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When it comes to conservation, what you don’t know really can hurt you. That’s why a group of more than a dozen horizon scanners, researchers and others gather each year to identify relatively obscure threats and opportunities that could, if they bubble to the surface, have a big impact on our ability to protect biological diversity. This year’s prognostication, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution earlier this month, identifies 15 hot topics lurking in the wings. Among them: Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon, land loss in Southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, the discharge of polyisobutylene into ocean water and the resurrection of extinct species.

Photo by april-mo (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by Espen Faugstad  

In a provocative commentary just published in Nature, Robert Costanza, public policy professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and editor in chief of Solutions journal, along with colleagues from around the world, called for an end to using gross domestic product as a measure of success. While GDP is a fine measure of market activity, the authors write that it “ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality” and “blinds developing countries to possibilities for more sustainable models of development.” As an example of GDP’s shortcomings, the authors describe how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy both contributed positively to GDP by spurring economic development through cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Looking at alternatives, Costanza and colleagues review a range of measures of well-being including economic metrics inclusive of social and environmental impacts plus additional indicators such as “housing, life expectancy, leisure time and democratic engagement.” While none of these measures is perfect, collectively they offer the building blocks for moving beyond GDP.

Photo by Espen Faugstad (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Interdisciplinary collaboration is like a colonoscopy – though important and instructive, it can also be a real pain in the behind.

“We need pooled interdisciplinary expertise to solve real life problems,” a recent article in SciDevNet notes, “but experts can clash over language, divergent perspectives and knowledge gaps. Recognizing these barriers — and discussing how to overcome them — is crucial.”

Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of environmental and organizational communication at Northern Michigan University and author of the piece, argues that challenges arise because each discipline has its own language, theories and practices. Without deliberate efforts to acknowledge and accommodate them, these distinctions can hamper progress toward mutual goals.

Thompson goes on to offer concrete advice for overcoming those barriers. Among her tips:

  • Acknowledge and clarify at the outset differences in terms, definitions and jargon
  • Accept and accommodate perspectives that vary due to discipline, culture, nationality or gender
  • Trust others’ expertise in their fields
  • Make time for team building
  • Be open to new thinking and viewpoints
  • Decide as a group how you will share your work.

Learn more at “How to Communicate in an Interdisciplinary Team.”

Photo courtesy of Jeff Tabaco (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by PNNL  

For years algae-to-oil biofuels have been too expensive to compete with fossil fuels, but a new breakthrough may be a game-changer. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a process that converts algae to biocrude in a matter of minutes. The process essentially heats the algae biomass to temperatures approaching 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) and then squeezes it at pressures of around 3,000 pounds per square inch.

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” says Douglas Elliott, lead researcher on the project. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”

The system operates in a continuous loop using a slurry made up of wet algae — dramatically reducing the biomass-to-biofuels production time to less than an hour.

“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” says Elliott.

In addition to biocrude oil, other products coming out of the process include fuel gas that can be used to produce electricity, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can be used to grow more algae.

Utah-based Genifuel Corp. has licensed the technology and is moving forward with plans to build a pilot plant.

Photo by PNNL

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Except for those pesky safety issues, nuclear energy has a lot going for it — a small carbon footprint, minimal air pollution, a plentiful fuel supply. In search of a work-around for the downsides, The Daily Climate reports, entrepreneurs in the U.S., Russia and Korea are developing a new class of reactor that would come in a kit and be installed underground, reducing the threat of terrorist attack or meltdown. Proponents say the so-called small modular reactors, ranging from 25 to 300 megawatts, could pair well with intermittent renewable energy sources to provide round-the-clock power in remote locations.

Rhino photo  

What’s worth more, gold or rhino horn? Turns out it’s not even close. According to a recent infographic by The Huffington Post, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of 24 carat gold fetches approximately $42,322, whereas the same amount of ground rhino horn powder goes for around $100,000 on the black market.

Earlier this year Ensia delved into the complex topic of wildlife poaching in a piece by Adam Welz titled “The Race to Save Rhinos.” In 2013 a record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa – home to 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos. As pressure mounts on governments around the world to slow illegal wildlife trade, Ensia is poised to cover new solutions that might emerge in 2014.

Photo by colin the scot (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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The same source of electricity that makes a spark jump from your finger to the doorknob on a dry day is gearing up to power smartphones, medical devices and more, thanks to an experiment gone awry that alerted scientists to the promise of turning small-scale movements into portable sources of power.

As reported in R&D magazine, it all started when Georgia Tech engineering professor Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues found themselves producing way more power than they expected from some piezoelectric generators they were studying. They discovered that the experimental apparatus had been put together wrong, causing two pieces of polymer material to rub against each other and generate extra electricity through what is known as the triboelectric effect. The effect occurs when two materials – one an electron acceptor, and the other an electron donor – come into contact and then separate through the application of some external force. When the materials touch, electrons move from the donor to the acceptor. When they move apart, the electrons seek to move to equalize the charge. All it takes to create current is a conduit for electron movement.

The unexpected event turned Wang’s attention to triboelectrification as a potential source of usable power. Manipulating materials and configurations, Wang and colleagues are now working to develop triboelectric generating systems that can harness the movement of electrons to do useful work and refining them to increase the range of materials that can be used and the amount of electricity they can generate. The researchers envision the phenomenon eventually being used to transform the mechanical energy of motion from sources such as walking, wind, waves and wheels into electrical energy to power personal electronics, medical devices, remote monitoring equipment and more.

Photo from video by Georgia Tech.

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Policy makers designing strategies to protect biodiversity and ecosystems would do well to tap the wisdom of indigenous peoples, say advisors to a new international forum.

Representatives of the 115 nations comprising the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services met in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this month to formulate an action plan to protect biodiversity and the benefits it offers. Among the topics addressed: Bridging the gap between science and traditional knowledge.

At the meeting, the IPBES considered recommendations from a panel of experts from around the world on how and why indigenous knowledge should inform its future work. IPBES offers a number of examples of areas in which resource managers can benefit from such knowledge, including management of reindeer and other herd animals in the Arctic; rice-fish co-culture, developed more than 1,200 years ago in China; indigenous fire management, found in Asia and South America; promotion of plant diversity in agriculture; rotational farming as practiced in Tanzania and Thailand; sustainable fisheries management in Pacific Island communities; and rainwater harvesting practices originating more than 6,000 years ago in India.

Among other things, the expert panel noted that “the term ‘science’ is often used in too narrow a sense, excluding the social and human sciences,” and recommended IPBES replace the word in its deliberations with “knowledge,” which would better encompass indigenous and local perspectives.

“We must identify gaps in knowledge and build capacity for the interface between policy and knowledge — in all its forms,” IPBES founding chair Zakri Abdul Hamid said in a press release. “That means developing a process through which scientific and policy communities recognize, consider and build synergies with indigenous and local knowledge in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

To learn more, see The Contribution of Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems to IPBES: Building Synergies with Science [PDF].

Photo by Aleksi Aaltonen (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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A survey of 1,000 of the world’s largest investment funds by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project suggests that a large number are vulnerable to a “carbon crash” — a loss in investment value that would occur if climate change considerations caused businesses to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground rather than extract them.

According to the Daily Climate, of 458 asset owners responding to the survey, 431 failed to meet the project’s standard for responsibly managing climate risk. The survey considered a number of factors, including transparency, risk management and low carbon investment.

The Daily Climate reported that AODP board member Sharan Burrow called the situation outrageous. “It must be remembered that much of the money being held by these organizations is the product of workers’ lifelong savings,” she said.

Executive director Julian Poulter found hope, however, in the actions of the companies that did hit the mark.

“What is clear is that the world has an investment system capable of driving the low carbon transition,” he said. “If all the funds we surveyed has a triple AAA rating, we would be well advanced on meeting the global climate challenge upon us.”

Photo by Images_of_Money (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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A study by the Science for Environment Policy arm of the European Commission finds that recycling is a good way to reduce reliance on new rare earth element. Trouble is, the short-term recovery rates are low, meaning that some foresight will be necessary to maximize the potential of long-term recycling.

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Since the United Nations has named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, the organization Food Tank has partnered with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to support the IYFF throughout the year with research into family farming, articles and petitions to support family farms around the world. Their first effort is a video highlighting “the crucial importance of family farming and its potential to help create a more sustainable and just food system.”

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What’s this video from Unilever’s new initiative Project Sunlight selling? Ostensibly, hope. Some cynics have their doubts. Others, though, think that a company of Unilever’s size partnering with various environmental and social organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, The Rainforest Alliance and Oxfam to draw attention to issues such as sanitation, water conservation, sustainable farming and food waste may be enough to get past the cynicism. What do you think?

Photo of neodymium by images-of-elements.com (Creative Commons | Wikipedia)

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Rumor is that college dining hall fare today is better than ever. Still, sometimes even the hungriest students have trouble eating it all. What to do with the leftovers? Campus food services around the country are now finding a second life for the meals they make, thanks to a new nonprofit known as the Food Recovery Network. Launched by University of Maryland – College Park students in 2012, FRN shares surplus soups, salads, sandwiches and more from college cafeterias with hungry people in the surrounding communities. Volunteers pack food and deliver it to homeless shelters, food banks and other distribution centers — not only nourishing those in need, but also planting in tomorrow’s leaders the seeds of a deep personal awareness of the challenges and opportunities revolving around food security, supply, waste and distribution.

Photo by I Believe I Can Fry (Creative Commons | Flickr)

The Earth Security Index  

Resource scarcity and pressure are complex issues, traversing borders and cultures. One country’s deforestation leads to booming economies elsewhere. A dam powers one city and floods another. Not to mention the security issues that come with resource acquisition — all the more heightened when paucity is a factor. Now the Earth Security Initiative is out with a report meant to help businesses, societies and governments respond to such issues and risks in a solutions-focused, collaborative way.

Looking at eight themes (land governance, water security, climate security, crop performance, population growth, food security, fiscal stability and energy security) across 17 countries, the ESI points to opportunities to move toward a more prosperous and secure future, such as viewing a transition from water-intensive coal-fired power to renewable energy in China as a way to improve the country’s water security, or using Brazil’s tropical rainforests as an insurance policy against adverse impacts of future weather extremes on agriculture.

“Understanding the risks, involving all sectors, considering the inter-connections and mutual interests
 are necessary conditions in order for leaders to identify the opportunities 
before them,” writes Michael Schaefer, chairman of the BMW Foundation and former ambassador of Germany to China, in the report’s foreword.

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Need another reason to protect and value green spaces? Here’s an intriguing one: the benefits humans receive from being exposed to the microscopic organisms found in nature. In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University College London clinical microbiologist Graham Rook notes that such microorganisms, which he calls “Old Friends,” are an important part of our evolutionary history, and reduced exposure caused by distancing ourselves from the natural environment is likely one of the reasons behind the growing epidemic of immune disorders worldwide. Rook recommends policy makers and others factor in exposure to beneficial microbes when enumerating the services ecosystems provide to humans, and calls for stepped-up research “that will enable us to design urban green spaces that provide not only the psychological input to our brains but also an optimized microbial input to our immune systems.”

Photo by EMSL (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Today U.S. citizens across the country are preparing to observe two uniquely American events: Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. If you are among them, consider including in your holiday plans some food for thought: 19 minutes with British economist Tim Jackson as he explores what compels us to “spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about” — and, more importantly, what we might do about it.

In his classic 2010 TED talk, “An Economic Reality Check,” Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth, begins with the etymological roots of “prosperity” — the Latin word for “hope.”

Humans’ penchant for novelty and our tendency to use material things as a proxy for our importance, Jackson says, have caused a deep rift between that original meaning of prosperity and the meaning we ascribe to it today. Ironically, he points out, “we have now grown our economy so much that we stand in real danger of undermining hope.”

The solution? Jackson draws what he calls “a map of the human heart” — a four-slice pie depicting two sets of  diametrically opposed desires that compel us: novelty vs. tradition and self vs. other. Rather than corraling ourselves in the novelty-self quadrant, Jackson suggests, why not embrace all four? He points to innovations such as B corporations as ways to bring the other dimensions into economic practice and create meaningful prosperity.

“This is not about standing in the way of development, overthrowing capitalism, changing human nature,” he concludes. “What we’re doing is taking a few steps toward a more credible, robust, realistic vision of what it means to be human.”

Photo by CHARMERS (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is among the many world-saving ideas favored by techies, as well as by a general population enamored with the next cool thing that seems likely to translate well out of the lab and into society at large. But is additive manufacturing any better for the planet than traditional subtractive manufacturing? Recently, as we’ve written about previously, researchers at Michigan Technological University  found that the answer is yes, and now analysts at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory agree.

The difference between “additive” and “subtractive” is important, the ORNL researchers found. Manufacturing cabin brackets on airplanes from titanium using computer-aided software that optimizes the design and then prints in 3-D saved a manufacturer 1.56 pounds of titanium per bracket because the process built them from titanium powders instead out of titanium ingots. That may not seem like a lot — until you multiply it by the number of brackets involved. “Some of the more basic technical cabin systems have more than 250,000 [brackets] installed,” says Sachin Nimbalkar, a scientist at ORNL. When the researchers then looked at the life cycle of the different manufacturing processes, they found 3-D printing helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions per plane by 4,141 metric tons over a plane’s 30-year lifespan in part due to lower fuel demand from the lighter planes.

Photo by edenpictures (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You might think putting a price tag on energy would help motivate people to trim their use. Not so, says a UCLA study that looked at the effectiveness of 156 energy information campaign experiments conducted between 1975 and 2012. In fact, the research, published in the journal Energy Policy and reported at Science for Environment Policy [pdf], suggests such a strategy might actually be counterproductive: When cost savings or monetary rewards were the focus of energy-saving messaging, recipients on average actually increased their energy use.

A smarter approach? Programs that involved giving people customized advice on how to save energy turned out to have the greatest impact, with a 13.5 percent average reduction in consumption. Also effective were information campaigns that compared people’s energy use with that of others, which yielded 11.5 percent savings.

Worth noting: The study also found that conservation efforts tended to drop off over time, suggesting a need for periodic nudges to keep energy-saving energized.

Photo by Digitalnative (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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All the corners of the globe have been explored, right? Think again. An international team of field biologists studying the mountainous region of southeastern Suriname — a wilderness area virtually without human influence and among the most remote and unexplored tracts of rainforest left on Earth — recently discovered 60 species, including reptiles, amphibians and insects that are likely new to science and may exist nowhere else on Earth. The team of researchers, led by Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, also documented the vast array of ecosystem services in the region, including providing clean water for downstream uses such as food production, transportation and sanitation.

Suriname is located in the Guiana Shield, a vast wilderness expanse in South America that contains more than 25 percent of the world’s rainforest. According to expedition leader Leeanne Alonso, a former Conservation International scientist who is now with Global Wildlife Conservation, “southern Suriname is one of the last places on Earth where there is a large expanse of pristine tropical forest. The high number of new species discovered is evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have only just begun to uncover.”

(The photo above shows a sleek, chocolate-colored “cocoa” frog (Hypsiboas sp.) that may be new to science. This species is arboreal, using circular discs on their fingers and toes to adeptly climb into the treetops. Image courtesy of Conservation International)

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Given its use for drinking, irrigation, sanitation and recreation, water has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental well-being. But water has a tremendous impact on our economic well-being as well. Just how tremendous is the focus of a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy.”

The report notes that because energy, water supply and food production sectors are intertwined and directly depend on water as a commodity, every part of the economy is susceptible to disruption from changes in water supply. It also noted that water is undervalued — and predicted that more accurate valuation could drive big changes in water use efficiency and sustainability. And while determining the exact economic value of water is nearly impossible, EPA sees both increased demand and increased value in the future. “Competition for water will increase as consumption rises, water quality decreases, and the impacts of climate change are felt,” commented agency acting assistant administrator for water Nancy Stoner in a blog post on the report.

What’s next in the quest to quantify the economic value of water? The report identifies various opportunities for further research and projects already underway, including a National Water Census tracking potential changes in water availability to guide future water management and decision-making. Article by John Sisser; photo by @Doug88888 (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Over the past several years, companies have been racing to buy land in developing countries. Such large-scale acquisitions enable them to grow commodity food crops for export or to turn into biofuel. But they often overlook the legal rights and wishes of local communities, and so the practice, known as land grabbing, has been raising eyebrows.

Now Coca-Cola, after coming under pressure from a campaign by the nonprofit Oxfam, has announced a “zero-tolerance“ policy for land grabs in its supply chain. It’s a significant step: Sugar is one of the biggest ingredients driving land grabs, and Coke uses a lot of it.

Chris Jochnick, Oxfam’s director of private sector development who led negotiations with Coke, explains that companies don’t need to stop investing in land altogether. (Coke and many other large companies often don’t do so directly; their suppliers do.) “It’s that they have to do it in a way that respects community rights and legal title,” he says. In land grabbing, “the land is either just taken outright or it’s bought at fire sale prices.”

Coke’s new policy, announced Nov. 7, includes disclosure of the top three countries and suppliers of its cane sugar; adherence to the principle of free, prior and informed consent and a requirement that Coke suppliers do the same; and an agreement to third-party social, environmental and human rights assessments, including of land conflicts in seven key sourcing countries.

Oxfam notes that although Nestlé has a land-grab policy in place, it doesn’t include supply chain disclosure and isn’t zero tolerance — so Coca-Cola appears to be leading the way on this issue. Jochnick says Oxfam will be following through to ensure the company upholds its commitments. Article by Rachel Cernansky; photo by C_Columbus (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Are businesses responding appropriately to risk brought about by future water uncertainty? Yes and no, according to a new report from CDP and Deloitte. The CDP Global Water Report 2013 finds that although more companies are recognizing risks to their bottom line due to water stress, scarcity, quality, price and other reasons, their response is lacking, focusing too often on reducing use and reuse.

The report, titled “A need for a step change in water risk management,” is based on responses from 180 companies, including General Motors, Wal-Mart and General Electric. Recommending water stewardship as a road to water security, the report sees shortcomings between the amount of risk certain business sectors face and the response they have in place to address that risk. Take the energy sector, for example: Although 82 percent of respondents recognize risk to their direct operations due to water uncertainties, “only half of respondents report having board-level oversight of water issues and set concrete targets or goals.”

In a foreword to the report CDP CEO Paul Simpson draws a line between those companies that recognize risk and put in place concrete plans to address it and those that don’t, writing, “Investors and companies that understand the complexities of water and devise and implement a strategy that drives water stewardship will be the long term winners in an increasingly water stressed world.” Photo by pdorsey (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Combine a weight, a rope, an LED, inspiration and some savvy crowdfunding, and what do you get? GravityLight. Developed by British inventors Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves in response to a challenge by SolarAid to find inexpensive substitutes for health- and environment-harming kerosene lamps in areas without electricity, this pulley-based lamp produces up to 30 minutes of light each time the bag at the other end of the rope is hoisted. Buoyed by resources garnered in a beyond-their-wildest-dreams successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign, Riddiford, Reeves and team started rolling GravityLights off the production lines last month. The first lights will be provided free of charge to beta testers in Africa and Asia — with a goal of eventually being able to sell them for $5 each, bringing new light to some of the estimated 1.5 billion-plus people around the world who lack reliable access to electricity.

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Preparing to deal with climate change? Take a lesson from the octopus and other organisms, suggests University of Arizona ecologist and policy analyst Rafe Sagarin in an interview with Douglas Fischer of the Daily Climate. Living things, Sagarin points out, are remarkably good at adapting to new circumstances. How do they do it?  He points to four key strategies for dealing with risk and uncertainty we humans would do well to keep in mind as we get ready for a future shaped by climate change: Be decentralized, have redundant parts, form symbiotic networks and build from success rather than from failure. Photo by Morten Brekkevold (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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What are the biggest challenges facing corporate sustainability experts today? According to the just released BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013, 62 percent of respondents listed the integration of sustainability into core business operations as their primary concern. Coming in a distant second at 28 percent was convincing investors about the value of sustainability.

When asked about the extent to which sustainability is integrated into the core of their business, only one in five companies reported that they were close to achieving this goal. Perhaps of bigger concern, sustainability executives noted a lower level, and decreasing, engagement between sustainability and corporate functions such as investor relations, human resources, R&D, marketing and finance (a mere 16 percent said they engage with the finance side of the operation). On a positive note, the survey revealed ongoing high levels of interaction with corporate communications, public affairs, supply chain and the CEO’s office. Photo by epSos (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Trees provide communities with many benefits: They offer energy-saving shade and shelter from wind, absorb carbon dioxide, create habitat for birds and other wildlife, and add beauty and value to homes and businesses. But how to quantify that benefit so it can be factored into decision making? The USDA Forest Service’s i-Tree suite of public domain software gives urban foresters, homeowners and others a way to put a dollar value on the ecosystem services urban trees offer for better planning, education and action. Tools include i-Tree Eco, which calculates the value of the entire city forest, i-Tree Streets, which puts a price tag on street trees, i-Tree Hydro, which simulates effects of changes in tree cover on watersheds, and i-Tree Design, which lets users see what benefits would accrue if they planted trees in various locations around their homes. Photo by Andreas (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Signal_crayfish  

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The negative consequences of invasive species are far-reaching, costing the United States billions of dollars in damages every year. Compounding the problem is that these harmful invaders spread at astonishing rates.” On that last point a group of researchers from the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison say not so fast. In a paper just published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers found that invasive species follow a “nearly universal pattern in ecology … that species are rare in most locations and abundant in a few.” According to Gretchen Hansen, a scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the study’s lead author, “high abundance is the exception, not the rule.” The authors hope that the study will focus the lens of invasive species management on those exceptions where the invaders do in fact spread like wild fire. Likening the fight against invasive species to that of human disease outbreaks, the study’s authors suggest attempting to identify “hot spots” where prolificacy is most likely and concentrating efforts in those places  in other words, spending the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. dedicates to invasive species management where it will have the greatest impact. Photo by David Perez (Wikipedia | Creative Commons)

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