environment and natural resources

Study Finds Healthy River Ecosystems Vital to Removing Excess Nitrogen

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Healthy streams with vibrant ecosystems play a critical role in removing excess nitrogen caused by human activities, according to a major new national study published this week in Nature.

The research, by a team of 31 aquatic scientists across the United States, was the first to document just how much nitrogen that rivers and streams can filter through tiny organisms or release into the atmosphere through a process called denitrification. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

“The study clearly points out the importance of maintaining healthy river systems and native riparian areas,” said Stan Gregory, a stream ecologist in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, and a co-author of the study. “It also demonstrates the importance of retaining complex stream channels that give organisms the time to filter out nitrogen instead of releasing it downstream.”

The scientists conducted experiments in 72 streams across the United States and Puerto Rico that spanned a diversity of land uses, including urban, agricultural and forested areas. They discovered that roughly 40 to 60 percent of nitrogen was taken up by the river system within 500 meters of the source where it entered the river – if that ecosystem was healthy.

Tiny organisms such as algae, fungi and bacteria that may live on rocks, pieces of wood, leaves or streambeds can “take up,” or absorb about half of the nitrogen – on average – that humans currently put into the sampled river sites, according to Sherri Johnson, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and a courtesy professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU.

“Streams are amazingly active places, though we don’t always see the activity,” Johnson said. “When you have a healthy riparian zone, with lots of native plants and a natural channel, the stream has more of an opportunity to absorb the nitrogen we put into the system instead of sending it downriver.”

The study is important, scientists say, because it provides some of the best evidence of the extent to which healthy rivers and streams can help prevent “eutrophication” – the excessive growth of algae and aquatic plants fueled by too much nitrogen. Eutrophication has been linked to harmful algal blooms and oxygen depletion in such places as the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi River empties its nitrogen-rich waters, adversely affecting fishing and shrimp industries.

In their study, the scientists added small amounts of an uncommon, non-radioactive isotope of nitrogen – N-15 – to streams as a nitrate, which is the most prevalent form of nitrogen pollution, Gregory said. By adding the isotope, they were able to measure how far downstream the nitrate traveled, and analyze what processes removed it from the water.

In addition to the 40 to 60 percent taken up by tiny organisms, the researchers found denitrification accounted for about 19 percent of the nitrogen uptake across all the sites. Denitrification takes place through an anaerobic metabolic process that converts the nitrogen to a harmless gas and releases it into the atmosphere.

Slower moving streams with little oxygen have higher rates of denitrification, though they have other pitfalls, including increased risk to fish and humans because of the “microbial stew” they foster, Gregory pointed out.

“The overall amount of denitrification by streams and rivers was lower than what many scientists had anticipated,” he said. “We had hoped it would be higher. That makes it even more essential to maintain healthy riparian zones so the organisms have the opportunity to process the nitrogen.”

Oregon had even lower levels of denitrification than the national average. Johnson said the combination of high-gradient streams, oxygenated water and porous stream beds is not conducive to the denitrification process.

“A lot of streams in Oregon have subsurface water flowing beneath the streambed through the gravel,” she pointed out. “This ‘hyporheic’ flow intermixes with the river water and limits the anaerobic processes. It also underscores the importance of maintaining healthy in-stream communities so the nitrogen is taken up by the ecosystem in other ways.”

Gregory says too many river systems have lost their natural channels to human activities and have essentially become “pipelines” for drainage. The original, braided channels many rivers had were complex, played a major role in slowing and filtering the river water, and provided natural habitat for native and migrating fish.

Past studies by Gregory and others have pointed out how these pipeline river channels harm fish and their eggs during floods. The new study suggests that these pipelines also limit the potential of the river to absorb nitrogen that humans add to the system through a variety of activities.

The Oregon studies focused on Oak Creek basin in Corvallis, the Calapooia River near Albany, and the McKenzie River near Eugene. Each study basin looked at the streams in forested, agricultural and urban areas.

Among the other authors were Linda Ashkenas, a senior research assistant at OSU, and Dan Sobota, who did his doctoral work at Oregon State.

Story By: 

Stan Gregory,

OSU Extension 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program Receives National Award

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program of the Oregon State University Extension Service has been selected to receive the inaugural 2008 Fish and Wildlife Service—4H Natural Resources Conservation Award from the national 4-H organization.

The OSU Extension Service 4-H Wildlife Stewards program is the first to be recognized with this award. "The 4-H Wildlife Stewards program exemplifies the objectives of this award, which recognizes outstanding 4-H programming in wildlife conservation and environmental education areas," said Cathann Kress, director of National 4-H headquarters.

"We are pleased that a program of this caliber will receive this award," Kress said. "The development, implementation and evaluation of this outstanding education program demonstrate sound stewardship of fish and wildlife resources."

The 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program has helped establish and maintain habitat education sites on the grounds of 54 schools in 19 Oregon counties over the last 10 years, according to coordinator Maureen Hosty. "Our volunteers are trained to use these outdoor laboratories to enhance learning and give students actual experiences in science, wildlife and natural resource conservation," she said.

These natural areas, which grace once-stark school grounds, are home to native plants and woodlands, flowers, garden ponds, butterfly gardens, nesting boxes, nurseries and other habitat amenities.

The 4-H Wildlife Stewards program engages students in grades kindergarten through high school. Adult stewards volunteer for a minimum of 50 hours of service and receive 25–30 hours of training. "The volunteers, and the students and teachers they work with, do a wonderful job of improving our environment and helping young people become good stewards of our natural heritage," Hosty said.

The recognition consists of a $5,000 cash award and travel for five representatives of 4-H Wildlife Stewards to attend an awards reception March 26 at the 73rd North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference, sponsored by the Wildlife Management Institute, in Phoenix, Ariz.

The award represents a partnership between National 4-H Headquarters, Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Services, U.S. Department of the Interior.

For more information about the 4-H Wildlife Stewards program, visit the Web site.



Maureen Hosty,

OSU Extension-trained Composters Perk up Ground with Coffee Grounds

EUGENE, Ore. – Every day thousands of yawning commuters, sleep-deprived college students and caffeine-addicted office workers in Lane County fuel up at coffee shops. But what happens to the dark, steaming, gritty coffee grounds that are left over from each latte, espresso and mocha?

The majority have been trucked to the Short Mountain Landfill, Lane County's only municipal solid waste disposal site. But now some of the county's aromatic grounds are ending up in area gardens, thanks to a composting program launched by the Oregon State University Extension Service in Lane County.

Since 2004, Extension-trained composters have collected almost 200 tons of grounds from 13 coffee shops and kiosks in Eugene, Springfield, Florence, Cottage Grove and Veneta, said Cindy Wise, the coordinator for Extension's Compost Specialist program in Lane County.

That's the equivalent of about 25 large dump trucks, said Dan Hurley, the landfill's waste management engineer.

Last year, the volunteer composters – known as Compost Specialists – collected 53 tons of coffee grounds, Wise said, estimating that coffee shops in Lane County produce a combined 500 tons of grounds each year.

In recognition of their work, Lane County commissioners gave Wise and the Compost Specialist program their Trashbuster Award in 2005.

The coffee ground composting program started when Compost Specialists placed 32-gallon containers at various coffee shops to collect the grounds, which they and other members of the public then used in their gardens.

The system, however, is evolving. In lieu of using 32-gallon containers, Compost Specialists are now hoping to implement a system that uses 5-gallon buckets. They're surveying more than 80 coffee shops in Eugene and Springfield to see which ones would be willing to let the public bring buckets to the shops to retrieve grounds.

"This is something anyone would be able to do at participating coffee shops. Just take a clean five-gallon bucket with a lid, leave it at the shop, and then pick it up at the shop's convenience," Wise said.

Compost Specialists will compile a list of participating shops that will include their addresses and their conditions regarding when and how frequently people must pick up the buckets. Extension in Lane County will publish the list on its Web site and in a brochure, probably in May or June, Wise said. She added that a pilot program is under way at the Starbucks at 801 E. 13th Ave. in Eugene.

Wise said coffee grounds are an excellent addition to compost piles because they add nitrogen, which bacteria need to turn organic matter into compost. She also said earth worms are attracted to the grounds and that the grounds are a safe substitute for nitrogen-rich manure.

"A lot of people don't want to use manure because of concerns about pathogens," she said.

Wise said that informal trials by Compost Specialists in Lane County found that coffee grounds helped sustain high temperatures in compost piles, thus reducing potentially dangerous pathogens as well as seeds from weeds and vegetables that were added to the piles. In the trials, when coffee grounds made up 25 percent of the volume of the compost pile, temperatures were sustained between 135 degrees and 155 degrees for at least two weeks, enough time to have killed a "significant portion" of the pathogens and seeds, she said. In contrast, the manure in the trials didn't sustain the heat as long, she said.

"We were amazed at the results we got with coffee grounds when we did the trial," she said.

Jack Hannigan, a Compost Specialist, is pleased with the results he gets from the coffee grounds he collects from the Fast Lane Coffee Company in Springfield to use on his farm in Pleasant Hill.

"I make hotbeds that run about 150 degrees,” Hannigan said. “It kills the weeds. I can get the piles hotter and break down the compost better with coffee grounds than I can with manure. It works great."

Coffee grounds also can be added directly to soil but the grounds need a few months to break down, Wise said. "We're not certain about how coffee grounds act with the soil, but anecdotally people say they do dig it into the soil," she said.

To gather more data about this, in a couple of weeks Compost Specialists in Lane County will start studying the effect that coffee grounds have on soil at test plots in and near Eugene. In each location, one part of the plot won't have coffee grounds mixed into the soil; another will, and a third will have even more.

"We'll let them sit in the soil and come back in six to eight weeks and take a soil sample and analyze for nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and how it affects the pH of soil," she said. "We need to find out how long it takes to break down and how it will affect the nutrients in the soil. Then we'll plant bush beans and see how they look."

Extension in Lane County will share the results with the public on its Web site in the fall, Wise said.

Gardening aside, one benefit of diverting coffee grounds from the landfill is that it helps cut greenhouse gas emissions, Hurley said.

"To keep organics out of the landfill is a good thing for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because organics decompose and produce methane. Methane is about 25 times as bad as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas," he said.

Sarah Grimm, the waste reduction specialist for Lane County Public Works, said she applauds the program for encouraging interactions between community residents and local businesses. She also likes that the coffee grounds are staying in their communities, meaning that fuel isn't being used to truck them from far-flung areas of the county to the landfill near Eugene.

"It's a wonderful program," she said. "As a waste reduction specialist, I can get behind something like that. Sending it to a compost pile is better than trucking it from there to here."

For information about Extension in Lane County, go to http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/.

To learn about the Compost Specialist Program, go to http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/gardens/compost.



Cindy Wise,

OSU Organic Farm to Celebrate Earth Day with Food, Music

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The public is invited to enjoy free organic food and live music at the sixth annual Earth Day Hoo Haa on a student-run organic farm on the outskirts of Corvallis on April 22.

The festivities, sponsored by Oregon State University's Organic Growers Club, will take place from 3-7 p.m. Attendees will be able to tour the farm, watch draft horses plow soil, check out an electric tractor, and see how chickens in a mobile coop are used to till the earth. In addition, attendees are invited to bring a turning fork to help till the ground and plant beet seeds, lettuce and 10,000 onions.

"You line up 50 people on a 100-foot-long bed and say, 'Go!' Then you move to the next bed. If you have enough people, nobody breaks a sweat," said the club's faculty adviser, James Cassidy, adding that about 600 people attended last year.

Two bands will provide entertainment: Deadwood Revival (www.deadwoodrevival.com) will bring its banjo and bass, and the homegrown Future Roots (www.future-roots.com) will return for a third year with its mix of jam rock, folk rock, reggae, blues and bluegrass.

Attendees are encouraged to bring their own bowl and silverware but to leave their dogs at home.

A free shuttle van to the farm will depart from the OSU Bookstore every 20 minutes. To drive to the farm, take state Route 34 east after crossing the Willamette River, then turn left onto an unnamed dirt road after the Trysting Tree Golf Club.

For information on the Organic Growers Club, go to http://cropandsoil.oregonstate.edu/organic_grower


James Cassidy,

Public Invited to Preview OPB film, learn about invasive species

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Scotch broom, Japanese eelgrass, Quagga mussels, and Oregonians: How are they related? While the first three are non-native, invasive species of plants and animals, Oregonians often unknowingly spread these and a growing number of other invaders in the state -- and can also stop invasive species before they spread.

A statewide educational effort to prevent the spread of invasive species ramps up this month, highlighted by a media campaign whose centerpiece is a new documentary film produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. The hour-long documentary, “The Silent Invasion,” has its OPB broadcast premiere on Earth Day, April 22, at 8 p.m. -- but because of faculty involvement in the production, Oregon State University (OSU) will host special advanced screenings, Wednesday, April 9, in Corvallis, and Thursday, April 17, in Newport. The public is invited.

The Corvallis special event begins at 5 p.m. with a reception and refreshments, followed by an introduction to the film, and then the showing itself at 5:30. Time for discussion follows. All Corvallis events are at the CH2MHill Alumni Center on the campus, across from Reser football stadium.

The Newport screening is at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, in the public auditorium within the Visitor Center, starting at 6 p.m.

Copies of a new guidebook published by Oregon Sea Grant, “On the Lookout for Aquatic Invasive Species,” will be available in limited quantities for free. Oregon Sea Grant leads public education activities in Oregon related to aquatic invasives.

Additional information for media: Oregon Sea Grant faculty at OSU have been playing a critical role in the development of the media campaign. Sam Chan, Sea Grant Extension invasive species specialist, is part of a team of advisors to OPB’s Oregon Field Guide production crew, led by producer Ed Jahn. Chan arranged for the OPB crew to be invited along on an exploratory research visit to China last year, and that experience of the interconnected global nature of the invasives problem and potential solutions figures prominently in the OPB documentary. Chan represents Oregon Sea Grant on the state’s Oregon Invasive Species Council, which is another key partner in the public education campaign. Chan and Jahn will be the main presenters at the Corvallis screening.

At the same time, Chan and other Sea Grant colleagues have been conducting social science research to guide the development of the campaign. “Focus group” interviews were conducted with several groups whose activities impinge on invasive species, including boaters, hunters and gardeners. And Sea Grant has also supported the development of a statewide public opinion survey with the Oregon Invasive Species Council about invasives, led by Sea Grant professor of free-choice learning, Lynn Dierking, Chan, and communications leader Joe Cone.

In addition to the new identification field guide, “On the Lookout for Aquatic Invaders,” which will be available at the April 9 screening, Sea Grant’s own award-winning documentary about aquatic invasive species, “You Ought to Tell Somebody!” is online at www.seagrant.oregonstate.edu.

Along with its feature documentary, OPB has planned a year-long campaign called “Stop the Invasion” to counter the environmental and economic threat of invasive species. The campaign will also include a series of television awareness spots, an online invasive species 'reporting' hotline, a “GardenSmart Oregon” guide to non-invasive plants for your garden, a statewide volunteer Take Action calendar, and other educational materials aimed at giving Oregonians the resources they need to join the fight to protect Oregon's natural environment. Other participants in the educational campaign include SOLV, the Nature Conservancy, the Oregon Invasive Species Council, the City of Portland, and Portland State University.



Sam Chan,

Study Finds Low-Density Housing Sprawl “Ubiquitous”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study on housing by researchers from Oregon and the Midwest has found that housing growth is ubiquitous throughout the country, and the “sprawl” once associated primarily with urban areas has become a dominant feature of the rural landscape.

The trend toward low-density housing has significant consequences, the researchers say, as more and more people seek the American dream of the past half-century – a house on five acres next to a stream and wooded hillside.

“The proliferation of low-density housing can result in a loss of traditional timber and agricultural land that is subsumed by development,” said Roger Hammer, a demographer and assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University. “Living near urban areas is no longer considered a necessity as more people become willing to commute an hour each way to work, or can telecommute and work at home.”

Hammer and colleagues Volker C. Radeloff, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Susan Stewart, from the U.S. Forest Service in Evanston, Ill., have created a new website that looks at housing location nationally and state-by-state back to 1940 and ahead to the year 2030. Their projections can be broken down to the county and even neighborhood level for every state. That specificity, which is smaller than U.S. Census block groups, is a level of detail that is unprecedented, the researchers say. http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/library/HousingData.asp.

Their data show tremendous housing growth in the West and the Southeast regions of the United States over the past few decades. A higher percentage of public lands in the West has prevented even more dispersed growth and steered many of the new housing units to transportation corridors.

In the South, the Carolinas and Georgia have grown substantially, Hammer said, in large part because of expanding metropolitan areas and a growing number of seasonal and retirement homes in non-metropolitan areas. Part of that growth is attributed to a “ricochet” effect of retirees and others – sometimes referred to as snowbirds – moving from colder climates to the South, but unable to afford higher-priced locales in Florida and settling instead in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The seasonal home phenomenon also is responsible for growth in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Although the researchers didn’t specifically look at seasonal homes, they conservatively estimate that there are more than 3.6 million of these dwellings in the United States. The rate of seasonal homes has more than doubled since 1940, from 5.6 per 1,000 persons to 13 per 1,000 persons.

This trend toward rural sprawl has major environment impacts, according to Radeloff, who is an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology.

“With housing development, we see an increase in exotic, invasive plants and negative effects on many forest bird species, habitat fragmentation and rising numbers of human-caused wildfires,” Radeloff said. “People like to live near lakes, in the mountains, and close to the coasts. But as more and more people move away from the cities, we have to recognize that there are consequences.”

Radeloff said there are several responses individuals and society should consider to the rural sprawl trend. Homeowners can choose to plant only native and non-invasive plants on their property, and restrict their pets to fenced areas, especially during sensitive times like wildlife breeding seasons. County and municipal administrators can monitor where they will allow housing developments based on environmental impacts. And on a national basis, the United States should consider policies that encourage, if not subsidize sensible local land use, and move away from policies that foster housing sprawl.

“We don’t need Congress to decide land use,” Radeloff emphasized, “but we do need programs that provide assistance to develop comprehensive land use plans that take the needs of both people and the environment into account.”

Areas with natural resource amenities and recreation often are targets for this “rural sprawl,” according to Stewart.

“Rural sprawl often takes small communities by surprise and can overwhelm their capacity for planning and land use enforcement,” she said. “Our housing growth trends are coming into conflict with our love of nature and we need to resolve the conflict while we can.”

The shift of more housing into rural areas also has placed homeowners in conflict with another part of nature – wildfires. In February, OSU’s Hammer testified in Washington, D.C. to the House Interior, Environment & Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on wildfire management. In that hearing, he told the House that the confluence of forest management decisions and housing location decisions will put more Americans at-risk from wildfires during the next several years.

“Large forest fires are not new to this country and especially to the West,” Hammer said. “But as more and more people move into these rural areas, the problem will continue to worsen.” http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/Library/WUILibrary.asp.


Story By: 

Roger Hammer,

OSU Press Publishes New Book on Mount St. Helens Eruption, Renewal

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Twenty-eight years after a massive volcanic eruption reshaped Washington’s Mount St. Helens, a new book is being published that examines the effect the event had on the landscape – and the people who lived there.

Published by the Oregon State University Press, “In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens” is a collection of essays and poetry by noted authors, scientists, poets and others. It was edited by Charles Goodrich and Kathleen Dean Moore of OSU, and Frederick J. Swanson of the U.S. Forest Service.

A tour featuring the editors and some of the contributing writers will begin on Friday, May 16, at OSU in the Valley Library rotunda. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Additional readings are listed below.

“Blast Zone” explores the mountain’s devastation and renewal, posing the question of what a radically altered landscape can reveal about nature and how to live our lives. Contributing writers include noted Oregon author Ursula K. LeGuin, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, Northwest Writing Institute founder Kim Stafford, aquatic scientist Jim Sedell, Oregon poet and writer John Daniel, photographer Gary Braasch and others.

Their diversity of experiences and perspectives with Mount St. Helens – and sometimes with the eruption itself – bring a multi-layered look at one of the most significant natural events to strike the Pacific Northwest in modern times.

Jerry Franklin, a contributing writer, facilitated numerous research projects in the Mount St. Helens blast zone following the eruption and still studies the ecosystem’s recovery. Another essayist, Robin Kimmerer, is a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi who writes about traditional knowledge of the area’s ecology and how it contributed to the restoration efforts.

The editors also offer personal perspectives.

Swanson, long fascinated with volcano science, previously co-edited a scientific review, “Ecological Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens.” Goodrich, the program director for OSU’s Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, was backpacking 12 miles southeast of St. Helens when it erupted on May 18, 1980. Moore, who directs the Spring Creek project and serves as OSU’s first Writer Laureate, moved into her Corvallis home the day of the eruption and still has a small bottle of ash scraped from the hood of her car.

In the book’s foreword, Scott Slovic writes: “One comes away from reading this book with a powerfully transformed view of Mount St. Helens and volcanoes in general, carrying in one’s imagination ideas of green moss and blue butterflies, birdsong and wind, ideas that have now begun to complicate the image of St. Helens as a stark post-eruption moonscape…”

The paperback retails for $15.95 and is available in book stores, by calling 1-800-426-3797, or by going online to http://oregonstate.edu/dept/press/i-j/IntheBlastZone.html

Stops on the reading tour include:

• Corvallis: Friday, May 16, Oregon State University’s Valley Library rotunda, 7:30 p.m.

• Portland: Sunday, May 18, Powell’s Books, 4 p.m. (Ursula LeGuin, Kim Stafford and others will join the editors).

• Eugene: Wednesday, May 21, University of Oregon Bookstore, 7 p.m.

• Bellingham, Wash.: Tuesday, May 27, Village Books, 7 p.m.

• Olympia, Wash.: Wednesday, May 28, Orca Books, 7 p.m.

• Seattle, Wash.: Thursday, May 29, University Bookstore, 7 p.m.


Story By: 

Micki Reaman,

Abrupt global warming could shift monsoon patterns, cut agricultural output

CORVALLIS, Ore. – At times in the distant past, an abrupt change in climate has been associated with a shift of seasonal monsoons to the south, a new study concludes, causing more rain to fall over the oceans than in the Earth’s tropical regions, and leading to a dramatic drop in global vegetation growth.

If similar changes were to happen to the Earth’s climate today as a result of global warming – as scientists believe is possible – this might lead to drier tropics, more wildfires and declines in agricultural production in some of the world’s most heavily populated regions.

The findings were based on oxygen isotopes in air from ice cores, and supported by previously published data from ancient stalagmites found in caves. They will be published Friday in the journal Science by researchers from Oregon State University, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The data confirming these effects were unusually compelling, researchers said.

“Changes of this type have been theorized in climate models, but we’ve never before had detailed and precise data showing such a widespread impact of abrupt climate change,” said Ed Brook, an OSU professor of geosciences. “We didn’t really expect to find such large, fast environmental changes recorded by the whole atmosphere. The data are pretty hard to ignore.”

The researchers used oxygen measurements, as recorded in air bubbles in ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland, to gauge the changes taking place in vegetation during the past 100,000 years. Increases or decreases in vegetation growth can be determined by measuring the ratio of two different oxygen isotopes in air – the composition of which is essentially the same around the world at any one point in time.

They were also able to verify and confirm these measurements with data from studies of ancient stalagmites on the floors of caves in China, which can reveal rainfall levels over hundreds of thousands of years.

“Both the ice core data and the stalagmites in the caves gave us the same signal, of very dry conditions over broad areas at the same time,” Brook said. “We believe the mechanism causing this was a shift in monsoon patterns, more rain falling over the ocean instead of the land. That resulted in much lower vegetation growth in the regions affected by these monsoons, in what is now India, Southeast Asia and parts of North Africa.”

Previous research has determined that the climate can shift quite rapidly in some cases, in periods as short as decades or less. This study provides a barometer of how those climate changes can affect the Earth’s capacity to grow vegetation.

“Oxygen levels and their isotopic composition in the atmosphere are pretty stable; it takes a major terrestrial change to affect it very much,” Brook said. “These changes were huge. The drop in vegetation growth must have been dramatic.”

Observations of past climatic behavior are important, Brook said, but not a perfect predictor of the impact of future climatic shifts. For one thing, at times in the past when some of these changes took place, larger parts of the northern hemisphere were covered by ice. Ocean circulation patterns also can heavily influence climate, and shift in ways that are not completely understood.

However, the study still points to monsoon behavior being closely linked to climate change.

“These findings highlight the sensitivity of low-latitude rainfall patterns to abrupt climate change in the high–latitude north,” the researchers wrote in their report, “with possible relevance for future rainfall and agriculture in heavily-populated monsoon regions.”


Story By: 

Ed Brook, 541-737-8197

Studies Confirm Greenhouse Mechanisms Even Further Into Past

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The newest analysis of trace gases trapped in Antarctic ice cores now provide a reasonable view of greenhouse gas concentrations as much as 800,000 years into the past, and are further confirming the link between greenhouse gas levels and global warming, scientists reported today in the journal Nature.

They also show that during that entire period of time, there have never been concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane as high as the current levels, said Edward Brook, an associate professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, and author of a Nature commentary on the new studies.

“The fundamental conclusion that today’s concentrations of these greenhouse gases have no past analogue in the ice-core record remains firm,” Brook said in the report. “The remarkably strong correlations of methane and carbon dioxide with temperature reconstructions also stand.”

The latest research, done by members of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, extend the data on trace gases back another 150,000 years beyond any studies done prior to this, Brook said. Ultimately, researchers would like to achieve data going back as much as 1.5 million years.

The tiny bubbles of ancient air trapped in polar ice cores have been used to provide records of trace gases in the atmosphere at distant points in the past, and better understand the natural fluctuations that have occurred, largely as a result of cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun.

“These natural cycles that occur on the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of years can help us understand both the forces that have controlled and influenced Earth’s climate in the past, and the implications of current changes on future climate,” said Brook, who is co-chair of an international group that organizes global studies in this field.

According to the data, the current levels of primary greenhouse gases – those that are expected to cause global warming – are off the charts.

The concentration of carbon dioxide is now a bit more than 380 parts per million, compared to a range of about 200-300 parts per million during the past 800,000 years. The current concentration of methane is 1,800 parts per billion, compared to a range of about 400-700 parts per billion during that time.

In every case during that extended period, warm periods coincide with high levels of greenhouse gases. Of some interest, the latest studies are showing that the temperature increases have been even more pronounced during the most recent 450,000 years, compared to several hundred thousand years prior to that.

“It appears there may even be very long-term natural cycles that have operated on much longer periods of 400,000 years or more,” Brook said. “We still have quite a bit to learn about these past cycles and all the forces that control them.”

Most of the time during the past 800,000 years, the Earth has experienced long, cooler periods about 80,000 to 90,000 years long, which eventually lead to ice ages. Those have been regularly interrupted by “interglacial” periods about 10,000 to 20,000 years long that are considerably warmer – this is the stage the Earth is in right now. Abrupt climate changes on much shorter time scales are also possible, researchers believe, possibly due to shifts in ocean circulation patterns or other forces.

Scientists are continuing to search for the optimal sites in Antarctica that will allow them to take the ice core records back even further, Brook said.

Story By: 

Edward Brook,

Changing Ownership of Timber Lands Raises Social, Economic Challenges

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Almost all large, publicly-traded forest product companies have shed their timber lands in the past 20 years, a reflection of global economic pressures, new tax laws and other forces – and this phenomenon has changed the very nature of commercial forestry.

In their place are new real estate investment trusts and timberland investors that are focused on maximizing their profits, mixed in with remaining small and private forest landowners and companies struggling to survive. These wide-ranging changes are poorly understood and may not serve the best long term interests of society, according to recent studies in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

This revolution in America’s forest ownership and management has taken place quietly and largely under the radar, but it has huge business, social and environmental implications, said John Bliss, OSU professor and holder of the Starker Chair of Private and Family Forestry.

“In forestry, we grew up with the idea that large, public forest product companies would always own and manage forest lands,” Bliss said. “That was naïve. By and large they have gotten out of that business completely.”

These “vertically integrated” public forest product companies used to own large tracts of their own forest lands as well as the mills to process the timber, Bliss said. At the same time they retained professional land managers, employed huge numbers of forest and mill workers, and had a long-term commitment to forest products as their primary business. They dwarfed small forest landowners in size, and sometimes disparaged them as “less professional” and not using the latest practices or technology, Bliss said.

But in the last couple decades, these companies – International Paper, Georgia Pacific, Boise Cascade, Pope and Talbot – have either sold off their timber lands or gone out of business altogether. What’s left is a grab bag of small forest landowners, new types of large timber land owners, and commercial mills that have to buy timber wherever they can get it. The motivations and goals of these people and entities are quite different from those of the past, experts say.

“A lot of this was driven by very tough global competition and changes in tax laws,” said Erin Kelly, an OSU forestry doctoral student. “The tax laws were created at the federal level for business in general and had little to do with forestry. But the end result was that ownership of timber lands was dragging down the bottom line for the big forest product companies.”

More favorable tax situations were enjoyed by real estate investment trusts (REITs) or timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) which provided mechanisms that helped avoid corporate taxes and long-term capital gains. At the same time, large public companies faced cost-cutting, mergers and acquisitions, a drive for maximum efficiency and improved profits.

“Several CEOs of large public timber companies have said that they simply had no choice,” Bliss said. “It was either recognize the efficiency of new business models or go out of business.”

But those changing ownership structures, researchers say, have had multiple impacts. Real estate investment trusts, for instance, have a mandate to maximize the value of the lands they own. They don’t have a mill they are required to keep busy, and their managers don’t much care whether the land produces timber or gets turned into golf courses, resorts or subdivisions. And who, ultimately, are the new owners? They could be just about anybody, including the ordinary investor – pension funds, mutual funds and insurance companies hold many of these REITs and TIMOs, which can help them diversify their holdings.

“People who used to be in the timber production business are now in the investment business,” Kelly said. “The end result is a lot of pressure to take timber lands out of production for whatever other use makes more money. The largest private landowner in the United States right now is a real estate investment trust in Seattle. But whether this best serves the long-term good of society is a different question.”

At the same time, the remaining small timber land owners or small private companies are trying to produce wood and forest products in competition with large, multinational industries all over the world.

“In today’s global, intensely competitive free market, smallness of enterprise is not generally viewed as an asset,” the scientists wrote in one recent study. “Particularly in commodity markets, economies of scale in ownership, management, production, transportation and marketing all favor bigness.”

The challenge, OSU experts say, is to identify approaches or techniques that can allow economic survival of today’s smaller or more disjointed forest land owners. No easy solutions exist, Bliss said.

“There has been the idea that smaller landowners or companies in the U.S. could turn more to ‘green’ wood products that are produced in environmentally sensitive ways,” Bliss said. “But so far the American consumer has not generally indicated a willingness to pay more for these products.”

There may be some opportunities to grow older, very high quality logs in long rotations that can be used for specialty products and command higher prices, Bliss said. Some forest lands have also been sold to environmental groups for conservation purposes, which can be locally important but offer less of a widespread solution. Hunting leases and other ecotourism options provide some potential for income. And intensively-managed plantations on the best forest lands may help keep them economically viable.

Small forest landowners often provide the commitment to caring for the land, diversity of uses, personal attachment, flexibility and ethical underpinning that are viewed as very positive forces, Bliss said. These people are not always driven by the need to maximize production or convert forest lands for a quick profit – but they must compete in the marketplace in order to survive.

“The squeeze is on, there’s no doubt about it,” Bliss said. “Our challenge is to accept these new realities and find ways for the smaller owners to survive, hopefully even thrive.”

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John Bliss,