Understanding great structures

I just finished this course. I generally prefer the audio to the video because I can listen while walking, but this one needs to be video so you can see the structures. I have been watching while using the climbing machine at Gold’s Gym. It is perfect, since I have no place else to go and have to give it my full attention. When I tried to watch these courses before, I always tried to “multitask.” I suppose running while watching is multitasking, but when you get in the rhythm the body goes auto-pilot. I recommend the course. Next time at the gym, I will start one on geology.

Reference – http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/science/understanding-the-world-s-greatest-structures-science-and-innovation-from-antiquity-to-modernity.html

Urban Waterways in Anacostia

I attended the Urban Waterways Symposium to better understand urban environmental issues. They are very different from the ones I am used to. A big difference is that the people involved do not own the land they are trying to conserve. There are lots of rules and lots of other stakeholder. If I notice some erosion that could use some rip-rap, my only concern is how much the rocks will cost and if I can get the kid to move them. It is not so easy in an urban environment.

Former DC Mayor Anthony Williams was the keynote speaker. He was very interesting and funny, but maybe more cerebral than lots of politicians. He joked that it was strange for him going from being a big wheel to an ordinary guy. He jokes that people used to come out to meet him; now he has to be careful not to get a ticket when he parks and walks in by himself. He talked about the need to plan for the 21st Century, pointing out that cities had often shunned their waterfronts in the past but now they embrace them. The Anacostia was still not very embraced. He also contrasted the type of conservation advocated by guys like Theodore Roosevelt (maybe my tradition) and the needs of an urban population. The Roosevelt model conserves nature. People are visitors or living from the natural resources. An urban model has people in but not of nature. They need to be integrated.

I also attended a panel discussion on gentrification. This is an interesting subject with lots of points of view. One of the concerns of people in Anacostia is that if they make it too nice they will be displaced by rich people. One of the speakers talked about gentrification the way I might talk about invasive species. It is a different point of view from mine. I suppose I would be the gentrifier if I moved in and Mariza is doing that with her house in Baltimore. I thought about how close Anacostia is to downtown DC and how the parks are really nice. I could become an invasive there.

I thought about my old neighborhood in Milwaukee. Growing up there, I thought it was the way it was always and would be. I still feel a little possessive about it, although I have not skin in that game anymore. It is only a landscape of memory. Neighborhoods are much more transient than we think. Few of the old neighbors are left. The new people think it has always been that way. Parts of Bay View are gentrifying. It is funny that relatively rich people move into the old worker housing and consider it a step up. I suppose the difference is that they have only a couple people in these houses that used to have families of five or ten kids.
It makes sense to reach out where you go. When I bought the tree farms in Brunswick County, I tried to get to know people so that I could fit in better. I found people were welcoming. They knew things I wanted to know and would share information. It must be as true in the urban environment, maybe more so because there are so many more people around. I want to learn more about this environment and will attend more of these conferences.
My picture up top shows the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school, where the conference was held.   It was a old building but very well maintained.   Next is the panel on gentrification.  Below that is MLK Avenue right outside the school and at the bottom is Anacostia Metro.  It is difference from all the other stations I have seen. It does not have the high, vaulted ceilings (although they tried to keep the general look with cross arches) and it barely underground.  Sunlight comes in from upstairs.

Forest restoration

Longleaf pine restoration is the topic of articles in other parts of this magazine and I will leave the details longleaf cultivation to experts. Adding longleaf back into the forest mix encourages diversity and I want like to talk more about the general changes and the benefits of diversity in our forestlands.

Encouraging species diversity is a good strategy when faced with uncertainty, complexity and change. Forest landowners face these conditions and the effects are accelerating. Forest planning must look at least several decades into the future. We cannot predict the future in detail, but we can be reasonably sure that conditions thirty years from now will be significantly different from what we have today because the factors that will create the changes are already here.

Leave aside for a moment the big uncertainty of climate change, more about that below. We have enough change drivers without it. For the last century, Virginia land area covered by trees was expanding as forests regrew naturally or were reestablished on former agricultural fields. This trend is finished, as conversion of land for development more than balances forest growth. Urbanization will continue to take up forestlands and, maybe more importantly, divide and fragment them. Twenty ten acre tracts separated by roads and houses are not the same as one unbroken 200 acre one. Beyond that, with the new roads and houses will come new species of trees and plants. Deodar cedar and metasequoia are beautiful in the Virginia landscape, but they are not from around here.

Invasive species are challenging. Some have been around for a long time, such as tree-of-heaven, kudzu or multiflora rose. They are nuisances, but we are used to them. However, new ones are constantly coming and they can be disruptive. The emerald ash borer may eliminate forests of ash. Sometimes big changes come from familiar insects, animals or plants in new association, as seems to be the problem with white pine in the western mountains. Moreover, sometimes it is hard to tell what is going on without looking closely, as with dogwood anthracnose. Researchers tell us that dogwoods dying out in their traditional places in deep forests and becoming a tree of the sunnier forest edge where the fungus spreads slower. We see dogwoods along the roads but may fail to notice their absence deeper in the woods. Dogwoods play an important role for wildlife, shading waterways and recycling nutrients. How do our forests respond when they are gone?
Let’s return to the big factor of climate change. While we cannot precisely predict the effects in any particular place, we can make some general assumptions. Climate change will open opportunities for some species, maybe invasive ones, and make life harder for others. We may see novel ecological communities, with species associated in ways they were not before. This may affect longleaf pine. The natural range of longleaf pine extends into Virginia, but not very far north or west. In most of the state, if you establish longleaf pine you are creating a new association, not “restoring” it. However, in a time of climate change and disequilibrium this may be exactly the right thing to do, as changes may open opportunities to expand the longleaf range. Conditions thirty years from now may be very kind to it.

This is not the first time we have gone through big changes. Walk around your land, look at the witness trees, the boundary trees, and read the descriptions on the old deeds. If your land is like mine, you will notice significant changes in the types of trees represented among the witness trees compared with those growing up now. It speaks to a different sort of forest when those old trees were young. The forest we leave to our grandchildren will be different again. It is our task to make it sustainable for ourselves and for them.

Earth history: temporate forest ecosystems in North America

I attended a symposium on temperate forests ecosystem at Smithsonian. Much of it was about earth history, deep earth history. When you want to look forward, it is a good idea to look back. Almost everything you can reasonably expect could happen in the future has happened in the past. Earth has been much warmer and much cooler in that past than it is today.

Climate change will bring ecosystems with associations of plant and animal that nobody has seen before, but it has happened before. We call them “novel” ecosystems. We can get an idea of the novel ecosystems of a potentially warmer future by looking at what was around during similar periods in earth history.

Emergence of flowering plants
Angiosperms, flowering plants, the plants and trees we are used to seeing around us today, developed in the early Cretaceous period around 160 million years ago. (BTW – the famous movie should probably have been called “Cretaceous Park” instead of “Jurassic Park,” since the lead dinosaurs were from that period, but that is another story.) Flowering plants developed in the tropics and then moved into temperate regions, first along riverbeds and in disturbed areas. Today we might call them invasive species. By the middle Cretaceous, they were globally distributed and often dominant and by 70 million years ago, many of our now familiar families of trees were well established. The details and relationships among species were different, but these ancient forests would look broadly familiar to us. This was one of the golden ages of temperate forests.

Then we had the mass die offs at the end of the Mesozoic, the same one that killed the dinosaurs. Around 50% of all plant species went extinct. The fossil record cannot tell us exactly how long it took, but it was quick in terms of geological time. Forests quickly recovered their diversity as the world got warmer, with tropical rain forests spreading up to 40 degrees North, about where Colorado would be and it got even warmer still with a boreal-tropical forest, where today we have cold northern forests. There were forests north of 80 degrees and paleontologists found fossilized stumps that indicate dense forests of trees resembling metasequoia (dawn redwoods now common in Virginia gardens) on Ellesmere Island, a place of permafrost & tundra today where nothing grows more than a few feet high.

Sudden greenhouse warming
A sudden greenhouse event brought rapid warming of 4-8 degrees C about 56 million years ago. This warm period lasted around 200,000 years, a long time to us, but not very much in the great scheme of geological time. Tropical vegetation moved far into what are now temperate or even cold regions. South America had vast eucalyptus forests.

Followed by a slow cooling
Eucalyptus in South America died out in during subsequent cooling phase. They are back in South America today, but the new ones are from Australia. A slow cooling began about 44 million years ago and we are still in that colder age. About 6 million years ago, we started to see periodic ice ages, as the Greenland ice sheet formed and glaciers advanced in the Himalayan highlands. What exactly caused the cooling is a subject of speculation. The leading theory is that it had to do with movements of landmasses that isolated the Arctic Ocean and allowed ice to form, the movement of the Antarctic continent to the middle of the polar region, where it could freeze more or less solid and the up thrust of the Tibetan Plateau, which cooled of the heart of Eurasia.

Data from the past is hard to get; data from the future is impossible. Natural history provides a rich mine of information about how forests will respond to rapid climate change.
The next speaker talked about associations of plants and animals. In times past, distributions of tree and plant species was sometimes different from what we see today. For example, today the ranges of ash trees and spruce trees do not much overlap. But in the Ice Age their distributions overlapped to greater extent. There is no natural association like that today. Difference in climate was not the only cause.

Strange relationships
Many “strange” mixes occur when there is a disequilibrium caused by big changes. The change in climate was one such cause, but not the only one. In this time in the past, large mammals (woolly mammoth, American camels, stag-moose, woolly rhinos, giant ground sloths and horses.) largely disappeared, probably because of humans showing up and hunting them to extinction, but there were a variety of factors at work. Although there is some dispute about the exact cause, (some scientists refuse to blame humans), there was clearly a disequilibrium created and it happened rapidly, in the course of less than 1000 years. Large herbivores play important ecological roles in that they eat and trample lots of vegetation. They are important in keeping open forests or grasslands free of trees and brush. When they disappear, forests close. And there is another knock off effect – fire. Fire is an herbivore. If animals do not eat the brush, it accumulates and eventually catches on fire. Humans would have increased the incidence of fire. There have always been fires, but the intensity varies. So what you see is greater variation, since the fires were more destructive when they came, but less constant than the grazing or browsing of the large herbivores.

The forests of 14,000 – 12,000 years ago were different from those of today for both climate and other land use reasons mentioned above. During the Ice Age there was greater seasonal variation than today with relatively hotter summers and significantly colder winters. For plants and animals in the environment, what matters is not the average, but the extremes. Something can be perfectly adapted 360 days of the year, but if the extreme weather of those last five days kills it, it will disappear. When you get extremes, then, it simplifies the environment, i.e. fewer species can find niches and so the forests are dominated by only a few species. You see that today in the difference between tropical forests, with thousands of species on every acre and boreal forests with only a few types of trees dominating vast swaths of land.

End of the last ice age, still changing
The Ice Age ended and the world warmed rapidly. Forests in North America again spread north to about where they are now. Our last speaker, Jonathon Thompson from Harvard Forest talked about more recent history.

The last 400 years has been a story of disturbance and recovery in the forests in Eastern North America. In Massachusetts, for example, deforestation peaked about 1850 and forests recovered rapidly until the 1970s, when urbanization started to equal or slightly exceed the rate of forest regrowth. The regenerated forests are similar to the old ones, but different in details such as age and precise composition. Newer forests, for example, are younger and earlier on the stage of succession. This is no big surprise. They just are not that old and more likely to be recently disturbed.

The composition is different
Researchers tried to get an idea of the former forest composition by looking at “witness tree” records. Witness trees were those used to mark property lines. They are described in some detail in old deeds. Usually, they would set down a marker and then describe the trees in all directions, in order to discourage someone moving it. Using these trees introduces some bias, since witness trees would more likely to be big and easy to spot, not a random distribution, but it gives some idea.

In the last centuries, there have been changes. Chestnuts are gone entirely. The chestnut blight explains this. Beech declined significantly, by around 15%. This is maybe explained by the age of the forest. Beech trees are late succession species, i.e. they are shade tolerant and start to come in when the forest is well established. Maples are more common now. The researchers went only to genus, and not to the species level, but they think there has been a big change among maples, with red maples displacing sugar maples to some extent. Oaks have declined, but not by that much and the same goes for hemlock, when not affected by the woolly adelgid. Hemlocks have been declining for 5000 years, however. They were once more common and evidently got some kind of stress thousands of years ago. The decline of the oaks may be an artifact of the study. Oaks are large and long-lived trees. They would be natural candidates as witness trees, so maybe they were just chosen more often.

Anyway, I learned some things I did not know and remembered other things that I had forgotten. Being able to attend such symposiums is one of the big advantages to working at Smithsonian.

End of Spock

I watched Star Trek back in 1967, when it was new. Spock was my favorite character, but my thinking about Spock evolved with changes in tech. I wrote this back in 2008 –
“I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.” How stupid is that? That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed. It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap. It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent. BTW – my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers. For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.”

Therefore, I love Spock out of nostalgia. However, he is an ideal from the 1960s, as suited to our world as other things from the 1960s. We used to think of intelligence in terms of ability to remember a lot of facts and do quick calculations. These things machines now do for us most of the time. For humans we now treasure the kind of intelligence that can make intuitive and creative leaps. Technology removes a limiting factor and makes the next step possible. Spock is as out-of-date as those Nehru jackets.

It might seem silly to argue about the attributes of fictional character, but it is from mass-media fiction like this that many of us get most of our philosophy. Beyond that, it gives us a point of common culture. Most people my age and younger know Spock. I doubt there is any literary or historical character with better name recognition.

Spock is great subordinate but a poor leader. He knows the parts but cannot see the whole. I see this personally. I consciously used Spock as a role model back when I was 12-13 years old. I can see find traces even in my speech patterns, overusing using the word “indeed,” for example, or on the sarcastic side, saying “explain, Spock” when somebody comes up with a dumb idea. Nevertheless, as I wrote above, Spock was an ideal from the 1960s. Times changed; I evolved.

Fracking for the best reasons

I strongly in favor fracking for what I consider good environmental, economic and geopolitical reasons. Let me explain my trifecta.

Start with environmental. U.S. CO2 emissions are lower than they were ten years ago, in fact lower than any time since the mid-1990s. Gas replacing coal is a big factor. Natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels in almost every way. Renewable forms of energy are developing very rapidly. Inexpensive natural gas may slow its development a little, but not significantly. Using gas is reducing emissions faster than renewables could be developed and deployed to do the job. As prices come down and networks are built, renewables will replace most fossil fuels and the overall footprint will have been less. Recall that deploying technology is as important as developing it. Things take time.

Fracking has environmental costs, as do all forms of energy exploration. But those costs are lower than the alternative fuels – the real alternatives at this time and the next decade. Water problems can be addressed and mostly have been. The bigger problem with fracking comes with new roads and increased traffic in rural areas. This is serious, but – again – we have to compare to real world alternatives. I love forests and do not wish to see any destroyed. However, I also know that fracking has relatively small footprints and forests return. This is not forever.

Economically, there is no doubt fracking is great. It has pumped more money into the U.S. economy than all the fiscal stimulus and has been part of almost all the good new jobs created since the great recession. Inexpensive fuels is helping bring industry back to the heartland. Beyond that, gas is a feedstock for things like fertilizers and chemicals, so it goes even farther.

I saved the geopolitical part for last, since it also includes ecological and economic factors. As I wrote, I am confident that renewable alternative energy source will be dominant within a few decades. This means that much of the world’s fossil fuel resources will remain in the ground, unused and made much less valuable. If this happens, I want it to happen to not in America. Let the fossil fuels that lay under places like the Middle East or Russia stay unused and “wasted.” Let American sources be used while they still have value. Let’s use it like it’s going out of style, because it is and let others get stuck with the excess inventory.
This points to another geopolitical benefit. Much of the world’s exportable concentrated fossil fuels lays under unstable places, places often not friendly to us. With our American energy boom, they just do not matter as much anymore. Think of how much more acute would be the problems with Russia or Iran if they could much more effectively deploy the energy threat. It is bad enough as it is. It could be worse.

The great thing about fracking is that natural gas and oil it produces tend to be widely dispersed. This spreads the wealth and diversifies risk, instead of having it all under a few easily threatened places.

I am aware of the risks. There is no life w/o risk; I am also aware of the benefits.

If there were natural gas under my land, I would permit fracking. I would be very demanding in terms of where the pads should be located, how the roads should be maintained and how the natural communities should be respected and restored, but I would let it happen. I think this is the smart play for our country generally. Do it right; do it with a larger margin of error than we think we need. Spend the extra time and money to ensure protection. But do it – because the benefits far outweigh the costs. A century from now, when we have transitioned to a cleaner energy economy, we will look back and see that using fracking as a bridge was a smart idea. By that time, the forests we replanted will be vibrant. Some will be “old growth” and some plantation forests will have grown, been harvested and be growing again. Signs of fracking will be curiosities like those stone wall that once separated cultivated fields and now have forests on both sides.