Monday, March 26, 2012

Shade, drought, and ???

That the availability of nutrients determines how plants grow is a relatively recent discovery, at least compared to light and water.

The word "shade" is relatively new to English, but the etymology for "shade" goes back to the roots on many languages. "Dark" is an old word, too. Latin had the word "umbra", which gave English "umbrella", for example. In short, people have thinking about shade for a long time.

"Drought"/"drouth" or "dry" extends back just as far. Latin had "siccus", which gave English "desiccate", for example. The Latin "desert" was not a dry place, but something abandoned, while the Hebrew word Negev meant a for dry place, not just a place deserted.

Dry places, dry times. Shady places. All have deep roots in a number of languages. Places or times devoid of nutrients? No equivalent. Hence, I can talk about droughts and deserts or shade and represent the low availability of resources. I can't do that with nutrients. The word "nutrient" derives from the Latin "to nourish"--nutrire, but it generated no analog to drought, dry, or shade.

The closest I can get for nutrients is "barren", which has been applied to unproductive
land in Europe for almost a millennium. In the US, for example, we have The Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Hutchinson (1994) reviewed the use of the word "barrens" in North America. In describing some of the Midwestern barrens he wrote,

"It appears that where the soils were leached and poor, places that were flat with a hardpan soil often supported post oak flatwoods and barrens....There were also places where the soils were either very alkaline or deficient in certain nutrients, so that trees didn't grow well. "Scalds" were mentioned by the early residents as occurring in several Illinois counties, and some of these are described in the early soils survey reports (Hopkins et al. 1913)."

The frustrating thing is that it makes it hard to talk about areas with low nutrient availability. I think "barren" is the word to use for now, though unfortunately it also refers to low reproductive fertility.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What I read over spring break: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

"Skepticism is the lazy man's consolation, since it showed the ignorant to be as wise as the reputed men of learning.--Bertrand Russell" 

In short, the book chronicles Michael Mann's scientific career and involvement in the politics of climate issues as a scientist. It's a humble, even-keel telling.

For some, the book will be a revelation about organized attempts to dismiss scientific work. It's a fair reason to read the book.

As a history of a debate, it could be construed as one-sided. But isn't any autobiography a one-sided take on history? It can be dense, but is there a light way to describe PCA?

For me, Mann does an impressive job of chronicling a scientific inquiry. He does an impressive job of maintaining a scientific approach throughout his ordeal. Questions are dismissed scientifically, not rhetorically.

I appreciated the tour of paleoclimatology as well as the political theatre. Snippets I had read about are brought together well into a sound timeline. Scientifically, I would have liked to see more graphs, to be honest.

Not much else to say here about Michael Mann's book, except I've ordered copies for friends. As scientists, likely few of us could have withstood the pressure as well as he had, no less chronicled it as cleanly.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quantifying phenology: urban heat islands extend growing season

In New Hampshire, fall was like a fireworks display drawn out over weeks. You could watch the colors slowly wrap around the hills in ways that made it fun to walk home from work. 

Just a quick note here to highlight a good paper by Andrew Elmore and co-authors. The key to what they did was quantify spatial patterns of phenology--essentially spring green-up and fall brown-down--by comparing seasonal NDVI patterns. 

Maps like the one above have never been done before. 

One of the key findings was showing how phenology shifted elevationally. Another was how urban heat islands lengthened the growing season on both ends. 

It's a good one to look at, because there will be more like it coming soon I'll bet.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Teaching Ecosystem Ecology

I consider myself an ecosystem ecologist, but I never took a course in ecosystem ecology.

That's not rare.

The first edition of Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology wasn't published until 2002. Terry estimated that about 2000 copies of the book get sold a year, which is probably a good estimate of the number of students that take ecosystem ecology courses. That might seem like a lot, but it's not at the global scale--probably 30-40 universities.

I did a quick survey of the 12 Big Ten schools. For me, these are my reference points on the state of US higher education. The schools are big, generally have good biology programs (Northwestern axed theirs a while back), and with over 300,000 undergraduate students are should be pretty representative of US higher education.

In the Big Ten, only 3 of the 12 schools regularly teach an undergraduate ecosystem ecology course. Others have graduate-level courses in one form or another, some have a more applied ecosystem ecology course (forest ecosystem ecology), offer courses that address a component of ecosystem ecology (nutrient cycling or stoichiometry), or roll it in with community ecology. Some don't list anything close.

That's pretty dismal, but I bet pretty representative of Ecosystem Ecology education in the US. My feeling is about 20% of the institutions offer an ecosystem ecology course. If that.

Why is that? What can be done?

My feeling is that part of the reason for the low rate at which these courses are taught has to do with how faculty are hired and how they get allocated.

More ecosystem ecologists need to be hired. The ecosystem ecologists hired need to teach the course.

Even with that, my guess is that we need to think ahead and make sure that on-line courses are available for students that happen to be in departments that don't offer ecosystem ecology. And the massive number of people that aren't enrolled in degree-granting institutions. CMV is a great textbook, but it's no substitute for a course. Most textbooks include much more information than is typically covered in a course, are as much reference as a guide, and aren't as rich a learning environment.

Thinking about how to teach ecosystem ecology in a scalable manner is probably one of our discipline's biggest challenges. So many critical environmental issues rely on a solid understanding of the ecology of ecosystems, learning to teach ecosystem ecology more (and better) is one of our most important tasks in the next decade.