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“There goes another one!” Joan pointed out, as we lay on our flat porch roof in Billings, Montana, watching the August meteor shower. It was 1947, and in our small town we could see millions of stars and pick out several constellations. Sometimes we could even see the Milky Way.

Now it’s 2014, and even in Yellowstone this past summer, I could barely find the Big Dipper. Was it that our entire atmosphere is polluted, or was there now too much ambient light even at Old Faithful and Mammoth Villages to enjoy the stars?

Listening to a National Public Radio broadcast the other day, I became absorbed in the story of what has happened to the night skies in America in the past few decades. NPR was interviewing author Paul Bogard about his book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Use “Look Inside” for Chapter 9 on the Amazon website for light pollution images, a sample of what’s in the book.

I’m going to have to read this book, since I fully agree with the reviewer Bill McKibben, who wrote on Amazon: “The most precious things in the modern world are probably silence, solitude, and darkness–and of these three rarities, true darkness may be the rarest of all. Many thanks to Paul Bogard for searching out the dark spots and reminding us to celebrate them!”

Take a look at our nugget that includes what the author of a classic Western novel wrote about
experiencing the night.

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Wolves are “just like us”!

Categories: On the Web, Science, Wildlife
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YT174 copy

Yellowstone’s wolves are always in the news. Back in late 2012 the Obama administration lifted federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. In the year following, trophy hunters killed 62 wolves. An unknown number were shot or trapped. Then, on September 13 of this year, federal judge Amy Berman Jackson returned Wyoming wolves to Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming’s congressional delegation has now pledged to go to Congress in an effort to get wolves again delisted in the state.

As the legislative ping-pong game continues, Doug Smith, Yellowstone wildlife biologist and leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has fascinating things to say in a 23-minute Iowa Public Radio interview about the history of wolf re-introduction in the park and the present state of wolves.

Tempting you to listen to this excellent interview, I’ll mention a couple of highlights of Doug’s remarks.

Although the next official count will take place in mid winter, current Yellowstone wolf numbers are at approximately 130 wolves in 11 packs.

In discussing the ongoing argument about Canadian wolves being introduced, thus bringing in a different subspecies from those that historically lived in and around Wyoming, Doug explains that over the decades when no wolves lived there, no exchange of genes could take place due to geographic isolation. He states that there are now 5 subspecies in North America, not the many more claimed by some people.

Doug points out that Yellowstone is now returning to “ecological functionality”—big words for the balance achieved in the environment by returning wolves to the park.

He completely empathizes with the ranchers in the ring of land that circles the Greater Yellowstone public land, where wolves now live. Unavoidably, preying on their livestock is a big problem, but ideas to cope with this are multiplying.

Replying to a listener’s question about attacks on humans, he stresses that wolves are afraid of humans and/or “can’t figure us out because we walk on two legs.” He suggests that the big, bad wolf stories may be based on some historical attacks but could well have been referring to rabid wolves.

Doug will be giving a talk at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, 8:00 pm on Monday, November 3. In his interview he lists an impressive list of human traits found in wolves: they are monogamous, good parents, territorial, and communicate by body postures and many quiet vocalizations—as well as howling. And he concludes, “They’re just like us!”

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Microbes of Yellowstone beware!

Categories: News, Science, Thermal features
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The hundreds of thousands if not millions of species of microorganisms lurking in Yellowstone Park’s hot springs won’t have a chance of staying anonymous, if Eric Boyd has anything to say about it. This dynamic young scientist, whose office window looks out on the mountains south of Bozeman MT, continues the demanding and time-consuming study of these infinitesimally small living beings, with the ultimate goal of learning how life began on earth.

professor Boyd

Eric at Cinder Pool, Yellowstone

Read all about his work and that of many others in his field in the newest nuggets of Yellowstone information we’ve put up on this website.

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Just a quick update

Categories: Janet Chapple's Other Writing, Science, Thermal features
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Mushroom Pool

Mushroom Pool with Thomas Brock


I’ve been pretty quiet on this blog for the past two weeks, but I’ve been thinking about Yellowstone as much as ever. Right now I have a big writing project about microbes in Yellowstone like those found here by microbiologist Thomas Brock at Mushroom Pool. This is where he located an amazing thermophilic microorganism (heat-loving bacteria in plain English). The article I’m writing will first go on another blog, but I’ll be putting it up here soon after. It’s title may be something like: “A Great Vacation Destination is a Treasure Trove for Scientists.”

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Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake now less menacing to native wildlife

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lake trout cutthroat trout

Trout comparison (NPS Photo)

Back in 1994 someone must have purposely and illegally stocked Yellowstone Lake with lake trout. Before it could be proven that these non-native fish had spread throughout the lake, they began adversely affecting the much smaller native cutthroat trout.

Many Yellowstone animals depend on the native fish as an important part of their diet but cannot catch the big lake trout. For example, grizzly bears and pelicans eat cutthroat from the lake, particularly in early summer.

Now, with major help from sources such as the Yellowstone Foundation and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Board, more and more lake trout are being removed every year— up to 300,000 in 2013 alone. At the same time many more juvenile cutthroat trout are surviving than in the early years of this century.

Three commercial boats and one National Park Service boat regularly net the lake trout with gill and trap nets and also use electroshocking. In addition they use telemetry by tagging some fish to locate lake trout spawning sites, and the movement of those fish toward spawning beds in the fall can now be tracked. A volunteer from Trout Unlimited said recently, “These patterns indicated at least three areas of suspected spawning activity: just off West Thumb Geyser Basin; off Solution Creek; and in the Plover Point, Frank Island triangle. Because these were suspected spawning grounds, arrays of receivers along with reference signals were placed in these three areas in early September in an effort to pinpoint any spawning beds in these areas.”

Meanwhile, anglers again this summer must kill all lake trout and either eat them or puncture the air bladder and dispose of the carcass in deep water. And cutthroat trout must be returned to the water immediately.

See the book excerpt about fish and fishing if you’d like to know more about the subject.

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What’s the difference between global warming and climate change?

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Recently I decided to trace why we seem to read and hear the expression “climate change” more often these days than “global warming.” I’m not the only person who has noticed that the global changes we are seeing do not trend uniformly in the direction of warming. What about the many snow storms this winter, reaching farther south than usual in the U.S.? What about the apparent increase in the number of hurricanes? What about the thick air over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, not to mention the un-breathable air much of the time in Beijing, China?

I decided to Google this exact question: When did “global warming” become “climate change”? It turns out this was not the best way to word my question. I went through the first four pages of answers, some helpful but many rants by people who don’t “believe” in either global warming or climate change. But here’s what I learned.

The entire history of these two expressions is available on those pages in two or three versions. I noted an article in the New York Times on Oct. 15, 2011, that seemed to use the two terms more or less interchangeably. However, an earlier NASA article (12/04/08) preferred “global climate change” because: “Global warming refers [only] to surface temperature increases, while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect.” This was an Aha! moment for me.

The articles I read or scanned quickly show a gradual evolution in preference for using the word “change” over “warming” in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe we can trace this to the fact that it was in 1988 that an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up by the United Nations.

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Continuing interest in the Anthropocene

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Since I find it quite fascinating, I may be following up on my January 22 through February 4 series on the Anthropocene for a while yet. For other people who would like to know more about this still rather unfamiliar word and its implications, webmaster/daughter Beth has found a short and succinct video.

And for people who are willing to invest twenty minutes or so watching a mini-lecture from the point of view of a Swedish anthropology professor, try this.

Then, as if we didn’t have enough syllables in the word already, there’s a long technical article on Science Direct with a new twist, The Palaeoanthropocene.

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Please keep calm about Yellowstone Caldera activity!

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Here is another good article by a knowledgeable person striving to calm down Internet hysteria about what may be happening in the Yellowstone Caldera:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/02/think-yellowstone-erupt/

The lovely picture at the head of the article is of Porcelain Basin at Norris Geyser Basin.

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Living in the Anthropocene, Part III

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stratospheric ozone hole images

Is the stratospheric ozone hole recovering? (Click for larger version.)

Can humans slow or counteract all the damage we’ve done? I recently learned about one bright spot (and there are probably many others). An AGU press conference in December explained why the ozone hole in the atmosphere over the Antarctic was found in 2012 to be the second smallest it had been since the 1980s. I barely remember the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone, but it was an important document [1]. Ratified by all 197 countries of the United Nations, it took effect on January 1, 1989. Since that time, controlling the production and release of substances like carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, and many others has measurably slowed the shrinkage of the ozone hole. NASA scientists expect it to recover fully (with some bumps) by 2070.

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of individuals and groups interested in studying the Anthropocene and many others who are trying to mitigate its effects. There are scientific, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations working to turn around the effects brought upon us by our own actions. Although the idea of a new epoch began with geoscientists, anthropologists are getting into the act, too. The Working Group on the Anthropocene that I mentioned in Part I of this series wants to determine whether the Anthropocene should be considered another epoch in the Quarternary period or an age of the Holocene. This group is also charged with the task of deciding when the epoch or age began. The exact date may actually be arbitrary, but many people would place it at or before about 1800 A.D.; James Watt’s steam engine went into production in 1776, and the industrial age soon followed. Or did it begin when hunter-gatherers became farmers several millennia earlier? There are many options in between those extremes.

Why does a researcher and writer about Yellowstone Park care about the Anthropocene? And, more importantly, why should you care? I’ve enjoyed learning about science since childhood and, with two very different geoscientist husbands, I’ve been able to continue that interest for over half a century. I like to think about the big picture. Anyone who has children and grandchildren certainly cares what will happen to the younger generations.

Identifying a new epoch is one thing, but saving Earth from human destruction is a much larger challenge. Scientists and other scholars are looking at the problems and developing and interpreting the data. However, most solutions have to be left to governments and international cooperation. The Montreal Protocol was a step in the right direction. Now an alphabet soup of groups (GWSP, IHDP, IGBP, for three examples) work toward other solutions; there are dozens of such organizations.

Did you know there is a United Nations University? I didn’t until this month. They have groups working on aspects of Earth’s human-caused problems, such as the Global Water System Project and the International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is studying how much of the world’s land is really arable. The International Council for Science has created a brief video about their Future Earth vision.

My next post in this series will give examples of how individuals are making a difference.

References

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the Montreal Protocol: http://www.epa.gov/ozone/intpol/ and a New York Times article about the protocol’s effectiveness from December 9, 2013.

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Living in the Anthropocene
Part II

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Part II

What is the rationale for creating a whole new epoch called the Anthropocene? Is there any reason to think Earth has changed or is changing so much or so fast that we are in a span of time different from the Holocene?

terms for geological time divisionsThe geological time scale was first developed in the 19th century to divide up geological time. This time scale continues evolving as new methods of determining the dates of the rock strata allow for more and more precision. The broadest division of geological time is the era—the Archean is the oldest, and the Cenozoic the youngest. Eras are divided into periods: the Cenozoic is divided into the Paleogene, Neogene, and Quaternary. The Quaternary is currently divided into two epochs: the Pleistocene (pleistos is Greek for “most”) and the Holocene (holo- is for “whole, complete”). The smallest category is the age: the Pleistocene epoch includes four ages—the Holocene, being relatively short, has not been divided into ages. The latest stratigraphic chart (updated in January 2013) [1] places the beginning of the Holocene at 11,700 years ago; that date reflects the end of the last major glacial epoch. Considering that Earth has now been found to be 4.57 billion years old, the Holocene seems a mere blink of an eye.

What has led scientists to consider declaring a new epoch? Why should this be done soon and not a few centuries or millennia from now? After studying the subject, I will try to answer my first question, but I am not sure anyone can answer the second, unless the answer is that humans may not be around long enough to care about such things.

The first half of the 19th century was an important time for people who cared about Earth and how it may have been changing before they were born. Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) helped start the discipline of paleontology, which establishes units of geological time by studying the differences in fossil remains. He also recognized as early as 1812 that some thing or things (presumably floods) had caused mass extinctions. Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) developed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Later, two English friends, geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882) had the strongest influence on scientific thought for some hundred years, both believing that changes occurred gradually and extermination of species had always been a slow process. Still, the fossil record clearly showed there were periods when flora and fauna of certain types had quite suddenly disappeared, and very different types of critters had appeared practically overnight.

By the latter part of the 20th century, stratigraphers and other geoscientists had proven that major and quite sudden mass extinctions had occurred five times between about 440 million years ago (mya) and 65 mya, and there were many less-drastic extinctions. Now geoscientists and anthropologists are pondering whether we are plunging headlong into a sixth extinction. If so, what is causing it? How fast is it happening? Is it inevitable or can we act to slow, halt, or reverse it? If we are in a new epoch, just when did it begin? These are some of the questions that must be answered.

Let’s look at evidence of how humans have “altered the course of Earth’s deep history,” as expressed by paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, U.K., and his colleagues [2]. Take human population: huge increases have occurred in a short span of time (about the last two hundred years); with the consumption of fossil fuels, megacities have grown larger and larger; world population may reach 9 billion by 2050. In a record trapped into Antarctic ice that is almost a million years long, we can trace the recent rapid acceleration of chemical and biological effects on Earth. The increase in worldwide temperatures is causing changes that are unprecedented in their extent, severity, and speed, such as the rise of sea levels, species migration and extinction, and ocean acidity.

To name two of the chemical effects lumped together by Zalasiewicz, there are the well-known effects of excessive carbon dioxide on the atmosphere and the fact that black carbon particles, falling out of the air continually and appearing even in Arctic ice, are now classified as a major human carcinogen, in addition to their effect on climate. These were mentioned by Sybil Seltzinger of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) when she spoke at AGU.

I had been pondering these subjects for some time, but a very accessible article related to such questions fell into my hands late last month and precipitated my writing this essay. I read the two articles titled “The Lost World,” by the excellent New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert [3]. To Zalasiewicz’s list of effects on Earth traceable to human actions she adds another of his favorite subjects—rats. Rats “have followed humans to just about every corner of the globe, and it is his professional opinion that one day they will take over the earth.” Kolbert has expanded her 2009 article, “The Sixth Extinction,” into a book of the same name to be released next month.

My next post in this Anthropocene series will continue on from pointing out some ways humans have changed the Earth to whether we can counteract any of these effects and why we should care.

References

[1] The stratigraphic timescale: http://stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics-chart-timescale
[2] Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., and Crutzen, P. “The New World of the Anthropocene,” in Environmental Science and Technology: www.pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es903118j
[3] Kolbert, E. “The Lost World,” in two issues of the New Yorker, December 16 and 23/30, 2013.

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