Ecological Society of America
Michael Hopkin travels to Canada - home of spectacular wilderness and wildlife - to discover the state of the world’s ecosystems, and hear about how they can be safeguarded for the future.
Day 5: Winging it
Are ecologists inescapably left-wing? Certainly a lot of people around here fit the beard-and-sandals template. And does this harm their quest to be viewed as impartial scientists presenting their facts to policy-makers?
I got talking to some ecologists who are worried about the marginalization of science, by people like Texan Congressman Joe Barton, who has rejected calls to cut greenhouse emissions and questioned the science underpinning them.
There was a lot of head-scratching over how best to come up with a reasoned and authoritative response to this broadside against the scientific consensus. The danger, of course, is coming across as arrogant scientists refusing to listen to anyone's opinion but their own. The scientists, for their part, don't believe it should be a matter of 'opinion'. But the fact is it's easy for opponents to simply say: "of course you believe in climate change".
Ecologists are starting to think that maybe they're not the best people to address the issue. They're traditionally viewed as being among the most left-leaning scientists - far more than those in genetics or pharmacology, for example, who traditionally find it easier to forge links with the private sector. This pattern is probably unavoidable - after all, the people who study pristine wildernesses are unlikely to be the same people who would advocate building new airports all over them.
The consensus was that the response to people like Barton is best left to umbrella bodies that speak for scientists, such as the National Academies , who would be less likely to be dismissed as a fringe voice. But does that mean that ecologists should abandon attempts to be politically or economically influential?
A growing band of people say no. One way in which ecologists are looking to engage with the private sector is through 'ecological economics', a new field that aims to put more accurate values on those often intangible benefits people gain from their local biological resources. A project called Ecovalue is aiming to inject a fact-based approach into this question.
One person at this conference who would be unlikely to be pigeon-holed as a lefty is Elaine Dorward-King, who works on environmental considerations for multinational mining bohemoth Rio Tinto plc. The company does not give money to NGOs, she says, but instead works to see how careful stewardship of the environment can boost shareholder value.
She told us about a contract the company is bidding for in Madagascar, where there is a huge deposit of the titanium mineral ilmenite. Nobody has started digging it up yet, but for some 20 years Rio Tinto has been surveying the area, trying to work out how the injection of cash into the island's devastatingly poor economy could help local people - in part through a plan to train villagers as guides for ecotourists such as birdwatchers.
Easy to do if you're a multinational with pots of money. But Dorward-King made a useful point about how ecological issues can be made attractive to city money-men. "We're in this for the long game," she said. And if you get a long-term reputation for being kind to the environment, people at grassroots level are more likely to tolerate you sticking around. One for Joe Barton to ponder, perhaps.
Day 4: Ready, team?
I was invited today to lunch with the society's Rapid Response Team. I had no idea what they do, beyond a vague notion that it probably involves responding to things rapidly, perhaps as part of a team. I'd better eat quickly, I thought...
In fact, it's a 45-strong panel of experts (www.esa.org/experts) set up to offer a quick jolt of information, on a range of ecological issues, to anyone from government or the media who needs it at short notice. Despite the fact that most legislation seems to take an age to become law, I am reliably informed that staffers charged with composing the documents and proposals often need reliable expert opinion within a matter of days or hours - much like journalists, then.
The idea is to contact ESA's public affairs office, which can then approach sections of the Rapid Response Team, also known as the 'Ratters', in the knowledge that the scientists are primed and ready to give information quickly. The programme has been up and running since the beginning of this year, and has so far advised the US government on the issue of endangered species.
It sounds like a great resource for people like me, and it's a wonder that more scientific organizations don't set up a similar corps of experts who don't mind being put on the spot. Science works on much longer timescales than the media, and it's frustrating to be told that "so-and-so can speak to you next week" when what you want is to speak to them in the next hour.
The problem cuts both ways. As one member of the team pointed out to me, when a journalist comes calling and you say you can't talk at short notice, the reporter looks elsewhere for someone more accommodating and you lose your chance to have your voice heard in the media.
Some members hope that the team can ultimately also function as a 'rapid heads-up' unit, reporting to the society's head office on emerging issues such as new wildlife diseases, rather than simply reacting to queries. Like it or not, communications are getting ever faster, and scientists have to keep up just like everyone else.
Lunch, thankfully, was a slightly more relaxed affair. Everyone even hung around for coffee afterwards.
Day 3: Bringing marshland back to Iraq
A delegation of some 13 Iraqi scientists is in town. They're all here to talk about the ongoing project to restore Iraq's ancient marshlands, which were deliberately dried out over the past 30 years by Saddam Hussein in a bid to stamp out rebel uprisings in the south of the country.
Since Saddam's regime was toppled in 2003, an international project, spearheaded by concerned Iraqi scientists, has been attempting to reflood much of the area. The idea is to see if it can be restored, both as a haven for biodiversity and as a home for the Arab communities who used to herd water buffalo and live on reedy islands in the region. The project has been going well (see "Reflooding bodes well for Iraq marshland"), but just how well remains to be seen.
Surveying the region's ecology is, in some ways, the easy part. Since the rivers were diverted back into the area, the plants and animals seem to be returning with remarkable speed. The region has naturally low rainfall, and so relies on the yearly influx of spring meltwater that flows into the two mighty rivers from the Kurdistan mountains. From rough-and-ready species counts, numbers in the two marshy areas restored in phase one of the project seem to be comparable to or even higher than those in a marsh straddling the Iranian border, which was never dried out.
But as with all ecology, getting the facts takes time. The Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative has surveyed 28 sites to find out whether the marsh ecosystem is genuinely returning to normal after three decades as a salt-encrusted desert. It's still too early to tell whether the same species will return, or whether the project is creating something entirely new. Answering that question will take another two or three years, the researchers think.
But this is more than just a wetland conservation project. Iraq is one of the most politically turbulent countries in the world, and even just setting up a project involving Iraqi scientists working with US, Canadian, Italian and Japanese counterparts, as well as the United Nations Environment Programme, is a staggering achievement.
The old regime viewed NGOs as the enemy, says Azzam Alwash of Nature Iraq, one of the groups spearheading the initiative. His group is now working with ministries in the new Iraq administration, and he says that government officials, particularly younger ones, are now more sympathetic to what he thinks should be a common aim for anyone who wants to see the new Iraq succeed.
Just getting more than a dozen Iraqi scientists into North America is also a big step forward - "a real coup for Canada and the ESA", as Duke University ecologist Curtis Richardson put it. Things are still diffictult, however, not least for western researchers who travel to Iraq to work on the marshlands. "They are still coming in, and I take them on tours of southern Iraq," Alwash, who grew up in the marshes, told me. "But it adds an element of risk now that kidnapping and headcutting have become the modus operandi for many terrorists there."
A definite contender for understatement of the week, there. But everyone hopes that the effort will succeed, not just from a scientific point of view but for economic reasons as well. Besides the potential for ecotourism, the region has a rich religious heritage for followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity (many consider the marsh to be the actual Garden of Eden). So a restored marshland could really become a Mecca, if you'll pardon the pun, for tourists and scientists alike.
Day 3: Just add water
Researchers in Antarctica have discovered a 'freeze-dried' ecosystem that sprung to life after 20 years in cryogenic stasis once they added water. The team, led by Diane McKnight of the University of Colorado at Boulder, made the discovery after diverting a stream into a dried-out water channel in the frozen continent's McMurdo Dry Valleys.
They streambed was covered with rubbery mats of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, which, it seems, were none the worse for wear after spending two decades in suspended animation. "These mats not only persisted for years when there was no water in the streambed, but blossomed into an entire ecosystem in about a week. All we did was add water," says McKnight.
Researchers know that life - simple life, that is - can be frozen in time like this, so it's hardly a shocking discovery. But it was a pretty dramatic transformation in a short period of time. Going from no active life to a dozen species in a week is almost better than watching 'sea monkeys' come to life.
Many ecologists liken the McMurdo valleys to the frozen, desiccated terrain of Mars, meaning perhaps that the lack of liquid water there might not necessarily be a barrier to the survival of hardy microbes. But that's assuming, of course, that life had the chance to evolve on Mars in the first place - a far trickier proposition on our planetary neighbour than here on warm, watery Earth.
Day 3: Truth and honour
For a society based in Washington DC, ESA members seem to have a pretty low opinion of their neighbours on the Capitol and especially in the White House. Past society president Gene Likens said during this meeting: "We need strong science leadership at the highest levels in Washington ... unlike what we have now." It seems few around here would argue with him.
Whether or not their government actually listens to them, it's encouraging that environmentally minded scientists are growing ever more aware of the need to try and lobby their way into a position of political clout. Ninety years ago, when the ESA was founded, this idea would have shocked scientists, who thought of themselves as dispassionate scholars of nature. But since the renaissance in environmental awareness of the 1980s and 1990s, the need for action, rather than just knowledge, has come to be appreciated.
Yes we've all heard this before, and so far nobody here seems to have any revolutionary ideas about exactly how we should get policymakers to sit up and listen. But it's a useful mantra for scientists to keep repeating to each other.
The theme of this meeting (and I guess you have to applaud the organizers for even trying to impose a unifying theme on a week-long meeting of 4,000 people), is 'Ecology at multiple scales'. I haven't really worked out what that means yet, but to me it doesn't sound a million miles away from the environmentalists' creed of "think global, act local".
The world is a big place and it makes sense to focus on your own little patch, in the hope that you will contribute to a far wider and more solid understanding. After all, the global rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was first revealed by one man's meticulous measurements on an island in the Pacific.
The fact that most scientists are looking to base their political opinions on their scientific interests, rather than the other way around, is encouraging. Phase two of the problem is getting the politicians to join them. I, for one, hope they succeed. As ESA president Jerry Melillo commented, "nothing less than the truth is at stake".
Day 2: Hot spots
I'm starting to wonder whether students and researchers are cherry-picking their field sites based on some criteria other than purely academic ones. A quick list of some of the destinations of researchers I've chatted to: Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Panama, Hawaii, Guam, the Great Barrier Reef, Madagascar. And their reaction upon hearing that I work in London is almost always "wow, must be pretty cold".
In fairness, these are the places that have some truly intriguing ecosystems, in terms of both complexity and their value to locals and people worldwide. Tropical zones are hotspots of biodiversity, where you find rainforests, coral reefs and other habitats where different species crowd together in their thousands. So I guess it makes sense that these are the places where people find themselves working. Makes you sick though, doesn't it?
Day 1: Dedication, that's what you need
Studying ecosystems is hard work. That was the inadvertent message from the opening talk of Ecological Society of America's 90th annual meeting (and IX International Congress of Ecology), which has brought together some 4,000 scientists who do just that.
Cristián Samper, director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and an authority on the world's tropical mountainous forests, was trying to explain to us that although these regions cover just 3% of the world's land area, they may be far more biologically diverse, hectare for hectare, than their lowland neighbours such as the Amazon. In fact, tropical mountainous forests like those in the Andes could play host to some 25% of Earth's plant and animal species.
But the thing that struck me was how hard it must have been to work that out. Samper described one study that involved hacking through the jungle taking detailed measurements of every single tree with a trunk wider than 1 cm at breast height - a staggering 115,000 trees in all. He didn't even blink when he said it - as if that's just a normal day at the office.
Samper might just have been being blithe for theatrical effect, however. He later admitted that the fieldwork was a six-month slog for a 12-strong team of researchers.
All this illustrates the difficulty of ecology as a science: it takes a prodigious amount of work just to find out what the situation is at the moment. Harder still is predicting what might happen to ecosystems in the future - the recently completed Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an admirable first swipe at this problem. As they say, it's a tough job but someone has to do it.