Category: Research


March 31, 2014

Organic Ejecta –Clues to Violent Events in the History of the Universe

 

Pinwheel_Spitzer

 

Exploding stars, random impacts involving comets and meteorites, and even near misses between two bodies can create regions of great heat and high pressure. Researchers from Imperial College London have now developed a method for analysing the pressure experienced by tiny samples of organic material that may have been ejected from dying stars before making a long journey through the cosmos. The researchers have investigated a type of aromatic hydrocarbon called dimethylnaphthalene, which should enable them to identify violent events in the history of the universe.

The team also believe that their new technique could be applied on Mars, potentially using the existing technology on-board roving laboratories such as the one on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission to glean information about sources of organic matter on the red planet. Recognising the pressures recorded in the aromatic hydrocarbons can help to reveal whether it came from processes generated from ancient living organisms.Samples of dimethylnaphthalene are found in meteorites. Previously, scientists have only had the ability to investigate how they have been affected by heat. The Imperial researchers say their method for detecting periods when dimethylnaphthalenes have experienced high pressure will now allow for a much more comprehensive analysis of organic materials.

 

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New maps show how habitats may shift with climate change

This map shows how marine habitat ranges will shift likely in a segment of the Northern Hemisphere. The length of the black arrows indicates the velocity of temperature change, and the color schemes correspond with the nature of the habitat migration, as follows. SINK: Migrations terminate due to some barrier, such as coastlines. SOURCE: Migrations do not terminate. CORRIDOR: Many migrations passing through. DIVERGENCE: Fewer migrations end than start. CONVERGENCE: More migrations start than end. Credit: Michael Burrows and Jorge Garcia Molinosor (Credit: Michael Burrows and Jorge Garcia Molinosor)

This map shows how marine habitat ranges will shift likely in a segment of the Northern Hemisphere. The length of the black arrows indicates the velocity of temperature change, and the color schemes correspond with the nature of the habitat migration, as follows. SINK: Migrations terminate due to some barrier, such as coastlines. SOURCE: Migrations do not terminate. CORRIDOR: Many migrations passing through. DIVERGENCE: Fewer migrations end than start. CONVERGENCE: More migrations start than end. Credit: Michael Burrows and Jorge Garcia Molinosor

As regional temperatures shift with climate change, many plants and animals will need to relocate to make sure they stay in the range of temperatures they’re used to.

For some species, this shift will mean a fairly direct adjustment toward higher latitudes to stay with cooler temperatures, but for many others, the path will take twists and turns due to differences in the rate at which temperatures change around the world, scientists say.

Now, a team of 21 international researchers has identified potential paths of these twists and turns by mapping out climate velocities— the speed and intensity with which climate change occurs in a given region — averaged from 50 years of satellite data from 1960 through 2009, and projected for the duration of the 21st century.

MSN Weather: What causes global warming?
MSN Weather: How global warming can make cold snaps even worse

“We are taking physical data that we have had for a long time and representing them in a way that is more relevant to other disciplines, like ecology,” said co-author Michael Burrows, a researcher at the Scottish Marine Institute. “This is a relatively simple approach to understanding how climate is going to influence ocean and land systems.”

Where species come and go

The resulting maps indicate regions likely to experience an influx or exodus of new species, or behave as a corridor or, conversely, a barrier, to migration. Barriers, such as coastlines or mountain ranges, could cause local extinctions if they prevent species from relocating, the team says.  [Maps: Habitat Shifts Due to Climate Change]

“For example, because those environments are not adjacent to or directly connected to a warmer place, those species from warmer places won’t be able to get there very easily,” Burrows told Live Science. “They might still get there in other ways, like on the bottoms of ships, but they won’t get there as easily.”

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- Jon Queally, staff writer

Almost half (47%) of all U.S. wells are being developed in regions with high to extremely high water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the annual available water is already allocated to municipal, industrial and agricultural users in these regions. (Source: Ceres)The irony of fracking: It destroys the natural resource it needs most. The tragedy for those living nearby fracking operations: That natural resource is the fresh—and increasingly scarce—water supply on which they, too, depend.

And not only does fracking—or hydraulic fracturing—demand enormous amounts of fresh water no matter where it takes places, a troubling new study released Wednesday found that a majority of places where the controversial drilling technique is most prevalent are the same regions where less and less water is available.

Overlay the regions where most of the fracking is being done in North American with the places experiencing the most troubling and persistent water resource problems and the resulting picture becomes an alarm bell as politicians and the fossil fuel industry continue to push fracking expansion as the savior for the U.S. and Canada’s energy woes.

According to the report, Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers (pdf), produced by the non-profit Ceres investor network, much of the oil and gas fracking activity in both the U.S. and Canada is happening in “arid, water stressed regions, creating significant long-term water sourcing risks” that will strongly and negatively impact the local ecosystem, communities, and people living nearby.

“Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country’s most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions,” said Ceres President Mindy Lubber, in announcing Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers. “Barring stiffer water-use regulations and improved on-the-ground practices, the industry’s water needs in many regions are on a collision course with other water users, especially agriculture and municipal water use.”

Richard Heinberg, senior fellow of the California-based Post Carbon Institute and author of a recent book on the “false promise” of the fracking industry, says the irony of the study’s findings “would be delicious if it weren’t so terrifying.”

“Nationally,” according to Heinberg, “only about 50 percent of fracking wastewater is recycled. Billions of gallons of freshwater are still taken from rivers, streams, and wells annually for this purpose, and—after being irremediably polluted—this water usually ends up being injected into deep disposal wells. That means it is no longer available to the hydrological cycle that sustains all terrestrial life.”

Click here to look at Ceres’ interactive map on fracking and water use.

The study drew on industry data detailing water usage from from 39,294 oil and gas wells from January 2011 through May 2013 and compared that information with “water stress indicator maps” developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

What it found:

Over 55 percent of the wells hydraulically fractured were in areas experiencing drought and 36 percent overlay regions with significant groundwater depletion – key among those, California which is in the midst of a historic drought and Texas, which has the highest concentration of shale energy development and hydraulic fracturing activity in the U.S.

Specifically:

In Texas, which includes the rapidly developing Eagle Ford and Permian Basin shale plays, more than half (52 percent) of the wells were in high or extreme high water stress areas. In Colorado and California, 97 and 96 percent of the wells, respectively, were in regions with high or extremely high water stress. Nearly comparable trends were also shown in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Among hundreds of hydraulic fracturing companies whose water use was evaluated, those with the highest exposure to water sourcing risk are Anadarako (APC), Encana (ECA), Pioneer (PXD) and Apache (APA). Most of the wells being developed by each of these companies are in regions of high or extreme water stress. The top three service providers, Halliburton, (HAL) Schlumberger (SLB) and Baker Hughes (BHI), handled about half of the water used for hydraulic fracturing nationally and also face water sourcing risks.

Although water use for hydraulic fracturing is often less than two percent of state water demands, the impacts can be large at the local level, sometimes exceeding the water used by all of the residents in a county.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Professor James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, told the Guardian. “We understand as a country that we need more energy but it is time to have a conversation about what impacts there are, and do our best to try to minimise any damage.”

The irony of the latest findings, explained Heinberg in an email to Common Dreams, is based on the fact that “much of the fracking boom is centered in the western United States—Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and California—which just happens to be drying up, likely as a result of climate change. And that climate change, in turn, is happening because we’re burning fossil fuels like oil and natural gas.”

Heinberg observed that the Ceres report is largely written from the standpoint of the oil and gas companies—using much of their data—and directed at those who may be invested or would like to invest in the continuation or proliferation of the industry. However, he indicated, detailing the increasing difficulties the industry and its investors are likely to experience in sourcing water for their operations is still valuable for those opposed to fracking.

“In California, where I live,” he said, “we’re experiencing a 500-year drought. The grape-wine industry here in Sonoma County is facing disaster. Farmers in the Central Valley are weighing whether to plant at all this year. The fact that California’s Democratic governor [Jerry Brown] wants to spend what little water we have on fracking—which will only make our climate problems worse—makes the report frighteningly relevant.”

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kvue.com

Professor to live in dumpster for year

by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @JimB_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on February 4, 2014 at 6:28 PM

Updated today at 9:27 AM

AUSTIN — Dumpster diving is taking on a whole new meaning at Huston-Tillotson University. It’s all about a professor and the number “one.” The dean of Huston Tillotson’s University College will live on campus for the next year.

His goal is to live in a space one percent the size of the average home, while using one percent of the water and energy used by an average home and producing only one percent of the waste an average home produces.

“This is what’s called an eight cubic yard dumpster, also with windows and doors,” said Huston-Tillitson environmental science professor Jeff Wilson, Ph.D.

Wilson made those comments back in October when he checked out dumpsters, not for trash or treasure, but rather to size them up as a future home.

“Telling people you have life dreams, you want to live in a dumpster, it brings sympathy your way,” Wilson said.

Read More and Watch Video  Here

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Texas university professor moves into a DUMPSTER on school campus for a year to show students that they can live with less

  • Dr. Jeff Wilson, a Harvard-educated environmental science professor at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, moved into the dumpster Tuesday
  • The experiment is designed to show students, and the world, that humans can live on a smaller scale and lessen our environmental footprint
  • Thankfully for Wilson, who’s now known as Professor Dumpster, his new home isn’t your ordinary smelly dumpster
  • It will be getting kitted out by his students so it includes creature comforts like a shower, kitchen, bed, WiFi and toilet

By Helen Pow

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A university professor in Austin, Texas, has moved into a 33sq ft dumpster, which he plans to call home for an entire year. 

Dr. Jeff Wilson, a Harvard-educated environmental science professor, took up residence in the trash can Tuesday in an effort to show students at Huston-Tillotson University, and the world, that humans can live on a smaller scale and lessen our environmental impact.

Thankfully for Wilson, who’s now known as Professor Dumpster, his new home isn’t your ordinary smelly dumpster but will be getting kitted out by his students so it includes creature comforts like a shower, kitchen, bed, WiFi and toilet.

Scroll down for video

Dumpster time: Dr. Jeff Wilson, pictured Tuesday, Dean of the University College and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Huston-Tillotson University, moved into a 33-square foot dumpster on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas on Tuesday

Dumpster time: Dr. Jeff Wilson, pictured Tuesday, Dean of the University College and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Huston-Tillotson University, moved into a 33-square foot dumpster on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas on Tuesday

Outfitting the tiny space is step one in the trash can challenge, and the goal is to design the dumpster to be as energy efficient as possible, with solar panels and an energy producing toilet.

‘The idea here is to ultimately show one can have a pretty good life in a dumpster,’ Wilson told Fast Company.

However, the dumpster is starting off modestly. Tuesday night, the 6ft 1in Professor Dumpster posted a picture of his new abode on Twitter with a maroon sleeping bag laid out tightly in the small space with little else in view.

If occasionally Wilson needs a break from the box, students can opt to take his place for the night.

One student, Evette Jackson, has already signed up.

Mod cons: Thankfully for Wilson, pictured, his new home isn't your ordinary smelly dumpster but a special version customized by his students that includes creature comforts like a shower, kitchen, bed, WiFi and toilet

Mod cons: Thankfully for Wilson, pictured, his new home isn’t your ordinary smelly dumpster but a special version customized by his students that includes creature comforts like a shower, kitchen, bed, WiFi and toilet

Not very big: Wilson posted a picture of his new home on Twitter Tuesday with the comment 'Bird's eye view of dumpster home at bedtime'

Not very big: Wilson posted a picture of his new home on Twitter Tuesday with the comment ‘Bird’s eye view of dumpster home at bedtime’

‘I think it’s pretty intriguing,’ she told KVUE. ‘It’s pretty cool. I want to live in it too.’

After the year of dumpster living is up, Wilson plans on taking the bin across the United States, educating students about the possibility of following in his ‘less is more’ footsteps.

Wilson said the project idea came to him two years ago while he was sipping a latte at Starbucks.

‘I looked out the window into the parking lot and saw an eight-yard dumpster and had some sort of strange flash that I was definitely moving into a dumpster,’ he told Fast Company.

So when the lease ran out on his lovely, full-sized, apartment a year later, he posted an announcement on Facebook, which read: ‘Starting at 6pm, I will be selling all of my home furnishings, clothes, kitchen appliances, and everything else in the apartment for $1 an item.’

Help: Wilson, right, had help from students and other educators including Dr Karen Magid, pictured

Help: Wilson, right, had help from students and other educators including Dr Karen Magid, pictured

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USGS - science for a changing world

Released: 1/3/2014 1:00:00 PM

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communications and Publishing
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr, MS 119
Reston, VA 20192
Richard  Blakely, USGS 1-click interview
Phone: 650-269-6726Craig Weaver, USGS 1-click interview
Phone: 206-459-6457Gerry Bozarth, Spokane EM
Phone: 509-477-7613

A sequence of 105 small (less than magnitude 4) earthquakes occurred beneath Spokane in 2001, accompanied by a small increase (1/2 inch) in ground elevation.  The shape of the deforming ground surface was consistent with movement on a northeast-trending fault beneath Spokane, yet no known mapped faults in Spokane have been active in the last 1.6 million years.  To find the Spokane fault that caused 105 earthquakes in 2001, and evaluate its potential for large earthquakes in the future, scientists turned to geophysical tools to “see” below the surface.  Knowing a fault’s length, depth, and history of earthquakes helps us prepare for future earthquake hazards.“As the director of Spokane Emergency Management, we work diligently on preparing our community for disasters which includes identifying hazards in our area. The USGS has performed studies and their preliminary findings will help us develop effective mitigation strategies,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
IllustrationIn an “aeromagnetic survey,” a magnetic sensor, towed by an airplane, is flown back and forth close to the ground and along closely spaced, parallel lines, recording the minute changes in the magnetic field. Geologic processes often bring together rocks with slightly different magnetic properties, and these variations cause very small magnetic fields above the Earth’s surface. The differences in the magnetic field are called “anomalies.” Credit: USGS“Geologic processes often bring together rocks with slightly different magnetic properties, and these variations cause very small differences in magnetic fields above the Earth’s surface,” explained the study’s lead author, USGS geophysicist Richard Blakely.  “In an aeromagnetic survey, a magnetic sensor is flown back and forth close to the ground and along closely spaced, parallel lines.  After data processing, we arrive at a map of ‘magnetic anomalies’ reflecting the variations in the magnetic signal of the rocks and geology of the upper part of the Earth’s crust.”

SPOKANE, Wash. —Preliminary interpretations of a recent geophysical survey confirm the presence of earthquake faults and reveal the possibility of previously unknown faults beneath the greater Spokane area.

During the spring of 2013, the U.S. Geological Survey undertook an airborne magnetic survey over the Spokane area to help understand the geologic reasons for a series of earthquakes and ground uplift that occurred several years earlier.

Low-Flying airplane for mapping fault zonesThe Spokane aeromagnetic survey was flown with a Cessna 180, owned and operated by a private company under contract to the USGS, and specially modified for low-altitude geophysical surveys. The magnetic sensor is located in the “stinger” protruding from the rear of the aircraft. Credit:  Michael Hobbs , EDCON-PRJ, Inc.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer

 

water

(NaturalNews) You may want to think twice before further drinking or even bathing in unfiltered tap water, as a new report set to be published next year has found that a striking percentage of the U.S. water supply is contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that an astounding one-third of U.S. water systems contain traces of at least 18 unregulated and potentially hazardous contaminants, many of which are linked to causing endocrine disruption and cancer.

Based on a nationwide survey of 25 unnamed water utilities, scientists found traces of the herbicide metolachlor, for instance, a pesticide commonly applied to conventional corn, soy, cotton, safflower, potato and other crops, as well as the heavy metal strontium, which is linked to causing bone problems. Other chemicals identified include so-called perfluorinated compounds like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which numerous scientific studies have found can cause thyroid disease and various types of cancer.

“Traces of 18 unregulated chemicals were found in drinking water from more than one-third of U.S. water utilities in a nationwide sampling,” reports Environmental Health News (EHN). “Included are 11 perfluorinated compounds, an herbicide, two solvents, caffeine, an antibacterial compound, a metal and an antidepressant.”

More than 250 potential hazardous compounds detected in tap water

Among the 25 water samples, more than 250 chemicals, bacteria, viruses and microbes were identified, but only 134 of these were detected in treated drinking water. As many as eight of the treated water samples collected contained upwards of 113 chemicals. According to the researchers, water samples were taken from a range of water utilities, including both large and small plants and plants using varying treatment technologies.

“The good news is the concentrations are generally pretty low,” stated Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist from USGS who helped work on the study. “But there’s still the unknown. Are there long-term consequences of low-level exposure to these chemicals?”

 

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Study links BP oil spill to dolphin deaths

US government scientists have for the first time found direct evidence of toxic exposure in the Gulf of Mexico

A dolphin is seen swimming through an oil sheen from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

A dolphin is seen swimming through an oil sheen from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay, on the Louisiana coast, July 31, 2010. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

US government scientists have for the first time connected the BP oil disaster to dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico, in a study finding direct evidence of toxic exposure.

The study, led by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found lung disease, hormonal abnormalities and other health effects among dolphins in an area heavily oiled during the BP spill.

A dead bottlenose dolphin that was found on Ono Island

An Institute for Marine Mammal Studies veterinary technician examines a dead bottlenose dolphin that was found on Ono Island. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The diseases found in the dolphins at Barataria Bay in Louisiana – though rare – were consistent with exposure to oil, the scientists said.

“Many disease conditions observed in Barataria Bay dolphins are uncommon but consistent with petroleum hydrocarbon exposure and toxicity,” the scientists said.

Half of the dolphins were given a guarded prognosis, and 17% were expected to die of the disease, the researchers found.

“I’ve never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals – and with unusual conditions such as the adrenal hormone abnormalities,” Lori Schwake, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

Read More Here

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LiveScience

BP Oil Spill May Have Contributed to Dolphin Deaths, Study Finds

 

The 2010 BP oil spill contributed to an unusually high death rate for dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, a new study suggests.

Between January and April 2011, 186 dead bottlenose dolphins washed ashore between Louisiana and western Florida. Most alarmingly, nearly half of these casualties were calves, which is more than double the usual proportion of young to old dolphins found dead. Scientists now blame both natural factors and human catastrophe for the unusual die-off.

“Unfortunately, it was a ‘perfect storm’ that led to the dolphin deaths,” study researcher Graham Worthy, a biologist at the University of Central Florida, said in a statement. “The oil spill and cold water of 2010 had already put significant stress on their food resources. … It appears the high volumes of cold freshwater coming from snowmelt water that pushed through Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound in 2011 was the final blow.” [Gulf Oil Spill: Animals at Risk]

Cold water and spilled oil

The winter of 2010 was a cold one, the researchers reported July 18 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. Oil began spilling into the Gulf in April 2011, after the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded following a blowout.

The unusually harsh winter of 2010 already dealt wildlife a disadvantage, Worthy and his colleagues wrote. Finfish, marine birds, sea turtles and manatees had been hit hard, with about 6 percent of the U.S. population of manatees lost to cold weather.

Just before the baby dolphins began washing ashore in January 2011, meltwater from an unusually heavy Mobile Bay watershed snowfall hit the Gulf. A comparison of dolphin stranding sites and water conditions revealed that the discovery of the carcasses followed temperature dips from meltwater by two to three weeks, indicating that the dolphins were stressed, died, washed ashore and were eventually found and recorded.

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(C) Desert Rose Creations/Family Survival Protocol  2013Ethanol Sign 2 photo ethanolsign2_zps0d43f94d.jpg

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The Associated Press is running a terrific and long investigative article, “The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama’s Green Power Push,” on the environmental downsides of the ethanol fuel mandate. From the AP…

…the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.

Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.

Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.

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WOOD PILE

Warm winters let trees sleep longer

 

 


For their experiments, TUM researchers used twigs around 30 centimeters long from 36 different trees and shrubs, which they exposed to different temperature and light conditions in climate chambers. Each climate chamber experiment lasted six weeks. The twigs came from the “Weltwald” or “World Forest” near Freising, Germany, in which Bavarian state foresters have planted stands of trees from different climate regions. Credit: Photo by Julia Laube Copyright TU Muenchen.

by Staff Writers
Munich, Germany (SPX) Nov 04, 2013


In the temperate zones, vegetation follows the change of the seasons. After a winter pause, plants put out new growth in spring. Research has now brought a new correlation to light: The colder the winter, the earlier native plants begin to grow again.

Since warmer winters can be expected as the climate changes, the spring development phase for typical forest trees might start later and later – giving an advantage to shrubs and invasive trees that don’t depend on the cold.

In a recently published study, researchers at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) investigated 36 tree and shrub species.

Their work delivered a surprising result, as lead author Julia Laube explains: “Contrary to previous assumptions, the increasing length of the day in spring plays no big role in the timing of budding. An ample ‘cold sleep’ is what plants need in order to wake up on time in the spring.”

This applies above all to native tree species such as beech and oak, because they rely on resting in the cold to protect themselves from freezing by late spring frosts.

A different behavior is observed among pioneer species – including shrubs such as hazel bushes and primary settlers such as birch trees – and among species like locust and walnut that have moved in from warmer climate zones.

“These trees take the risk of starting earlier in the spring, because they are less strongly dependent on the cold periods,” Laube says, “and in addition they sprout more quickly as temperatures rise.”

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File:Konza2.jpg

Konza Prairie Preserve.

  • A tall grass prairie in the Flint Hills, northeastern Kansas.

Image Source  :  Wikimedia. Org

2005 photo by Edwin Olson  PD

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First Look at Diverse Life Below Rare Tallgrass Prairies

Oct. 31, 2013 — America’s once-abundant tallgrass prairies — which have all but disappeared — were home to dozens of species of grasses that could grow to the height of a man, hundreds of species of flowers, and herds of roaming bison.

For the first time, a research team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has gotten a peek at another vitally important but rarely considered community that also once called the tallgrass prairie home: the diverse assortment of microbes that thrived in the dark, rich soils beneath the grass.

“These soils played a huge role in American history because they were so fertile and so incredibly productive,” said Noah Fierer, a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and lead author of the study published today in the journal Science. “They don’t exist anymore except in really small parcels. This is our first glimpse into what might have existed across the whole range.”

CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The remarkable fertility of soils beneath the tallgrass prairie — which once covered more than 150 million U.S. acres, from Minnesota south to Texas and from Illinois west to Nebraska — were also the prairie’s undoing. Attracted by the richness of the dirt, settlers began to plow up the prairie more than a century and a half ago, replacing the native plants with corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops. Today, only remnants of the tallgrass prairie remain, covering just a few percent of the ecosystem’s original range.

For the study, Fierer, an associate professor of microbial ecology, and his colleagues used samples of soil collected from 31 different sites spread out across the prairie’s historical range. The samples — which were collected by study co-author Rebecca McCulley, a grassland ecologist at the University of Kentucky — came largely from nature preserves and old cemeteries.

“It was very hard to find sites that we knew had never been tilled,” Fierer said. “As soon as you till a soil, it’s totally different. Most gardeners are familiar with that.”

The researchers used DNA sequencing to characterize the microbial community living in each soil sample. The results showed that a poorly understood phylum of bacteria, Verrucomicrobia, dominated the microbial communities in the soil.

“We have these soils that are dominated by this one group that we really don’t know anything about,” Fierer said. “Why is it so abundant in these soils? We don’t know.”

While Verrucomicrobia were dominant across the soil samples, the microbial makeup of each particular soil sample was unique. To get an idea of how soil microbial diversity might have varied across the tallgrass prairie when it was still an intact ecosystem, the researchers built a model based on climate information and the data from the samples.

“I am thrilled that we were able to accurately reconstruct the microbial component of prairie soils using statistical modeling and data from the few remaining snippets of this vanishing ecosystem,” said Katherine Pollard, an investigator at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco and a co-author of the paper.

Fierer and his colleagues are already hard at work trying to grow Verrucomicrobia in the lab to better understand what it does and the conditions it favors. But even without a full understanding of the microbes, the research could bolster tallgrass prairie restoration efforts in the future.

“Here’s a group that’s really critical in the functioning of these soils. So if you’re trying to have effective prairie restoration, it may be useful to try and restore the below-ground diversity as well,” Fierer said.

Story Source:

 

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

 


 

Journal Reference:

N. Fierer, J. Ladau, J. C. Clemente, J. W. Leff, S. M. Owens, K. S. Pollard, R. Knight, J. A. Gilbert, R. L. McCulley. Reconstructing the Microbial Diversity and Function of Pre-Agricultural Tallgrass Prairie Soils in the United States. Science, 2013; 342 (6158): 621 DOI: 10.1126/science.1243768

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