Ark de Triage

What should we prioritize to try to save from the flood tide of extinction?

Big_Ark_in_Dordrecht_3

“The world is on fire, and we have to do something about it,” said Kate Jones, an ecologist with University of College in London.

Jones was one of the speakers at two Harvard panels last month about the species extinction perils of our Anthropocene age: climate change, overfishing and overhunting, pollution, loss of habitat, invasive species, sea level rise, ocean acidification and all the ugly rest.

Extinction threats are not like a field of bullets hitting everything equally, noted Jones, speaking at a session on Human Imprints on the Tree of Life. Primates are at greater risk than most mammals. Amphibians, palms and corals are particularly vulnerable. Ditto species on islands. Animals with large body sizes, long lives and small ranges are vanishing. Along with, of course, so many other forms of life.

Facing this global storm of extinction with severely limited resources, what should conservation groups and governments prioritize?

One framework for decisions is to safeguard plants and animals with particular values to humans, as food, fuel, eye candy or just insurance for the future, the scientists said. Another framework is to consider the tree of life—protecting genetic diversity so that we can better understand biology and maybe exploit that understanding down the road. (Saving, for instance, the ginkgo tree, full of idiosyncrasies after branching off from other trees 100 million years ago.)

Habitat protection initiatives don’t always follow these outlines, naturally enough. As one audience member noted, many projects in Britain aim to preserve butterflies that remain happily common elsewhere in Europe.

“Most conservation is local, which is fine,” said Ana Rodrigues of the French National Center for Scientific Research. But very few resources work at a global level, Rodrigues emphasized.

One of the few is the Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered (EDGE) program led by the Zoological Society of London. “We can take attention away from charismatic megafauna like pandas, which are cute and fluffy with big eyes,” remarked Jones. Instead, attention can be paid to offbeat creatures like the pink fairy armadillo. (“It’s another poster child but I think it’s spreading out the love.”)

“We’re in deep trouble,” said Yale botanist Michael Donoghue. “We have to act quickly. The problem is, there are too many things we value.”

Many forms of ecological damage have spread surprisingly quickly across vast areas of ocean, noted biologists at an Ocean Evolution Today seminar. Jellyfish are on the march  as we vacuum up commercial finfish. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died off in two years. “In the Arctic, ice algae is disappearing and the entire food web is compromised,” commented Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.

All too often this marine damage is invisible to most of us, said Boston University’s Randi Dawn Rotjan. Even survival stories can be worrisome–for instance, the killifish that have evolved to shrug off PCB-laced harbors.

More generally, “I’m worried that my children will jump into the water and not know what they haven’t seen,” Rotjan said.

“The most important ecosystems on the planet are almost unknown,” pointed out Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. One case in point: the ocean animals that migrate in “uncountable numbers” up toward the surface at night and then back down during the day, which brings carbon out of the surface waters.

Or we can think of the seafloor hot water vents discovered 40 years ago, which stream out key nutrients and may act “like the ocean’s multi-vitamins,” said Harvard’s Peter Girguis. Life throughout the sea, he added, “is linked to things that happen in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean.”

The scientists applauded the spread of marine sanctuaries, which can provide significant safeguards if established (and enforced) on sufficient scale. So far, sanctuaries have grown most notably in sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific. (The Republic of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a coral archipelago the size of California with exactly 24 people, living on one island, Rotjan said.) The High Seas Alliance aims to extend this strategy with protected areas in the no-man’s-lands of the open ocean.

Another positive sign is the rapid growth of sustainable aquaculture, to supplement and replace capture fisheries.

And we also can see payoffs of local and regional marine renewal efforts, such as the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor. Last month, out with a boatful of biologists for a conference hosted by Northeastern University, we were cheered to see harbor porpoises calmly working the clean waters of the Mystic River, in what not long ago was the dirtiest harbor in the U.S.

Top, the “life-size” version of Noah’s Ark built by Johan Huibers of the Netherlands. Bottom, clockwise from panda: Ice algae, pink fairy armadillo, ginkgo berries, mussel.

Hub of Universe meets change of climate

swirlsmall (2)Boston often sits under rather large swirls of clouds, some considerably less peaceful than this.

Hurricane Joaquin was a surprisingly narrow miss last week. Experts may worry even more about northeasters like those that pounded Boston last winter. In a truly major storm, hundreds of thousands of people may wait too late to evacuate and be stuck without power or other services for weeks. In the long run, Boston’s inner harbor will need to look a lot more like the future New Orleans, with the waterfront turned into parks and wetlands, and Logan Airport and residential areas barricaded behind high levies.

That’s some of what we heard on Wednesday about how Boston is readying (or not) for climate change. Here are 10 highlights from a Hubweek session’s speakers and videos, held at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

1. Sitting in between the Canadian Arctic and the Gulf Stream, the northeastern U.S. has “one of the most significant temperature gradients on the planet,” commented Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of atmospheric sciences.

2. Joaquin was “the most intense extratropical storm ever to reach this high in latitude this late in the season,” said James McCarthy, Harvard professor of biological oceanography. “That was really eye-opening.” The storm packed winds up to 155 mph as it veered off into the mid-Atlantic.

3. Alan Berger, MIT professor of landscape architecture and urban design, proposed reimagining Boston’s waterfront with open areas backed by lines of defense against rising sea levels and storms. This approach would create a “new urban fabric, with eight or nine pockets of high density,” Berger said. And yes, “so much for living on the waterfront!”

4. Hurricane Katrina “was the most predictable of surprises,” commented Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. “We made a conscious decision not to prepare; we’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” Fortunately, the storm didn’t hit New Orleans directly, or there might have been tens of thousands of deaths. “The surprise was not that we didn’t get everybody out, but that we couldn’t cope with people who didn’t get out,” added Robert Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “We need to ensure we have a plan to get services to people where they are.”

5. People in Boston “think they are tough and want to sit home and wait it out,” said Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. But by the time residents realize they really need to leave, it may be too late, and they may lose power for weeks. Atyia Martin, Boston’s chief resilience officer, pointed out that emergencies like Katrina have shown that many people don’t get clear word in time, or simply can’t leave. “We assume people are not educated about these issues, but they are,” Martin said. In planning for emergencies, it’s key to remember that “the community is the expert on the community,” she emphasized.

6. Last week’s astonishing South Carolina rainstorm often was called a thousand-year storm. That description is meaningless, because “there’s no precedent for a storm like this,” Schrag said flatly.

7. Unsurprisingly, much of the South Carolina flooding was in areas of recent development, “in places where water would like to be,” as Young put it. That’s a theme all along the coast: Some new Gulf coast communities just should never have been built, he remarked.

8. Carl Spector, Boston’s director of climate and environmental planning, outlined regional planning initiatives  to address vulnerable supplies such as the Chelsea Food Market and other threats such as extreme high heat days. Young applauded those efforts, but added that “the trick is taking all that high-level, long-term planning and putting that thinking into the minutiae of how we run our government.”

9. “Money seems to flow after a disaster,” Schrag noted, but not always in the best directions. We’ve done a “terrible job” recovering from Hurricane Sandy, in Young’s opinion. To actually create change, he declared, governments and all their partners must move very quickly after storms before business as usual resumes. Owners in floodplains, for instance, may be ready to buy out a few weeks after the storm, but not a few years after.

10. “Every storm is an argument to change the vulnerability of our community,” Young said. “Storms tell you where the problems are.”

7.5-foot_flood_Boston_Harbor_AssociationBoston under a hypothetical-but-expected flood (from Boston Harbor Associates data).