1. Earth Alive!


Non-chronological links:

ForgeFX Interactive 3D simulation by Prentice Hall - BIOMES - allows users to examine the different biomes on the planet Earth. Students can rotate the globe to any angle, identify and choose biomes, and find out detailed information about a city in each biome.

Air Quality & Water Quality. GSS - Energy Use: Pollution.

Biomes: Blue Planet Biomes - All about the world's biomes, their plants, animals, and climates.

Articles from 2002–present

2020-08-05. Humans have altered North America’s ecosystems more than melting glaciers. By Elizabeth Pennisi, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Recent human activity, including agriculture, has had a greater impact on North America’s plants and animals than even the glaciers that retreated more than 10,000 years ago. Those findings, presented this week at the virtual annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, reveal that more North American forests and grasslands have abruptly disappeared in the past 250 years than in the previous 14,000 years, likely as a result of human activity. The authors say the new work, based on hundreds of fossilized pollen samples, supports the establishment of a new epoch in geological history known as the Anthropocene, with a start date in the past 250 years. ...For more than 10 years, researchers have debated when humans started to make their mark on the planet. Some argue agriculture transformed landscapes thousands of years ago, disrupting previously stable interactions between plants and animals. Others argue the launch of large-scale mining and smelting operations—seen in glacial records going back thousands of years—means the Anthropocene predates the industrial revolution. For geologists, however, the epoch starts with a different signal: nuclear explosions and a sharp uptick in fossil fuel use in the mid–20th century. But some skeptics suggest the ice ages have had an even greater effect on the world’s ecosystems. To test that idea, Stanford University paleoecologist M. Allison Stegner turned to Neotoma, a decade-old fossil database that combines records from thousands of sites around the world. Her question: When—and how abruptly—did ecosystems change in North America over the past 14,000 years? ...When the last ice age ended, forests and grasslands regrew across North America, creating a landscape that remained stable for thousands of years. But humans have changed all that, Stegner reports this week. Her team found just 10 abrupt changes per 250 years for every 100 sites from 11,000 years ago to about 1700 C.E. But that number doubled, to 20 abrupt changes per 100 sites, in the 250-year interval between 1700 and 1950.... [https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/humans-have-altered-north-america-s-ecosystems-more-melting-glaciers

2020-04-13. China Limited the Mekong’s Flow. Other Countries Suffered a Drought. By Hannah Beech, The New York Times. Excerpt: ...farmers and fishers across the Mekong River region were contending with the worst drought in living memory. ...new research from American climatologists shows for the first time that China, where the headwaters of the Mekong spring forth from the Tibetan Plateau, was not experiencing the same hardship at all. Instead, Beijing’s engineers appear to have directly caused the record low water levels by limiting the river’s flow. ...The Mekong is one of the most fertile rivers on earth, nurturing tens of millions of people with its nutrient rich waters and fisheries. But a series of dams, mostly in China, have robbed the river’s riches.... [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/world/asia/china-mekong-drought.html

2019-10-16. Unprecedented drought in an artificial ecosystem may reveal how rainforests will cope with climate change. By Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine.

2019-05-08. Two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers no longer run free. By Elizabeth Pennisi, Science Magazine.

2019-03-29. The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments. By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times.

2017-10-29. How a 672,000-Gallon Oil Spill Was Nearly Invisible. By Christina Caron, The New York Times. 

2014-10-01. Satellite images show Aral Sea basin 'completely dried'.  For GSS Ecosystem Change chapter 1. Excerpt: ...Images from the US space agency’s Terra satellite released last week show that the eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea – which stretched across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the fourth largest in the world – was totally parched in August. Images taken in 2000 show an extensive body of water covering the same area. “This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University told Nasa. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.” In the 1950s, two of the region’s major rivers – the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya – were diverted by the Soviet government to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, starving the Aral. ...A lack of rain and snow on the Pamir Mountains has contributed to the particularly low water levels this summer, said Micklin. ...More than 60 million people live around the Aral Sea basin. The lack of water has devastated the region’s fishing industry, leaving ship graveyards as well as large areas of salted sand, which is easily kicked up by winds and contributes to health problems.... http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/01/satellite-images-show-aral-sea-basin-completely-dried. By Enjoli Liston, The Guardian. See also NASA Earth Observatory page World of Change: Shrinking Aral Sea.  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/aral_sea.php

2013-06-10.  A Second Act for Biosphere 2. Excerpt:  In the fall of 1991, eight men and women marched into a glass and steel complex that covered three acres in the Arizona desert and was known as Biosphere 2. Their mission: to test whether they could be self-sustaining in this sealed-off environment, with hope that the model would someday be replicated to colonize outer space. ...The original idea was that the inhabitants would grow all their own food, and that the wilderness areas would naturally recycle their air and water. ...Early on, there were problems. One Biospherian accidentally cut off the tip of her finger and left for medical care. When she returned, she carried in two duffle bags of supplies to the supposedly self-sustaining environment (which presumably would not have been feasible on, say, Mars). But the most damaging discovery was that a carbon dioxide scrubber had been secretly installed to protect the occupants from dangerous levels of the gas. By the end, as one of the Biospherians put it, they had been suffocated, starved and gone mad. Clearly, Biosphere 2 was not ready to sustain life on Mars or even a vacant lot in Phoenix. ...Columbia University, then the University of Arizona, eventually took over the mammoth space to conduct earth science research, and nearly 150 papers have been published. In 2006, The New Yorker reported, “much of what is known about coral reefs and ocean acidification was originally discovered, improbably enough in Arizona, in the self-enclosed, supposedly self-sufficient world known as Biosphere 2.”.... http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/booming/biosphere-2-good-science-or-bad-sense.html. Michael Winerip, New York Times.

2012 Feb 3. Rebuilding Wetlands by Managing the Muddy Mississippi. By Carolyn Gramling, Science (subscription needed). Coastal managers and scientists have struggled to find ways to restore water flow through the wetlands of the Mississippi delta and bring back the sediment, supply of which has been cut in half by humanmade river channels, levees, and dams intended to control the river and save coastal communities from flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza spillway during the 2011 Mississippi River floods to divert floodwaters, which offered a rare opportunity to conduct a large-scale natural experiment in real time. The floodwaters did carry enough sediment to help rebuild the wetlands, but that material didn't always stay where it could do the most good. However, researchers gained valuable insights—including ideas about how spillway design can help produce more targeted sediment deposits, and what volume of flow through the spillways might be required for effective wetland rebuilding.

2011 April 24. Spring may Lose Song of Cuckoos, Nightingales and Turtle Doves. By Robin McKie, The Observer. Excerpt: Some of Britain's most cherished spring visitors are disappearing in their thousands. Ornithologists say species such as the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are undergoing catastrophic drops in numbers , although experts are puzzled about the exact reasons for these declines.…The call of the cuckoo could be silenced in the near future unless scientists can unravel the causes of the drastic decline in their population. ..."The real problem is that there are so many different possible causes for these losses .... "These losses could be the result of changes in farmland use in Britain which are affecting the way these birds breed when they arrive here in spring. Or they could be due to the spread of human populations in Africa and the destruction of natural habitats where they make their homes in winter. "Climate change is almost certainly involved as well. Our problem is to unravel those different causes and assess how they interact."

2009 June. Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2. TED.com. Excerpt: In a March 2009 presentation at TEDxUSC, Jane Poynter tells her story of living two years and 20 minutes in Biosphere 2 -- an experience that provoked her to explore how we might sustain life in the harshest of environments. This 15 minute video is accompanied by an interactive transcript of the presentation.

2007 January 30. In the Rockies, Pines Die and Bears Feel It. The New York Times, By CHARLES PETIT. Excerpt: Jesse Logan retired in July as head of the beetle research unit for the United States Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Utah. He is an authority on the effects of temperature on insect life cycles. That expertise has landed him smack in the middle of a debate over protecting grizzly bears. Forests of whitebark pine turn red as they are attacked by the mountain pine beetle. ...Dr. Logan seems, in fact, to be on a collision course with the federal government, in the debate over whether to lift Endangered Species Act protections from the grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. The grizzly population in the greater Yellowstone area is estimated to be at least 600. ...Their resurgence in the past 50 years is why the federal government announced in 2005 the start of proceedings to take them off the endangered or threatened species list. Dr. Logan enters the fray on the question of what grizzly bears eat, how much of it will be available in the future, and where. All that, he says, hinges on the mountain pine beetle and the whitebark pine....New computer projections done by Dr. Logan and Jacques Régnière of the Canadian Forest Service based on recent climate and other data for the mountain West show most whitebark pine forests being wiped out as warming continues. But the Wind River Range is projected to stay cold until 2100 or so, which, if the model is right, means they could be a refuge for grizzlies forced out of areas where the trees die. ... Dr. Logan's projections shows devastating whitebark damage from the beetles in the government's core area for grizzly protection by the end of the century. He says that the government's recovery area "is completely out of touch with what is actually happening."... "It's all about global warming," Dr. Logan said. "I can't say if the beetle will stay out of the Winds for all the next century. I don't know how long it will take. But one thing I do know. If it keeps on warming, they'll get nailed there too. The trees can't move uphill, you know. They'll run out of mountain." What the bears will fatten for winter on then, nobody knows.


19 September 2006. Time to Move the Mississippi, Experts Say. By CORNELIA DEAN. The New York Times. Excerpt: Scientists have long said the only way to restore Louisiana's vanishing wetlands is to undo the elaborate levee system that controls the Mississippi River, not with the small projects that have been tried here and there, but with a massive diversion that would send the muddy river flooding wholesale into the state's sediment-starved marshes.
And most of them have long dismissed the idea as impractical, unaffordable and lethal to the region's economy. Now, they are reconsidering. In fact, when a group of researchers convened last April to consider the fate of the Louisiana coast, their recommendation was unanimous: divert the river. ... the sediment it carries ends up in deep water, where it is lost forever. A diversion would send the river's richly muddy water into marshes or shallow-water areas where, Dr. Reed said, "the natural processes of waves, coastal currents and even storms can rework that sediment and bring it up and bring it into the coast."
"It's a lot," she said, enough to cover 60 square miles half an inch deep every year, an amount that would slow or even reverse land loss in the state's marshes, which have shrunk by about a quarter, more than 1,500 square miles, since the 1930's. Such a program would not turn things around immediately, "but every year new land would be built," said Joseph T. Kelley, a professor of marine geology at the University of Maine, who took part in the April meeting....


15 November 2005. Louisiana's Marshes Fight for Their Lives. By CORNELIA DEAN, NY Times. Excerpt: Shea Penland nosed his truck along a mud-covered street, past uprooted trees, cars leaning crazily on fences, torn-off roofs, and piles of ruined furniture, wallboard and shingles - the waterlogged evidence that Hurricane Katrina had been through the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette. Twice, he turned to avoid streets blocked by brick houses apparently torn from their slab foundations and dumped blocks away. Finally, he spotted what he was seeking. "Look at that," he said, pointing to what looked like misshaped bowling balls tufted with long strands of yellow grass, seemingly thrown onto the porch and through the gaping doorway of a wrecked brick ranch house. "Marshballs." For Dr. Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, these clumps of black mud knitted with roots and fronds are an alarming sight. The marshballs, some as large as a sofa, others as small as a shoebox, had floated from wetlands to the east. Dr. Penland says they are more evidence that after decades of human interference, the marshes of Louisiana are in deep, deep trouble... Now, as Louisiana struggles to recover from the storm, scientists like Dr. Penland are studying this marsh wreckage and the marshes themselves for clues to what ails them and how they might recover. The questions are complicated, and the answers turn on a number of factors, including the region's geology, the ways people have engineered the flow of the Mississippi River, and the marsh-killing activities of the oil and gas industry.


16 November 2004. Wetland Changes Affect South Florida Freezes. [NASA feature.] Orange and other citrus crops are being squeezed by stronger freezes in South Florida, due to changes in wetlands. Scientists using satellite data, records of land-cover changes, computer models, and weather records found a link between the loss of wetlands and more severe freezes in some agricultural areas of south Florida. In other areas of the state, land use changes resulted in slightly warmer conditions.

18 May 2004. Michigan Landowner Who Filled Wetlands Faces Prison, By FELICITY BARRINGER, NY Times. A federal jury found the actions taken by a landowner to dry out his 175-acre property to be in violation of the Clean Water Act.

9 March 2004. For Wildlife, Migration Is Endangered Too By JIM ROBBINS, NY Times. Around the world, many great overland migrations have ended as more and more habitat is converted to human use.


1 November 2002 Saving Cajun Country - Archeologists and engineers will soon be using NASA remote-sensing satellite data to restore endangered wetlands without accidentally destroying Native American cultural sites.