Of Humans and the Environment: Bridges

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Humans may be here to stay. Humans are natural beings, the product of evolution. And we have come to understand that much of our world has been formed by the interaction of humans within and with their environment. But we cannot stay here indefinitely, increasing our industry without destroying the environment that sustains us. This is so obvious, so self-evident that I cannot even begin to understand how some do not grasp this simple concept. I would like humans to stay around for a while in a world we sustain. We will need to change much of how humans live in this world to sustain it in the near and far future, but it is not reasonable to advocate for the removal of all human constructs, those are here to stay, some for millennia to come. Take bridges, for example. Travel, even on a small, regional scale, is difficult without bridges.

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Bridges over the Blackfoot River, Montana

A human world without bridges. I have had the fortune to go on adventures, large expeditions in Mongolia to seek out the small hidden wonders of biodiversity. We would cross this amazing, ancient landscape in a caravan of jeeps and vans and one large truck, searching for sampling sites along rivers, lakes, and springs. Our travels often necessitated crossing large rivers, mostly without the aid of bridges. Most of the time we forded these bridges successfully, guided by our competent and knowledgeable drivers, guides, and colleagues. But sometimes we got stuck in mid-river or stuck in the marshes surrounding rivers. And then everyone got out and pushed or pulled. Bridges, safe bridges would have been very welcome during those times.

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Jeep stuck while crossing a large river, Mongolia

The art and beauty of bridges. Human ingenuity is most evident in the building of bridges, large suspension bridges, draw bridges, and trussed bridges. These are the bridges we think about, but most bridges are small, spanning small streams and rivers. Here are a few of my favorite bridges.

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Upper, Bridge over the River Kaw, Lawrence, Kansas; Lower, Bridges over the Blackfoot River, Milltown State Park, Montana

Better ways to bridge. So, as long as humans are here using ground transportation, we will need bridges. Bridges can cause environmental degradation, though. Open substrate such as gravel and dirt near bridges increases sediment runoff. De-icing and melting applications to roads during winter enter waterways from bridges. We can mitigate the inflow of these pollutants by stabilizing the substrate near bridges, by creating riparian buffers and terracing the landscape to retain the runoff. These solutions are practical and enhance the beauty of the bridge and the river. Building better bridges is a way to care for the environment, create beauty, and marry form to function to sustain us all. It is just good stewardship.

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Wildlife bridge, Flathead Reservation, Montana. Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_crossing

For moose and bears. Finally, bridges are being built to reduce wildlife mortality at road crossings. These bridges are covered with vegetation, built to encourage large animals to cross over highways rather than across highways and are an excellent example of how human ingenuity can be a bridge between human endeavors and the environment.

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Bridge over the Missouri River, Atchison, Kansas

For more reading

Johnson, P.A., 2006. Physiographic characteristics of bridge‐stream intersections. River Research and Applications22(6), pp.617-630.

Mann, C. 2006. 1491. Vintage Books Publishing. 541pp.

Glista, D.J., DeVault, T.L. and DeWoody, J.A., 2009. A review of mitigation measures for reducing wildlife mortality on roadways. Landscape and urban planning91(1), pp.1-7.

 

Mighty Midge: A New Niche

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Two words. Two of my favorite words are exsanguination and bioturbation. These are great words to drop at dinner parties. The first word, exsanguination, is best left to discussions of vampires or black flies and cows. The second word, bioturbation, refers to how organisms mix up sediments in the soil or at the bottom of lakes and rivers. This may not seem too exciting to most people, but it is terribly important. Earthworms turn over soils when they move around. Nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus tend to descend deep into the soil over time and the worm’s bioturbation serves to bring nutrients back up, close to plant roots that then absorb the nutrients for use in metabolism and photosynthesis.  In other words, with a bit of sun and water, these nutrients kick start the terrestrial food web, keeping us all alive.  In lakes, nutrients descend, slowly settling down to the soft sediments at the bottom on the lake, a zone that is static, still and cold. The nutrients then descend deeper into the sediments where they are no longer available for the aquatic food web. Aquatic oligochaetes, relatives of earthworms, and midge larvae are able to live in the cold, low oxygen environment at the bottom of lakes. They worm their way through the sediments, releasing nutrients back into the water column via bioturbation.

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Nutrients descend to the bottom of lakes. Organisms like aquatic oligochaetes and midges move through these bottom substrates, releasing the nutrients and sometimes oxygen back to the lake for fish and invertebrate to use.

Far and away. One tiny midge has been receiving a lot of attention lately in the scientific news for its bioturbation work in the Antarctic (https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/aliens-antarctica-terrestrial-ecosystems/). The parthenogenic Eretmoptera murphya, an orthoclad, semi-terrestrial midge was accidently introduced from a sub-Antarctic island to Signy Island in the maritime Antarctic probably around 1967. As a parthenogenic species, it reproduces with only females, an adaptation that facilitates spread of individuals in the extreme cold since no mating is required. It is also flightless with reduced wings, so the adult saves energy that could be used on flying and mating, on producing eggs. Reports of these midges often show the adults, but the adults are short lived relative to the immature forms, the larvae. The small larvae live in the soil, serving as decomposers and turning over the soil through which they move, making nutrients available for the ecosystem. This role is more commonly held by earthworms, but there are no earthworms in Antarctica, thus the invasive midge has filled the open niche space. The increased availability of nutrients sounds good until you realize that the ecosystem on Signy Island has evolved to exist without this level of bioturbation. The relatively sudden appearance of insect bioturbators is beginning to change the delicate ecosystem.

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Photo by Ben Tullis from Cambridge, United Kingdom – Looking down to the base, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5882809

Cold thermoregulation. So, why are there no earthworms present in Antactica? Well, the region is isolated, far from other continents. Also, it is cold. Very, very cold. Rather than ask why no earthworms live in Antarctica, I ask instead how these ectothermic or cold-blooded insects have come to colonize extreme cold environments. In fact, one orthoclad midge, Belgica antarctica, is the only free living, endemic insect in Antarctica and is considered the largest terrestrial vertebrate restricted to Antarctica (Read that to mean that penguins and marine mammals only live part of their time on land or in Antarctica). This midge lives along the shores of the Antarctic peninsula and the islands of the maritime Antarctic region. Another insect, a podomine midge, Parachlus steinenii, also lives on islands of the maritime Antarctic. These three midges have colonized and adapted to the coldest, most remote regions of Earth. We know the most about the cold tolerance of Belgica antarctica. Like Eretmoptera murphya, it has reduced wings and does not fly. It can survive in only a narrow range of temperatures from -15°C to 10°C. The ambient winter temperatures of its environment go well below -15°C in the Antarctic winter, but the temperatures within a centimeter below the surface of the ice stay near 0°C. Thus, the larvae stay relatively warm during the coldest parts of the year.

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Map of Antarctica including maritime Antarctic islands. Photo from NASA.

A Tale of Three Midges. Belgica antarctic is the only species of the three that lives on the mainland of Antarctic, thus it is given the title of the Antarctic Midge. The larvae of Belgica antarctica live for two years before pupation and emergence as adults. Unlike Eretmoptera murphya, it has both sexes. Adults live for about 10 days, long enough to mate and lay eggs. The larvae of B. antarctica are also semi-terrestrial, feeding on moss and algae. Conversely, Parochlus steinennii has aquatic larvae and is fully winged. This species has the greatest distribution of the three and is found in mainland South America. The larvae are able to adapt to a wide range of environments which may be how they were able to colonize Antarctic islands.

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Belgica antarctica larvae. Photo by Richard Lee found at https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=77761

A changing world. All three species, Eretmoptera murphya, Belgica Antarctica, and Parochlus steinennii are unique insects that have colonized extreme environments. All three function in the ecosystem to process nutrients, to serve as part of the food web. However, the introduction of E. murphya from the nearby sub-Antarctic has set in motion massive changes to the ecosystem of Signy Island. Jesamine Bartlett and her colleagues have demonstrated that the larvae are creating more soil and disrupting moss, a major part of the Antarctic system. The researchers expressed concerns that E. murphya may be able to colonize the mainland of Antarctic in the future and disrupt the most pristine ecosystem on Earth. The larvae are very small, nearly microscopic, so are easy to miss during inspections of materials being brought into the mainland of Antarctica. A warming climate will increase the chance that these species and others may be able to colonize and cause irreversible changes to the food web and ecosystem functions of the southernmost continent. New niches will be filled, and some will be created phenomena observed with rapid changes in the Earth’s past.

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Insects are not well known for their ability to colonize cold environments, yet many do. More information on cold adaptation of aquatic insects in future posts.

For more information

Baranov, V., Lewandowski, J., Romeijn, P., Singer, G. and Krause, S., 2016. Effects of bioirrigation of non-biting midges (Diptera: Chironomidae) on lake sediment respiration. Scientific reports6, p.27329.

 

Convey, P., 1992. Aspects of the biology of the midge, Eretmoptera murphyi Schaeffer (Diptera: Chironomidae), introduced to Signy Island, maritime Antarctic. Polar Biology12(6-7), pp.653-657.

 

Convey, P. and Block, W., 1996. Antarctic Diptera: ecology, physiology and distribution. European Journal of Entomology93, pp.1-14.

 

Cranston, P.S., 1985. Eretmoptera murphyi Schaeffer (Diptera: Chironomidae), an apparently parthenogenetic Antarctic midge. British Antarctic Survey Bulletin66, pp.35-45.

 

Edwards, M. and Usher, M.B., 1985. The winged Antarctic midge Parochlus steinenii (Gerke)(Diptera: Chironomidae) in the South Shetland Islands. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society26(1), pp.83-93.

 

Lee, R.E., Elnitsky, M.A., Rinehart, J.P., Hayward, S.A., Sandro, L.H. and Denlinger, D.L., 2006. Rapid cold-hardening increases the freezing tolerance of the Antarctic midge Belgica antarctica. Journal of Experimental Biology209(3), pp.399-406.

 

Usher, M.B. and Edwards, M., 1984. A dipteran from south of the Antarctic Circle: Belgica antarctica (Chironomidae) with a description of its larva. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society23(1), pp.19-31.

Ancient Lake Origins: Lakes Baikal and Hövsgöl

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Clear water of an oligotrophic lake

Guest blogger: Marcella Jurotich

Life Cycles. Lakes tend to be relatively short lived in geological time scales. The same water that flows into lakes, bringing water and nutrients, also brings sediments some of which become trapped, eventually filling the lake. So, lakes have life cycles from formation by such events as glacial melt, river flooding, or damming by ice, landslide, or lava. As they slowly fill with sediments their nature changes from being deep and clear to being shallow and cloudy. Eventually some lakes become wetlands before disappearing completely. Exceptionally, some lakes are long lived, ancient and large. Two such lakes in Asia are Lake Baikal in Russia and Lake Hövsgöl in Mongolia. Lake Baikal is by far the larger, incredibly old, storing over 20% of the world’s fresh water and is estimated to be over 20 million years old. Lake Hövsgöl is part of the Lake Baikal watershed. It is smaller but also over a million years old. Both of these ancient lakes are rift zone lakes, formed when land subsides between two rift zones, then the subsidence area becomes filled with water.

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Lake Hövsgöl, Mongolia. Photo: Debbie Baker

Rift Zones. The Baikal rift zone is a ~2000 km long rift system that extends from the Stanovoy Mountains through Lake Hövsgöl and encompasses most of the eastern edge of the Amurian-Eurasian plate boundary (Fig. 10). The rift is ringed by the Siberian craton to the north and Sayan-Baikal fold belt in the southeast (Fig. 10; Zhao et al., 2006; Yang et al., 2018). Normal faults and half-grabens that developed in the Late Cenozoic dominate the rift system and are parallel to the rift axis (Fig. 10; Zorin et al., 2003; Zhao et al., 2006). Lake Baikal, for which the rift is named, has been filled with water for ~8.4 ma, and is the deepest lake in the world (Ivanov and Demonterova, 2009).

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Lake Baikal, Russia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Free_Documentation_Licensehttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en

Origins. The origin of the Baikal rift dates back to the Eocene-Oligocene (Tapponnier and Molnar, 1979; Zonenshain and Savostin, 1981; Ivanov and Demonterova, 2009). However, the exact reason for the rifting remains contentious. While Arzhannikova et al. (2018), Zonenshain and Savostin (1981), and many others assert that deformation radiating outward from the Indo-Eurasian collision initiated rifting, Zorin et al. (2003), Zhao et al. (2006), and others argue that rifting in this region began due to an upwelling of the upper mantle.

Earthquakes. The Baikal rift zone is seismically active with 13 earthquakes over Mw 6.5 in the past 280 years (Zhao et al., 2006). There is little magmatism in the rift basin (Zorin et al., 2003; Yang et al., 2018), and volcanism that does occur is offset from the rift axis. Rather, volcanism is concentrated on Tuva-Mongolia massif and on the Amurian plate. Rift-related volcanism took place through in the Miocene-Oligocene and intensified into the Quarternary during a period of rift development and increased rates of rifting (Zorin et al., 2003; Arzhannikova et al., 2018).

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Lake Baikal, Russia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Free_Documentation_Licensehttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en

Biodiversity. Lake Baikal and Lake Hövsgöl are ultra-oligotrophic, very clear with few nutrients. Oligotrophic lakes tend to have low diversity due to the low concentrations of nutrients at the base of the food web. However, the deep, ancient, tectonically active nature of these lakes gives rise to complex lake structure or morphometry that supports diverse communities of invertebrates, microbes, and fish, particularly in Lake Baikal. Ancient rift lakes are fascinating in their origins and in their characteristic biodiversity and will be an ongoing feature of Tethysphere.

Sunny lake

Further Reading.

Arzhannikova, A., Arzhannikov, S., Braucher, R., Jolivet, M., Aumaître, G., Bourles, D., and Keddadouche, K., 2018, Morphotectonic analysis and 10 Be dating of the Kyngarga river terraces (southwestern flank of the Baikal rift system, South Siberia): Geomorphology, p. 94-105.

Ivanov, A.V., and Demonterova, E.I., 2009, Tectonics of the Baikal rift deduced from volcanism and sedimentation: a review oriented to the Baikal and Hövsgöl Lake systems: Biosilica in Evolution, Morphogenesis, and Nanobiotechnology, p. 27-54.

Tapponnier, P., and Molnar, P., 1979, Active faulting and Cenozoic tectonics of the Tien Shan, Mongolia, and Baykal regions: Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, no. B7, p. 3425-3459.

Yang, H., Chemia, Z., Artemieva, I. M., and Thybo, H., 2018, Control on off-rift magmatism: A case study of the Baikal Rift Zone: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, p. 501-509.

Zhao, D., Lei, J., Inoue, T., Yamada, A., and Gao, S. S., 2006, Deep structure and origin of the Baikal rift zone. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, no. 3-4, p. 681-691.

Zonenshain, L. P., and Savostin, L. A., 1981, Geodynamics of the Baikal rift zone and plate tectonics of Asia. Tectonophysics, no. 1-2, p. 1-45.

Zorin, Y. A., Turutanov, E. K., Mordvinova, V. V., Kozhevnikov, V. M., Yanovskaya, T. B., and Treussov, A. V., 2003, The Baikal rift zone: the effect of mantle plumes on older structure: Tectonophysics, no. 1-4, p. 153-173.

 

Sky River: The Microbiome

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A closed cycle. Atmosphere is an important part of the water cycle. Water evaporates and is carried in the form of particles by major and minor currents of air, moved here and there, before cooling down, aggregating into droplets of water, and falling as rain or snow. Like water on land, streams that form as small headwaters that flow into larger streams, then rivers, then oceans, the water of the atmosphere flows from small source vapors similar to headwaters, then flows into the major jet streams, sometimes to form spiraling eddies or storms along the way. Except. Except the atmosphere is so much deeper, an inverted ocean of air.

An ocean of air. The water in large lakes and oceans stratifies into layers separated by boundaries of rapidly changing temperatures called thermoclines. The air ocean also stratifies, separated by thermoclines. The layer near the surface of the earth is dynamic, the next layer is slow moving or static, then the next layer out is dynamic again until eventually the uppermost layer simply thins into the vacuum of space. Of course, these different layers, particularly the troposphere, the one closest to earth, drive weather and climate in collaboration with the Earth.

Lake and sun

The three system problem.  Water threads through rocks, beneath and upon the surface of the Earth and is an integral part of the lithosphere. Water rises from the lithosphere to the atmosphere where it flows through the different strata, shifting between its three forms of matter, ice, water, and vapor. The biosphere links the two spheres forming a complex network of interactions that create the world we live in. The study of this network requires teams of ecologists, climatologists, biogeochemists, geologists, physicists, environmental scientists, and social scientists. The complexity of interactions between these three systems is daunting, but we are teasing out some interesting threads. One relatively recent find about this network is that bacterial communities otherwise called the microbiome or microbial community live and thrive in the atmosphere.

Blodgett Creek Trail

The atmospheric microbiome. Initially, microbes in the atmosphere were thought to be wind-blown, accidently tourists in the aeolian stream like frogs or insects or fish picked up by the storm and carried far from their homes. Eventually, researchers hypothesized that some microbiomes may have permanent residency in the sky river. Studies have supported this, with communities composed of both transient and permanent residents. In other words, the sky is alive. These bacteria may play a role in ice formation thereby affecting weather. Other bacteria may play a role in carbon fixation. An important role that could be used in mitigation of high concentrations of carbon dioxide and climate change.

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Sky Rivers. Our understanding of microbiomes has increased exponentially in the past two decades. We now know that the microbiome in humans and other organisms is an important part of a healthy life and should be studied as an ecosystem. We have found thriving microbiomes on rocks in rivers, in the open water of lakes, and at the depths of the ocean. In fact, the microbiome may be living within the deepest water and rocks of the lithosphere. On this Earth, all of life is composed of cells that create beings that are more than the sum of their parts. Taking a larger view, the Earth is composed of small entities, microbiomes, other communities, and ecosystems creating the biosphere, that is more that the sum of its parts. And through all the individual cells, through the communities, through the rocks and the air threads streams of water, this is the Tethysphere.

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More Readings:

DeLeon-Rodriguez, N., Lathem, T.L., Rodriguez-R, L.M., Barazesh, J.M., Anderson, B.E., Beyersdorf, A.J., Ziemba, L.D., Bergin, M., Nenes, A. and Konstantinidis, K.T., 2013. Microbiome of the upper troposphere: species composition and prevalence, effects of tropical storms, and atmospheric implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(7), pp.2575-2580.

Dutta, A., Gupta, S.D., Gupta, A., Sarkar, J., Roy, S., Mukherjee, A. and Sar, P., 2018. Exploration of deep terrestrial subsurface microbiome in Late Cretaceous Deccan traps and underlying Archean basement, India. Scientific reports8(1), p.17459.

Womack, A.M., Bohannan, B.J. and Green, J.L., 2010. Biodiversity and biogeography of the atmosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences365(1558), pp.3645-3653.

Cassandra Weeps

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Streams are vulnerable to impact from a changing climate

Read the Report. I did not read the recent report on Climate Change immediately because I study the current and future impact of a rapidly changing climate on the biodiversity of Earth’s rivers and lakes. I just know this stuff. But I overheard a BBC report describing a 3 to 5°C increase increase in global temperature by the end of this century, a rise in temperature that I had heretofore expected over a 500 year time span. Then I read the report and found this: “Without significant reductions, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century compared to preindustrial temperatures.” It took a day for this information to create a full blown anxiety attack. My first anxiety attack and before I proceed, I just want to shout out to those who have them, to let you know that I now understand how debilitating and awful such an event is. Actually, I am surprised that more scientists who study climate change are not just cringing in their basements in fear. Perhaps they are.

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One major impact from climate change is increased number and severity of forest fires, destroying life, homes, forests, and air quality.

How bad can this get? Check out David Roberts’ TED talk on the issue, but to sum it up a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperature can create a “Hell on Earth”. Certainly, the scientific and lay communities who understand climate change and know what is coming should suffer from the Cassandra Effect. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the prophetess who foresaw the fall of Troy at the hands of the invading Greek armies. She tried to warn others of the horrors to come only to be driven insane when no one would listen. Today the syndrome that bears her name relates to those who warn others of coming events, in this case based on science and analyses, only to be ignored. Science is not a religion or belief system and climate change is not a mystery sent by Gods as in Cassandra’s case. An excellent overview of the science and model building of climate change was provided by Gavin Schmidt for TED Talks. In fact, scientists and science communicators have worked hard to simplify the relatively difficult mathematics and science of climatology for general understanding. The book Global Weirdness breaks down the processes and impacts of climate change in three page chapters that the average third grade student can understand.

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And increased severity and frequency of flooding

My own research has taken me to northern Mongolia where the impact of climate change has already been felt. Rapidly increasing temperatures have changed precipitation patterns and weather resulting in severe winter events called Dzuds, horrific blizzards that destroy herds of sheep, goats, and yaks. I have also taught environmental sciences, presenting simple and basic information on the cause and predicted impacts of climate change. Decades of research and teaching have created an awareness weariness in me, leading to a profound Cassandra effect. My neighbors to either side, in the front and the back have not listened. Most of my students have ignored the science and the large amount of data on climate change. I do not think I have gone insane but am steeped in extreme anxiety and I am not alone. Some of my fellow scientists walk around in a miasma of grief. Others have given up entirely. Many do their best to ignore what they know or sink into cynicism about their fellow humans. I cannot drop out or ignore what is coming because I have children and am committed to protecting biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. Ways to mitigate or slow down climate change and live a good life are simple and sometimes easy and the stakes are so very high.

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Extreme weather events like winter blizzards and Dzuds destroy herds and threaten human life.

To paint a bleak picture, just read the report, but here are a few trends that I have recognized. First, people fear changes to their world and are easily swayed; we will go from a democracy to a demagoguery. Second, extreme weather events caused by climate change shall make water scarce in some regions and land scarce in others. And the fights over these limited resources will be fierce. Massive movements of humans across the globe will result in destabilization of governments and harm economies. Mass numbers of humans will die off because they have been forced to live in marginalized landscapes such as river deltas due to scarcity of land. This is not just me making a prediction, the Pentagon has already published reports on the security risks the United States faces related to climate change. And, of course a perusal of the news over the past decade or so will show one that these events are already happening. Most demoralizing to me is that even scientists who know and understand climate change live a high carbon emission lifestyle, myself included.

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Someday we may all be able to switch to electric cars.

The scientific community should be on the forefront of this fight. We have the most at stake. Just examine what happened to Cassandra. She was driven insane because no one listened, then, to make matters worse, she was captured, enslaved by Agamemnon and returned to Mycenae, finally, to add insult to injury in a way only a Greek myth can, she was killed by Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife. I don’t think that will happen to scientists who share their knowledge of the coming climate catastrophe, but do think that the public will blame us, more like what happens in the modern fable, Nightfall. Originally a short story by Isaac Asimov, later expanded into a full length novel by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, Nightfall tells the story of a planet with two suns that is always bathed in sunlight. Astronomers discover a coming event that will plunge the planet into night and predict widespread panic and societal collapse. No one listens to them and when the foretold event occurs the masses blame the scientists and storm the observatories. I predict that despite decades of warning the public and policy makers of the impacts of climate change, they will turn on us, blame us for not warning them, for not solving this problem. And it is this prediction that makes Cassandra weep.

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Nightfall

But echoing Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, I do not think we should go from denial to despair. The ways we can change are a joy. And, I know many scientist and non-scientists alike who already live the life of low carbon footprint. And they are happy. People who take public transport, ride their bikes, or walk to offset the footprint of their Prius, Subaru, or SUV. People who refuse to fly unless absolutely necessary. People who have reduced their intake of meat for a healthier lifestyle. Friends and family who carpool and keep their heating and cooling costs low. Colleagues who work to affect policy with groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby and I even have a friend who ran for office and won to create a better world for her community. Others have reduced, reduced, reduced their consumption. We are a growing community of climate change activists who seek to stem the tide of catastrophic change not only for this precious Earth but also for those we love who inhabit it. Come join us.

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For more reading:

Asimov, I. and R. Silverberg. 1991. Nightfall. Spectra Publications. 339 pp.

Climate Central. 2013. Global Weirdness. Vintage Publications. 224 pp.

Fourth Annual Climate Report. 2018. https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/

Fernandez-Gimenez, M.E., Batkhishig, B., Batbuyan, B. and Ulambayar, T., 2015. Lessons from the dzud: Community-based rangeland management increases the adaptive capacity of Mongolian herders to winter disasters. World Development68, pp.48-65.

Goulden, C.E., Mead, J., Horwitz, R., Goulden, M., Nandintsetseg, B., McCormick, S., Boldgiv, B. and Petraitis, P.S., 2016. Interviews of Mongolian herders and high resolution precipitation data reveal an increase in short heavy rains and thunderstorm activity in semi-arid Mongolia. Climatic Change136(2), pp.281-295.

Nandintsetseg, B., Greene, J.S. and Goulden, C.E., 2007. Trends in extreme daily precipitation and temperature near Lake Hövsgöl, Mongolia. International Journal of Climatology: A Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society27(3), pp.341-347.

Pentagon. 2015. National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate. https://archive.defense.gov/pubs/150724-congressional-report-on-national-implications-of-climate-change.pdf?source=govdelivery

TED Talks

Gavin Schmidt https://www.ted.com/talks/gavin_schmidt_the_emergent_patterns_of_climate_change/discussion

David Roberts

MACRO Rivers: A Tale of Two Continents

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Big Questions. Asking big questions in science is fascinating and transformative. Macrosystems research by its very definition asks and answers big questions on how large scale ecosystems function. How large is this scale? Well the questions examine functions at landscape scales spanning thousands of square kilometers and temporal scales spanning decades to millennia. So, large, very large. For example, how do large river ecosystems function within and between continents? This question is the focus of the MACRO rivers project. This ambitious and exciting project seeks to synthesize functionality of large rivers from the smallest inhabitants to the largest processes. The MACRO project asks how rivers respire or breath, in other words what is the system metabolism of the river. The project asks what the structure of the river is, in other words what is its hydrogeomorphology. And the project asks what its function is, in other words what roles to the living forms of the rivers play in creating a functioning whole. Finally, the project asks how the food web functions at these different scales.

Comparison

Two Continents. Large rivers of North America and Central Asia are the focus of the study, specifically rivers in the United States and Mongolia. Asia and North America separated around 200 million years ago and the last land bridge across what is now the Bering Strait was covered by sea level rise around 11,000 years ago effectively separating the two continents. Central Asia and North America differ in geological history. Tectonics, volcanism, and mountain building carved different landscapes, exposed different rock strata, created different soils. Large scale geological events of this magnitude drove biogeographic separation of the life forms, diversifying flora and fauna. Thus, the species on the two continents are very different. And human societies were very different. Differential uses of the land ranged from bison hunting and management by Plains tribes to ranching and row crop agriculture in the United States of North America and ranged from a 4000 year tradition of pastoralism and herding to collective farming followed by a swift rise of urbanization in Mongolia. So, how do rivers function in these two different landscapes? And what are the similarities in these rivers?

MAIS09071503.jpgA River Runs Through It. Theories are amazing constructs in science. They have the power to explain and predict and if they fail, then we rebuild them or start over until an overwhelming body of facts, of evidence support their continued use. And then we find different ways to explain and predict and compare these different theories and perhaps start all over again. Yes, science is dynamic, and scientists must keep an open mind to keep up with all this dynamism. Can we explain and predict how rivers work along a continuum? The River Continuum Concept is a theory that explores the relationship between function, form, and biodiversity of the river from the slow, small trickles of the headwater regions to the largest reaches of the rivers as they form a confluence with other rivers or flow, as most rivers eventually do, into the sea. The RCC was first published in 1980 and since then has been modified and tweaked as new facts, as new evidence made such modifications and tweaking necessary. But perhaps there is another way to explain and predict how rivers function.

Patchworks, the River Quilt. Rivers may function as a network of patches, effectively a dis-continuum of functionality within riverine networks. The Riverine Ecosystem Synthesis concept examines these patches, called functional process zones. These patches should be similar enough between rivers to explain and predict river functionality at the multiple spatial and temporal scales of a macrosystems study. The focus of the MACRO rivers project is on four major functional process zones.

The high elevation, low energy zone is exemplified by the slow, meandering stream in a mountain meadow.

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High elevation, low energy zone. Tsuuts River, Mongolia 2005

The high elevation, high energy zones are those patches of the river that are confined by the landscape with a strong elevational gradient. Think river rapids flowing through a mountain canyon.

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High elevation, high energy zone, Yellowstone River watershed, USA. MACROrivers photo.

The low elevation, low energy zones are where the rivers flow out into the plains or steppes, slowing down and spreading out.

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Low elevation, low energy zone, Chigertei Gol, Mongolia, 2009

Low elevation, high energy zones are parts of the river that may be confined as they flow through the foothills or steppe valleys.

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Low elevation, high energy zone, Turgen River, Mongolia 2009

The changing anatomy or morphology of the river reaches in these different zones should result in changing physiology or energetics, differing functionality of the life forms, and differing few webs. But simply studying functional process zones across continents may confound the comparisons, so rivers are compared from similar regions within the two continents.

Biome to Biome, Steppe to Steppe. The great grasslands of North America and Central Asia rise toward towering mountains in steppes. Mountain chains in North America include the Rocky Mountain, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade ranges. Mountain chains in Mongolia include the Khentii, Khangai, and Altai ranges. And steppes include open steppe, mountain steppe, and desert steppe systems. Although these steppe systems have a different geological and human history, they may function in similar ways as may the rivers that run through them.

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Grassland steppe, Little Missouri River, USA, 2018, Photo: Alain Maasri
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Grassland steppe, Onon River, Mongolia, Photo: Chineeb, open source, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onon_River 

Thus, the MACRO project selected rivers for comparison in three distinct and interesting regions of the two continents: the open steppe grasslands (tall grass to short grass prairies), the mountain steppe, and the semi-arid steppe of endorheic basins. Perhaps the best studied of these systems is the mountain steppe involving those rivers so familiar to us, the Yellowstone River of North America and the Selenge River of Mongolia. Less well studied are the great grassland rivers of the world such as the Little Missouri River of North America and the Onon River of Mongolia. Endorheic basins are low areas in a continent, rivers flow into them but not out. The watersheds do not connect to the sea, instead rivers flow into large evaporative lakes. The MACRO project compared rivers from the Great Lakes basin in Mongolia to rivers from the Great Basin in North America.

Great BAsin

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Two rivers, similar biomes, different continents. Top: Great Basin, USA, Photo from MACROrivers, Bottom, Great Lakes Basin, Mongolia.

More to Come. Creating and testing another powerful theory to explain how rivers function is important work, but in the end both the River Continuum Concept and the Riverine Ecosystem Synthesis zones will help us understand rivers. This understanding helps natural resource managers manage the rivers for our use and for sustainability in rapidly changing climates. The MACRO rivers project is still in the sampling stage of research. As research is published the resulting synthesis of the physiology, anatomy, and functionality may tell us how changes to rivers affect function and how best to maintain these functions for the natural and human uses of the rivers in years to come. Next up? How does the human element play out in the MACRO rivers project?

Alain Niobrara
Niobrara River, Great Plains, USA. Photo: Alain Maasri.

For More Information.

Thorp, J.H., Thoms, M.C. and Delong, M.D., 2006. The riverine ecosystem synthesis: biocomplexity in river networks across space and time. River Research and Applications22(2), pp.123-147.

Vannote, R.L., Minshall, G.W., Cummins, K.W., Sedell, J.R. and Cushing, C.E., 1980. The river continuum concept. Canadian journal of fisheries and aquatic sciences37(1), pp.130-137.

Wen, J., Nie, Z.L. and Ickert‐Bond, S.M., 2016. Intercontinental disjunctions between eastern Asia and western North America in vascular plants highlight the biogeographic importance of the Bering land bridge from late Cretaceous to Neogene. Journal of Systematics and Evolution54(5), pp.469-490.

Of Humans and the Environment: Structures

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Alluvial floodplain of the Missouri River above the Lewis and Clark River and Gavins Point Dam

Ole_birdwatching_9mi_Nov18bThe Human Environment. One major source for debates on environmental issues is the assumption many humans hold that we are separate from the environment, that we stand apart. As a human, I certainly hold a bias that we are unique amongst the species that form the biosphere, however, we are not apart or separated from the environment. I will let religious leaders and philosophers debate our spirits, souls, and Mind, instead I will focus on our physical form. Our bodies are part of the environment, the environment forms us from the nutrients necessary for all of our biochemical pathways to the world around us. The other facet of this fact is that we are part of the environment by being part of the biological community that shapes this world. As such, what we do within this environment is natural, is a natural outgrowth of who we are as a species. You cannot separate a beaver from how it forms dams or the environment the beaver creates by forming dams. As human population grows, our very numbers will shape the biosphere for the foreseeable future.

Opining away. So, humans are natural beings, or at least our physical form is, thus we are part of nature, part of the environment. But we also are smart, we may have the highest cognition and level of self-awareness, sapience of any species on Earth. We should know that our interconnectedness within the environment means that what we build, how we treat, and our actions within the environment not only affect the other components of the environment but affect us as well. We should know better than to destroy that which sustains and supports us. Take species loss as an example. As Thomas Lovejoy said, and here I paraphrase: We are not the first species to drive another species extinct, we are not the first species to drive many other species extinct, but we are the first species who knows we are doing this and who know very well to stop.

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Bowersock dam, Kansas River, Lawrence, Kansas

Damming. The Tethysphere has been altered by the wondrous and amazing works of human ingenuity (and beaver ingenuity too). We have dammed nearly every major river in the northern hemisphere and are ambitious enough to plan the damming of major rivers in the southern hemisphere. Humans have dammed streams for millennia, creating farm ponds as a way to store water for agriculture in semi-arid lands. In North America we have built massive structures to reshape the natural course of rivers. Given the context of my argument above then these massive alterations of rivers are natural since humans are natural beings contextualized within their environments. However, our actions have unintended consequences. We learn more each day about how dams change the rhythm of flow, alter the course of nutrient-bearing sediments, and rearrange the discharge of energy and how these changes may increase the risk and severity of flooding. Now that we know, a movement is afoot to remove dams and restore natural flows. But, and yet, new dams are constructed every day. We should know better.

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Habitat below dam on the Clark Fork River at Thompson Falls, Montana during low water flow

The Channel Conundrum. Humans are drawn to farm in the alluvial flood plain, the near-river habitat that has received nutrient rich sediments from floods over long periods of time. This is a great place to farm, but, yes, rivers still flood, and farms are wiped out, and we grieve and plan and create a solution. We channelize the rivers, straighten them and form dykes to hold the water in. The intended consequence is farming relatively safe from flooding. Dykes protect municipalities from flooding too, because we have built close to the water again and again. The unintended consequences include loss of habitat for fisheries. More to the point, channelization creates a sluice way for massive amounts of energy to rush downstream and expand as floodwaters below the dykes. The energy from the water carves out the substrate, changing the way the rivers process energy and wastes. In combination with dams, channelization reduces the amount of nutrient-rich sediments that previously spread into the flood plain, so the farm land becomes nutrient poor and more fertilizers are needed to sustain crops, the overflow of which enter the rivers-a cycle of pollution. We now know that these unintended consequences increase nutrient toxicity in rivers and fisheries, in drinking water for humans and domesticated animals, and for wildlife. Perhaps we could work to create better farming practices while removing dykes and allowing rivers to reclaim their meandering ways. Since humans are part of the environment, we could science the heck of this and create solutions that sustain farming, rivers, and species diversity.

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Dyke along the channelized reach of the Kansas River, Lawrence, Kansas

Hydroelectricity, Climate Change Solution or Curse Word. Using water released from dams to turn turbines to create electricity. Brilliant! Or is it? Do the unintended consequences of dams outweigh the good of energy production with relatively low carbon emissions? Oh, I don’t know. Certainly, it would be bad form to build new hydroelectric dams. In-stream turbines may be the answer, but they will still disrupt flow, impairing the environment and leading to population loss and the resulting species extirpations. With the milestone of 8 billion humans on the planet rapidly approaching we will have no choice but to enact a triage approach in our solution building.  Does the ballooning and early arrival of the more harrowing impacts of climate change trump all other issues? Countries facing crises of water availability and who want to create their own energy will build more and larger hydroelectric dams in the decades to come. When I first worked in Mongolia, we were fortunate to survey biodiversity in rivers with no impoundments or dams, but that is changing as climate change drives widespread drought in Central Asia. Is river biodiversity worth sacrificing to get off coal and other non-renewable energies in the face of catastrophic effects of climate change? More questions than answers here, but one fact is clear, as humans we are part of the environment and we need to solve these issues, we need to address downstream consequences of our actions, and we need to do so now as we cannot escape the environment we help shape, for it is all around us and it is part of us.

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Water release from Gavins Point Dam, Nebraska and South Dakota

For more information:

Gregory, K.J., 2006. The human role in changing river channels. Geomorphology79(3-4), pp.172-191.

Ngor, P.B., Legendre, P., Oberdorff, T. and Lek, S., 2018. Flow alterations by dams shaped fish assemblage dynamics in the complex Mekong-3S river system. Ecological Indicators88, pp.103-114.

Pringle, C.M., Freeman, M.C. and Freeman, B.J., 2000. Regional effects of hydrologic alterations on riverine macrobiota in the new world: tropical-temperate comparisons: the massive scope of large dams and other hydrologic modifications in the temperate New World has resulted in distinct regional trends of biotic impoverishment. While neotropical rivers have fewer dams and limited data upon which to make regional generalizations, they are ecologically vulnerable to increasing hydropower development and biotic patterns are emerging. AIBS Bulletin50(9), pp.807-823.

Wang, Y., Rhoads, B.L. and Wang, D., 2016. Assessment of the flow regime alterations in the middle reach of the Yangtze River associated with dam construction: potential ecological implications. Hydrological processes30(21), pp.3949-3966.

The Lake District

Humans in the environment

Save Milkweed DTP
Milkweed pods

The Great American Desert. Perhaps the Great Plains were dryer when once called the Great American Desert. Certainly, one can find prickly pear cactus and yucca in dry, sandy swales. But I was always surprised by this moniker since the Great Plains is more a sea of grass, complex, varying from north to south, from east to west. Once grasses and flowering fields of forbs grew tall in the eastern, wetter prairies of what is now Minnesota and Kansas. Short grasses and sage covered the dryer western prairies of the High Plains in what is now Colorado and Wyoming. Warm and drought tolerant systems dominate into Texas and cold adapted prairie ecosystems reach north to Edmonton.  The Great Plains span a lot of landscape to be called just one place, one system. And those who study grasslands or simply appreciate them can tell you that prairies are more than just grass, rather they are also diverse in forbs, in soils and roots, and streams and lakes. Indeed, regions within the Great Plains are spotted with lakes and wetlands such as playas and potholes. Large rivers thread through the grasslands. Rivers like the Platte, Missouri, and Arkansas receive snow melt from the Rocky Mountains and flow into the Mississippi River and ultimately into the sea, into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Sandhills prairie near Tayler, Nebraska

 

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Grass-stabilized sand dune near Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge

Gobi of the Great Plains. Or perhaps the settlers traversing the Great Plains on their way West saw something under the skein of the prairie for in the center of Nebraska is a giant sand dune region called the Nebraska Sandhills. This region looks like rolling hills, but really it is an area of grass-stabilized sand dunes. Dunes that were blown on the wind–aeolian hills of sand blown in after the last glaciers retreated north long ago. Like the larger landscape of the Great Plains, the Sandhills are wetter in the east and dryer in the west. In fact, the western reaches of the dunes are but a few inches in precipitation shy of being a desert, a state they held occasionally in the past. Imagine, in a dryer world central Nebraska would be a desert of shifting dunes similar to the Gobi Desert. The Sandhills are nearly the same latitude as the Gobi Desert, a cold dune region located on the other side of the world between Mongolia and China.

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Ephemeral wetland in the Nebraska Sandhills near Lakeside, NE.

The Lake District. But the Sandhills region is remarkably different from the Gobi Desert. It is unique in the number and density of lakes and wetlands found between dunes, in swales, beside roads, and hidden away within vast ranches. The Sandhills is an area of source water for the High Plains Aquifer, sometimes known as the Ogallala Aquifer. The hydrology, the exchange of water between lakes and wetlands, between surface water and ground water is dynamic. Lakes grow and shrink in cycles. The lakes found to the east are more stable. The lakes to the west are less stable, changing size with the changing seasons.

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Ephemeral wetland near the end of summer, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Some wetlands are ephemeral, lasting just a few short months or weeks. Lakes and wetlands in the far western part of the Sandhills are evaporative and became hyper saline with salt concentrations far higher than the ocean, rivaling concentrations found in the Great Salt Lake. These habitats serve as a refuge for migratory waterfowl, as a stop over for their long distance migrations. Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, avocets, least terns, phalaropes, greater yellowlegs and many other species require the water and food provided by Sandhills wetlands and lakes for their journey. The western saline wetlands have large numbers of brine shrimp and brine flies, an abundant food energy for the migrating birds. The Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges manage and protect the Sandhill prairies and lakes and are open to the public for fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing year round. Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge is one of the most remote Wildlife Refuges in the lower 48 states, a great place to get away from modern life. Valentine Wildlife Refuge has numerous lakes, long, thin lakes residing along interdunal regions. From a high vantage point the region looks like the lake district in Britain, the blue water sparkling from between the green hills. Some lakes are large, with white caps and foam formed from the near-constant wind of the Great Plains.

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Crescent Lake, a large Sandhills lake along the southern border of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Ululating Landscape. The Nebraska Sandhills lakes and wetlands will be a recurring theme in the Tethysphere. Stories of rare midges and salt-tolerant shrimp, tales of insane settlers and wind, and love songs to this grassland shall grace this blog space, a sort of shout out to a unique and captivating landscape.

For more reading. Much of the information contained herein can be found in Bleed, A. and C. Flowerday (eds.) 1989. An Atlas of the Sand Hills. Resource Atlas No. 5, Conserv. and Surv. Div., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln. 238 pp. Others have made comparisons between the Sandhills and the Gobi Desert such as Loope, D.B. and Swinehart, J.B., 2000. Thinking like a dune field: Geologic history in the Nebraska Sand Hills. Great Plains Research, pp.5-35.

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Quietude at Swan Lake, eastern Sandhills

The Larix

Larch panarama

Larch 1“All that is gold does not glitter” is the beginning of a poem by Bilbo Baggins about Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings but here the poem may be used to describe the autumn glory that is the Larix. The Larix is commonly known as larch, but larch is such an inelegant word for this elegant tree. It is tall and narrow, graced by moss in part of its range, and in October the needles turn gold prior to dropping off. Yes, this genus of pine tree is deciduous, or to put it another way, it is not an evergreen tree, like most pines. In fact, the needles do not grow again until the spring.

Why do many trees lose their leaves in autumn? Trees slow down their metabolism and rid much of their tissue of water to keep from freezing and losing energy during winter. Dropping leaves helps with this and the trees are larch 3quiescent during the cold months, so do not need the energy from photosynthesis. Pine trees in the northern or alpine regions of the world have small needles for leaves. These small, narrow, pointy leaves are modified to help regulate water loss and so they do not need to drop them all at once during winter. Pines do drop their needles, but they do so throughout the year. Well, with the exception of some trees like the Larix. This annual change in needle color may create a golden forest, not too different from another one of Tolkien’s creations. If the Larix are dropping their leaves in a forest with mixed age strands of younger Larix, then the combined gold infuses the floor, under story, and the sky of the forest all at once.

Water and the Larix are part of a cycle, a miniature Tethysphere. Water, in the form of precipitation and groundwater is used by the trees to carry their nutrients and sugars through a kind of circulatory system. Leaves help trees regulate this flow of water, an important function as the water carries energy in the form of sugars from their needles or leaves throughout the rest of the tree and carries nutrients up from the roots. Water is also necessary to convert sunshine into energy in the needles. In turn, the needles of the Larix return to soil and water, carrying this energy. The needles are broken down by insects, fungi, and bacteria in both the water and the soil, making the nutrients and energy available for the ecosystem to use again.

 

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Lake shore larch

 

So, as the Larix seems to stand still on the side of the mountain, during the warm months it is busy creating energy and the by-product of this creation, oxygen.  As a cold-adapted, north temperate genus of pine, it may face many trials in the decades to come as the climate warms. Most cold adapted species will need to move north, if they are mobile. The Larix will simply decrease in numbers in the southern reach of its range. Or, perhaps if we stopped biggering everything we would have a chance to keep the Larix here and continue to see this autumn blaze of gold.

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Extensive strands of Larix in northern Montana

 

The Art of Water

Gracie Creek

Water is in art, literally. We use water as a solvent for many of our paints and inks, not just in water colors. Water is the universal solvent, after all. Water is often the focus of art, too. Paintings of seascapes grace the halls of art museums. We learn of Turner’s and Homer’s seascapes in art history classes, perhaps relegating this knowledge to our own dustbin of irrelevant facts, but the way they captured the nature of water is brilliant. Creating the image of water using paints, inks, charcoal, pencil or other media is challenging. How water sparkles, how it pools on leaves or glides over rocks, how it scintillates in the very air! I am using my own images here but by no means want to indicate that I have mastered the art and skill of representing water. I just really like water and try to capture it in art.

Permeable or impermeable. Water reflects light being permeable or may appear impermeable, a solid surface representing the world around it. This solid appearance may be the easiest to render in art. At this point the water becomes an abstraction and a mirror. SLC Winter OneOr it may absorb light and become a barrier to what we seek to find. We have all seen art in which a pool reflects mountains or forest. Perhaps you have seen a work in which the water is a dark pool pulling you closer, but revealing nothing, a mystery that compels. These mysterious pools certainly compel me. I seek them out to look for midges, those secret pools, cold springs, bogs, backwaters, where midges thrive. At this point art and science or STEAM intersect for my work. These habitats draw me in to explore their natural history, and they, in turn, inspire my art. The great thing about small, hidden pools is that they can be found nearly everywhere, in a back alley, near a river, behind a boulder, frozen in a winter stream.

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Detail of Sandhill Crane illustration 

The natural history print. Another early inspiration for me was the art of duck stamps. Yes, I have a coffee table book of duck stamp art. My entire career simply may be a path toward painting my first wood duck in a riparian wetland. Someday. The aquatic environment is often part of natural history print compositions from bird paintings to fish, from water lilies to phytotelmata. Water may be represented by a few simple lines to fully fleshed renderings of the aquatic environment. Some of my favorites works illustrate aquatic insects in streams and lakes or adult dragonflies hovering over ponds. Fish, trout in particular, are often shown in the sun-speckled environs of fast flowing, cobble-strewn streams. The light leaps from the art, from the water rendered by the artist. Leaves and rocks form part of these compositions, in which the artist, either knowingly or unknowingly represents the food web in the ecosystem.

Abstract of bridgeCapturing water through the lens. Although it may seem easier to capture the fascinating qualities of water using photography, it is not. The artist must still find a way to represent those elements outlined above, scintillation, reflections, absorption. And it is difficult to illustrate the aquatic ecosystem fully using a lens. Most of my photos seen in the Tethysphere posts are used to represent select aspects of these systems. I have tried to capture the way light just shines in the air of western Montana, but have failed to do so. Clearly, masters of the camera have been successful. Indeed, I have more than one coffee table book of Ansel Adams’ work. Right now I am experimenting with more intimate photographs of water, trying different compositions.Fluid rock

Abstractions. Water as a medium can be splashed on water paint, acrylics,evaporate 4.jpg pottery and glazing. Salt and ink may be added to water to create patterns and the artist may herd this partially controlled chaos to create something new and intriguing. Recently, I have been interested in how water forms patterns and then in using those patterns to create compositions.This started when I left a pan of water outside and the water evaporated leaving behind a crystalline pattern. The water was very hard, filled with minerals and the evaporation was rapid enough to create this pattern. I soon started looking for these patterns in everything from sidewalks to rocks to the bottom of my coffee cups. I capture these patterns with my camera and then create something new, a mosaic, a background, a new image. In some work water is the focus, the medium, and the inspiration.

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Detail of “Multiverse”, Art by Barbara Hayford, 2017.

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