Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

ESA 2010 Day 3 (August 3rd)

Posted 03 Aug 2010 / 0

ESA participants take to the open space for one of the symposia

I started off this day by attending a session on green roofs organized by Colleen Butler. J. Scott MacIvor presented a talk entitled “Reconciliation ecology opportunities reach new heights: Insect species composition and diversity on green roofs and adjacent ground-level habitat patches in an urban area” that presented the results of a small-scale comparison of insect fauna found on green roofs and at ground level throughout the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. MacIvor did not find a significant difference between the diversity of the green roofs and the ground level plots, but he did find a number of species on the green roofs that had never been recorded in Nova Scotia before. Whether green roofs create a unique habitat for insects or simply expand the available habitat remains an interesting and important area of inquiry.

In the same session Ned Fletcher spoke about “Scaling of greenhouse gas emissions with institution size for colleges and universities in the United States”. Although I cannot really explain why this talk appeared in an organized session dedicated to green roofs, Fletcher’s talk was interesting. Using self-reported data from institutions that have signed on to the President’s Climate Commitment, he analyzed the multivariate correlates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at various universities and colleges. What he discovered is that emissions scale logarithmically, and that on a per area basis larger institutions emit larger amounts of GHG’s but on a per student basis emit smaller amounts of GHG’s. Adding local temperature measures as a covariate greatly improves the fit of all factors, which should not be surprising given how much more energy is required to keep buildings warm in colder climates.

Bradley Rowe presented my favorite talk of the green roof session, “Green roofs: Can they sequester carbon?”. What I really liked about this talk was its holistic approach: rather than consider one aspect of carbon flux, Rowe endeavored to both make direct measurements of carbon sequestration and consider the other carbon fluxes associated with constructing the roof. Using extensive green roofs planted with various species of the genus Sedum (which does seem to be the popular green roof plant!), Rowe determined through a two-year growth period that the carbon capture potential of these roofs is on par with desert biomes. This is not exactly surprising, but it is also not all that encouraging. Rowe also pointed out that there are carbon emissions associated with the substrate used to create the green roof, which in many case might mean that the green roof is a net carbon source. Appropriately Rowe suggested that this is not necessarily a disastrous result for the value of green roofs, but simply points out that other benefits (such as stormwater retention and building insulation) need to offset what may be a net carbon source coming from most green roofs. I am glad to hear this kind of sobering research being aired at ESA, because it is important that we do not allow the field of ecology to provide cover for claims that do stand up to scientific scrutiny.

In the theoretical realm, Holly Moeller’s talk “The role of marine reserves in optimal harvesting when fishing damages habitat” suggested that the rationale for marine reserves may emerge from very simple fisheries models. Her model incorporated extraction as well as habitat damage due to extraction, simulating the effects of fishing techniques such as trawling. Moeller explored model systems with varying habitat sensitivity, and showed that the optimal return on a fishery can be obtained by leaving some areas alone. Not surprisingly, as the habitat becomes more sensitive to damage from fishing, the number of reserves required to maximize return increases and the overall return decreases. These are interesting findings, but presuppose a single entity attempting to maximize long-term return on a particular fishery, and we know from experience the our oceans are not exploited in this manner. In order for Moeller’s findings to be of value, serious shifts in policy will need to be enacted.

Today there was also a really interesting session entitled “Ecology Education in 2020 — Integrating New Technologies with Mother Nature”. I caught a couple of talks in this session that I thought were pretty intriguing. The first was by David Bowne and entitled “Internalizing the environment: Using short stories to foster comprehension and personal appreciation of ecological concepts”. Bowne discussed the use of short fictional stories of his own creation that he designed and implemented to teach his students about ecological concepts. The use of writing as a medium for communicating scientific ideas seems to have really invigorated Bowne’s students. Using photography as a potent medium to engage students, Molly Steinwald discussed her work with the Gigapan camera robot in her talk “Images for humanity, science and the environment: Connecting multiple audiences to nature through photography”. The Gigapan allows for the recording of panoramic images with extraordinary resolution. Paired with the appropriate image browser, the Gigapan images place the observer in a detailed recreation of the captured scene. Steinwald used the Gigapan images to engage secondary school student interest in the scientific process, specifically work being done by researchers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Another really interesting technological development that was well represented at this year’s meeting was the use of portable web-enabled devices to empower citizen-scientists. The most common complaint about ecological studies is lack of data, often due to inadequate spatial and temporal scope. One potential solution to this problem is to engage interested members of the public to form a broad observation network beyond the extent of even the best-funded research program. Timothy Carter’s talk “Green infrastructure installations: micro solutions generate macro effects” showed how a simple portal (IndianApps) can allow citizens to gather data that helps answer an important scientific questions. Carter wanted a means of assessing the effects of small-scale green infrastructure on various important ecological metrics, so he created IndianApps to allow citizens to report on biodiversity, threats to wildlife, and watershed dynamics. It will be interesting to see if enough people use this portal, and provide reliable enough data, to mine this new source of ecological data.

My day ended in the audience of Michael Rosenzweig, whose talk “Reconciliation ecology: The fun way to adapt to climate change” was the most impassioned I attended all week. Rosenzweig’s fame within the field of ecology stems from his early theoretical work, much of which was done in conjunction with his advisor Robert MacArthur. But in the last decade Rosenzweig’s work has turned in a decisively applied direction. In 2003 he published “Win-Win Ecology”, a book dedicated to finding a way of balancing the needs of humans with the preservation of ecosystem function and biodiversity. He calls this approach “reconciliation ecology”, and contrasts it very heavily with the restoration and conservation ecology that demands that nature be preserved in absence of humanity. He described his own city of Tucson, AZ as a “crucible for reconciliation ecology”, where targeted planting of plant species guided by a predictive model is being used as a means of engineering a more functional ecosystem without requiring a return to pristine conditions. Rosenzweig’s approach, paired with the growing movement towards understanding urban ecology, makes me excited to engage new projects in New York City.

The Lawrence Convention Center's observation deck

I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund.

Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Ecology

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