Tag: Pennsylvania State University

The burning of our forests!

But it is not a total wall-to-wall disaster.

The latest news is that our Klondike Fire is now burning an area larger than 100,000 acres. Or to use the words from the incident webpage(my emphasis):

The Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires were split into zones on Saturday, Aug. 18. The fires are now referred to as “Taylor Creek Fire” and “Klondike Fire East,” managed by the Northwest Incident Management Team 12 out of Lake Selmac, and “Klondike Fire West” managed by California Interagency Incident Management Team 4 out of Gold Beach. A transfer of command of the Klondike West Zone will occur at 6:00 AM Friday when the Southern Area Red Team who arrived on Wednesday will take over.

As of the morning of Aug. 30, the Taylor Creek Fire is estimated 52,839 acres and is 95 percent contained. The Klondike Fire is estimated at 100,996 acres and is 40 percent contained. There are 1,214 personnel working on the Klondike Fire and 126 personnel assigned to the Taylor Creek Fire.

Courtesy Jeffersen Public Radio

Then just over a week ago, The Conversation blogsite published a reminder that I wanted to share  with you today, under the permissions offered by The Conversation site.

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Many native animals and birds thrive in burned forests, research shows

By

Associate Research Professor of Biology, Pennsylvania State University

August 22nd, 2018

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is blaming this summer’s large-scale wildfires on environmentalists, who he contends oppose “active management” in forests.

But the idea that wildfires should be suppressed by logging the forest is far too simplistic. Most scientists agree that large hot wildfires produce many benefits for North American forests. Notably, they create essential habitat for many native species.

Fifteen years of research on Spotted Owls – a species that has played an oversized role in shaping U.S. forest management policies and practices for the past several decades – directly contradicts the argument that logging is needed to protect wildlife from fires. Wildlife biologists, including me, have shown in a string of peer-reviewed studies, that wildfires have little to no effect on Spotted Owls’ occupancy, reproduction or foraging, and even provide benefits to the owls.

Nonetheless, despite this steadily accumulating evidence, the U.S. Forest Service advocates logging in old-growth forest reserves and Spotted Owl critical habitat in the name of protecting Spotted Owls from forest fires. Zinke’s recent statements are just the latest and broadest iteration of the false viewpoint that logging benefits wildlife and their forest habitats.

Protecting Spotted Owl habitat

Spotted Owls are birds of prey that range from the Pacific Northwest to central Mexico. Because they nest in large old-growth trees and are sensitive to logging, in the 1980s they became symbols of the exceptional biodiversity found in old-growth forests.

The Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. At that point, about 90 percent of U.S. old-growth forest had already been lost to logging. Every year in the 1980s the U.S. Forest Service sold about 7 to 12 billion board feet of public lands timber.

Figure 1. National forest timber sales (1905–2017). FY 1905-2017 National Summary Cut and Sold Data USDA Forest Service

Listing the owl drew attention to the dramatic decline of old-growth forest ecosystems due to 50 years of unsustainable logging practices. In response the U.S. Forest Service adopted new regulations that included fewer clearcuts, less cutting of trees over 30 inches in diameter and fewer cuts that opened up too much of the forest canopy. These policies, along with vast depletion of old-growth forests, reduced logging on Forest Service lands to about 2 billion board feet per year.

During the 1990s, national forest management policy for the Northern Spotted Owl included creating old-growth reserves and designating critical habitat where logging was restricted – mostly within half a mile of a Spotted Owl nest. In spite of these protections, populations of Northern Spotted Owls, as well as California and Mexican Spotted Owls, continued to decline on forest lands outside national parks. This was most likely due to ongoing logging outside of their protected nesting areas in the owls’ much larger year-round home ranges.

Fire and owls

Over the years the Forest Service shifted away from treating Spotted Owls as symbols of old-

Historical range (burgundy) of the Northern Spotted Owl, which also extended north into British Columbia. One hundred fifty years of logging, agriculture and urbanization have reduced the amount of old growth forest (potential Spotted Owl habitat) in this zone by 85-90 percent. NASA Earth Observatory

growth forest biodiversity, and instead started to cite them as an excuse for more logging. The idea that forest fires were a threat to Spotted Owls was first proposed in 1992 by agency biologists and contract researchers. In a status assessment of the California Spotted Owl, these scientists speculated that fires might be as damaging as clearcuts to the owls.

This perspective gained popularity within the Forest Service over the next 10 years and led to increased logging on public lands that degraded old-growth habitat for Spotted Owls.

Academic scientists, including some with Forest Service funding, published peer-reviewed studies of Spotted Owls and fire in 2002, 2009, 2011 and 2012. All four studies showed either no effects from fire or positive benefits from fire for Spotted Owls. Subsequent research on Spotted Owls in fire-affected forests has showed repeatedly that the owls can persist and thrive in burned landscapes.

 

 

(The U.S. Forest Service says wildfires harm wildlife habitat, but wildfires actually create rare and important habitat.)

Many wild species thrive in burned landscapes

I recently conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that summarized all available scientific research on the effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl ecology. It found that Spotted Owls are usually not significantly affected by mixed-severity forest fire. Mixed-severity forest fire, which includes large patches with 100 percent tree mortality, is how wildfires in western forests naturally burn. The preponderance of evidence indicated that mixed-severity wildfire has more benefits than costs for Spotted Owls.

In 2017 I submitted an early version of this analysis with the same conclusions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the agency’s peer-review process for its Conservation Objectives Report for the California Spotted Owl. My conclusions were not included in the final report.

Decades of science have shown that forest fires – including large hot fires – are an essential part of western U.S. forest ecosystems and create highly biodiverse wildlife habitat. Many native animals thrive in the years and decades after large intense fires, including deer, bats, woodpeckers and songbirds as well as Spotted Owls. Additionally, many native species are only found in the snag forest habitat of dead and dying trees created by high-severity wildfire.

Pileated woodpeckers excavate nests within snags, bringing life to charred forests in Oregon. NASA/S. Russell, CC BY-ND

Wildfires threaten homes, but wildlife and water supplies benefit

Studies have shown that wildfires are strongly influenced by a warming climate, and that logging to reduce fuels doesn’t stop the biggest, hottest fires. In my view, federal and state agencies that manage wildfires should devote significant resources towards making structures ignition-resistant and creating defensible space around homes to protect communities, rather than promoting ecologically damaging logging.

It is also time to reform Forest Service management goals to emphasize carbon capture, biodiversity, outdoor recreation and water supply as the most important ecosystem services provided by national forest lands. These services are enhanced by wildfires, not by logging.

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These last two paragraphs are key lessons: 1. Logging does not stop the biggest, hottest fires, and, 2. It is time to change the goals under which our forests are managed emphasising carbon capture, biodiversity, recreation and water supplies!

I won’t hold my breath!

What a Moon!

This is a night to be outside! (And that includes you, Susan L.)

It has been receiving quite a lot of publicity in recent days. I’m speaking of the “Supermoon”.

Or in the opening words of a recent Smithsonian Magazine article:

The Biggest Supermoon in 68 Years Will Leave You “Moonstruck”

It hasn’t been this close since 1948 and won’t be again for the next 18 years

(Adrian Scottow via Flickr)
(Adrian Scottow via Flickr)

In terms of when this is happening then I will draw on Mother Nature Network:

According to NASA, the full moon that rises on Nov. 13 will be the closest one to Earth since 1948. If viewing conditions are clear, the moon will not only appear 30 percent brighter, but also 14 percent larger. While the nighttime viewing is supposed to be spectacular, the true closest approach of the supermoon will take place on the morning of Nov. 14 at 8:52 a.m. EST.

Just how special is this super supermoon? Humanity won’t get another show like this one until Nov. 25, 2034.

Or as the EarthSky blogsite puts it:

The moon turns precisely full on November 14, 2016 at 1352 UTC. This full moon instant will happen in the morning hours before sunrise November 14 in western North America and on many Pacific islands, east of the International Date Line.

For those of us on Pacific time that equates to 0852 PST.

So the balance of today’s post will comprise the republication, with permission, of a recent essay on The Conversation blogsite.

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Supermoons are big and bright, but not as rare as the hype would suggest.

November 8, 2016

By

Senior Lecturer and Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Programs in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Pennsylvania State University.

As an observational astronomer who teaches students about the behavior of the moon, I’m thankful for anything that inspires people to go out and look at the sky. For me it’s second nature to pay attention to the moon; when my son was born, I would take him out at night to observe with me, and one of his very first words was “moon.”

But I have mixed feelings about what’s being billed as the upcoming “super-supermoon.” Many astronomers do not like using the term because reports overhype the factors that make certain full moons unusual. Most of what you’ve likely read has probably misled you about what you can expect to see on Nov. 14 and just how rare this event is. Beautiful, yes. Worth looking up for, definitely. Once in a lifetime… that’s a bit overblown.

he moon’s phases as it revolves around the Earth. Orion 8, CC BY-SA
The moon’s phases as it revolves around the Earth. Orion 8, CC BY-SA

The moon’s cyclical phases

Just about everyone is familiar with the moon’s changing appearance as it goes through its phases from crescent, to half-illuminated (first quarter), to gibbous, to full, and then back through gibbous, to half-illuminated (third quarter), to crescent, to new.

This pattern occurs because the moon orbits the Earth. When the moon is between the Earth and sun, it’s a new moon, and you don’t see it that day. When the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun we get a full moon as the sun’s light illuminates almost its entire face. The complete sequence of phases takes about the same amount of time as it does for the moon to orbit the Earth once – just about a month.

As the moon makes its monthly trip around our planet, it travels on an elliptical, not circular, path. Every object in the solar system orbits like this, including the Earth around the sun; over the course of the year, the Earth is sometimes closer to the sun and sometimes more distant. Same for the moon – sometimes it’s closer to us and sometimes farther away.

The changes are proportionally not large; at “perigee” (the closest it gets to the Earth) the moon’s approximately 10 percent closer to the Earth than at “apogee” (most distant point on its orbit). Over the year, the moon’s distance from Earth varies from around 222,000 to 253,000 miles.

 The moon’s orbit is elliptical and changes over time. Rfassbind
The moon’s orbit is elliptical and changes over time. Rfassbind

The time it takes the moon to go from perigee to perigee (about 27.3 days) is shorter than the time it takes to go through a complete set of phases (about 29.5 days). Because these timescales are different, the phase at which perigee occurs varies. Sometimes perigee occurs when the moon is full, but it is just as likely for perigee to occur when the moon is in the first quarter phase, or any other. Whichever phase the moon is in when it’s at perigee will be the one that looks largest to us here on Earth for that month.

wo full moons as seen from Earth: at perigee on the left, at apogee on the right. Catalin Paduraru
Two full moons as seen from Earth: at perigee on the left, at apogee on the right. Catalin Paduraru

At perigee, the moon can appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than an apogee full moon. But this is complicated by the fact that our eyes play tricks on us and convince us the moon looks larger when it is near the horizon than when it is higher in the sky. Every full moon will look big and bright whether it happens at perigee or apogee.

So what’s a supermoon?

The first time I heard the phrase “supermoon” was in 2011, and someone had to explain the suddenly in vogue term to me. People were using it to describe the full moon that happened to occur within an hour of perigee in March of that year. The moon’s perigee distance also varies a bit, and March 2011 was the moon’s closest perigee of that year.

 A 2013 supermoon as seen from Ireland. John Finn, CC BY-NC-ND
A 2013 supermoon as seen from Ireland. John Finn, CC BY-NC-ND

This was a somewhat rare event – a full moon occurring not just at perigee, but at the closest perigee of the year. But many people got the impression that this was an exceedingly unusual event, and rushed to see and capture images of this supposedly ultra-rare moon. Depending on how closely you require the full moon to occur to perigee in order to call it a supermoon, though, these events happen at least roughly once a year, and often more frequently.

Which brings us to this month’s much ballyhooed “super-supermoon.” News stories are hyping the upcoming full moon as a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity. It’s true that the Nov. 14 full moon is the closest since 1948, and the next time the full moon will be closer is in 2034.

But this month’s full moon is only 0.02 percent closer – a mere 41 miles! – than the March 2011 supermoon. These tiny distances make no noticeable difference in the moon’s appearance.

 Get out there and enjoy this supermoon! AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Get out there and enjoy this supermoon! AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Please do go out and observe the November full moon. If you are good with photography, try to document that the moon does appear larger than the other months this year. Just be aware you’ll have other virtually equivalent opportunities to do so pretty much every year for the rest of your life. So don’t worry if you miss it. You can catch the supermoon next time around.

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Fingers crossed our local weather will enable Jean and me to view this moon and I will try and photograph it.

If any readers also get to see this moon do let us know your thoughts and feelings.

The origins of the dog

Dogs and humans go back even further than previously thought.

Humans and dogs were constant companions well before our ancestors settled in villages and started growing crops 10,000 years ago

I have no doubt that thousands of dog owners all around the world must be enthralled by the way that dogs relate to us and, in turn, how we humans relate to dogs. More than once a day, one of our dogs will do something that has me and Jean marvelling at their way of living so close to us.

Then when one starts to reflect on how long dogs and humans have been together, perhaps it could be seen as the direct result of that length of relationship.

Now there’s nothing new in me writing this, after all the home page of Learning from Dogs states:

Yet they have been part of man’s world for an unimaginable time, at least 30,000 years. That makes the domesticated dog the longest animal companion to man, by far!

Back in May the website Livescience published an article that revealed more about the length of our relationship with dogs. This is how it opened:

Ancient Wolf DNA Could Solve Dog Origin Mystery

by Becky Oskin, Senior Writer

Humans and dogs were constant companions well before our ancestors settled in villages and started growing crops 10,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

Genetic evidence from an ancient wolf bone discovered lying on the tundra in Siberia’s Taimyr Peninsula reveals that wolves and dogs split from their common ancestor at least 27,000 years ago. “Although separation isn’t the same as domestication, this opens up the possibility that domestication occurred much earlier than we thought before,” said lead study author Pontus Skoglund, who studies ancient DNA at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute in Massachusetts. Previously, scientists had pegged the wolf-dog split at no earlier than 16,000 years ago.

The Livescience article referred to results that were published in the journal Current Biology on May 21st this year. One needs a subscription to read the full report but here is their summary:

The origin of domestic dogs is poorly understood [ 1–15 ], with suggested evidence of dog-like features in fossils that predate the Last Glacial Maximum [ 6, 9, 10, 14, 16 ] conflicting with genetic estimates of a more recent divergence between dogs and worldwide wolf populations [ 13, 15, 17–19 ]. Here, we present a draft genome sequence from a 35,000-year-old wolf from the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia. We find that this individual belonged to a population that diverged from the common ancestor of present-day wolves and dogs very close in time to the appearance of the domestic dog lineage. We use the directly dated ancient wolf genome to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs and find that the mutation rate is substantially slower than assumed by most previous studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves before the Last Glacial Maximum. We also find evidence of introgression from the archaic Taimyr wolf lineage into present-day dog breeds from northeast Siberia and Greenland, contributing between 1.4% and 27.3% of their ancestry. This demonstrates that the ancestry of present-day dogs is derived from multiple regional wolf populations.

That summary page also includes the following Graphical Abstract:

fx1

I don’t have permission to republish the Livescience article in full but would like to offer the closing paragraphs of this fascinating report.

“It is a very well-done paper,” Perry [George Perry, an expert in ancient DNA at Pennsylvania State University] told Live Science. “This topic is a critical one for our understanding of human evolution and human-environment interactions in the Paleolithic. Partnership with early dogs may have facilitated more efficient hunting strategies.”

If dogs first befriended hunter-gatherers, rather than farmers, then perhaps the animals helped with hunting or keeping other carnivores away. For instance, an author of a new book claims humans and dogs teamed up to drive Neanderthals to extinction. Skoglund also suggested the Siberian husky followed nomads across the Bering Land Bridge, picking up wolf DNA along the way.

“It might have been beneficial for them to absorb genes that were adapted to this high Arctic environment,” Skoglund said.

This is the first wolf genome from the Pleistocene, and more ancient DNA from prehistoric fossils could provide further insights into the relationship between wolves, dogs and humans, the researchers said.

Yes, our dogs have been part of man’s world for an unimaginable time – and Jean and I, as with tens of thousands of others, can’t imagine a world without dogs.

From otters to aliens!

Big shift of topic from yesterday!

Yesterday, I wrote about the fabulous success of the British otter having gone from the crumbling edge of extinction to now being found in every English county.

For something completely different, and I do mean completely, have a read of this item that appeared in the British Guardian newspaper of the 18th August.

Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists

Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.

Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth’s atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain.

This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by a Nasa-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman of Nasa’s Planetary Science Division and his colleagues compiled a list of plausible outcomes that could unfold in the aftermath of a close encounter, to help humanity “prepare for actual contact”.

In their report, Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis, the researchers divide alien contacts into three broad categories: beneficial, neutral or harmful.

Beneficial encounters ranged from the mere detection of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), for example through the interception of alien broadcasts, to contact with cooperative organisms that help us advance our knowledge and solve global problems such as hunger, poverty and disease.

Another beneficial outcome the authors entertain sees humanity triumph over a more powerful alien aggressor, or even being saved by a second group of ETs. “In these scenarios, humanity benefits not only from the major moral victory of having defeated a daunting rival, but also from the opportunity to reverse-engineer ETI technology,” the authors write.

Other kinds of close encounter may be less rewarding and leave much of human society feeling indifferent towards alien life. The extraterrestrials may be too different from us to communicate with usefully. They might invite humanity to join the “Galactic Club” only for the entry requirements to be too bureaucratic and tedious for humans to bother with. They could even become a nuisance, like the stranded, prawn-like creatures that are kept in a refugee camp in the 2009 South African movie, District 9, the report explains.

The most unappealing outcomes would arise if extraterrestrials caused harm to humanity, even if by accident. While aliens may arrive to eat, enslave or attack us, the report adds that people might also suffer from being physically crushed or by contracting diseases carried by the visitors. In especially unfortunate incidents, humanity could be wiped out when a more advanced civilisation accidentally unleashes an unfriendly artificial intelligence, or performs a catastrophic physics experiment that renders a portion of the galaxy uninhabitable.

To bolster humanity’s chances of survival, the researchers call for caution in sending signals into space, and in particular warn against broadcasting information about our biological make-up, which could be used to manufacture weapons that target humans. Instead, any contact with ETs should be limited to mathematical discourse “until we have a better idea of the type of ETI we are dealing with.”

The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.

“A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions,” the report states.

“Green” aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. “These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets,” the authors write.

Even if we never make contact with extraterrestrials, the report argues that considering the potential scenarios may help to plot the future path of human civilisation, avoid collapse and achieve long-term survival.

I am bound to say that if Mr Domagal-Goldman and his colleagues believe that spending time and money on the possible outcomes of contact with extraterrestrials is a good idea in these present times then I am minded about those other visitors from outer space who passed Planet Earth by because there were no signs of intelligent life!

Here’s Alex Jones on the topic …

In my lifetime?

Possibly the greatest discovery of all time.

What would that be?  Finding evidence that there is intelligent life on another planet.

With the assumption, of course, that there is intelligent life on Planet Earth 😉

So what prompted this article?

Simply that the British Magazine The New Scientist on its website has a recent article with the intriguing heading of Found: first rocky exoplanet that could host life.

Here are some extracts:

Astronomers have found the first alien world that could support life on its surface. It is both at the right distance from its star to potentially harbour liquid water and probably has a rocky composition like Earth.

“That’s the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen yet,” says James Kasting of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who was not involved in the discovery.

The planet orbits a dim red dwarf star 20 light years from Earth called Gliese 581. Four planets were already known around the star, with two lying near the inner and outer edges of the habitable zone, where liquid water – and therefore potentially life – could exist on its surface.

A rocky world has been found squarely in the middle of the star Gliese 581's habitable zone (Image: Lynette Cook)

The article continues:

The discovery suggests habitable planets must be common, with 10 to 20 per cent of red dwarfs and sun-like stars boasting them, the team says. That’s because Gliese 581 is one of just nine stars out to its distance that have been searched with high enough precision to reveal a planet in the habitable zone.

“If you take the number of stars in our galaxy – a few hundred billion – and multiply them by 10 or 20 per cent, you end up with 20 or 40 billion potentially habitable planets out there,” says Vogt. “It’s a very large number.”

For more years than I can imagine, I have always thought that the most amazing scientific find of my lifetime would be the discovery of life on another planet.

I’m 65 at present – wonder what the odds are? But surely this announcement by The New Scientist does increase them?