Posts Tagged ‘habitat’

NASA, AS17-148-2272, taken from Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, at 5:39 a.m. ESTWe live on a beautiful, fragile yet amazingly resilient world, which we celebrate on April 22.  It’s the third planet from our star, the sun, formed over four and half billion  years ago from accreting stellar matter, along with the rest of our system.  Life developed rapidly on the new planet, taking merely half a billion year or so, maybe a little more, but took another two billion before jumping to a multicellular arrangement.  All the time, it has branched and multiplied, trying all sorts of crazy strategies to get the edge in survival.  The whole system is an intricately interconnected web stretched around a lovely blue marble.

To the right is the most famous photo ever taken of our world, NASA’s image no. AS17-148-2272, taken from the Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, at 5:39 a.m. EST.  We’re more used to see it reversed, with the South Pole at the bottom.   It was the the first clear image of an illuminated face of Earth we ever received — this was a new trajectory never used before by an Apollo mission — and is sometimes described as the most reproduced image of all times.  (That’s an unverifiable claim, but it’s true that this is a widely known, iconic image.  I posted the South-Pole-up version rather than the more familiar reversed version to remind myself that up and down, north and south, are entirely relative to our frame of reference.

I think I’m going to go listen to Vangelis’ Albedo 0.39 now.


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According to the recently released U.S State of the Birds 2009 report, a study prepared under the Bush administration by 13 major agencies and conservation organizations, almost one third of the 800 species of birds found in the US are “endangered, threatened or in significant decline”, particularly due to the influence of human activity, loss of habitat, and global climate change. The problem is particularly acute in Hawaii.

“At least 39% of the U.S. birds restricted to ocean habitats are declining,” the report says. But there are some good news, as wetland birds are rapidly recovering in places where habitat has been restored.

Links of interest:

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Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Department of the Interior, headed by industryfriendly, environmentallychallenged Dirk Kempthorne, is moving to open some or all of the U.S. coastal waters outside state control to offshore oil exploration starting in 2010.

Planned assault

The Bush administration has been gunning for this for a long time. Back in July, an 18-year-old presidential moratorium on oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf was lifted. It is perhaps ironic that the moratorium had first been by the first President George Bush.

Congress followed suit in September by passing one of its typical unholy combo acts, funding government operations through March 2009, including disaster relief, and bundling this with a lift of the legislative ban on offshore oil and gas leasing.

This is all, off course, floated by the soaring oil prices we saw earlier this year — which were of course accompanied by record profits for the oil industry. These profits from the exploration and production sectors did not trickle down to refining and distribution operations.

Since then, of course, prices have fallen and the economics of big oil projects look different. It’s not clear whether that makes offshore drilling in U.S. waters more or less attractive compared to other projects right now. However, California reserves are located in much shallower areas than the zones in the Gulf of Mexico where drilling is already open to drilling, making them potentially cheaper for oil companies to explore — and making the environmental costs that much higher as they lie in areas of rich biodiversity and complex, interconnected ecosystems.

How useful?

Off the coast of California, according to the current estimates of offshore oil reserves, lie approximately 10.1 billion barrels of crude. This compares to a U.S. consumption 7.59 billion barrels of oil per year. Between exploration and implementation, any oil from drilling in new areas would arrive several years later in a different economic landscape — though the environmental effects would be felt far sooner.

According to Scientific American, the Minerals Management Service (MMS, the part of the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for leasing tracts to oil and gas companies and collecting the royalties on them) has estimated that there are around 18 billion barrels in the underwater areas that were until now off-limits to drilling nationwide.

“That’s significantly less than in oil fields open for business in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal Alaska and off the coast of southern California, where there are 10.1 billion barrels of known oil reserves as well as an estimated 85.9 billion more.”

The Scientific American article, which I really recommend reading, goes on to show that there is no chance that drilling in offshore areas would provide the U.S. with energy self-sufficiency. We’re talking bandage on a wooden leg.


Opening the fragile continental shelf areas to oil and gas exploration and drilling invites several environmental impacts. Some of the best known include:

  • spills like the one that hit Santa Barbara in 1969 and led Californians to say no to more offshore drilling, and the Exxon Valdez‘ spill in 1989;
  • drilling platform wastewater and metal cuttings, which contain drilling fluids and heavy metals including mercury;
  • contaminant bioaccumulation in the food web affecting the marine and coastal ecosystems;
  • the direct destruction of habitat, such as kelp beds and reefs;
  • air pollution with emissions that are reportedly equivalent to 7,000 cars driving 50 miles a day per platform;
  • disturbance of marine wildlife such as whales;
  • and of course the contribution to oil addiction and greenhouse gas emissions.

I pray that the new administration will close that door, but although some of the Obama nominations gave me hope, that of Ken Salazar for new Secretary of the Interior does not thrill me. In the past he has voted against increasing fuel-efficiency standards (CAFE) for cars and trucks, to end protections that limit off-shore drilling in Florida’s Gulf Coast, and against a bill that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects.

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An article in yesterday’s Times-Standard described a sediment removal project that Humboldt County will undertake to control flooding in the lower reach of Jacoby Creek. The project is acknowledged as a stop-gap action, but it’s what the County can do with the access and means it has to bring the problem under some measure of control for a time.

Behind this is, also as acknowledged by the County, an entire watershed management challenge. Over the years, like in so many other watersheds, the upper reaches of the creek have been logged, which causes erosion to dump more sediment in the stream; the middle and lower reaches have become increasingly constrained by culverts and bridges which can block fish passage and where the sediment can accumulate; and the lower reach has been developed for human use with considerable loss of the wetlands and meanders that used to provide seasonal flood storage.

Associated problems, besides flooding, include increased turbidity (murkiness) of the water, increased temperature from the lack of shading in logged areas, and disappearance of deep pools and riffles, factors which are harmful to aquatic species and particularly to salmonids native to the creek (Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout); as well as erosion-related landslides.

Solutions to the issues threatening the health of the watershed will inevitably be multi-pronged and comprehensive. Components include excavating sediment behind bridges and obstacles, removing or upgrading culverts there, managing logging activities to control the amount of exposed slope area, creating protected forest areas, and restoring wetlands and in-stream habitat, etc.

In order to get these components to work together rather than at cross-purposes, it is essential to plan at the watershed level and to involve as many of the interested parties and agencies as possible. Single-issue approaches (e.g., focusing only on one location or one problem), even the best intentioned, cannot address the scope of the problem. Nevertheless, the County’s sediment removal is a necessary part of the response at this time.

Some links of interest:

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How topical: just as I’m returning to the land of the tallest known trees, taller even than those left in Washington state, the BBC’s Science and Nature section has an article on a study that estimates the theoretical maximum possible height a tree can reach. This height is limited by the physics of getting water to the tree’s very top, at an estimated 138m (453ft).

Four of the world’s tallest-growing species are coniferous species found on the Pacific Northwest coast, including the iconic coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), the coast Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). (The fifth is the Australian mountain ash, found in Tasmania). My husband and I were married under some of those tallest trees in the world at Prairie Creek Redwood National and State Park.

The issue of getting water to tree tops is very interesting. Tall coniferous trees growing in rainforests — like the rainforests of the Pacific Coast — use several approaches: not only do they transport water from their roots as most trees do, but they also rely on their needles to gather mist and suspended rainwater from the ambient fog. Over a decade ago, my friend Jenifer did an interesting little study on how much water coast redwoods are able to draw through their needles.

All those trees are of course threatened by human activity, not only because of the logging practices used nowadays but also because of changing land uses and global climate change.

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A large aquatic habitat restoration project has been announced for the mouth of the Nisqually River; it will provide habitat for South Sound chinook salmon, a federally-listed threatened species as well as a state candidate species. Some 762 acres (308 hectares) of saltwater estuary habitat will be restored by removing the old levees isolating them from the Puget Sound and opening them to tidal action; more than 21 miles of tidal sloughs and channels will be returned to their natural condition.

The project is a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Nisqually Indian Tribe, and Ducks Unlimited. The three partners have worked together before on extensive salt marsh restoration in areas adjacent to the project limits. Other funding comes from Washington state salmon recovery and Puget Sound restoration funds.

Estuaries provide feeding grounds and resting areas for young chinook and chum salmon. Ecodiversity is extremely high in these zones, where the fresh water from rivers meets the salt water of ocean bodies, providing good food sources. Streams slow down as they widen, meander and split upon reaching marine bodies, providing twists and turns for young salmon to take cover and rest. Salmonid species are genetically conditioned to live at different salinity levels as they change life stages; this means that at certain periods of their life cycle, if there is insufficient habitat of that particular type available, a significant number of young salmon will not be able to make it to the next phase of their life and will therefore never return to spawn another generation of salmon. Mudflats in estuarine areas area also a formidable breeding ground for the small prey favoured by shore birds.

Sadly for bird-watchers and other nature lovers, the restoration will necessitate the removal of the 5.5-mile (8.9 km) trail that currently tops the old levee. However, new trails and boardwalk will be created to provide visitor access by 2010. This is a good reason for visitors to go hike or bike the existing loop trail while it’s accessible; there is extremely good birding to be done there. Watch out for American bitterns, double-crested cormorants, several species of mergansers, and the ubiquitous great blue herons.

The articles I read did not offer a discussion of potential changes in flood storage capacity. This is always a sensitive issue when removing old dikes and levees. During extreme flood conditions, the Nisqually River overtops its banks upstream of the Refuge, on the south side of the I-5 bridge. The Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (CCP/EIS) prepared for the project states that the alternatives which restored the majority of the diked area and eliminated cross-dikes along the McAllister Creek side of the Refuge also reduced flood impacts to the Refuge. These alternatives allowed flood waters from the McAllister Creek overflow channel to empty unimpeded into the McAllister Creek tidal system, instead of emptying inside of diked habitat. However, diked areas in all alternatives were still flooded by flows from the overflow channel at the southeast corner of the Refuge.


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