fieldnotes

 

Forestry
Scorched Earth

In the dry heat of July 2002, lightning sparked hundreds of wildfires in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon. The four largest blazes, collectively known as the Biscuit Fire, eventually raged across a 500,000-acre swath of forest, including part of California’s Six Rivers National Forest, and turned out to be Oregon’s largest in more than a century. Soon afterward the Bush administration rolled out its Healthy Forests Initiative, which promotes salvage logging as a means to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and as a tool for overall forest regeneration.

A new study of the Biscuit burn, published in the journal Science, confirms previous research showing that salvage logging actually hinders—rather than helps—recovery in burned forests by killing off seedling trees. Scientists from Oregon State University found that in 2004, two years after the fire, unlogged sites showed an abundance of conifer seedlings. Logging, in contrast, reduced tree regeneration by 71 percent. “Surprisingly, it appears that after even the most severe fires, the forest is naturally very resilient, more than it’s often given credit for,” says Dan Donato, a graduate student in forest science at Oregon State and the study’s lead author.

Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Biscuit burn became the scene of one of the biggest—and most contentious—salvage-logging projects ever. Live old-growth trees, some dating back centuries, were cut under a new U.S. Forest Service rule that allowed logging projects under appeal to proceed immediately in cases of “emergency” economic loss.

From the start environmentalists have viewed the administration’s forest policy as a subterfuge for revving up the chainsaws. “The focus is on promoting rapid logging rather than restoring forests or protecting communities from wildfire,” says Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club.

The Oregon State researchers also discovered that salvage logging—which is often cited by industry advocates as a way to reduce materials that could feed future fires— instead made fires more likely. Logging left heaps of dead, easily ignited branches lying on the ground, explains John Campbell, a research forester and coauthor of the study. These “fine fuels” are more likely than standing trees to spark an early reburn.

Even so, politics may continue to trump science if new legislation introduced by U.S. Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) is enacted. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act would bypass normal protections under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in order to expedite logging projects on lands affected by fire, storms, or insect outbreaks deemed ‘catastrophic.’ The act would also authorize agencies to take money appropriated for wildland fire management and spend it on salvage logging. The bill, despite opposition from the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, will likely pass through the House Resources Committee, according to Cosgrove.

“This is very egregious legislation based on the theory that salvage logging will not only produce lumber but will bring the forest back more green and healthy than ever,” he says. “That idea lacks any scientific support.”

— Sharon Levy

 

Weather
Storm Warning

Before 2005 the United States had never been hit by 27 major storms in a single year. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita seemed to confirm the findings of researchers from Georgia Tech and the National Center for Atmospheric Research that the number of severe hurricanes—Categories 4 and 5—has nearly doubled worldwide since the 1970s. The rise of sea-surface temperatures of up to one degree is a likely culprit. Hurricanes increase in power when these exceed 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. As Katrina became a Category 5 over the Gulf of Mexico, sea-surface temperature was an unusually warm 86 degrees. “I have no doubt sea-surface temperatures are rising because of CO2 greenhouse effects,” says professor Peter Webster, lead author of the Georgia Tech study. “We have a lot of models that show hurricane intensity increasing, and modeling results all point in the same direction.”

— Sydney Horton

 

Q&A
The Hottest News Beat

Andrew Revkin. Photo courtesy of Peter West/National Science Foundation

Since joining The New York Times in 1995, Andrew Revkin, the paper’s veteran science correspondent, has journeyed to the ends of the earth to report on the effects of global warming. In 2004 he camped out with scientists on Arctic sea ice. Revkin spoke with Audubon about this adventure and about the challenges of reporting on global warming, both of which he chronicles in a new book entitled The North Pole Was Here.

Audubon: Why did you go to one of the most frigid and forbidding landscapes on earth?
Revkin: You go where the change is. I’ve been writing about the impacts of global warming or evidence for it coming from everywhere—the tropics, the oceans, the mountains, and alpine glaciers. But lately there’s been so much change in the Arctic and so much attention on the reduction of sea ice that I just started to focus northward.

Q. Still, you camped out on giant, floating ice caps to learn about global warming. That seems counterintuitive.
A. Well, it seems counterintuitive until you get reminded of the fact that for ice, life is about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So a tiny change in temperature, going from 30 to 33 in summer, means you go away, if you’re ice. 

Q. What does the title of the book mean?
A. With greenhouse gases on the rise, there’s a high probability the earth will be a profoundly transformed place later this century. So if you’re on Mars, you’ll see a planet with a blue pole and a white pole, where there used to be a planet with two white poles. And there’s no way to explain that except for this sudden blossoming of our influence on the climate.

Q. Does your book help convey a sense of urgency? Some scientists are now saying we have 10 years to act before the effects are irreversible.
A. One of the reasons I wrote this book is to help find a way to look at global warming with our children at our side, exploring it as multigenerational issue. Right now, in our indulgent fossil fuel habits, we’re doing things that could very well limit our children’s world that are very unpleasant to think about. I'm seeing college students and young people getting agitated about this. There’s a growing sense of unfairness.

Q. That may be so, but it doesn’t seem like the masses are rising up to demand action on global warming. Many environmentalists blame the media for this, for 1) not conveying the dire urgency of global warming in stories, and 2) giving equal attention to a tiny minority of climate skeptics in many of these same news stories, when, in fact, a majority of the world’s scientists believe the planet is heating up because of greenhouse gases.
A. There are unavoidable tyrannies in the newsroom. One is the news: what happened today. The perfect news story is the tsunami or the invasion of Iraq, and global warming is the antithesis of that. Global warming stories are what I call the slow-drip stories, like nonpoint source pollution. Or the fact that the soot from indoor wood and dung fires kills 1.6 million people around the world. This is happening in 1.6 million kitchens in mostly poor countries, out of sight and in a way you can’t document. If that happened in a day, it would be a major catastrophe that we’d all recognize and do something about. And it’s totally avoidable. All you have to do build a vent for the cooking stoves of these 2 billon people cooking on wood fires. So climate change is the ultimate example of that. Because it’s worse. It’s not something that you can even count the victims right now. It’s something with dispersed outcomes. It’s happening in different parts of the world—they’ll be winners and losers—and the effects are dispersed over time. The worst impacts are probably the furthest out. Then, because they’re long-lived gases, you have this paradox of having to act now to avoid a future crisis. So it’s got everything going against it as a news story. If you have a peg, it’s usually a false peg [such an isolated heat wave or drought].

And then there’s the “balance” thing. There has been an industrialized effort to exploit both the apparent uncertainties in science and the shorthand of journalism, which is: “Something happened today; he says this, she says that.” And this has been long recognized by people who don’t want anything to change. It started with the tobacco lobby, injecting just enough uncertainty into the debate over cancer and cigarettes to perpetuate the idea that we don’t really know about a link. Some of the same people are actually working in the climate realm now.

Quite frankly, the media have been fooled on both sides of this equation for years. Some environmental groups and some scientists are very quick to focus on the definitive, so the media tend to either overcover the wrong thing or ignore the slow drip and wait for the Exxon Valdez. But when the National Academy of Sciences came out with a study a few years ago saying that every year there’s 1.5 Exxon Valdez’s worth of oil getting into coastal ecosystems through the drip of the gas station, that’s not a page one story. To me it is. I wrote it as if it were a page one story, but it got on page A-17 or something, so the newsroom is set up to glaze over issues like this. 

Q. The Bush administration seems be part of that organized industry in exploiting the uncertainties in the science and the way journalism works. You’ve broken several stories in recent years about top administration officials fudging data in government reports to make it sound as if the jury was still out on global warming.
A. My beat at the Times essentially has three prongs: one is global change, one is catastrophe—things like the tsunami and Katrina—and the third is I’m kind of like the truth police. I don’t really enjoy that part, but it’s become a continual part of what I have to do. There are so many scientists working within the government bureaucracy who feel they have been stifled or muzzled, who see their findings [on climate change] distorted.

Q. We hear a lot about melting glaciers and rising seas as a consequence of global warming. But what are scientists worrying about ecologically?
A. There are two things that matter in nature: pace of change and multiple limits on something. If you have a species that’s hemmed in by San Diego on one side and desert on the other side, and you’re rapidly changing climate, something’s going to happen that’s probably not very good for that species.

Q. Back to your new book and your trip to the North Pole. You look like a mummy in the pictures. What was it like there?
A. Oh, yeah, lots of layers. It was about 20 below zero, a little warmer sometimes. It’s just such a bizarre experience, to get into a 15-ton airplane in the northernmost spot of Canada and spend two hours flying north basically until you start flying south and there’s no more north, and then landing on a frozen ocean in a big airplane. It’s very disturbing.
After a few minutes you forget about it. But then things happen that remind you you're on a temporary landscape—an icescape. The sounds, the ice underneath you starts vibrating and humming and puffing and ticking, and then some ridge will start popping up, where these two big giant plates of ice, you know millions of tons of ice are grinding up against each other. It's a very sobering experience.

Q. Any close calls?
A. Not really. I got kind of mesmerized once, where I was standing at the edge of one of these openings of the ice where you’re staring at two miles of depth of water, and the Russian camp manager runs over and pulls me back and says [feigning Russian accent], “This is very dangerous.” He said some tourist fell in a year before. 

Q. What, related to global warming, are the scientists studying in the North Pole?
A. Since 2000 they’ve been measuring ocean temperature, direction of the currents, and salinity. They have these long instruments on a chain, two miles long, like beads on a necklace, and they drop them to the seafloor. They sit there for a year recording data. This book is a profile of science at work; uncertainty is normal, and every answer generates new questions. But also the body of understanding that grows out of that has meaning, and just because there are uncertainties doesn’t mean you don’t do anything.

Q. Are you worried that this stuff is so complicated that people won’t get it?
A. Basically any story I write for The New York Times is at the same level of this book, which is written for young adults. One hope is that maybe even some elected officials will understand it.

Q. I understand you play in a blues band?
A. Its kind of a rustic, rootsy, bluesy country music.

Q. Country blues?
A. That’s it. The band is called Uncle Wade. I play guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. You can hear us at http://www.myspace.com/unclewade. I have one song about fossil fuels, called “Liberated Carbon.” It’s about our fossil [fuel] addiction that developed over the last century. The first line is [singing], “It took a thousand generations for our species to rise, but gathering and hunting was no way to get by. We yearn to burn more than dung and sticks, then Satan came along and said ‘Hey, try lightin’ this. He opened up the ground and showed us coal and oil, and said come liberate some carbon, it’ll make your blood boil.”

— Keith Kloor

 

Chapter Spotlight
Gimme Shelter

Last December Sandy Reed slogged through the muddy streets of Jourdan River Estates, a residential neighborhood on the Gulf Coast in southwestern Mississippi. As a participant in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), she was searching for birds in an area of Hancock County just three miles from the path of Hurricane Katrina’s eye. A few giant live oaks and some shrubs survived, but most of the vegetation had either been torn down by the winds or killed by the flood of salt water. Four months after the storm, few houses were still standing, and the landscape was littered with debris—roofs, washing machines, sheds. “We didn’t realize how bad it was,” says Reed, a science teacher and president of the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society (MCAS).

The CBC results confirmed her worst fears. Counters in Hancock County saw just 10,649 birds from 132 species, the lowest total in 22 years. “The numbers are down substantially, especially for what we consider the local yard birds, like Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and downy woodpeckers,” says Jerry Bird, an MCAS board member who compiled the county’s results. Most distressing, he says, is “how quiet everything is in the woods.”

The morning after Katrina passed, Judy Toups, a founding member of the MCAS, noticed an unusually high number of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds in her yard. Realizing there would be few flowering plants or feeders available for the hummingbirds, she started Operation Backyard Recovery. Besides scattering hummingbird feeders in hurricane-ravaged areas, the operation also holds free birdhouse-building clinics to supply temporary shelters to birds that nest in the hollows of trees.

“We’re most concerned with the cavity nesters that overwinter here, because they’ve lost the trees they depend on,” says Mark LaSalle, Audubon Mississippi’s coastal project director. The simple, boxlike birdhouses are made from fence boards and other lumber left strewn about after the hurricane. “We’re up to our armpits in fence boards,” LaSalle says. “We’ve got to pick up the pieces and make something good out of it.”

People of all ages showed up at the clinics, hammering birdhouses together to take home, which for many, including LaSalle, is a FEMA trailer. About 400 birdhouses have been built thus far, Reed says. (Additionally, Audubon Vermont donated 40 birdhouse kits made from a white pine that fell in a storm at the Green Mountain Audubon Center.) Local children are eager to help shelter birds, even as repairs continue on their own homes. “A lot of the trees got knocked down by Katrina, and that’s where the birds live,” says Lindsay Parker, one of Reed’s seventh graders at Pass Christian Middle School. “Now they have no place to go, or a nice warm place to stay.”

Besides building birdhouses, Audubon Mississippi has teamed up with the National Arbor Day Foundation to replant native trees and restore much-needed bird habitat. For each dollar donated to the Katrina Tree Recovery Campaign (www.arborday.org/Katrina), a tree will be sent to Mississippi from the foundation’s nursery in Tennessee and distributed by Audubon along the Gulf Coast. For additional information, go to www.msaudubon.org/katrina/restoration.php.

— Todd Neale

 

Aviation
Collision Course

Nobody was concerned the first time an airplane hit a bird. Orville Wright didn’t even note the species he struck over an Ohio cornfield in 1905. Today, though, such collisions, known as “bird strikes,” are a major worry. Bird strikes have increased in 13 of the past 15 years, says a Federal Aviation Administration/USDA Wildlife Services report. In 2004 civilian pilots reported 6,360 bird strikes, and military pilots recorded more than 4,600, says report coauthor Richard Dolbeer. The actual tally was much higher, he adds, since only “between 10.7 and 21 percent” of civil aircraft–bird strikes are reported.

Why the increase? “There’s a lot more aircraft in the air, a lot more birds, and aircraft today are quieter,” says Dolbeer, a USDA biologist. From 1990 to 2004, he estimates, bird strikes killed 500,000 birds. Gulls, doves, geese, and starlings were common victims.

When struck at high speeds, large birds act like cannonballs and small birds like bullets; together they cause $600 million in damage annually to U.S. aircraft. The impact can force emergency landings, even crashes. In 1995, for example, a flock of geese, sucked into an engine, downed an Air Force radar plane, killing 24. “Everyone knows it’s a matter of time before we lose a loaded passenger craft,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel Russell DeFusco, longtime leader of the U.S. Air Force’s anti-bird-strike efforts. Which is why the industry is hustling to find collision-limiting strategies.

One measure was announced in May 2005, when the FAA, the Air Force, and Transport Canada unveiled a five-year, $16 million plan for the North American Bird Strike Advisory System (NABSAS), which would integrate weather, airport surveillance, and national defense radar resources to detect, track, and warn of avian hazards near flight paths and airports. The system would issue bird-strike alerts like those the National Weather Service makes for storms. “A pilot would never take off in a major lightning storm, but they routinely take off into a flock of birds,” says DeFusco.

Meanwhile, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the FAA is testing short-range radar that detects the movement of bird flocks that might endanger planes. Biologists at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center are studying pulsing aircraft-mounted lights to alert birds to approaching planes.

Elsewhere, ground-based tactics are being considered, especially after another recent Dolbeer study showed three-quarters of bird strikes occur at less than 500 feet—probably as aircraft take off, land, or enter traffic patterns. In response, managers are using dogs and sweeping runways with lasers to repel birds.

Will such measures make bird strikes rare? No, says Dolbeer, adding, “but it would be a whole lot worse if we didn’t try. We’d like to manage this problem to acceptable levels.”

— Joe Bower

 

© 2006 National Audubon Society
 

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DISPATCHES

Eye in the Sky

Houston has some of the worst air pollution in the country, in some years surpassing even Los Angeles in number of smog-filled days. But help with locating the source of grunge-producing compounds may finally be on the way. For two weeks last July the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) flew a helicopter over the area’s mass of chemical plants, refineries, and pipelines, deploying an infrared camera to detect volatile organic compounds like gasoline vapors and ethylene. These compounds, invisible to the human eye, combine with nitrogen oxides and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, one of the main ingredients in smog. Terry Clawson, the TCEQ’s spokesman, says the $100,000 project has two aims: to evaluate the camera’s effectiveness at monitoring emission leaks and to see if some of the leaks are going unreported. “We think the actual emission rate from these plants is 5 to 10 times what they’ve been telling us,” says John D. Wilson, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. Scientists at Lamar University in nearby Beaumont are currently evaluating the data and should have the results by this summer.

Jesse Greenspan


Taxis Worth Hailing

New York City’s notoriously noisy streets and dirty air may seem quieter and cleaner this year. Since last October, 22 gas–electric hybrid taxis have hit the pavement, weaving in and out of traffic like their gas-guzzling peers but using just half the fuel to do so. At an average of 36 miles to the gallon for city driving, the hybrids currently on the road offer double the fuel efficiency of the Ford Crown Victoria, the city’s most common type of taxi. It all started last summer when the New York City Council unanimously passed the Clean Air Taxis Act and the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved seven different hybrid models for commercial cab use. “I was not an active environmentalist,” says Evgeny Freidman, the owner of Victory Taxi Management Inc., which bought the new cabs, “but we got incentives from the city to purchase these, so it started out as a business decision. We also recognize that this will probably be the future of transportation.”

Erica Wetter


NASCAR Gets on Track

With the health problems of lead contamination well documented, the Environmental Protection Agency banned leaded gasoline more than a decade ago. But NASCAR, the only major auto sport that still uses leaded fuel, allows its drivers to do so because of an exemption from the Clean Air Act. Now, if its new fuel, Sunoco 260 GTX, holds up in ongoing tests, the popular racing series will get the lead out by 2008. The switch came after a recent EPA report noting that leaded fuel posed a risk to racing crews, spectators, fuel attendants, and even people who live near racetracks. In addition, a study from the Indiana University School of Medicine confirmed that 40 percent of NASCAR crew members examined had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Leaded gas is “being banned throughout the world, even in Kazakhstan and sub-Saharan Africa, because it’s no longer needed as a component of gasoline,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group that pushed for the change. “And there’s no reason to think [the cars] will drive slower because of this.”

—Jesse Greenspan


Watch Out, Bullwinkle!

He has the unenviable task of being a sitting duck for poachers. Luckily, Bullwinkle is not real but rather a life-size moose replica made from a durable, lightweight, and inexpensive Styrofoam material. Officials for Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources enlisted his services to combat illegal hunting of the endangered moose population on the mainland part of the province. Conservation officials “view illegal harvesting as a major limiting factor on the recovery of mainland moose,” says John Mombourquette, the DNR’s enforcement director. After setting up the 60-pound decoy, officers hide in bushes nearby. Using a remote control, they can swivel the moose’s head and even make the decoy fall down when a poacher fires. Bullwinkle is so realistic that a few poachers armed with rifles and scopes shot the decoy in broad daylight and only learned of their blunders after being busted, according to Mombourquette. Nine arrests have been made so far, and the poachers face up to $500,000 in fines and six months in jail
if convicted.

Todd Neale


Toxic Teddy

Parents who are childproofing their homes might want to start by giving stuffed bears the heave-ho. Researchers at Chatham College in Pittsburgh found high levels of flame-retardant chemicals and toxic pesticides on 11 plush toys collected from private homes. While the flame retardants were likely sprayed on the toys during manufacturing, the insect poisons were probably absorbed from the home environment or the warehouses where the toys were stored. The stuffing commonly found in plush toys acts as a sponge for certain types of pollutants—scientists use the same material to soak up some environmental contaminants—leading to surprisingly high concentrations of chemicals, including DDT, the all-purpose insecticide banned in 1972. Pesticides can linger in the home for decades as dust, says chemistry professor Renee Falconer, who ran the study. Storing toys outside when poisons are being applied indoors and periodically washing stuffed animals might reduce a child’s exposure and prevent long-term health problems. “We don’t want people to get panicked,” Falconer says, “but they need to be aware that there are many different types of exposure that they often don’t think about.”

—Todd Neale

Sun Singing

Karl Berg was doing research in the rainforest of Ecuador, where he had lived for 10 years, when he got curious. For a week he had been going out in the morning and recording the names of all the birds he heard, and when he tallied them up there were 65 species. Berg, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, suddenly wondered if there was any order to the dawn chorus. There was, it turned out, but no one had figured out why some birds start singing before others. Now Berg has. Years before, Aldo Leopold hypothesized that luminosity and differences between forest strata might be driving this, says Berg. “We really did the first test of that, 40 years later.” What Berg and his colleagues found, after recording and analyzing more than 100 hours of Ecuadoran birdsong, was that those birds higher in trees and with larger eyes started singing before lower-level birds with smaller eyes. Berg theorizes that predatory influences are the cause. “Singing can be dangerous if you can’t see,” he says. But when the morning light hits, it’s safe to start crooning.

Frank Bures

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