Red spruce reviving in New England, but why?

Aug. 30, 2013 — In the 1970s, red spruce was the forest equivalent of a canary in the coal mine, signaling that acid rain was damaging forests and that some species, especially red spruce, were particularly sensitive to this human induced damage. In the course of studying the lingering effects of acid rain and whether trees stored less carbon as a result of winter injury, U.S. Forest Service and University of Vermont scientists came up with a surprising result — three decades later, the canary is feeling much better.Decline in red spruce has been attributed to damage that trees sustain in winter, when foliage predisposed to injury by exposure to acid rain experiences freezing injury and dies. Paul Schaberg, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Burlington, Vt., and partners studied red spruce trees in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They found that the influence of a single damaging winter injury event in 2003 continued to slow tree growth in New England for 3 years, longer than had been expected, and had a significant impact on carbon storage.They also found something they did not expect.”The shocking thing is that these trees are doing remarkably well now,” said Schaberg, a co-author on the study. Researchers found that diameter growth is now the highest ever recorded for red spruce, indicating that it is now growing at levels almost two times the average for the last 100 years, a growth rate never before achieved by the trees examined. “It raises the question ‘why?'” Schaberg said.The theories that Schaberg and his colleagues are eager to test include whether the red spruce turn-around can be credited to reductions in pollution made possible by the Clean Air Act of 1990, which helped reduce sulfur and nitrogen pollution. Another possibility is that red spruce may be one of nature’s winners in the face of climate change. …

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Of stars and stripes: NASA satellites used to predict zebra migrations

Aug. 7, 2013 — One of the world’s longest migrations of zebras occurs in the African nation of Botswana, but predicting when and where zebras will move has not been possible until now. Using NASA rain and vegetation data, researchers can track when and where arid lands begin to green, and for the first time anticipate if zebras will make the trek or, if the animals find poor conditions en route, understand why they will turn back.Covering an area of approximately 8,500 square miles (22,000 square kilometers), Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one end of the second-longest zebra migration on Earth, a 360-mile (580-kilometer) round trip to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans — the largest salt pan system on the planet. Zebras walk an unmarked route that takes them to the next best place for grazing, while overhead thundering cloudbursts of late October rains drive new plant growth, filling pockmarks across this largest inland delta in the world. In a matter of weeks, the flooded landscape could yield ecosystems flush with forage for the muscled movers.High above, Earth-orbiting satellites capture images of the zebras’ movements on this epic trek, as well as the daily change in environmental conditions. Zebras don’t need data to know when it’s time to find better forage: The surge of rain-coaxed grasses greening is their prompt to depart. But now, researchers are able to take that data and predict when the zebras will move.Pieter Beck, research associate with the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., and three collaborators studied animal migration in a novel way, which they described in a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Biogeoscences, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. While tracking animal movement with satellites has been accomplished many times, Beck said, he and his team combined that information with in-depth use of environmental satellite data, using a series of images of vegetation growth and rainfall taken over days and weeks. This sheds unprecedented light on what drives animals to migrate, he said, what cues they use, and how animal migrations respond to environmental change.Zebra mind: A band of scientists earn their stripesThe Zebra Migration Research Project began in 2008 after Hattie Bartlam-Brooks and her team discovered the migration during field work for Okavango Herbivore Research. Anecdotal evidence — unverified stories — prior to the 1970s described a zebra migration from the Okavango Delta to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans at the start of the rainy season in September and continuing through April, but from 1968 to 2004, veterinary fences prevented zebras from making the migration. …

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Pollution in Northern Hemisphere helped cause 1980s African drought

June 6, 2013 — Decades of drought in central Africa reached their worst point in the 1980s, causing Lake Chad, a shallow lake used to water crops in neighboring countries, to almost dry out completely.The shrinking lake and prolonged drought was initially blamed on overgrazing and bad agricultural practices. More recently, Lake Chad became an example of global warming. New University of Washington research, to be published in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that the drought were caused at least in part by Northern Hemisphere air pollution.Aerosols emanating from coal-burning factories in the United States and Europe during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s cooled the entire Northern Hemisphere, shifting tropical rain bands south. Rains no longer reached the Sahel region, a band that spans the African continent just below the Sahara desert.When clean-air legislation passed in the U.S. and Europe, the rain band shifted back, and the drought lessened. Related research by the UW researchers and their collaborators shows that global warming is now causing the land-covered Northern Hemisphere to warm faster than the Southern Hemisphere, further reversing the pre-1980s trend.Previous research has suggested a connection between coal-burning and the Sahel drought, but this was the first study that used decades of historical observations to find that this drought was part of a global shift in tropical rainfall, and then used multiple climate models to determine why.”One of our research strategies is to zoom out,” said lead author Yen-Ting Hwang, a UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. “Instead of studying rainfall at a particular place, we try to look for the larger-scale patterns.”To determine that the Sahel drought was part of a broader shift, the authors looked at precipitation from all rain gauges that had continuous readings between 1930 and 1990. Other places on the northern edge of the tropical rain band, including northern India and South America, also experienced dryer climates in the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, places on the southern edge of the rain band, such as northeast Brazil and the African Great Lakes, were wetter than normal.To understand the reason, authors looked at all 26 climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Researchers discovered that almost all the models also showed some southward shift, and that cooling from sulfate aerosols in the Northern Hemisphere was the primary cause.”We think people should know that these particles not only pollute air locally, but they also have these remote climate effects,” Hwang said.Light-colored sulfate aerosols are emitted mainly by dirty burning of coal. …

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