Ecology Success Stories:
A Cary Fellow’s optimism

With the ban of DDT, the bald eagle has come back from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to 71,400 nesting pairs and was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007.

Seaq68 via Pixabay

Ecology Success Stories: A Cary Fellow’s optimism

MILLBROOK — In today’s world of climate change worry, Peter Groffman, research fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, gave a lecture of hope for the future of the environment.

Groffman “studies urban ecology and how climate change alters microbial processes that support plant growth and air and water quality.” He is the president-elect of the Ecological Society of America and teaches at the City University of New York and Brooklyn College.

He began with the example of how the bald eagle has made a comeback.

Groffman said, “When I was a kid, there were no bald eagles.” In 1963, in the lower forty-eight states, there were 417 nesting pairs of eagles. That has grown to 71,400 nesting pairs.

The cause of the eagle’s dwindling population was traced to the pesticide DDT. DDT is not “directly toxic” to bald eagles, but when used to spray an area of mosquitoes to combat diseases such as malaria, it washed into streams. There it got on insects living in the water. These insects were eaten by bigger insects, who in turn were eaten by fish, who were then eaten by bigger fish, and these fish were eaten by bald eagles.

“In each stage of the food chain, the DDT is bio-accumulated,” said Groffman and in the eagles, the DDT caused their eggshells to be thin. So, thin that when the parent eagles sat on the nest, they crushed the eggs and the babies died.

“How did they figure this out?” asked Groffman. He said, “You need to know something about birds, something about fish, something about hydrology and microbiology, and you had to understand the connection between the different parts of the landscape.”

Scientist Rachel Carson (author of “Silent Spring”) put this all together and the solution was to ban DDT.

Groffman stressed the steps in solving any ecological problem: Identify the problem, find a solution, get the solution implemented (which is not always easy to accomplish), and track the success.

He said it was important that different branches of science work together and realize the “connectivity of soil, water, air, insects, fish and birds.”

Groffman talked about acid rain next. “Acid rain is a very clear success story.” Acid rain comes from “the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal.”

When coal is burned it gives off sulfur and nitrogen which combine to form sulfuric acid, and this comes to earth in precipitation and makes streams acidic and has a “negative impact” on animals, plants, and fish. It can cause “dead lakes” where fish and vegetation die.

To solve this problem, he said, “an understanding of chemistry, fish, atmospheric chemistry and hydrology” was needed.

The solution was to “get sulfur out of coal” which happened with the Clean Air Act of 1990. In tracking this solution, scientists found that there is much less acidity in water and soil and plants and organisms are recovering.

Another area of success has been noticed with eutrophication of bodies of water. Fertilizers used to grow crops can wash into streams and pollute them. This can cause algae to grow, die and decompose. The bacteria causing the decomposition “sucks the oxygen out” of the water which then has no oxygen and fish and vegetation die.

Scientists found that phosphorus was causing this problem. The solution was the Clean Water Act of 1972 which “removed phosphorus from detergents” and helped manage “sources of pollutants in the landscape”.

The result is cleaner water in rivers, streams, and lakes.

Groffman stated they’ve learned that today’s problems require a new way of doing science in which “We need everybody on board.” As with the solution of the bald eagles, many disciplines of science need to work together.

Groffman explained that implementing solutions can be difficult. “If we propose solutions that are a real pain in the neck for people, they’re not going to do them. If they don’t do it, we back slide.”

In France, one of the leading nations in fighting climate change, there was recently resistance to a New Green Energy Tax on fuel. Yellow vest protesters took to the streets to make their displeasure known. Groffman said that “how solutions affect people is important to consider.”

Increases in the use of solar energy and wind energy in the last couple of decades are positive signs in the fight against global warming.

Groffman mentioned that there is criticism that the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and action on global warming were delayed by governmental agencies wanting more research done. The International governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been recommending actions such as lowering carbon energy use and behavioral and lifestyle changes since the 1970’s and in the 1990’s declared that action needed to be taken with no more delays.

The last stage in finding solutions to ecological problems is an important one: tracking the success for any “wobbles” or “squeals” which may indicate the solution is failing or having problems.

Groffman said that current challenges are climate change and Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP’s). Drugs and microplastics in PPCP’s are dumped down drains, get into sewers, and into water systems. But he declared, “I’m going to argue that science is evolving to meet these problems.”

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