Thursday, June 30, 2005

Soy FACE: Technology for Understanding the Impact of Climate Change on Food Supply

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For people who live far from rising seas or melting glaciers, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of the consequences as the world’s climate changes in response to human activity. But for a team of U of I researchers interested in global food supply headed by crop scientist Stephen Long, the stakes are much clearer.

At issue for Long and colleagues is how changes in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and the associated rise in average temperatures will affect the planet’s potential for producing food crops in the next fifty to eighty years. These changes, which are in motion now and would occur even if stringent restrictions on emissions were adopted tomorrow, include a fifty percent rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the surface layer of the earth’s atmosphere, a twenty percent increase in surface layer ozone, and a three to four-degree F rise in temperature.

Previous research has suggested that, overall, global food supply will remain nearly constant, despite significant changes in productivity for particular regions. The rise in temperature will depress the global productivity of the major food crops, but this is predicted to be cancelled by the fertilizer effect of rising carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is used by plants with sunlight energy to make carbohydrates and ultimately our food.

According to Long and his colleagues, however, these projections are unrealistically optimistic. They overestimate the benefit to crops of higher carbon dioxide levels, and they have ignored the negative impact of higher ozone levels. The studies these projections are based on are also questionable because they have been conducted in greenhouses, which are well known to be poor indicators of plant responses in the open air.

To make more accurate projections about future food supplies, Long and his colleagues have developed a system for elevating carbon dioxide and ozone to levels anticipated for the year 2050 in the field called Free-Air Concentration Enrichment. This system consists of seventy-foot rings of pipe that pump out different amounts of carbon dioxide or ozone to adjust the atmosphere for the crop growing within them. A computerized control and monitoring set-up allows the system to achieve the desired concentrations of gases remarkably well over the course of the growing season.

Long and his colleagues at the University of Illinois have examined soybeans and corn. Although theirs is the first to examine the effects of ozone, experiments elsewhere have looked at the effects of elevated carbon dioxide on other crops. One in Arizona examined wheat and sorghum, and another in Japan examined rice.

Collectively, these experiments have shown benefits from higher levels of carbon dioxide that are around fifty percent lower than greenhouse studies have projected. That’s like expecting an eight percent return on an investment and realizing only four percent. At the same time, the Illinois study of soybeans has shown a twenty percent yield loss in response to a twenty percent increase in surface level ozone, about what we can expect by the year 2050.

From of a crop science perspective, the shortfalls predicted by these experiments represent a call to action, a challenge to be met by breeding plants suited to the atmosphere of the future, or figuring out ways to bring more land into agriculture. From a broader perspective, they are another reminder that the climate change humans are now producing will pose complex problems for generations to come.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Busey Woods Bio Blitz

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One of the characteristics that defines human beings is our curiosity about other forms of life. Witness the number of birders among us, the way children turn over rocks and roll logs to see what’s under them, the pleasure people take in observing stream life looking down from a bridge.

Such curiosity is the foundation for the Busey Woods Bio Blitz, an event organized by the Urbana Park District in cooperation with more than eighty scientists from the University of Illinois, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and various other institutions. The Bio Blitz will take place over the twenty-four hour period beginning tomorrow, Friday, June 24th, at noon, and ending at noon on Saturday.

The primary purpose of the Bio Blitz is to create a one-day profile of life in Busey Woods, a snapshot that captures everything from the eighty-foot tall Bur Oaks that tower overhead, to the microscopic bacteria at work in the soil below, and all that sprouts, crawls, scampers or flits in between. At the same time, the Bio Blitz is also intended to help people connect with the natural world by providing opportunities to see, hear, touch and smell, and to showcase the treasure that Busey Woods represents.

On the chance you’re not familiar with it, Busey Woods is a fifty-nine-acre natural area just north of Crystal Lake Park in Urbana and adjacent to the Anita Purves Nature Center, which will serve as the base of operations for the Bio Blitz. It’s a remnant of what was called the Big Grove, ten square miles of forest that stood in a sea of tallgrass prairie before the settlement of Champaign County by European Americans.

Busey Woods was saved from development as an industrial park in the 1960s, but it has been impacted by other activity. Some areas of the woods were filled with demolition rubble in anticipation of development, and the Saline Branch, the stream that once meandered through the woods, was diverted into a deepened, uniform channel quite different in character from its original course.

Despite these alterations, Busey Woods is home to a much wider range of life than you might expect. For example, the Bio Blitz team that will be tallying birds anticipates finding some thirty to forty different species, including those common to yards, as well as some that depend on a more forested habitat, such as the great-crested flycatcher or the eastern wood pewee. The team scouring the Saline Branch for fish also expects to count thirty species or more, everything from gamefish, such as smallmouth bass, to carp, channel catfish, suckers, darters, and minnows.

There’s really no contest, though, when it comes to which team will count the most species. That prize will go to the group concerned with invertebrates—insects, worms, protozoa, bacteria—all of the tiny creatures that make life as we know it possible, but which we usually overlook on account of their small size.

For these groups, as well as the groups surveying plants, fungi, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, one of the things that makes the Bio Blitz exciting is the potential for finding something unexpected--a thrush that would normally be in Canada at this time of year, a minnow thought to be gone from the region, or even a new species of some microscopic organism in the soil.

Whatever the Busey Woods Bio Blitz turns up, it affords a fantastic opportunity for people in east central Illinois to get to know the nature of our area.

Again, the Bio Blitz will be based at the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center, and it begins at noon tomorrow and runs through noon on Saturday. For more details please call the Urbana Park District, or visit their website.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

"Prairie Table" Promotes Local Food

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One of the great luxuries of life for most Americans is not having to think much about where our meals will come from. We rest comfortable in the knowledge that cheap food is available to us in our grocery stores and restaurants day and night. Rather than wondering if we will have enough to eat, we wonder how to choose among our many options: produce from all parts of the globe, inexpensive meats, processed foods previous generations would never have imagined.

Most of us also have at least some sense that the system that brings us food so cheaply produces social and environmental ills that are not accounted for in the prices we pay at the checkout counter. These ills include the loss of agricultural biodiversity, the production of greenhouse gases, air and water pollution, and the concentration of food production into the hands of a small number of very large corporations.

Fortunately, there are also a growing number of alternatives to this system available. In Champaign County, a new group called Prairie Table has formed to promote a more thoughtful approach to food, how it is grown, how it is distributed and how it is consumed. In the words of co-founder and president Laurence Mate, “Prairie Table is about educating our community on the benefits of growing, purchasing, and preparing meals from the wonderful food available locally.”

One way that Prairie Table pursues this goal is by collaborating with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I to produce and distribute Farm Direct, a free booklet that provides consumers with information about where they can buy locally produced food. The Farm Direct guide lists farmer’s markets, community sponsored agriculture groups, and other area farmers who sell food directly to the public. Would you like to know where you can pick your own fruit grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides within a few miles of Champaign-Urbana, or where you can buy organic meat, eggs and poultry nearby? The Farm Direct guide will tell you. There is even a web-based version of the farm direct guide, at, which allows consumers to search for information about producers and markets within a specific locale.

Prairie Table has also developed a program that encourages restaurants to buy at least twenty-five percent of their produce from local farmers. Participating restaurants, such as Timpone’s in Urbana and CafĂ© Luna in Champaign, offer specific menu items that feature ingredients produced by local farmers.

Beyond helping consumers hook up with area farmers, this summer Prairie Table is collaborating with the Mettler Center Cooking School in Champaign to offer Saturday morning classes on healthy cooking with local foods. Participants in these classes, which are limited to twelve, will first meet with the instructor to shop at the Market at the Square in Urbana, and then regroup at the Mettler Center to prepare a simple brunch. These classes are open to the public, but require registration and payment in advance. For further details about Prairie Table cooking classes, or to sign up people can call the Mettler Center.

As a nonprofit organization, Prairie Table welcomes new members, volunteers, and donations. For information about how you can get involved visit them on the web at [].

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

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Have you ever gotten a bit of news that’s so good and that you’ve wanted to hear so badly that it keeps popping back into your head for weeks after you first hear it? That’s how I and a lot of other birders have been feeling since a team of searchers in Arkansas announced last month that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct. After sixty-one years without a confirmed sighting we get to put a bird back into the field guides--the ivory-bill lives!

Between January 2004 and spring of this year reliable witnesses saw a male ivory-bill seven times, and heard it on a number of other occasions. The team even managed to get a short video of the bird. The footage, which was taken with a camera mounted on a canoe, is grainy and unfocused, but it is compelling enough to dispel doubt even among the most skeptical ornithologists.

Part of what makes the news about the Ivory bill so exciting is that it is such a cool bird. At approximately twenty inches long and with a wingspan of thirty-three inches, the ivory-bill is North America’s largest woodpecker, notably bigger than the pileated woodpecker, its widespread and relatively common cousin. The ivory-bill’s body has been described as coal black, and it sports extensive white patches on its wings, along with a lightening-bolt shaped white stripe on each side. The ivory-bill’s tall crest, with its slight forward curve is black on females, and blood red on males. Both male and female birds display a brilliant yellow eye and the three-inch-long, chisel shaped, ivory colored bill that gives this bird its name.

Prior to European settlement, ivory-bills inhabited the vast bottomland forests of the American south, from the Atlantic to Texas and Oklahoma, with the northern boundary of its range extending into southern Illinois and Indiana. As these ancient forests were destroyed over the past two hundred years, the ivory-bill declined, with sightings in the twentieth century concentrated in old growth remnants, especially in Florida and Louisiana.

The rediscovery of the ivory-bill in the place where it was found represents a victory for everyone interested in the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat. The Arkansas bird was sighted in a national wildlife refuge in an area targeted for further conservation by the Nature Conservancy and the state because it represents a unique habitat, the southern bottomland forest, now nearly gone.

Writing for the New York Times, James Gorman articulates well the role of conservation efforts in the ivory-bill’s astonishing comeback. He writes, “It wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t simply the resilience of nature, although that helped. The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating, and fundraising.”

Could the ongoing restoration of swamps and floodplain forests in southern Illinois bring the ivory-bill back to our state? It’s a long shot. But the ivory-bill’s re-emergence in Arkansas provides us a glimmer of hope.