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Sacramento We’re Moving!

We’re excited to announce Great Ecology’s Sacramento office has moved to a new location.

Contact Senior Ecologist and office lead, Dr. Jessie Quinn to learn more about Great Ecology’s environmental consulting services in the Sac-Bay Delta and greater Northern California area.

Our new contact information is:

1008 2nd Street
Suite 209
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 376-7691

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How to Stay on Top of a Dynamic Industry

“If I am not listening to the people I work with on a daily basis, then I am not paying attention to the world in which I live.” –Dr. Mark Laska, Where Leaders Find Advice, The Zweig Letter November 3rd Issue.

Great Ecology’s Founder & CEO Dr. Mark Laska is featured alongside other industry leaders in the recent Zweig Letter. Dr. Laska shares his “go-to resources” for facilitating his business achievements, including his mentor, wife, friends, and forum. Great Ecology is thrilled to be featured again by Zweig Group after being honored as one of the Hot 100 Firms of 2014.

For more articles visit The Zweig Letter.


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Long Live Trees

Jeff Harlan Esq., LEED AP

In the pantheon of environmental activists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t the first person to come to mind. And while usually known for his contributions to the nation’s civil rights movement in the 1960’s, Dr. King often wove a thread of environmentalism in his speeches. He is widely cited as stating, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Dr. King’s suggestion that we should always care for our natural resources and be good stewards for future generations has some new scientific support. In a recent study of nearly 700,000 trees, 37 scientists from 16 nations determined that, contrary to other animals and living things, trees grow faster the older they get.

Contrary to many other living things, trees grow wider and faster the older they get.

Contrary to many other living things, trees grow wider and faster the older they get.

According to the study, published in the January 2014 issue of Nature, tree growth rate increases continuously as trees get bigger and bigger. While trees seem to reach a height limit, they continue to add mass and get wider with age.

Co-author Nate Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based in California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks (home to some of the world’s largest and awe inspiring trees), explains, “It’s as if, on your favorite sports team, you find out the star players are a bunch of 90-year-olds. They’re the most active. They’re the ones scoring the most points.”

This is particularly important in considering the role trees play in reducing carbon dioxide, the gas most commonly associated with climate change. Trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it as carbon in their wood; and the older, larger ones do it in greater quantities.

So if you were to draft an All Star team to combat climate change, you’d pass on the flashy rookie sapling and load up on the (very) seasoned veteran trees. A solid bench of mature trees—an old growth forest, for example—holds a lot of carbon.

Sustainable forestry practices can ensure that beautiful wooden architecture can be enjoyed for many generations to come.

Sustainable forestry practices can ensure that beautiful wooden architecture can be enjoyed for many generations to come.

And while growing bigger, more mature trees is a sustainable forestry practice, it also has practical applications. There’s a story about a building at New College in Oxford, England, where the main hall, built in the 1600s, was constructed with huge oak beams. By the 1950s, the 40-foot long by 2-foot thick beams were rotting, and replacing them at current prices was prohibitive.

The school’s building committee ultimately consulted the College Forester, who replied, “We’ve been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they would suffer from dry rot.” Clearly a forester with foresight understands how long-term stewardship and resource management plays a critical role in our natural and built environments.

Selecting the appropriate location for urban trees can mean the difference between growing an asset and planting a liability.

Selecting the appropriate location for urban trees can mean the difference between growing an asset and planting a liability.

Cities across the United States are focusing on improving their green infrastructure, expanding tree planting and instituting sustainable management practices to optimize the benefits trees provide. New York City is one of the most well-known examples, and Great Ecology’s assessments of and restoration designs for the Central Park Woodlands illustrates how communities can improve a resource’s functionality in an urban context.

Promoting long-term growth of trees also depends on understanding how these living organisms require certain planting conditions to survive and thrive. In their recently released paper, “Trees in Urban Design,” professional engineer Paul Crabtree and certified arborist Lysistrata Hall offer a set of principles and tools to guide effective and sustainable tree planting in our city streetscapes. One of these principles—design the tree from the roots up—recognizes the idea that trees need sufficient space, especially in urban conditions.

Large trees need up to 1000 cubic feet of soil for their roots.

Large trees need up to 1000 cubic feet of soil for successful planting.

Selecting the appropriate tree for a particular location can mean the difference between growing an asset and planting a liability. For example, comparing one tree planted in 150 cubic feet of soil to the same tree in 1,000 cubic feet, the former provides about -$3,500 net lifecycle costs, while the latter provides over $25,000 in benefits during its longer lifetime. According to Crabtree and Hall, a tree in less soil would have to be replanted five times because its lifespan is only 7-10 years (in comparison to one tree in significantly more soil living 50+ years).

So the next time you gaze at a towering redwood in an old-growth forest, admire the wood-beamed structure of a building, or enjoy the beauty and shade of a canopied street, think of those who planned for the long-term. In Dr. King’s words, this kind of stewardship will ensure the “world will not go to pieces.” Knock on wood.

About the Author:

Jeff Harlan, Senior PlannerJeff Harlan is Great Ecology’s Senior Planner with over 15 years of experience as a community planner, specializing in sustainable development, strategic planning, and environmental design. Trained as an environmental attorney, Jeff has an expert knowledge of community development and brings a unique approach to complex land use problems.

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Great Ecology’s Upcoming Events

Come meet Great Ecology’s staff at one of the upcoming conferences:

Atlantic Estuarine Research Society Fall 2014 Meeting.
Join Senior Ecologist and former AERS President, Dr. David J. Yozzo this week: Oct. 30-Nov. 1 at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Restore America’s Estuaries
Come by our booth and meet our team in Washington D.C. – we’ll be at booth #215  Nov. 2-5

  • Senior Ecologist, Dr. David J. Yozzo
  • Associate Designer, Charlie Howe
  • Associate Ecologist, Alejandro Julian
  • Marketing Manager, Sarah Stevens

Wildlife Habitat Council Annual Symposium
Nov, 10-11 in Baltimore
Meet President Dr. Mark Laska and Senior Ecologists Dr. David J. Yozzo and Rick Black
And, catch Dr. Laska on the Panel Session #2, on Monday, Nov. 10, presenting Innovative Habitat Restoration Approaches on Remediated Corporate Lands.

SETAC North America
Nov 9-14, Vancouver
VP Technical Services, Timothy Hoelzle heads up to Vancouver and joins Mike Hooper of the U.S. Geological Survey on Thursday Nov. 13 to discuss the integration of remediation and final site restoration on contaminated sites. They’re sharing key takeaways form the joint SER/SETAC workshop earlier this year.

ASLA Annual Meeting
Nov. 21-24, Denver
Meet Associate Landscape Architect, Chris Loftus, RLA, and Associate Designer, Charlie Howe

See you there!

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Trees Provide Evidence for Forensic Scientists

Ioana Petrisor, Ph.D.

Trees provide beauty and health to our planet. They support life and create scenic landscapes. Beyond all these benefits, trees provide sustainable environmental tools and solutions to many contamination issues. Phytoremediation, a proven remediation technique, involves the use of trees to extract toxic chemicals from the subsurface and prevent the spread of contaminants. This ability of trees to extract contaminants expands their use from site clean-up and rehabilitation to other important environmental fields including site assessment and environmental forensics. The emerging use of trees for site assessments and forensic studies is still a relatively new technique.

Tree-ring fingerprinting to age-date contamination


Researchers are tapping into trees to reveal chronological records of contamination events.

One of the most innovative and perhaps also one of the least known applications of trees relates to their use in environmental forensics for accurate age-dating, source identification, and reconstruction of subsurface transport of contaminants over time. Such applications provide reliable evidence in litigation, helping to identify responsible parties and to cover remediation costs. In addition, trees provide useful characterization tools at non-litigated sites, enabling efficient remediation design.

The forensic use of trees is based on some basic principles governing the well-established science of dendrochronology which uses information from tree growth rings to reconstruct past climates. The general principle is based on the fact that in most temperate climates trees produce yearly growth rings which are visibly demarcated, can be measured, and are directly related to the tree health during the time of their formation. Therefore, ring width patterns may provide information related to climatic factors influencing tree health over time. Similarly, environmental forensics uses the information stored in tree growth rings to reconstruct past contamination events. This use of trees involves the measurement of both ring width and chemical composition via a technique usually referred to as dendroecology or tree-ring fingerprinting.

Tree rings

Tree rings provide valuable information to forensic environmental scientists in the reconstruction of contamination events.

Tree-ring fingerprinting provides the width and the chemical elemental composition of growth rings from trees exposed to contamination. When contaminants get into the root zone, they are absorbed and transported up the trunk along with water and nutrients and are circulated only through the outermost ring formed in that particular year. Once in the tree, contaminants migrate through the tree trunk toward branches and leaves. During their migration, contaminants leave traces in the ring cells of the outermost ring. Traces consist of so called “elemental markers”. These are elements (other than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – the building blocks of trees) present in targeted contaminants such as: chlorine for chlorinated solvents, lead for leaded gasoline, sulphur for Diesel and fuel oils, and nickel and vanadium for crude oils and heavy distillates.

By measuring elemental markers ring by ring, we can observe when chemical peaks occur and link those to the year(s) when the contamination entered he tree.This allows us to age-date contamination events. As rings form on a yearly basis, contamination may be age-dated to the year which is more precise than any other age-dating technique available today. Moreover, the accurate age-dating capability may extend as much in the past as the tree age allows (i.e., hundreds or even thousands of years) and the method can be applied in the absence of contamination at the time of sampling (e.g., at mitigated sites). Note that this age-dating technique is more precise when the selected trees are located close to the suspected source. When more trees are available in the study area (at different distances from the source), the reconstruction of plume subsurface movement over time becomes possible through tracking chemical elemental peaks in consecutive years in various trees.

This tool, known as an incremental borer, extracts core samples from trees for dendroecological analysis.  Photo by Ioana Petrisor

Figure 1: An incremental borer, extracts core samples from trees. Photo by Dr. Petrisor.

Sampling the trees for fingerprinting studies is easy and fast (10-15 minutes per tree) using hand-held increment borers (Figure 1) which extract tree core samples. The extracted core (Figure 2) should be dried at room temperature, sanded in order to produce a polished surface (Figure 3) and then analyzed using microdensitrometry images for ring width measurements and energy-dispersive X-Ray fluorescence (EDXRF) for chemical elemental analysis.  More information on the forensic use of trees, as well as on sampling and analysis techniques can be found in my recent text book, Environmental Forensics Fundamentals: A Practical Guide (Petrisor, 2014).

Figure 1 (left) shows a recently extracted tree core sample. Figure 2 (right) shows a sample already sanded and ready for analysis

Figure 2: (left)  A recently extracted tree core sample. Figure 3: (right) A sanded and prepped core sample ready for analysis. Photo by Dr. Petrisor.

Trees also provide sustainable tools in site assessment. A method referred to as “phytoscreening” uses tree core samples to detect and map subsurface contamination without the need for disruptive soil borings or monitoring wells. The method is fast and accurate as shown by USGS. This process is simpler than tree-ring fingerprinting as it involves the testing of contaminants from the whole core sample with no ring-by-ring analysis needed. Phytoscreening may also be performed using tree branches instead of tree cores, making the method even more simple and time-effective (Gapalakrishnan et al., 2007).

Both aesthetically pleasing and nearly ubiquitous, trees provide some of the most accurate, sustainable, and innovative environmental tools and the means to decontaminate our planet. There is no doubt that we are going to see an increase use of these natural tools in site investigations and remediation in the years to come.

Recommended Reading:

Publications regarding phytoscreening include those by Sorek et al. (2008); Larsen et al. (2008); & Burken et al. (2011)


Burken, J.G., Vrobleski, D.A., Balouet, J.C. 2011. Phytoforensics, Dendrochemistry, and Phytoscreening: New Green Tools for Delineating Contaminants from Past and Present. Environmental Science & Technology 45(15): 6218-6226.

Gapalakrishnan, G., Brgri,, M.C., Minsker, B.S., Werth, C.J. 2007. Monitoring Subsurface Contamination Using Tree Branches. Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation 27(1): 65-74.

Larsen, M., Burken, J.,Machackova, J., Karlson, U.G., Trapp, S. 2008. Using Tree Core Samples to Monitor Natural Attenuation and Plume Distribution after a PCE Spill. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42: 1711-1717.

Petrisor, I.G. 2014. Environmental Forensics Fundamentals: A Practical Guide. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 395 pages.

Sorek, A., Atzmon, N., Dahan, O., Gerstl, Z., Kushisin, L., Laor, Y., Mingelgrin, U., Nasser, A., Ronen, D., Tsechansky, L., Weisbrod, N., Graber, E.R. 2008. “Phytoscreening”: The Use of Trees for Discovering Subsurface Contamination by VOCs. Environ. Sci. Technol.  42: 536-542.

About the Author:

Dr. Ioana Petrisor - Senior EcologistDr. Petrisor is Great Ecology’s Senior Biochemist and a leading environmental forensic scientist with over 20 years of experience. She specializes in determining the source and age of environmental contaminants using innovative forensic fingerprinting techniques. She has served as an expert witness, is the Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Forensics Journal, and recently published a text book, Environmental Forensics Fundamentals: A Practical Guide, on forensic fingerprinting techniques.

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Ecology of a Bicycle Commute: Pedaling the South Platte River Greenway

The Niver Creek Trail passes through suburban Thornton parallel to stormwater infrastructure.

The Niver Creek Trail passes through suburban Thornton parallel to stormwater infrastructure. Photo by Chris Loftus.

Chris Loftus, RLA

I held a smartphone in one hand, the left handlebar grip with the other, and navigated the streets of suburban Thornton, Colorado at 7:00 am. The neighborhood streets led to Niver Creek trail, which crossed into an easement between agricultural properties. As I passed farm fields, prairie dogs scurried across the concrete trail. Along Niver Creek I spotted an egret downstream from a raft of ducks. Willows and cottonwoods shaded portions of the creek near its confluence with the South Platte River. Along the South Platte River Greenway, rabbits appeared from piles of brush and darted across the trail toward the river below. A Great Blue Heron stood stoically at the river’s edge. All of this occurred within a patchwork of residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial land uses.

A mix of native and non-native vegetation grows along the edge of Niver Creek trail near its confluence with the South Platte River.

A mix of native and non-native vegetation grows along the edge of Niver Creek trail near its confluence with the South Platte River. Photo by Chris Loftus.

In an increasingly urbanized world, greenways like the South Platte River corridor play an important ecological role. Greenways – multipurpose corridors that include vegetation, recreational trails, and oftentimes waterways and urban infrastructure – hold the potential to connect parks, open space, and other habitat nodes and create expansive networks of green space. Small mammals, numerous bird species, and fish inhabit or migrate through rivers, tributaries, and riparian vegetation. Riparian greenways provide habitat, improve air quality, and reduce sedimentation and pollution of adjacent waterways. When implemented at a sufficiently large scale, greenways reduce urban heat islands and improve watershed and aquifer health. Greenways also improve air quality by encouraging non-motorized transportation, thereby reducing vehicular emissions.

The South Platte River Greenway between Thornton and Denver.

The South Platte River Greenway between Thornton and Denver. Photo by Chris Loftus.

As I continued to pedal toward Denver’s urban edge, I took a rapid inventory of the greenway’s condition and found environments of variable quality. Stretches of the trail wove through a mosaic of agricultural and industrial landscapes. An array of olfactory hues, from the ammonia-heavy stench of chicken houses, to oil refinery emissions and the scent of wastewater treatment, wafted over the trail at various locations. The quantity and quality of riparian habitat varied along these heavily impacted zones, and non-native species dominated in places.

Despite the greenway’s varying conditions, the South Platte has come a long way in the past forty years. Prior to major cleanup efforts initiated in 1974, some termed the South Platte “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” In 1965, a major flood, compounded by decades of degradation from unregulated industrial and agricultural land use caused $325 million in damages. The event motivated City officials to take action. In 1974, the City of Denver formed the Platte River Development Committee to strategize reclamation of the river corridor. The committee evolved into the non-profit Greenway Foundation in 1976, and continues to play an instrumental role in coordinating planning efforts and funding sources for the vital community amenity.

Cyclists enjoy a ride on the South Platte River Greenway trail north of Denver.

Cyclists enjoy a ride on the South Platte River Greenway trail north of Denver. Photo by Chris Loftus.

The Greenway Foundation and its partners have made substantial improvements since the initial efforts began, including over 100 miles of trails, over 100 acres of park land, and significant water quality and riparian habitat enhancements. Along its most traveled sections through Denver’s core, the greenway is a vibrant urban corridor embraced by the community. The Greenway Foundation’s South Platte River Master Plan outlines additional improvements to be implemented in the future, including upgrades to existing parks, construction of new parks, riparian buffer and wetland enhancements, increased ecological connectivity, additional public access points, and the incorporation of public art projects.

A cyclist rides through one of the greenway’s heavily industrialized zones.

A cyclist rides through one of the greenway’s heavily industrialized zones. Photo by Chris Loftus.

Pedaling through areas identified for future improvements in the Master Plan, I took a hairpin turn and rode up a steep switchback, leaving behind the relative serenity of the greenway’s underutilized northern segment. I emerged between a McDonald’s and a gas station, negotiated a few Denver streets, and arrived at the office. While my commute took me through some raw industrial zones, there were also thriving natural areas along the way. The potential for enhanced habitat connectivity and better community access was clear. As the greenway evolves and improves through the implementation of additional restoration and revitalization projects, the City of Denver, surrounding communities, and the region’s urban ecology will continue to reap its many benefits.

And for anyone concerned for the safety of a phone wielding bicycle commuter, I’m happy to report that I only needed the smartphone’s map on the first of many commutes.

The greenway trail passes below railroad infrastructure on Denver’s north side.

A multitude of trails and greenways form an extensive network throughout the Denver metropolitan area. The South Platte River Greenway serves as the primary north-south corridor.  Photo Courtesy of Sandcreekgreenway.org.



Smith, D. S. and Hellmund, P. C., Ecology of Greenways: Design and Function of Linear Conservation Areas, 1993

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Where’s the Beef?

Devin O’Dea

The average American consumes about 270 pounds of beef every year, happily patronizing an industry that has grown dramatically over the last century. In the Western United States 70% of land is grazed by livestock–that’s approximately 270 million acres of public land, including wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, and even national parks. If you have hiked even some of the most remote wilderness areas of the Western United States, you have probably noticed the tell-tale signs of cattle ranching. Unfortunately, the effects from cattle grazing on public lands have exacerbated the threat to endangered plant and animal species and have polluted a huge portion of water sources in the West. The lush ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that covered a great portion of the Western United States, and the species that rely on this habitat to survive are literally being trampled by domestic livestock. Meanwhile, cattle ranchers and law men have become embroiled in an armed old-western standoff over the issue.

A hungry cow stands over trampled earth. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

A hungry cow stands over trampled earth. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The recent court ruling and subsequent civil dispute between Clive Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in U.S. v. Bundy, highlights the contentious nature of the debate regarding the rights to livestock grazing on public land. Currently in the United States, livestock are permitted to roam free and graze on a huge portion of public land, providing the cattle rancher pay a permitting fee of $1.35 per cow, per month (a figure which has hardly changed since its inception in 1978). That’s less than it would cost the average pet owner to feed their goldfish, and 7 times less than the cost of feeding a house cat for a month. Mr. Bundy, however, refused to pay these fees and after nearly 20 years of court proceedings the BLM finally notified Mr. Bundy of the intent to remove his cattle from public lands, sparking the armed standoff between authorities and supporters of free-roaming cattle. Endangered species, such as the desert tortoise, which have been threatened by Mr. Bundy’s cattle grazing, represent a microcosm of this larger macro problem of livestock-induced habitat degradation across the Western United States.

Cattle and Desertification

Livestock ranching is the most potent force behind desertification in the U.S. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So what are the measurable effects of livestock grazing, and why is this an important issue for species protection and restoration ecology efforts? “Grazing has contributed to the demise of 22% of federal threatened and endangered species.” (Wilcove et al.) That’s the same as the detrimental effects of logging and mining combined. Livestock grazing affects 33% of endangered plants and results in the consumption of 88% of available forage food. Ranching in the 20th century has all but eliminated prairie dog towns and threatened the 170 species who depended on them and their burrows. In addition to species loss, domestic livestock ranching is the most potent desertification source, with 225 million acres reported in the U.S.

Domestic livestock waste and disease has also contaminated 80% of streams in the arid West. Beyond the pathogenic bacteria introduced into streams and water sources, there exists a litany of other negative impacts to streambed hydrology, morphology, vegetation, aquatic life, and riparian ecosystems.

One of the hunted predators wrongly accused of decimating livestock populations

One of the hunted predators accused of decimating livestock populations. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

Furthermore, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year to kill predators, such as bobcats, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and bears, which are deemed threatening to the existence of livestock. This is ironic given that the fact that only 4.7% of cattle and calf losses are attributed to predation, and domestic dogs kill as many livestock as mountain lions, bobcats, bears, and wolves combined.

Although some studies have shown that livestock grazing can help to eliminate chaparral (shrubland plant) growth and therefore reduce fire danger, there are other studies to show that the invasive growth and weeds which follow livestock grazing also contribute to higher fuel loads.

The debate rages on regarding grazing and its impacts on wildfires. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The debate rages on – livestock grazing and its impacts on wildfires. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Another argument sites the efficacy of livestock grazing to control invasive species, such as the introduction of goats to eat Kudzu (Pueria lobata) in the South Eastern United States, but this argument is also a double edged sword as invasive species often flourish in over-grazed lands. Conservation grazing is an initiative that attempts to find middle ground amidst the opposing debaters, and it is often cited by ranchers as proof that free range cattle can be beneficial to the environment. This particular approach regulates the amount of grazing allowed in a particular area, controlling the height and density of grasses which allows many shorter wildflower species the opportunity to flourish. This process requires careful controls over the duration, quantity, and range of grazing in order to succeed.

Over 100 million federal taxpayer dollars are spent every year to directly subsidize cattle ranching on public lands. But, how much money will need to be spent to restore our rapidly degrading ecosystems? The propagation of livestock for personal and commercial purposes is an American tradition that dates back well before the revolutionary war. Yet, will our insatiable appetite for beef contribute to the loss of thousands of native species? The U.S. government currently spends over a billion dollars on endangered species protection and millions on ecological restoration, but the source of destruction must be addressed first if restoration efforts are to hold any ground in the future.


Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J Dubow, A Phillips, E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States: assessing the relative importance of habitat destruction, alien species, pollution, overexploitation and disease. BioScience 48(8): 610.

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Rapid Growth: How We Tackled Growing Pains

“It’s a fact: Growth costs money” – The Zweig Letter

Great Ecology knows this well. As we’ve grown from a 2 person firm in New York City to 34 employees in 6 office locations in just 13 years, we’ve had to overcome a number of “growing pains”.

As a 2014 ZweigWhite Hot Firm List awardee, Great Ecology’s President, Dr. Mark Laska, shares our challenges and strategies associated with rapid growth in The Zweig Letter’s Growth Issue. One challenge we faced, maintaining one, unified firm culture across multiple time zones and locations.

For more articles visit The Zweig Letter.

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Growing Concerns for Coral Reefs

Devin O’Dea

Bleached Coral Reef

This dead coral reef has little hope of sustaining life. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

One often hears that ecology and the environment hold intrinsic value for the human race. Economists have now quantified that figure and can say with relative certainty that we are flushing billions down the drain. Coral reefs are some of the most abundant ecosystems on the planet whose services are worth an estimated $375 billion per year to the global economy. Reefs provide a habitat for approximately 4000 different species of fish, and they are the backbone of our modern fishing industry. Currently 75% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by a variety of stress factors, and in some regions up to 95% of reefs have died off completely. Reef regeneration is a creative and exciting process attempting to restore and revitalize the valuable ecosystems across the globe.

bleached coral

The exposed skeleton of a bleached coral. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

The factors precipitating the decline of our world’s coral reefs are diverse and catastrophic. Coral reefs have the incredible ability to survive and self-regenerate following catastrophic natural events such as hurricanes and huge ocean swells, however the multitude and frequency of factors facilitating their recent decline have led scientists to deem their recovery unlikely if no action is taken. Although climate change, bringing warmer and more acidic waters, is predicted to be one of coral’s greatest threats in the future, anthropogenic acts are primarily responsible for decimating global reefs in our lifetimes. The high-level synopsis of these acts posits coastal development, watershed based pollution, marine-based pollution and damage, dredging, and overfishing or destructive fishing as the major threats to coral reef systems.

Invasive Lionfish

The lionfish, a new delicacy for spear fishers and conservationists alike. Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

As a result of anthropogenic effects on reefs, massive die-outs have occurred, which has disrupted homeostasis and allowed invasive species to thrive. Algae and lionfish are two invasive organisms that pose a large threat to current reefs. Coral bleaching allows algae to cover the nutrient rich skeletons of hard corals, and over fishing coupled with the massive loss of urchins has reduced the species that once kept the algae in check. This has contributed to the rapid growth of algae on living corals, which prevents coral photosynthesis and leads to greater species loss. Lionfish have also invaded and flourished in many reef ecosystems consuming small fish species before they have a chance to reproduce, further exacerbating the over fishing problem.

It is at this global juncture, on the brink of losing 75% of our coral reefs  in the ensuing decades that marine biologists, activists, and ecologists have teamed up to take matters in their own hands. The movement to restore and regenerate coral reefs has sprouted simultaneously in distinct geospatial locations in recent years.  While there are a variety of different approaches to coral restoration, the guiding principles are the same. Groups are propagating corals in aquaculture labs, open ocean nurseries, shipwrecks, and man-made reef structures to increase the genetic diversity of coral and catalyze their recovery.

angel azul coral reef

Coral Fragments grow from a sunken sculpture depicted in the new documentary, Angel Azul. Photo courtesy of Jason deCaires Taylor.

As many corals reproduce asexually, hundreds of thousands of coral fragments are harvested and strapped, glued, wedged, wired, and tied to a number of reef structures in order to restore bleached or destroyed reef ecosystems. One coral, Acropora cervicornis, also known as the staghorn coral, can grow up to 15 cm linearly per branch per year. This has given researchers and activists hope and momentum as significant progress can be seen after only a few years.

Restoration efforts differ between structural, biological, and physical restoration depending on the needs of the local ecosystem and varying success factors. Structural restoration is necessary in areas where the reef has been degraded due to blast fishing, boat grounding, dredging, landslides or other areas where corals will not have a solid structure to attach to. This has been the advent of various man-made reef structures including shipwrecks, wire frames, and even life-size sculptures are sunk to create artificial reefs. Rigs to reefs is another example where retired oil rigs are re-purposed and converted into thriving reef ecosystems.

Gametes Released from Coral

Gametes are released from corals only once a year. Photo courtesy of New Heaven dive school

Biological restoration is necessary in areas with low connectivity to other reefs, coral populations with low reproductive capabilities, or where gametes (coral larvae) are unable to settle due to grazing, algae, and other factors. As gametes are only released once a year, due to coral’s synchronous spawning habits, divers attempt to collect them as they float to the surface in the middle of the night. These fertilized corals are then grown in controlled settings and released back into the ocean once they are large enough to attach to a reef structure.

Physical restoration is the most recent and experimental approach as it attempts to address the conditions surrounding the fecundity, or reproductive capacity of reefs. One approach is to create mid-water nurseries where corals have clear water (critical for photosynthesis), and a lack of predators, pollution, and eutrophication. These open ocean restoration efforts generally have higher survival rates and grow faster than similar colonies on natural reef. In addition, scientists have even experimented with using “biorock,” and other mineral accretion devices to create favorable conditions for coral development. These devices change the water chemistry around the (coral) structure using low voltage electrical energy. As a result of the electrolysis, pH levels are increased and carbonate salts are precipitated out of the water. This allows corals to devote less energy to skeletal formation and more resources to reproduction, tissue growth/repair, and immune system strength. Corals growing on mineral accretion devices grow 3-5 times faster than normal corals.

biorock structure

Divers carefully monitor a biorock structure at the Hin Fai restoration site in Thailand. Photo courtesy of New Heaven dive school

Although huge strides are being made in coral restoration, adaptation, and the use of designer corals to combat changing ocean conditions, the factors that threaten the existence of coral reefs still need to be addressed. The success of coral restoration efforts can be undermined by the continuation of detrimental practices that degrade our marine ecosystems. The fate of coral reefs and the world’s most-traded food commodity, fish, could be decided in our lifetime.

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The Eco-Tech Revolution

Zachary Lehmann

Robotics and ecology are not two terms you see used together often; however in the last few years, advances in robotics technology and a dramatic drop in prices of hobby grade electronics have led to a revolution in the applied ecology field. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs), more commonly referred to as drones, have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, most notably for their involvement in modern warfare. A recent spike in public interest in the hobby aviation industry has caused radios, helicopters, planes, and a myriad of other electronic devices to become more common place and easily accessible. As a result the cost for remote controlled flying machines has plummeted, and many ecologists and other traditionally low-tech industries have begun adopting the technology for their work.

The agricultural industry has used remote controlled planes fitted with infrared cameras to monitor the productivity of their crops for years. Multi-rotor UAS’s have been used to generate 3-dimensional models of remote areas and conduct vegetation surveys of small islands in Long Island Sound. UAS technology is even being used to track and help combat poaching in Africa and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor climate change in the arctic.

UAS deters poaching in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.dronezine.it/2144/elefante-spaventato-elefante-salvato/

UAS combats poaching in Africa. Photo courtesy of dronezine.it

ConservationDrones.org is a community focused on promoting the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for environmental conservation. Their website features an impressive list of applications that the new UAS technology is already being used for.

The recent Ecological Society of America (ESA) article, Lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Will Revolutionize Spatial Ecology, describes exactly why the technology is so applicable to ecology:

“Ecologists require spatially explicit data to relate structure to function. UAVs offer ecologists new opportunities for scale-appropriate measurements of ecological phenomena.”

Ecology and UAS technologies – they seem like such a perfect fit! UAS technology is cheaper than traditional methods, easier to maintain, and more efficient.

So where’s the catch?

FAA is under rising pressure to regulate this booming industry. Photo Courtesy of: http://theenterprisereport.typepad.com/news/2010/05/exclusive-safety-second-thomas-stuckey-former-top-faa-safety-official-removed-for-safety-lapses-back.html

FAA is under rising pressure to regulate the booming UAS industry.
Photo courtesy of

As a new, unprecedented technology with mass applications, regulations have not yet caught up to the technology and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still deliberating UAS regulations. Up until about 2012 UAS’s weren’t very common outside of a few specialized clubs nor did they have mass market appeal. Now Google, Amazon, and Domino’s Pizza have unveiled plans to start delivering goods via UAS technologies. The FAA is under substantial pressure to update the outdated regulations as the UAS industry shows no sign of slowing down and is projected to reach $83 billion by 2025.

Current FAA regulations prohibit the use of UAS technology for commercial use. Their argument is that the airspace used by commercial drones is publically owned and therefore should not be used for profit. In the absence of better defined air spaces and new regulations, all commercial uses, even non-profit university programs, are being shut down since current regulations consider any flying contraption to be subject to FAA regulations (if interpreted literally, paper airplanes would fall under this jurisdiction). The current regulations impose severe fines running up to $10,000 for those found using UAS technology for commercial purposes.

There are a number of real issues to be addressed to ensure the safety and privacy of everyone. For example, should a certificate or commercial insurance be required to operate a UAS? Should new regulations stipulate that you can fly up to 500 feet (above) on any land you own? As they stand now, anyone can buy and fly these devices and without enforceable privacy regulations, a number of issues can come up.

Nation divided over ethical use of drones in society. Photo courtesy of: Palmbeachcoast.com

UAS takes flight over Florida’s wetlands.
Photo courtesy of: Palmbeachcoast.com

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is the leading model aircraft organization in the US. Currently, they have filed a petition for review of the FAA’s most recent interpretive rule claiming the FAA’s ruling contradicts language they included in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 by adding new rules and regulations regarding model aircraft

All these issues may explain why the international UAS industries are booming while UAS is lagging behind in the US. Europe has a robust UAS industry for both hobby grade fliers and professionals. There, commercial use of UAS technology is common and they’re being used for everything from scientific research, to the film industry, and even in real estate and government applications. Stateside we can only hope that the stakeholders and industry leaders can work with the FAA to solidify the regulations and allow commercial interests to start utilizing this game changing technology.
Wolfgang, Ben. Drone Industry Predicts Explosive Economic Boost. Washington Times. The Washington Times, 03 Dec. 2013.

 About the Author
Zak LehmannZak is one of Great Ecology’s Associate Ecologists and GIS specialists based in the New York area.  Zak has always had two passions in constant conflict ever since he was young. He was an outdoorsy kid that was obsessed with technology. And, anything with a motor or a circuit board would be dissected in the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, putting it back together was never quite as successful as taking it apart. Zak originally went off to school for electrical engineering hoping to work in the robotics industry, but ended up transferring to a remote school in Maine to get his degree in wildlife conservation. Zak can’t wait for the regulations to get sorted out and take to the skies!

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