Archive for the ‘Concepts’ Category

I may be late in finding out about this organisation, but they are interesting. 350.org is co-founded by Bill McKibben, one of the first authors on global warming to the public, back when no one really knew much about it.

Find out about them in 90 seconds, all images and 0 words.

As a platform to mobilise people to action all over the world creatively, 350.org has reached out to over 180 countries all over the world.

Ask them why 350 – and you’ll soon find out that 350 is the safe level of carbon dioxide to have in the atmosphere, as deduced by scientists (Hansen et. al., 2008) through environmental modelling. Don’t just take anyone’s word for it, read the actual paper through the reference.

One thing that resonates loudly with me, is that they are using 350 as a way to reach out to people of all countries and languages, because numbers, images and changes can be universally understood.

In the same vein that Win-Win Ecology by Michael Rosenzweig illustrates, sometimes movements have to be radically different (read: NOT revolutionary, because revolutions are dangerous) for people to sit up and take notice.

Focussing on positive action, Rosenzweig’s main opening in the book brings up an interesting idea. I am recalling this offhand, because I don’t have the book with me. His book opens by saying that there are, basically, two ‘R’s in ecology now. Reservation ecology, and restoration ecology. These terms are pretty self-explanatory. We reserve land for wildlife and biodiversity, in nature reserves and parks, botanical gardens and marine protected areas. Restoration biology talks about protecting new areas that were previously occupied, through active human intervention.

He then proceeds to call for the third ‘R’ in ecology: reconciliation ecology. If there is land to be used, man trumps wildlife – and the number of reserves and their sizes are likewise limited. Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of extinction. It has happened, and still is happening. So what happens to the wildlife then? According to Rosenzweig, this is where reconciliation ecology comes to the rescue. By designing and integrating reconciliation ecology in every aspect of building society, we can share our land with wildlife – so that land is not necessarily a mutually exclusive part of the earth anymore. Anthropocentric outlook, I know.

Still, it’s an interesting book to read, with many astonishing examples of reconciliation ecology, and a good concept to keep in mind – that said, it cannot be, as he proclaims, the way forward – simply because there are many animals that cannot share the same living space as us, as we in theirs. They require particular habitats, environmental conditions, etc. We cannot hope to occupy every bit of the earth and keep our biodiversity and ecosystems intact. A much more extended response to Rosenzweig’s rose-tinted ecology is written here, by Thomas Brooks in 2003.

Lastly, in this short update of mine, is on James Hansen’s desire for Copenhagen talks to fail – if they were fixated solely establishing a ‘cap and trade’ system, that is, in his view, fundamentally wrong as an approach.

What he says then, is intensely thought provoking:

“This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill. On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%.”

Read the complete interview with The Guardian here.


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A trip to the Carden Alvar in the morning was overseen by the Couchiching Conservancy, where Kaira, our guide, first brought us around the alvars and told us what they were. Areas with very shallow soil over limestone rock, vegetation on this habitat is very specific and have special adaptations to deal with the drought and floods that come with the seasons, as well as the overall lack of rain/water.

Granite deposited when glaciers retreated resulted in a mix of granite and limestone rock in the area, and this particular alvar is an ecotone that supports many plant and animal species (especially birds like the Nighthawk and Bobolink, which are species at risk in Canada). Alvars have calcareous soil and are nutrient-poor, and this results in low competition: which then allows for more species to move in in a bid for space. Calcareous soil also is better for plants compared to acidic soil, so this type of habitat ends up having more biodiversity than ones with acidic soil.

So enough about the introduction of alvars, here it is:

DSC_0151 alvar picture #1

Looks like man-made pavement? That’s exactly what I thought as I stepped into the area, walking from a graveled road to what I thought led to the most bio-diverse habitat in the temperate regions of this part of the world. lo and behold, it actually was limestone alvar that we were standing on, and one must remember that while the tropics are species diverse in every spot you look, temperate regions are different, and that’s still something to celebrate. I was still surprised though, but some of the rock in the area had fossils!

DSC_0182 Fossils in alvar rock

In one square metre of land the alvars contain as a habitat comparatively more species than any other habitat in the temperate countries, containing lichen, mosses, woody vegetation and grasses, which in turn provide a suitable system for many insects, grassland bird species to nest, as well as snakes and other predators.

DSC_0153 alvar #2

You can see tall grasses and some woody vegetation here, and generally it looks like meadows and tall grasses. The alvars cannot support large trees (unless you leave succession to take over in many decades) easily, though Cedar tends to grow here. Even though this particular alvar is largely undisturbed, humans have already introduced a couple of invasive species into the area.

To give you a bit more information about the Couchiching Conservancy, they work like the Nature Conservancy in that they buy land (though funds from the federal and provincial government, as well as through donations/fundraising efforts) and then work on conservation through that. On top of that, the CC also works together with private landowners on managing their land effectively and in an environmentally friendly manner.

DSC_0155 Saxifraga virginiana [flower]

I could hear the distinct sound of crunching and crackling as I walked around the dry habitat, and looking down, one could see many plants amongst the twigs and dry grass. There is lichen (white in colour) at the top of this picture, moss in a dark green colour all around, and in the centre stands a succulent plant that is an indicator of alvars, and is also an arctic disjunct species that breaks up stone as they grow, and retain moisture in their succulent state. Click on flower to see photos of their flowers.

DSC_0158 clumping effect – caespitose

Plants in water deficient areas also tend to have an adaptation to ‘clump’ at the base to absorb and retain more moisture, and this can be seen in a number of plants in the area. Plants that have this ability are called caespitose plants. Pretty cool eh!

skullcap Skullcap

Kaira also talked about indicators of alvar habitats, and these plants include the Skullcap (above) and the Field Chickweed (below). Plants have what is known now as an ‘alvar association’ rank in percentage, and this tells you how much it is dependent on alvars for survival. Plants like Fragrant Sumac and Bee Balm however, can live on alvars (though its tough to do so because of harsh conditions) but do not NEED to live on them. On the far extreme edge of the coin then also presents you with North Honeysuckle and Grey Dogweed that are unwanted species.

DSC_0181 Field Chickweed

DSC_0150 Butternut

Thoughout our walk through the alvar landscape, Kaira told us about how different plant species were at different levels of endangerment – special concern, threatened, endangered, expatriated, extinct – and giving us examples for some of them. One of them is the Butternut tree, seen above, whose attack by an invasive fungus brought in by numerous vectors (insects, water/wind) was bringing down its numbers and making it almost a matter of time before it would die out. Sad! [comparable to dutch elm disease]

The other example she gave us was about the Red Mulberry, whose situation of limited numbers was brought about both by the introduction of a invasive introduced virus as well as hybridisation with the White Mulberry, of which hybrids are no longer Red Mulberries (which is how they are reducing their numbers).

DSC_0183 DSC_0197

And here we see two frogs! Not sure what species they are, but this made us recall the various frog sounds Mary taught us the day before (see entry: fields) at Dufferin Marsh.


It was cool to see the alvars and get educated by them – I had never before heard of the term even before this!

So, two concepts for you:

1. The main threat to the alvars now are the lack of natural disturbances. Knowing that grazing and nature fires used to be present but are now gone (as a result of human intervention), the woody vegetation is not being pushed back anymore, and these threaten to take over the alvar area (which is essentially open grassland) and through succession create an entire forest where alvar once was.

Without natural small fires also means that tinder would have built up over the years and if a fire comes one day it would burn hotter and consume more land – eventually resulting in what happened to some other forests that suppressed fires: nearly two feet of burnt soil, barren land, seeds that would not generate because they died due to the too-hot-fires. Extreme, but very possible.

This would mean alvar habitat would be lost and species that depend on alvar habitats are gone – and the most bio-diverse area in the temperate regions are also lost. So now what would one do? Introduce grazers? Carry out prescribed, control fires?

2. When do you know if it is worthwhile to protect an area/species? Do you necessarily have to choose areas to ‘sacrifice’ or ‘keep’? If an area is too small, or a species population is too small to sustain itself, would you invest money to sustain it by hand? What about fragmented areas – if, like the Dufferin Marsh, you know that the marsh was surrounded by urban sprawl and you know that it could not be expanded – is it worth putting in effort to sustain it?

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