Home / Page 2

Blog


Teaching Watershed Science to Young People

By: Liz Clift

I used to teach an introductory version of watershed science to school children. Depending on how much time I had with these young people, this might include diverse topics such as where our water came from, the water cycle, and/or the movement of pollutants and/or particulates through a system.

In the summer camp version—which meant I had them for a full week instead of a maximum of 90 minutes like I had them during the school year—the curriculum included an exploration of the water cycle that involved several hands-on experiments, giving students the opportunity to explore how sediment falls out of water, to attempt to use different household materials to filter out visible particulates and pollutants, pH testing, examining water from different sources under a microscope and more, with the curriculum modified depending on the age of participants.

At the end of the week, we’d pull out a scale model version of our local watershed. It came with props that were part of our watershed, including people, animals (livestock and wild), cars, train tracks, houses, and lots of trees. Sometimes I’d pull out some clay for the students to use to hold certain things (houses, trees) in place—which was an impactful way to show how landslides could happen because of a soaking rain.

Watershed Resource Regions, from USGS

We’d go over how to replicate a gentle rain, a soaking rain, a downpour using the tools provided*, and then the participants would get to work (the model included a drain that I’d position over a bucket, and hope the bucket didn’t get knocked aside, or worse, over!). This allowed them to see how different amounts of rainfall could alter our watershed. After a while, I’d introduce a pollutant (in the form of food coloring). Sometimes we’d decide as a group to put it in a particular place, and wait to see when the water reached it. Other times, I’d introduce it without fanfare at points in the watershed and ask the young people to describe what was happening.

Afterward, we’d talk about what they’d observed about types of rainfall, about flooding, about what places tended to fill with water first and why, about the introduction of pollutants. We’d talk about ways we could individually help limit pollution in our watershed, and about any feelings the activity brought up. If we had time, they were then free to return to any activity we’d done over the week, including the scale model watershed (always the most popular).

Helping young people understand the dynamics of a watershed—and for that matter, helping them conceptualize their watershed—can be an important component of making science and conservation tangible. It can be especially useful in arid environments where most of the water comes from snowmelt, as it was in the place I taught this class (replicated with crushed ice, when time allowed).

A few years later, I taught a similar class in another state in a three-week long summer camp. I didn’t have a scale model of the watershed. Instead, I had the ability to take the young people on field trips. We did many of the same activities, interspersed with exploring our watershed.

That camp class, of all the ones offered, was the one the young people kept clamoring to come back to—not because they had any special affection for me, but because we did things like look at pond water, the backbone of a catfish, and sand under a microscope; performed pH tests; watched tadpoles develop; and made bracelets representing the water cycle. For field trips, we traveled to a nearby glacier, to a eutrophic creek, to a local pond, to an “Aqua Golf” course, to a neighborhood waterpark. With the oldest group of participants (rising 5th and 6th graders), I had long conversations about water waste and conservation that the participants brought up among themselves and then to me.

Some of these oldest campers did additional research on their own, and taught back to their families. In this way, they became watershed ambassadors, which is an important step to encouraging community-scale conservation and restoration support.

*Misters, pipettes, funnels, small measuring cups, etc.

Leave a comment

Soil Health: Shifting the Carbon-Nitrogen Balance (Part I)

By Liz Clift

Whether you’re adding carbon-rich materials to soil for ecological restoration purposes, trying to figure out how to make your compost more efficient, or perhaps figuring out why last year’s chop-and-drop mulch in your garden isn’t breaking down the way you expected it to, it’s important to understand carbon to nitrogen ratios (C:N).

Carbon and nitrogen are both necessary for plant growth—and an imbalance can lead to slower or stunted growth, or make an area more hospitable to certain types of weeds. In addition, the relative levels of carbon or nitrogen on a site impact how quickly mulch—including grass clippings, leaves, crop residue, etc.—decomposes.

If you’ve never spent much time in prairies, here’s a sampling of plants and birds

How does this factor into restoration ecology?

One of the hurdles of restoration ecology is what to do with pioneer species (aka weeds) we don’t want colonizing a piece of land. Vigorous weed growth can be a sign of high levels of nitrogen in the soil, relative to carbon. By increasing the levels of carbon in the soil, it’s possible to effectively manage nitrophilic weeds (such as cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum), even with a reduced (or no!) use of herbicides.

By focusing on increased soil health through increased carbon supplementation, it is possible to shift the competitive balance. Increasing soil carbon mimics later successional stages of soil ecology, which generally favors native plant growth. Often, native plants can more easily establish and thrive in low nitrogen environments, which allows them to begin the process of out competing nitrogen-loving weed species—some of which produce many more seeds than native species.

Sawdust and wood chips, when used as an incorporated soil amendment, provide opportunities to increase carbon in the soil, as do fire-regimens that allow for controlled burns of prairies or woodlands. Controlled burns, unlike wildfires, generally burn at a lower temperature, which leaves the microbiota of the soil intact. Although controlled burns are not always understood as a management technique by the public at large, it’s critical that we remember fire used to be a standard part of most ecosystems.

If we face public resistance to incorporating woodchips, sawdust, or a fire-regimen (or other forms of carbon supplementation), we will do well to remember that this is an opportunity to talk with people about soil health and why we’re doing what we’re doing. For those of us who work in grasslands, it’s especially important to note that increasing carbon in the soil has been shown to be effective at facilitating prairie restoration.

Great Ecology employees have successfully applied carbon supplementation as part of oil pad reclamation, and are currently applying the process at some Denver-area park sites as a means to reduce weed species proliferation and reduce operations and maintenance costs.

Part II of this blog will cover the role of carbon and nitrogen in agricultural restoration and compost.

Leave a comment

Conference Attendance & Presentations, Q1 2017

During the first quarter of 2017, Great Ecology employees attended a variety of conferences across the country. Were you there, and hoping to connect? Now’s the chance!

In January:

Our Director of Design, Linda Gumeny attended the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association conference.

Nick Buhbe, Director of Ecology, attended the Central Dredging Association (CEDA) Conference in the Netherlands.

In March:

Multiple members of the Denver office attended the Central Rockies chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration’s conference, where Vice President of Technical Services, Randy Mandel, gave two presentations.

Associate Ecologist, Dr. Jill McGrady presented at DecomWorld 2017 in Houston, TX.

Nick Buhbe presented at the 27th Annual International Conference on Soil, Water, Energy, and Air for the Association of Environmental Health and Sciences Foundation in San Diego, CA.

Liz Clift, Copy Editor, attended the Colorado Coalition of Land Trust’s annual conference in Denver, CO.

President & Found of Great Ecology, Dr. Mark Laska, spoke at the Law Seminars International Sixth Annual Advanced Conference on Natural Resource Damages.

Dr. Laska also attended the 46th Spring Environmental Conference of the American Bar Association in Hollywood.

 

Leave a comment

President & Founder of Great Ecology to Speak at NRD Conference in DC

Mark S. Laska, PhD, Founder & President of Great Ecology, will be presenting at the Law Seminars International Sixth Annual Advanced Conference on Natural Resource Damages in Washington, DC on March 24th at 9:30am. He will present a case study on “The Future of Restoration: Update on New Approaches for Developing the Most Effective Restoration Strategy.”  His ideas for future restoration of NRD injuries involves “banking” and upfront restoration projects drawing from his expertise in mitigation banking and recent policy developed by five federal agencies.

The conference will provide the chance to explore successes, challenges, and opportunities of the Natural Resource Damages (NRD) legal regime, including the effectiveness of NRD as a remedy for environmental damage. In addition, the conference will include information on the latest developments in NRD science and restoration, and how to prepare an NRD case for trial.

If you’re unable to make it to DC, the conference proceedings will also be available via paid webcast.

Leave a comment

Great Ecology’s Director of Ecology to Present at AEHS

Nick Buhbe, M.S., Great Ecology’s Director of Ecology, will be presenting at the 27th Annual International Conference on Soil, Water, Energy, and Air for the Association of Environmental Health and Sciences (AEHS) Foundation in San Diego, CA. The workshop, “More than a Blank Slate: Increasing Value at Cleanup Sites Through Sustainable Repurposing for Renewable Energy Production and Habitat Restoration” will be co-presented with June Yi, of Project Navigator. The workshop will explore ecologically oriented approaches to create or enhance habitat and wetland resources, incorporate reuse strategies for Brownfield sites, and identify when and where solar energy-generation facilities can be incorporated into end-uses.

Nick and June will present on Wednesday, March 22 at 7pm.

Leave a comment

After the HAR-CeRSER 2017 Conference

Last week several Great Ecology staff members attended the 2017 High Altitude Revegetation Workshop & Central Rockies Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (HAR-CeRSER) Conference in Fort Collins, CO.

Great Ecology’s Vice President of Technical Services, Randy Mandel, provided two presentations: (1) an oral presentation on “The Use of Ecotypic Plant Collections for Restoration Design to Benefit Pollinator Habitat”, and (2) a poster presentation on the Colorado Water Conservation Board Restoration Plant Matrix the was compiled in response to Colorado’s 2013 Front Range Floods, as well as the closing remarks at the conference.. Other presentations included:

  • Keynote: “Can We Manage for Resilience? Making Decisions about Where and How to Restore in a Changing World” (Katharine Suding, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO)
  • Keynote: “New Natures and Mountain Landscapes” (Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia)
  • Keynote: “Weed-Suppressive Bacteria: A New Tool for Restoration” (Ann Kennedy, USDA, Agricultural Research Service, Pullman, WA)
  • “A Seedling-Based Approach to Aspen Restoration” (Alexander Howe, Utah State University, Logan, UT)
  • “High Elevation Mine Lands Reclamation Using Biochar” (Christopher D. Peltz, Research Services, Silverton, CO)
  • “Manipulating Cheatgrass Seed Dispersal to Benefit Restoration” (Danielle B. Johnson, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Grand Junction, CO)
  • “Rehabilitating Aquatic Habitat in Urban Systems” (Ashley Ficke, GEI Consultants, Fort Collins, CO)
  • “The Urban Prairies Project: Pollinator Habitat Restoration and Community Engagement” (Amy C. Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion, Westminster, CO)
  • “The Southwest Seed Partnership & the Ethos of Seed Conservation” (Ella M. Samuel, Chicago Botanic Garden, Bureau of Land Management, Santa Fe, NM)

There were many additional engaging and important talks, and dozens of posters, all of which helped convey important trends, new research, and strategies for restoration success.

Great Ecology was proud to be a sponsor for this event. Great Ecology was especially proud of the students who presented their research. Congratulations to the winners of the student poster and presentation awards!

Leave a comment

Sharkwater: An Argument for Conservation

Rob_Stewart_(filmmaker)

Rob Stewart (1979-2017)

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, we used social media to post condolences about the death of Rob Stewart (1979-2017), a marine conservationist and documentary filmmaker who died in a diving accident off the coast of Florida, at Alligator Reef. Stewart was best known for his 2006 documentary Sharkwater.

I recently watched Sharkwater, a documentary about sharks, and was immediately captivated by the beauty of the world under sea that Rob Stewart captured—as well as the devastation caused by the commercial shark fin industry.

Stewart once said, “Conservation is the preservation of human life on earth, and that, above all else, is worth fighting for.” In the course of the documentary, it’s clear that he believed this, because viewers witness some (though not all) of the challenges he faced while making the film—including risks to his life. He created Sharkwater as a way of raising awareness about sharks (and how, despite what the creators of Jaws and Sharknado might have us believe, they are not all that dangerous. In fact, you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark.).

There’s a memorable scene where Stewart is on the ocean floor, cuddling a shark. There’s a breath-taking view of hundreds of hammerhead sharks schooling. There are also multiple scenes depicting the brutality of the shark fin industry, and statistics that will break your heart.

In the documentary, Stewart makes the compelling argument that sharks play a vital role in the survival of humankind, and life on earth as we know it. An understanding of how predators change landscapes indicate he’s probably right (think: reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone).

Lemonshark_(2)

Lemon Shark with Remora

 

Sharks, as Stewart points out, are apex predators and have existed for millennia almost unchanged. As apex predators, they provide evolutionary pressure to fish (and are likely the reason that some fish form tight schools, much as herd animals on land evolved to tighten up to avoid predation) and help maintain fish populations at a state that can be supported by the marine ecosystem.

This in turn helps ensure that plankton, which produce the majority (estimated 70%) of the oxygen we rely on, are not overconsumed. With fewer higher level predators, primary and mid-level consumers that include a heavy diet of plankton could cause the plankton population to crash.

That would not spell good things for the planet, or for us.

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark

When Stewart died, he was reportedly making a sequel to Sharkwater. He also made the 2012 film Revolution and the 2015 film The Fight for Bala.

If you haven’t seen Sharkwater yet, and have the ability to access it (it’s available on a number of streaming services, including ones that do not require a subscription), take the time to watch it. The Sharkwater website also contains a teacher’s guide for teaching this film to secondary school students, which may also be useful for home viewing, especially if you watch the film with teens.

sharkwater-1

Scene from Sharkwater

 

Leave a comment

Dr. McGrady to Present at DecomWorld 2017

Dr. Jill McGrady, California Office Lead, will present the latest research and thinking about Rigs-to-Reef this afternoon at 1:30 PM CDT at DecomWorld GoM 2017 in Houston, TX. Her talk is titled: “Reefing’s New Frontiers: An Update on Global Development & Reefing in Deepwater.” She will lead a panel regarding developments in the Rigs-to-Reef program as the industry considers reefing in deeper waters as well as how oil structures are being adapted for eco-tourism in Malaysia and marine parks in west Africa.

DecomWorld GoM focuses on “decommissioning, well plugging and abandonment, and late life strategies” which are undergoing significant disruption due to low oil prices, regulatory changes, and rapidly improving technologies. This year, the conference offers three tracks: Wells, Structures, and Strategy & Finance.

Leave a comment

Great Ecology Welcomes Kay Wiseman

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Kay Wiseman has joined our Denver office. Kay is an ecologist with more than eight years of experience, which include research on the impacts of invasive species; botanical surveys and habitat assessments; and noxious weed identification and management. Her expertise in ecotypic plant materials collection, revegetation, and ecological management planning will be a huge asset to the work being done in our Denver office. Kay holds a BS in Ecology from University of Louisville, and is a qualified supervisor for pesticide application, in the State of Colorado.

Leave a comment

City on the Sea, Part III

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This is the final segment of a 3-part blog on the future of seasteading, that posted on consecutive Tuesdays. Check out Part I and Part II.

Energy

Many of the models on the Seasteading Institute website showed solar energy capture, with solar fields taking up part of the city, or covering rooftops. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to store solar energy, but depending on the location of the floating city perhaps this would be only a minor problem (if it was located in a place in the world with abundant sunshine).

As long as we’re talking about solar energy—what does this look like without solar panels? The Seasteading institute suggests that since the tropical oceans absorb 3x the amount of energy each day that the world currently consumes, there are opportunities for research, development, and harnessing. The Institute also suggests that Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion provides an opportunity for generating power (for the floating city as well as land-based nations).

There’s also the potential for capturing wave energy. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) notes that wave energy, at least along the coast of the United States has tremendous potential as an energy source. “[T]he total wave energy resource along the outer continental shelf [was estimated] at 2,640 terawatt hours/year (TWh/yr).” The energy potential in this is significant as just one TWh/yr can supply a little shy of 94,000 average US homes with power annually. However, wave energy cannot be fully harnessed due to things like shipping, commercial fishing, and environmental concerns in sensitive areas.

Harnessing wind energy is something we’ve already started to do, and with a fair amount of success. Depending on the location, wind energy has a lot of potential (pun intended) for this type of project. It would be fairly easy to set up wind generation stations on the roofs of buildings or as other parts of the landscape.

Compost piles can be used to heat water or to generate biogas (through the use of a biodigester) for use in cooking. If done properly, either of these options will have little to no odor, and provide an opportunity for dealing with the floating city’s waste.

Partially-constructed compost mound water heater. Image from: Cornell University.

Partially-constructed compost mound water heater. Image from: Cornell University.

Other Concerns

My colleague brought up the question of what happens to sea life beneath these cities, and I think that really depends. If the cities are static (i.e. more or less permanently moored), this has the potential to radically alter the way that sea life looks below them, since fewer-to-no UV rays would be able to extend into those parts of the ocean. The materials used would also impact the suitability of these cities to become anchor points for crustaceans, seaweeds, and other ocean life that prefers to anchor to a particular place rather than drifting or floating.

We may have some reference points in the form of oil and gas (O&G) platforms, which are generally designed to last 20 to 30 years, though some are maintained to last longer. The topsides of most O&G platforms include living quarters that consist of an average of 20 rooms, with thirty beds, a cooking facility, a galley, a landing pad for helicopters and other features. Most fixed structure standing oil platforms can stretch as deep as 1,500 feet, and may stretch across several pilings or ‘legs.’ The British Petroleum Oil Rig in the Gulf of Mexico that lead to the deep-water horizon disaster was 400 feet by 250 feet, roughly the size of two football fields, and supported a crew of 130 people. Some platform structures are even larger, in fact many of today’s platforms are essentially small cities equipped with cafeterias, lounges, and some even have small movie theatres.

Life on an oil platform. Image from: Blue Latitudes.

Life on an oil platform. Image from: Blue Latitudes.

While the aforementioned O&G structures are fairly typical to the industry as we’ve understood it in the past, there may also be a model in the world’s largest ship ever built, and the first floating liquefied natural gas platform, which is scheduled to begin drilling later this year. Although this is a moveable facility, the ship is expected to remain moored for 25 years. The sheer size of these structures alter the ocean life around them—but they also provide new opportunities for colonization, which leads to species congregation near the structure and/or greater species diversity.

On the other hand, if these cities are unmoored (truly floating cities), that changes the impact to sea life immediately beneath them—and likely decreases the risk of an area receiving little or no UV light. It also increases the risk that these floating cities would drift into deeper waters, where wave power could change, and where ocean currents could sweep them far adrift (and therefore outside of the range of mainland emergency services, among other things). There would also be the risk that truly unmoored floating cities would break apart in rougher waters without ways to reunite or end up in the path of a barge as they drifted into a shipping channel. They might even end up in the territorial waters of a hostile nation or face other, unexpected interpersonal or geopolitical problems.

These considerations must be taken into account to keep the residents of the floating city safe.

Conclusion

While the reality of a floating city might be years (or longer) away, it’s interesting to consider some of the problems (and solutions!) which might arise from such a place. Floating cities, in some ways, force us to consider what it might be like to dramatically restructure our lives—and potentially on a more permanent basis than what occurs with remote research or O&G facilities.

Floating cities also provide an opportunity to expand our conception of what SLR planning (and resiliency planning, in general) could look like and how technology, engineering, ecology, and a spot of idealism might play a role in shaping these types of places.

Floating cities are not exactly a new concept—but so far, none have come to fruition in the ways conceived by this project. As mentioned earlier, O&G platforms, in many ways, serve as self-contained cities for short periods of time. People have also approached this idea as a way to divest themselves from global politics or economics—for reasons focused on self-governance, participatory governance, and economic freedom.

But, these projects have, so far, failed to become reality because of the tremendous expense associated not only with the conceptual design and development, but also with the actual construction of such places. This price tag will need to be addressed, as will the idea of who, exactly gets to live in places with such a high price tag. Will these options truly be open to people who lose their homes and livelihoods due to sea level rise?

Although I’ve focused on floating cities for the purpose of this blog post—because of the MOU signed between the Seasteading Institute and French Polynesia—the research for this blog has also taken me on an adventure of exploring how these floating structures might look as research centers or farms, and the potential opportunities these options present as well (algae farming, anyone?).

 

What have I missed? I would love to hear your feedback through our Facebook page.

Leave a comment

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »