Mapping the quietest/loudest places in the US

“[…] Based on 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring from places as remote as Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and as urban as New York City, scientists have created a map of noise levels across the country on an average summer day. After feeding acoustic data into a computer algorithm, the researchers modeled sound levels across the country including variables such as air and street traffic. Deep blue regions, such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, have background noise levels lower than 20 decibels—a silence likely as deep as before European colonization, researchers say.That’s orders of magnitude quieter than most cities, where noise levels average 50 to 60 decibels […]”

Map showing noise levels in the United States in decibels.

Source: Science Magazine News

Monarch butterfly may be listed as endangered species after 90% population drop

Endangered Monarch butterfly in May resting on clover flowers (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The US government may add the Monarch butterfly to the Endangered Species list following a catastrophic loss of its population over last decades due to habitat decrease from cultivation of genetically engineered crops and climate change.

US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday it would conduct a one-year status review of the Monarch butterfly to determine if they are warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency is requesting scientific and commercial data through a 60-day public information period and they’re looking for data on the insects’ biology, range and population trends, habitat requirements, genetics and taxonomy, distribution patterns, population levels, life history, thermos-tolerance, and conservation methods.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the population has declined from a recorded high of approximately one billion Monarch butterflies in the mid-1990s to only 35 million butterflies last winter, the lowest number ever recorded.

The agency review comes in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to list the subspecies of monarch (Danaus plexippus plexippus), who argue might be necessary.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the decline is driven in part to the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most Monarchs are born. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food.

In addition to herbicide use they say Monarchs are also threatened by global climate change, drought and heat waves, other pesticides, urban sprawl and logging on their Mexican wintering grounds. Scientists have predicted that the Monarch’s entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the states could become unsuitable due to these threats.

Quite apart from their obvious beauty and appeal for Lepidopterists, the Monarch butterfly or the Danaus plexippus plexippus play an important role in ecology. They pollinate or specifically they carry pollen from plant to plant helping fruit, vegetables and flowers to produce new seeds. In the food chain in their caterpillar stage they are a food source for birds, mammals and other insects.

Monarch butterflies are found throughout the United States and many fly between the US, Mexico and Canada – a journey of 3,000 miles. The journey, according to studies, has become more perilous for the butterflies because of threats along their migratory paths, their breeding grounds and wintering grounds.

“We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation’s wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the Monarch,” said Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society’s endangered species director. “Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive monarch habitat recovery on both public and private lands.”

Source: “Monarch butterfly may be listed as endangered species after 90% population drop“,, 31 December 2014

How Wolves Change Rivers

George Monbiot explains how reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park after a 70-year absence set off a “trophic cascade” that altered the movement of deer, sent trees soaring to new heights, attracted scores of new animals to the area (think: beavers, rabbits, bears, bald eagles and more), and stabilized the banks of rivers making them less susceptible to erosion.

What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture?

via the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

organic agriculture bannerSustainability over the long term. Many changes observed in the environment are long term, occurring slowly over time. Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.

Soil. Soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage are central to organic practices. These encourage soil fauna and flora, improving soil formation and structure and creating more stable systems. In turn, nutrient and energy cycling is increased and the retentive abilities of the soil for nutrients and water are enhanced, compensating for the non-use of mineral fertilizers. Such management techniques also play an important role in soil erosion control. The length of time that the soil is exposed to erosive forces is decreased, soil biodiversity is increased, and nutrient losses are reduced, helping to maintain and enhance soil productivity. Crop export of nutrients is usually compensated by farm-derived renewable resources but it is sometimes necessary to supplement organic soils with potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium and trace elements from external sources.

Water. In many agriculture areas, pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilizers (e.g. compost, animal manure, green manure) and through the use of greater biodiversity (in terms of species cultivated and permanent vegetation), enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. Well managed organic systems with better nutrient retentive abilities, greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. In some areas where pollution is a real problem, conversion to organic agriculture is highly encouraged as a restorative measure (e.g. by the Governments of France and Germany).

Air and climate change. Organic agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs (these require high quantities of fossil fuel to be produced). Organic agriculture contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil. Many management practices used by organic agriculture (e.g. minimum tillage, returning crop residues to the soil, the use of cover crops and rotations, and the greater integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes), increase the return of carbon to the soil, raising productivity and favouring carbon storage. A number of studies revealed that soil organic carbon contents under organic farming are considerably higher. The more organic carbon is retained in the soil, the more the mitigation potential of agriculture against climate change is higher.  However, there is much research needed in this field, yet. There is a lack of data on soil organic carbon for developing countries, with no farm system comparison data from Africa and Latin America, and only limited data on soil organic carbon stocks, which is crucial for determining carbon sequestration rates for farming practices.

Biodiversity. Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels. At the gene level, traditional and adapted seeds and breeds are preferred for their greater resistance to diseases and their resilience to climatic stress. At the species level, diverse combinations of plants and animals optimize nutrient and energy cycling for agricultural production. At the ecosystem level, the maintenance of natural areas within and around organic fields and absence of chemical inputs create suitable habitats for wildlife. The frequent use of under-utilized species (often as rotation crops to build soil fertility) reduces erosion of agro-biodiversity, creating a healthier gene pool – the basis for future adaptation. The provision of structures providing food and shelter, and the lack of pesticide use, attract new or re-colonizing species to the organic area (both permanent and migratory), including wild flora and fauna (e.g. birds) and organisms beneficial to the organic system such as pollinators and pest predators. The number of studies on organic farming and biodiversity increased significantly within the last years. A recent study reporting on a meta-analysis of 766 scientific papers concluded that organic farming produces more biodiversity than other farming systems.

Genetically modified organisms. The use of GMOs within organic systems is not permitted during any stage of organic food production, processing or handling. As the potential impact of GMOs to both the environment and health is not entirely understood, organic agriculture is taking the precautionary approach and choosing to encourage natural biodiversity. The organic label therefore provides an assurance that GMOs have not been used intentionally in the production and processing of the organic products. This is something which cannot be guaranteed in conventional products as labelling the presence of GMOs in food products has not yet come into force in most countries. However, with increasing GMO use in conventional agriculture and due to the method of transmission of GMOs in the environment (e.g. through pollen), organic agriculture will not be able to ensure that organic products are completely GMO free in the future. A detailed discussion on GMOs can be found in the FAO publication “Genetically Modified Organisms, Consumers, Food Safety and the Environment“.

Ecological services. The impact of organic agriculture on natural resources favours interactions within the agro-ecosystem that are vital for both agricultural production and nature conservation. Ecological services derived include soil forming and conditioning, soil stabilization, waste recycling, carbon sequestration, nutrients cycling, predation, pollination and habitats. By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system. The hidden costs of agriculture to the environment in terms of natural resource degradation are reduced.