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Free Press Advances Stancioff’s Talk on Coastal Maine’s Changes

The Free Press reported the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association of Newcastle, Maine, will host a talk by Esperanza Stancioff, an educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant, as part of its winter talk series “Citizen Science in the Sheepscot Watershed.” Stancioff will speak on February 5, 2014 about the current research on how coastal Maine’s climate is changing, how it might change in the future and the current adaptations that are under way.

UMaine Extension to Host Maine Food Summit

State of Maine

Photo illustration by Michael Mardosa

Registration is underway for the 2013 Maine Food Summit, a daylong conference Friday, Dec. 6 at the University of Maine. The event, sponsored by University of Maine Cooperative Extension, will be held from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Wells Conference Center on the Orono campus.

The summit is an opportunity for food producers, business owners and anyone involved with and interested in Maine’s dynamic food system to share ideas about growing Maine’s agriculture and fishery, supporting the state’s economy and improving food security.

Tim Griffin, associate professor and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, and Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, are keynote presenters. In addition, there will be panel discussions, workshops and opportunities to meet others interested in food systems.

Registration is $30 ($20 for students) through Nov. 22, and $40 ($30 for students) from Nov. 23 until the Nov. 27 deadline. Lunch is included. For more information or to register online, visit

To register or request a disability accommodation, call Meghan Dill at 207.581.3878. For more information, contact John Jemison at 207.581.3241.

Drummond Quoted in TakePart Article on Climate Change Threatening Foods

Frank Drummond, entomologist at the University of Maine, was quoted in a TakePart article titled “Is climate change threatening Maine’s staple foods?” Drummond spoke about the spotted wing drosophila, a new fruit fly that is targeting the state’s blueberries. Drummond said the pests need to be monitored and managed, but harvesting berries earlier and using an experimental mesh trap could help keep the flies off the berries.

Media Previews Maine Beaches Conference

The Sun Journal, Portland Press Herald, WABI (Channel 5) and WLBZ (Channel 2) were among several news organizations to carry an Associated Press report previewing the Maine Beaches Conference. The conference, coordinated by Maine Sea Grant and a steering committee of public and private partners, takes place Friday, July 12, 2013 at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. The effects of Superstorm Sandy and the lessons Maine can learn from the storm will be the focus of the conference, The Associated Press also reported recently.

Maine Beaches Conference Slated July12

Anyone who uses Maine’s beaches — from surfers to business owners — is invited to attend the 2013 Maine Beaches Conference to share information with other stakeholders.

The latest on erosion, weather and water quality at Maine’s beaches, as well as the importance of tourism and property rights, will be discussed Friday, July 12, 2013 at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

The conference aims to share data from the state’s beach monitoring programs, as well as provide a forum for communication among beach stakeholders, such as property owners, recreational users and managers.

The 7:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. event will include multimedia sessions and exhibits, presentations and a walking tour during lunch.

Session topics will include the effects of Superstorm Sandy, erosion control, tourism promotion, water quality, pollution, ecological values and property rights.

Representatives from several organizations including the Maine Geological Survey, National Weather Service, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Office of Tourism and Maine Beaches Association will present during the sessions.

The conference is coordinated by Maine Sea Grant and a steering committee of public and private partners.

Steering committee members representing conference stakeholder groups are responsible for designing and implementing the event, according to conference coordinator Kristen Grant, a marine extension associate with Maine Sea Grant and University of Maine Cooperative Extension based at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The first Maine Beaches Conference was held in 2000 and emerged from Sea Grant-funded research by UMaine faculty Joseph Kelley and Daniel Belknap who developed a volunteer beach erosion monitoring program in response to recommendations of the Southern Maine Beach Stakeholder Group, according to Catherine Schmitt, Maine Sea Grant communications coordinator.

“Even in that first year, it was clear the interest in that information extended far beyond the monitoring volunteers,” Grant says. “Because beach stakeholders in Maine represent a diverse range of interests, the conference has always sought to provide continuing opportunities for communication and exchange of the most current information among these stakeholders.”

Grant says participants continue to return to the conference because they say it provides up-to-date information and many opportunities to learn and network.

“They also appreciate the chance to meet resource people face-to-face, the sharing of diverse perspectives and new ideas, and the action-orientation of the conference,” Grant says.

For more information or to request disability accommodations, call Grant at 207.646.1555, ext. 115.

Registration information, program details, speaker biographies and session and exhibit descriptions are available online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Plants and animals shrinking with climate change?

a juvenile bufo bufo

The common toad is one of many organisms shown to decrease in body size when the climate warms. Credit: T.J. Blackwell

Life on earth may be shrinking in size as a result of climate change, according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change. From tortoises to sheep, to trees and grass, University of Singapore biologists Jennifer Sheridan and David Bickford have compiled fossil and experimental evidence showing that many species adapt to climate change by decreasing in body size.

This is not Alice in Wonderland – the adaptation evolves over the course of generations, not within given individuals. Still, species with short generation times can evolve quickly and some have already begun to show growth changes associated with climate trends. For example, over the course of a 23 year study of the common toad in southern England, British ecologist C.J. Reading showed that female body size decreased as winters became more mild from 1983 to 2005. Dr. Reading, who published his findings in Oecologia in 2007, argues that the mild winters disrupted the metabolic hibernation cycles within these cold-blooded creatures. As in all cold-blooded animals, the common toad’s metabolism speeds up in warm temperatures and slows down in cool temperatures. So, during mild winters, a toad burns through its fat reserves faster than during a colder winter, depleting its energy reserves available for springtime growth.

Some plant species may also experience stunted growth from indirect effects of climate warming, like changes in water and nutrient availability. Increased flooding, for example, washes nutrients from forest floors and prevents plants from growing to full capacity. Drought, on the other hand, decreases plant respiration and growth. In response, animals that feed on these shrinking plants will need to compensate either by eating larger quantities of the plant, or by succumbing to the shrinking trend by evolving to be smaller themselves. Since animals with small bodies often give birth to small offspring, Sheridan and Bickford argue that this trend may be exacerbated through time in a positive feedback loop.

How low will we go? The extent of growth stuntedness will vary across species and habitats, and will unfold in a web of complicated ecological adjustments. Fossil evidence from the last great warming period on earth, which occurred about 56 million years ago, indicates that beetles, ants, and cicadas shrank by 50 – 75% over the course of 20,000 years. This likely bares little on the fate of 21st century animals, since warming is happening at a faster rate today than it did back then. However, it does at least offer compelling evidence that warming-shrinking trends have unfolded in the past.

But how low will we go, as humans? Sheridan and Bickford argue that ecological shrinking could impact human nutrition by limiting important crop and protein sources. This may or may not ultimately affect the way human body size evolves. Meanwhile, if you do find yourself falling down a rabbit hole with the opportunity to eat size-reducing cake, it may be nutritionally beneficial to go for it. These things are difficult to predict.

Posted by Laura Poppick, Assistant Editor of Maine Climate News

Sedimentary Bedrock Fertilizes Californian Forest, Improving its Capacity to Store Carbon

photograph of study area, south fork mountain, CA

Sedimentary rocks fertilize the coniferous forest on South Fork Mountain, CA, increasing the forest’s capacity to store carbon. Credit: S. Morford.

New findings from a team of U.C. Davis ecologists show that sedimentary bedrock fertilizes plant growth in a northern Californian forest, filling an ecological role previously thought to be reserved for bacteria. Graduate student Scott Morford and colleagues have found that the rock provides ecologically available nitrogen (N), an essential nutrient for plant growth. Since plants cannot use N in its most abundant form as an atmospheric gas, they rely largely on bacteria to ‘fix’ atmospheric N into a usable form in soil. Now, Morford’s team shows that plants can also use ancient N stored in rocks, unveiling a hitherto unaccounted for reservoir of fertilizer that promotes plant growth and carbon sequestration in forests.

The sedimentary rocks fertilizing Morford’s study site formed on ocean and lake floors roughly 140 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. As dinosaurs frolicked and battled around these bodies of water, layers of N-rich organic material slowly accumulated within bottom sediments. After millions of years of compaction, these sediments were exhumed as solid rock to form the modern forest floor. Over time, the rock has broken down enough to slowly release nitrogen into the soil.

Not all bedrock has the same fertilizing effect as this Cretaceous sedimentary rock. Igneous rocks, for example, come directly from the Earth’s interior and contain only a small fraction of the N available in sedimentary rocks. Morford compared plant productivity in a forest underlain by sedimentary rock versus a forest underlain by igneous rock and found that the sedimentary forest was 50% more productive and stored more carbon than the igneous forest. Since sedimentary rocks are extremely prevalent, covering 75% of the Earth’s surface, these findings have global implications for the carbon cycle and the capacity for forests to slow climate change through carbon sequestration.

Morford has yet to identify the rate at which the bedrock releases nitrogen, which will be important in understanding the full potential of sedimentary forests to store carbon in the future. Regardless, he has discovered a new reservoir of N that fundamentally changes the way scientists understand the global N-cycle and the ecological role of rocks in forests.

Posted by Laura Poppick, Assistant Editor of Maine Climate News

Tropical Rainforests: from carbon sink to source?

Tropical rainforests cover 6% of Earth’s surface, but their soils contain nearly 30% of the total global soil carbon stocks, making them one of the most important carbon sinks on Earth. Yet, ironically, tropical rainforests are also the largest natural source of carbon dioxide on Earth. Plant material grows, decays, and makes way for new growth so rapidly within these lush habitats that carbon stocks remain fairly unstable. Still, rates of carbon sequestration generally outpace carbon release in tropical rainforests, allowing them to maintain their crown in the carbon sink-dom.

Now, with preliminary results published in last week’s issue of Nature Climate Change, British ecologist Emma Sayer and colleagues are finding that climate change may dethrone tropical rainforests from their reign in the world of carbon sequestration. Will increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels transform this carbon sink into a carbon source?

Map of global tropical forests.

World map showing tropical rainforests highlighted in yellow. Credit: National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide naturally fertilizes plants, as plants use carbon dioxide to photosynthesize. With ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions in the global atmosphere, plant production has already started to increase in some locations, particularly in tropical forests. Increased plant productivity amounts to larger and more abundant leaves. Since leaves suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, increased leaf growth would presumably bolster a given tree’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide. Sayer and her colleagues, however, show that plant-atmosphere interactions are not this simple, and are further complicated by increased carbon-fertilization.

Yes, carbon-fertilized leaves serve as a carbon sink while they are still attached to their respective trees. But, upon dying, they fall to the forest the floor and contribute to a growing pile of dead plant material, or litter. Litter is quickly scavenged by decomposing microbes in the soil that release the once-sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. This activity is normal, and explains why tropical rainforests are such a large natural carbon dioxide emitter. However, according to Sayer’s findings, increased leaf litter produced by carbon-fertilization may stimulate microbes to decompose more efficiently because leaves are more decomposable than woody material on the forest floor. This ‘priming’ of the microbes with an influx of easily decomposable material could disproportionally increase the net amount of carbon dioxide emitted from a given stand of trees.

A lizard on a leaf

A lizard resting on a leaf in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system.                                                  Credit: Brian Stinga.

Sayer’s study is uniquely long term, with data spanning from 2005 to 2009 . Such long term studies are crucial in detecting plant-soil-atmosphere interactions that fluctuate from season to season and year to year. Similar long term studies have yet to be implemented on other forest types, but Sayer suggests that other forest types will likely experience a similar ‘priming’ effect induced by increased carbon-fertilization. If this is the case, climate models should be tweaked accordingly to better predict future oscillations in forest carbon stocks.


Posted by Laura Poppick, Assistant Editor of Maine Climate News.

First Complete Map of Antarctic Ice Flow

On Thursday, NASA-funded scientists released the first complete map of Antarctic ice flow. Until now, Antarctic ice flow studies have focused on the outer fringes of the continent, leaving the frozen interior essentially uncharted. The new map illustrates the speed and direction of ice flow across the entire continent, dramatically improving the accuracy with which scientists will be able to track future ice sheet movement and sea-level rise related to climate change.

Map of Antarctica showing ice flow velocities. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCI

map of antarctica with ice flow velocity

Video of Antarctic ice flow (NASA, 2011).

The map reveals a major mountain ridge in East Antarctica that bisects the continent from east to west. In a video of the findings, you can track tributary glaciers weaving dendritically from the ridge across thousands of miles of the continental interior, eventually feeding outlet glaciers that flow into the sea. The video illustrates the true nature of glaciers as rivers of ice, like tributaries of the Mississippi River feeding from the Rocky Mountains into the Gulf of Mexico.

But how can ice flow like a river of water? While ice is solid under certain conditions, it is actually fairly deformable under high pressure because pressure exerts heat that induces melting and flow. Given that the Antarctic ice sheet is more than one mile thick on average, it exerts plenty of pressure to initiate flow.

A geology professor of mine demonstrated the concept of glacial flow to my class by relating glaciers to pancakes (yes, he pulled out a griddle and started cooking glacier pancakes for us — yes, we got to eat them). Like pancake batter spreading laterally as you pile it on the griddle, glaciers spread laterally as snow and ice accumulates at some topographic high. In both cases, the pressure exerted by the vertical accumulation of material forces that material outward. Theoretically, if a glacier were to build on a uniformly flat and sturdy surface like a pancake griddle, it would form the  circular shape of a pancake. This rarely happens. The elongated tributary glaciers on Antarctica have conformed to existing valleys or have carved out pathways through erodible rocks.

Aside from glacial shape, the direction and speed of glacial flow also varies greatly across Antarctica because of its varied landscape. For example, ice flows more quickly in narrow valleys than in broad valleys because narrow valleys channelize thick ice. Thick ice increases friction and heat, creating meltwater along the valley floor. Meltwater lubricates ice movement and increases the speed of glacial flow.

Such concepts in glaciology are well established but, until now, they have never been documented in detail across Antarctica. Now, with velocity data from hundreds of tributary glaciers and cutting-edge evidence that ice flow initiates thousands of miles from the sea near topographic divides, the new map offers a vibrant future for research in ice flow dynamics and global sea-level rise. And, underneath the ice flow velocities, the map reveals an Antarctic landscape of mountains and valleys that has hitherto been a frozen enigma. Yet again, climate change research allows us to become better acquainted with our planet.

Posted by Laura Poppick, Assistant Editor of Maine Climate News.

Human Carbon Dioxide Emissions Dwarf Annual Volcanic Emissions

Human Carbon Dioxide Emissions Dwarf Annual Volcanic Emissions

Volcanic eruption as seen from space

Volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Credit: International Space Station, ISS013-E-24184

Yes, aerosols from volcanic eruptions cool the climate, but don’t carbon dioxide emissions from the same eruptions counteract this
cooling? No, at least not significantly.

Terrance Gerlach, scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, untangles this commonly misconstrued reality in the American Geophysical Union’s EOS June 2011 issue. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes, Gerlach affirms, is inconsequential when compared to human emissions. He calculates that humans emit the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption every 12.5 hours. Every 2.7 days, we emit the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide released by volcanoes during an average year. Our ubiquitous and unabated emissions easily dwarf volcanic emissions, and the cooling effect of volcanic aerosols from a single catastrophic event is much larger than the average annual warming effect of volcanoes worldwide.

There have been periods in Earth History, however, when volcanic carbon dioxide emissions may have been more significant in global climate. Roughly 640 million years ago, for example, volcanic emissions may have pulled the Earth out of a global glaciation. During this glaciation, called Snowball Earth, the Earth is thought to have been sealed in ice as thick as 1 kilometer in some regions, tapering down to less than than 2 meters at the equator. In such a scenario, the atmospheric-oceanic-terrestrial carbon cycle would have slowed down to a near standstill, seriously hindering the Earth’s natural thermostat. Volcanic eruptions, both sub-marine and sub-glacial, may have been the one source of carbon dioxide available to thaw the snowball.

According to studies led by Paul Hoffman, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and a leader in Snowball Earth research, carbon dioxide from volcanic emissions could have leaked through weakly-frozen regions of the equatorial ocean and cracks in terrestrial glaciers, slowly warming the atmosphere. With essentially all carbon sinks sealed off, this carbon dioxide would have built up unabatedly in the atmosphere. Over the course of millions of years, enough could have accumulated to end Snowball Earth.

So, yes, volcanoes may contribute to significant climate warming, but only over the extended course of geologic time. Over the course of the 21st century, a mere blink in geologic time, we can safely assume that, if anything, volcanoes will cool global climate.

Posted by Laura Poppick, Assistant Editor of Maine Climate News.