Aug 10, 2012

prison science

According to this article in Nature News, University of Utah researcher Nalini Nadkarni has been devising and carrying out conservation projects that put prisoners to work. At one women's prison, inmates have released 800 endangered butterflies and are rearing 3600 caterpillars for next year's release. They also conducted egg-laying experiments and determined what science had not yet learned: the native host plant of the endangered Taylor's checkerspot, which turned out to be a threatened plant, the golden paintbrush.
At an Oregon prison, inmates are rearing tadpoles of the endangered Oregon spotted frog, and their experimentation with rearing conditions have resulted in a protocol that yields bigger, healthier frogs than professionals in zoos and laboratories had been able to manage. Similarly, inmates in a prison greenhouse discovered that smoke-infused water provides nutrients that increase germination rates in several declining prairie plants. Prairie ecosystems are often fire-dependent.
Rates of recidivism and violence have dropped while knowledge and conservation have advanced. There is an immense supply of such projects that could involve not just prisoners, but homeless or unemployed individuals, giving them new skills and a new sense of purpose. Behind the tiresome barrage of negativity and obstructionism poisoning the airwaves there are solutions large and small to many challenges. Conservation organizations should take note.

Aug 6, 2012

connecting the rails

Several recent sightings in Costa Rica have firmed up the likelihood that clapper rails are residents in mangrove swamps along the Pacific coast. First documented in 1998, the birds are now being seen often enough to make residency likely, as opposed to clapper rails being transients or stray birds. The country's ornithological union has just added the rail to its list of residents.

It is always good to add new territory for birds that have lost as much habitat as rails, prime victims of our centuries-old tendency to drain or fill wetlands. The clapper rail's preference for saltwater has shielded it from development compared to smaller cousins like Virginia rail and yellow rail, who use what is left of eastern, interior marshes as breeding grounds. Still, the clapper rail is not immune. Gulf coast mangroves and Atlantic coast salt marshes have all shrunk as we have encroached. The San Francisco Bay population of clapper rail is considered endangered because so little of its habitat remains.

Clapper rails are found throughout the Americas, and there are multiple described subspecies that vary in size and coloration. With so little known about them, it is unclear which subspecies the Costa Rican rails might be.

When you get right down to it, we do not know enough about rails to say for sure whether what we call Rallus longirostris is one species or two or more. We are not sure how much they wander for food or mates or how likely they are to fly inland to cross from one coast to another.

Costa Rican birds could be part of a Baja population or part of an Ecuadoran population, or Gulf coast birds that crossed the Central American isthmus to establish a population on the Pacific coast. Connecting Costa Rica with the Baja population is tempting, but Costa Rican birds have little red in their breast feathers. Baja birds have the reddest breasts of any clapper rail variant.

Costa Rica is an intriguing new dot in an empty area of the clapper rail range map.

Mar 12, 2012

on coal

To understand the coal industry, you must understand a bit of history. Part of that history goes back millions of years to the time when the Mississippi River Basin was an inland sea bordered by vast swamps. Those swamp beds compacted and petrified into layers of coal, some thick, some thin. As the North American plate lifted above sea level, much of this coal eroded away.
In Tennessee, coal seams tend to be thin, often too thin to be practically nor economically worth extracting. Only 22 of Tennessee's 95 counties have coal deposits, and only six counties have active mines. Most coal production in the state happens in Claiborne and Campbell counties. Coal played an important role in the history of Chattanooga and Sequatchie Valley, fueling iron production, but no active mines remain in that region. Seams were just a couple feet thick, so miners had to dig in a prone position. Work was slow and dangerous, and mines were abandoned as soon as it was feasible to bring in coal by rail.
Presently, Tennessee accounts for just one percent of Central Appalachian coal production, and virtually all Tennessee coal is consumed out of state. Our coal is high in sulfur, giving it an emissions profile that electricity generators shy away from, so it remains a specialty fuel used primarily in making steel or in other industrial processes requiring high temperatures. Tennessee imports 30 million tons of coal per year and produces 2 million tons.
In 2008, coal mining employed 558 workers, with demand and production on a steep decline. Surface mining accounts for 66 percent of production and 54 percent of jobs. Mountaintop removal mining offers the fewest jobs of any extraction method, relying more on explosives and heavy machinery than laborers. Since 1985, four out of five Tennessee coal-industry jobs have gone away due to the low quality and inaccessibility of remaining coal deposits.
Short of slavery, few industries have a more profound history of worker exploitation than coal. In West Virginia and Kentucky, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of coal in a county and the rate of poverty. Mining jobs carry high risks of fatality, injury and respiratory illness, and salaries simply do not match the health and social costs. Furthermore, mines often contaminate streams and land, making farming more difficult. The net result is tremendous wealth for mine owners, with little opportunity for workers to claim a fair share.
The industry created and sustained this wealth gap through political influence. The laws in big coal-mining states make it easy for mine operators to walk away from tragedy and pollution by using shell companies, and where the law itself has not been rigged, coal titans have simply paid off judges. The conglomerates that sit above the maze of shell companies and contractors are insulated from the risks and long-term costs of coal extraction.
Costs borne by taxpayers include repair of haul roads, monitoring of active and abandoned mines, reclamation and control of persistent pollution sources, water treatment or replacement where drinking supplies have been contaminated and diminished recreational, aesthetic and agricultural value of land. Much as with wages and poverty in coal communities, government expenses exceed revenues collected from the coal industry.
In Tennessee, coal companies have gotten themselves exempted from most sales taxes, to the point where the industry paid only $1.1 million in taxes on $114 million production in 2008. Severance taxes, kept by local governments, are 20 cents per ton, with the average price of coal in 2008 being $45 per ton. In 2009, the state legislature raised the severance tax to one dollar per ton, but delayed the increase until 2013.
While coal supplies were critical to manufacturing a century ago, coal mining now plays a vanishingly small role in the Tennessee economy. Moving into the future, coal will mainly be known by the legacy of pollution and destruction it has left behind. Nonetheless, the industry remains significant in other states, and Tennessee is an important political battleground. The industry lobbies heavily in Tennessee and gives generously to campaigns so they can fend off changes here that other states could imitate. Analysis by NewsChannel5 in Nashville showed that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's 2010 gubernatorial campaign took $195,000 from coal interests. That is $20,000 more than the industry paid to the top coal-producing county in severance taxes.
This evening in Nashville, we will see whether this declining industry's political giving pays off. The state Senate is considering the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, which as originally written would end mining that alters any ridgeline over 2,000 feet elevation. Already the industry has interfered by convincing Cleveland Senator Mike Bell to entirely rewrite the bill so it is redundant with federal guidelines already enforced in the state. Still, this got the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor, where it could be restored to original form or otherwise amended.
A Knoxville-based coalition of churches has been pushing to end mountaintop removal mining since 2009. Part of the Creation Care movement, Tennessee LEAF views mountains as God's handiwork and the scriptural appointment of man as stewards of Creation as a command to protect those mountains from destruction. To promote their bill, LEAF sponsored 40 Days of Prayer for the Mountains in December and January.
That effort must have had an impact on Pastor Michael McLaughlin of First Presbyterian in Manchester who, despite being unaffiliated with LEAF, concluded his March 1 invocation to the General Assembly with these words:

"Lord, for the sake of Tennessee’s health, economic prosperity, our environment, and our communities, keep in all our hearts and minds the truth that Tennessee is better than blowing the tops off of our mountains. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your name, now and forever through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen"

Feb 16, 2012

porcine foam

Once someone asked me what the next form of life to evolve would be. I said a bacteria that can live in landfills and feed on plastic. I was close.

Midwestern pig farms have begun to explode. Mysterious foams have started forming atop waste pits, and with poor ventilation, gases can accumulate. In several barns these gases have ignited, killing thousands of pigs and injuring farm workers.

Hog farms have always been bacterial breeding grounds. It is not pig shit that stinks so much as the bacteria breaking it down. The stench of a pig operation is proportional to the vigor of its microfauna, but a bacteria that farts foam may be new to the mix. The foam might be evolution in action.

Foams were first observed in 2009 and have formed in many hog barns, but only a few have exploded. Experts in agricultural gas production at the University of Minnesota have been studying the foam, and they believe it may be associated with distillery offal. Spent grains are mostly cellulose, depleted of nutritional worth, but some anaerobic strains of bacteria can break it down. Hosting such bacteria in their guts is what gives ungulates the ability to survive on a grass diet, and dinosaurs surely used the same trick.

A new anaerobic species of cellular life may have evolved in industrial hog waste, or an existing species of gut bacteria could be exploiting new opportunities in the outside world. Either way, some cellular critter in hog shit is generating copious quantities of gas, enough to create up to 4 feet of gray foam on the surface of hog slurry. Experts recommend knocking down the foam with water, but dry manure generates less odor. Controlling runoff is a major expense for farms, so they prefer to use less water, not more. Water is also a temporary solution, and outbreaks or rising temperatures can catch operators off guard, resulting in explosions.

Manure scientists are hard at work on the mystery foam. You may think I'm being facetious, but manure science really exists. Industrial hog and chicken farms require waste processing systems, pollution permits, and sophisticated emissions management. Hog farms have neighbors and odors that carry miles downwind.

Jacek Koziel at Iowa State use chemical methods and his own nose to measure and identify "compounds in the swine manure headspace." Advanced techniques allowed Dr. Koziel and his team to identify 295 airborne compounds in a 2010 study, 71 considered odorous and 16 regulated pollutants. They were able to expand the library of known swine manure gases by 44 molecules, but no one has yet determined the culprit behind the foam. Methane likely powers the explosions, but the filmy substance trapping the methane appears to be new.

Quoted in campus newspaper the Minnesota Daily, professor Charles J. Clanton said, "you have two identical buildings sitting next to each other with same management, genetics, diets, etc. One foams, and the other does not." That suggests differences in microfauna and the possibility that a new species of bacteria has evolved but is still spreading from barn to barn and farm to farm.