Allison “Sunny” Power, last year’s ESA president, presented the first talk (“Global warming and agricultural intensification”) of a special session entitled “Global Warming, Smallholder Agriculture And Environmental Justice: Making Critical Connections”. She spoke about the effects of agricultural intensification through the use of increased fertilizer and pesticide use and the effect this intensification has on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Citing some pretty eye-opening statistics, Power pointed out that a rather large portion of many GHG emissions come from intensified agriculture, and that before the century is over crop yields will be greatly reduced due to climate change (even if we assume that increased carbon dioxide has a fertilizing effect). She made a compelling argument that crop yields are most at issue in developing countries, and that most development projects already use agricultural practices that mitigate the problem of excessive GHG emissions. Power suggested that when it comes to global warming, it is industrial agriculture and not small-scale farming that is the problem. Given that there are a lot of people arguing that intensification is the only way to feed people in the developing world, the warnings of people like Power needed to be assessed alongside calls for a transposition of the industrial agricultural model into developing countries.
Hannah Wittman, an environmental sociologist, was the next talk (“Climate, carbon trading, class, and crisis: Unequal environmental exchange and agriculture in the americas”) in this session. It was wonderful to hear the perspective of someone in the social sciences, and interestingly a lot of what she discussed I would frame as “ecological concepts writ into the social realm” (social scientists can feel free to conceptualize ecology in the opposite direction!). She discussed something called “World systems theory”, basically a human-mediated biogeochemistry of resource flow. Using the term “core” to describe industrial economies and “periphery” to describe developing countries, Wittman characterized the “unequal ecological exchange” that goes on between these sectors of the world economy. Using the example of agriculture, she showed how the flow of agricultural exports from the periphery to the core leads to the mistaken impression that the majority of GHG emissions come from developing countries. She made it clear that when we consider the ecological footprint of different regions, we need to take into account how import-export flows distort emissions patterns. She also took to task some of the clean development mechanism (CDM) projects that emerged from the Kyoto Protocol. These projects, which were intended to allow countries with excessive carbon emissions to “buy back” their carbon pollution by funding clean development in other countries. Wittman asked whether these projects are a form of “carbon colonialism”, and pointed out that the vast majority of the projects are implemented without review to determine whether they really represent clean development. Many of these projects do not in fact mitigate GHG emissions, and they often come at the price of local human rights. Given how much humans influence ecosystems, the approaches of people like Wittman need to be integrated into our understanding of ecological flows; you can no longer understand ecology in isolation of human economy.
Biofuels are one of the “mitigation strategies” aimed at curbing global warming, and Caroline Ridley wanted to understand how research into biofuels was trending. In her talk “The potential and pitfalls of biofuels: how knowledge gaps may impair a comprehensive assessment”, she presented the results of an exhaustive survey of the biofuels literature over the past ten years. Rather than trying to synthesize the findings of all of these papers, she simply wanted to know what themes and subthemes were being prioritized by biofuels researchers. What she found was that the broad themes “environmental and human well-being” and “technological infrastructure for production and delivery” were well-studies, whereas work looking at the economics and geography of biofuel production was much more rare. Ridley also found that there is a strong geographical trend towards studying biofuel production in the northern hemisphere, which mirrors the overall bias of scientific research in general and ecological research in specific. Interestingly, there is a lot of interdisciplinary work being done in biofuels research. I was really inspired by the nature of this “state of the research agenda” snapshot of biofuels, and have been thinking about how to apply a similar analysis to research areas I am interested in. What made Ridley’s talk particularly strong was her use of graphics to display trends in biofuels research; her images reminded me of the excellent stuff found on the Information is Beautiful site.
Also in the bioenergy realm, Lauren Quinn presented a talk entitled “Assessing the invasiveness of Miscanthus sinensis, a potential bioenergy crop”. Plants in the genus Miscanthus are commonly used for bioenergy research, but the most common plant used is a sterile hybrid called Miscanthus gigantus. The advantage of using this hybrid is that its seeds cannot escape from fields and become invasive. A disadvantage is that the plants must be propagated vegetatively. One of the parent plants of the Miscanthus gigantus hybrid is Miscanthus sinensus. Although not yielding as much as Miscanthus gigantus, Miscanthus sinensus is more tolerant to cold and drought and can be planted from seed. This makes it a potentially-attractive bioenergy species, and Quinn was interested in determining how invasive this species might become if used widely for bioenergy. Because Miscanthus sinensus is already an escaped ornamental, there is some potential to study its invasiveness. Using leads from other ecologists, Quinn took a long road trip to survey areas where Miscanthus sinensus had become established. Based on her surveys, it appears that this species is fairly invasive, which should caution against its widespread use as a bioenergy crop.
Transitioning from movement of plants to the movement of fish, Jakob Brodersen presented a cool talk entitled “Individual life histories in seasonal partial migration of cyprinid fish”. Working in a fairly unique river system in Sweden, Brodersen was able to get a very detailed picture of what factors influence local migration. How did he do this, you ask? Well, because the river systems are small in scale but large in extent, Brodersen and colleagues were able to monitor the fish using a series of antenna strung across the river in intervals. For those familiar with the toll system used throughout the northeast United States, I would call this “EZPass for fish”: each fish is tagged, and its tag transmits its identity through the antenna. What Brodersen found was that the length and physical condition of fish influences their migration probability. Interestingly, there is also a personality component to migration: fish that migrated during the first year were more likely to migrate for a second year, irrespective of their individual traits.
On of my favorite talks of the whole meeting was given by David Horn. I cannot quite explain why I really liked his talk, “Seed and feeder preferences of wild birds in the United States and Canada”, but I think it had to do with its strange-yet-inspired combination of citizen science, urban ecology, and industry involvement. To put the problem simply, the birdseed industry wanted to know how well different seed blends and feeding devices were received by birds of different kinds in different regions. To answer this question, they enlisted the help of “citizen scientists”, hobbyists who enjoy feeding birds in their backyard. To qualify, volunteers had to pass a rigorous bird identification test; apparently many potential volunteers were rejected due to their substandard bird identification skills. The selected volunteers were then provisioned with a particular kind of feeder and particular mix of seeds. Each of these citizen scientists then recorded bird visits over forty-five minute intervals, committing to complete thirty-two separate observation sessions for each of four seasons. With 175 volunteers spread throughout the midwest and northeast, this made for an avalanche of data: using a web-based system for inputting data, volunteers logged over 20,000 observation periods, recording over 1,250,000 bird visits. This kind of data intensity should get the attention of every field biologist on the planet! Using the extensive data supplied by this study, the birdfeed industry can now accurately report to consumers which feeder devices and seed mixes are most effective for different classes of birds.
My interest in individual-based modeling let me to Rupert Seidl’s talk “A mechanistic, individual-based approach to modeling complexity and dynamics of forest ecosystems across scales”. Seidl is interested in how to model complex adaptive systems, specifically in the realm of forestry. While he praised the accomplishments of dynamic simulation models, he identified a short-coming in these models: they often reduce their treatment of complexity to either spatial, functional, or structural dimensions. His goal was to incorporate all three of these dimensions into an agent-based model representing the growth of individual trees. Modeling both the individual physiology of each tree and competition between trees, Seidl’s model fit well to data from the Oregon Transect, and also data from forests in the Austrian Alps.
On this day, I also gave my talk, “Critical scales of heterogeneity: unraveling the relationship between group behavior, home range size, and resource dispersion”. If you are interested in checking it out, I have it posted here.
I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund.