes. For those who do live near one, it’s quite likely that the bus wouldn’t get them where they need to go, unless their destination is downtown. A bus that comes once and hour, stops at 7 pm, and doesn’t run on Sundays—a typical service level in many American cities—restricts people’s lives so much that anyone who can drive, will drive. That keeps ridership per capita low.

What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.

Here’s how this has played out, era by era...

Aaron Bady: Heavy Stuff: Lead is Poison

Popula:

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It’s peculiar that we know that lead is poison, that there is no “safe” amount to put in your body, and yet we still put it in our bodies. It is peculiar because you would think that what we know would inform what we do; you would think, for example, that Flint, Michigan, would not choose to use a river that had been poisoned for nearly a century as its municipal water supply. The fact that it did—the impossible-to-avoid fact that this is the choice that was made in Flint, Michigan—forces us to re-evaluate the basis of that expectation. One of the terms is wrong. Is it “we”? Is it “know”? Is it “safe”? Is it “choose”?

Or maybe it’s the word “peculiar,” which has two primary but opposed meanings: “strange” and “particular.” Describing slavery as America’s “peculiar institution” in the 19th century, for example, was not meant to imply that slavery was strange, but that it was particular to the southern United States (the rest of the world having mostly abolished it). In this sense, it was anything but “estranged” or “alien”; precisely in its particularity, “the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States,” as John Calhoun put it, was what made his home what it was.

If it’s peculiar that we drink poison, as a society, then there are one of two choices: either it’s a strange and inexplicable practice, or it’s what makes us who we are. It might also, like the word peculiar itself, be a strange and particular combination of both.

Here is what we know....

Sydney Widell: Boat-Mounted, Real-time Water Quality Monitoring

UW-Madison Center for Limnology

Dubbed, the “FLAMe,” it is a limnological measurement system that University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers and freshwater ecologists from Emily Stanley’s lab at the Center for Limnology have been perfecting over the last decade. FLAMe stands for Fast Limnological Automated Measurements and it allows researchers to take near real-time samples of water at the surface of a body of water. Strapped to the back of the boat, the FLAMe’s intake pipe sucks water into the system and uses a series of tubes to pass the water over sensors measuring things like turbidity, free dissolved organic matter, temperature, dissolved oxygen and the presence of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. That water is then ejected out of the back of the boat as new water is sucked in.

Mimi Kirk: Fertility -- Lead's Other Toxic Toll

CityLab:

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A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Toxic Truth: Lead and Fertility,” confirms this connection by providing, for the first time, causal evidence of the effects of lead exposure on fertility for large portions of the U.S. population, both male and female.

It’s a troubling new addition to the body of research examining the effects of lead poisoning on young people and families. American cities remain heavily laced with this toxic metal, which was once found in paint, plumbing, gasoline, and in various industrial usages. As the Flint water crisis demonstrated, its public health impacts are severe: Lead exposure in children is associated with serious health and developmental consequences. At least half a million American children under the age of five have blood lead levels higher than the point at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends public health intervention, and at least 4 million households are exposed to high levels of lead, the CDC says.

Many are clustered in low-income areas of cities like St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, where the effects of lead poisoning span generations. Some researchers have posited that chronic lead exposure is partially responsible for poor educational outcomes and high crime rates in some cities.

Jay Walljasper: A Green Neighborhood on the old Ford Plant Site

CityLab:

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Today, all that remains of the Ford factory is an expansive tract of bare land in the middle of the middle-class Highland Park neighborhood, where a lone smokestack juts up from the old steam plant. The top layer of heavily contaminated dirt has been scraped away and piled up in mounds underneath plastic covers, waiting to be removed. Diesel shovels and other heavy equipment dot the grounds.

But the Ford site is poised for a dramatic rebirth: Over the next 20 years, these 122 acres overlooking the Mississippi River are slated to grow into a dense mixed-use neighborhood designed to be a showpiece of energy efficiency, smart design, ecological stormwater management, and enlightened economic development. Last fall, the St. Paul City Council approved the Ford site master plan, developed by the city’s planning department after an intensive 11-year process. The plan maps out the vision for a transit-accessible community for up to 7,200 residents, an eco-village within the city that boasts a grid of bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, abundant green space, and jobs for 1,500 workers—almost as many as the old Ford plant had at its height. Twenty percent of the development’s housing will be priced for lower-income residents.

It is a reasonable plan. One hopes that the car-free elements are expanded as development progresses.

Leyla Acaroglu: Use System Thinking to Solve Our Problems

ENSIA:

From the hypothesis-to-outcome structure of scientific investigations, through to the hyper-structured and inflexible departments of government ,  we have designed systems of silos that don’t connect to the bigger picture. These isolated systems create very linear perspectives of problems and limited approaches to solving them.

Here’s the thing: Problems never exist in isolation; they are always surrounded by other problems.

As renowned environmental scientist Donella Meadows put it: “Let’s face it. The universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity and uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.”

If we really want to start to address the highly complex, often chaotic and incredibly urgent social and environmental issues at play in the world around us, we must overcome the reductionist perspective and build thinking and doing systems that work for all.

For more information, I suggest reading Thinking In Systems by Donella Meadows and the following website: http://donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-resources/

 

Ron Meador: Lawsuits on Minnesota Mining Leases

MinnPost:

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Ask yourself: Would it be OK to revoke a mining company’s rights in the same way that these leases were restored?

Two more lawsuits were filed this week against the Trump administration’s about-face on Twin Metals Minnesota’s mineral leases at the edge of the Boundary Waters, bringing the total to three.

The documents bring some clarity and concision to the tangled procedural history of the leases’ renewals, cancellation and re-granting. And on mining’s threat to area businesses centered on paddling and quiet recreation, they present some compelling illustrations of potential job losses. But perhaps their main value will be the focus they bring to this question: Has ours become a government of whim, or do the law, the rules and settled procedures still matter?

For several years now, ever since Twin Metals’ challengers began to gain traction in Washington for their objections to industrializing the edge of a prime American wilderness, the company has asserted that its leases along the South Kawishiwi River carry an automatic right of renewal. Given that TMM’s renewal applications have undergone repeated review for potential impacts on the Superior National Forest and on waters downstream, that’s an odd position — at least, it’s odd if you make the common-sense assumption that the fact of review carries the possibility of rejection.