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Study: Ecosystem alterations leading to widespread human health impacts

Research consortium proposes systematic assessment approach


In Belize, agricultural runoff is changing lowland wetlands to favor a proliferation of mosquitoes that are efficient malaria vectors. bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — The accelerating pace of human-caused changes to natural systems may threaten the Earth’s ability to sustain a growing population at a fundamental level, a team of researchers said in a new paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper describes a new branch of environmental health that focuses on the public health risks of human-caused changes to Earth’s natural systems. Researchers contributing to the paper work with the Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages consortium.

The approach differs from the classic discipline of environmental health, which focuses on micro-level impacts — for example, how changes in the home environment can affect the health of an individual or a family, said Dr. Samuel Myers, a research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health. Continue reading

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Study seeks early warning of ecological tipping points


Penguins could be a species prone to an ecological tipping point. bberwyn photo.

Ecosystem collapses could also have serious economic and social consequences

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — One of the biggest concerns raised by the rapid rise in global temperatures the past few decades is that some ecosystems may reach an environmental tipping point, from beyond which there is no recovery.

It’s hard to predict where those tipping points are and when they might be reached, but a team of scientists with NOAA Fisheries, University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford University, and Environmental Defense Fund wants to know if it’s at least possible to detect early warning signs in the world’s oceans.

The Ocean Tipping Points Project includes scientists and other experts from NOAA Fisheries, University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford University, and Environmental Defense Fund. The Project is just getting off the ground with a recent $3.1 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Continue reading

Biodiversity: UK biologists consider lynx restoration

Colorado's lynx restoration program has yielded valuable research that may help scientists in other countries with similar efforts. Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Colorado’s lynx restoration program has yielded valuable research that may help scientists in other countries with similar efforts. Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Biologists eye predator restoration to try and rebalance ecosystems

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Biologists in the UK say they might be able to use some of the lynx science compiled in Colorado and other areas as they plan for a possible reintroduction of Eurasian lynx in Cairngorn National Park.

In a draft report focusing on ecosystem restoration, scientists identified lynx as one of the species that help restore ecological balance in a system that doesn’t have any predators. Without them, deer have been running rampant and degrading forested areas.

Lynx disappeared from the British Isles about 1,000 years ago, partially because most of their habitat was destroyed, but reforestation in the past few centuries means there are now areas where the wild cats could find breeding and foraging habitat. The wild cats have already been reintroduced in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Slovakia and France. Continue reading

Study: There’s good reason to be a treehugger


A tree-lined street in Toledo, Ohio in 2006, before emerald ash borer infestation. Photo courtesy Dan Herms, Ohio State University.

Forest Service research links the presence of trees with human health

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — There’s a good reason that environmentalists have been called treehuggers from time to time — instinctively, some of us know how vital forests are to the health of the planet.

Now, some empirical research shows that’s true not just metaphorically, but that the loss of trees in the environment can have serious consequences for human health. The study by the U.S. Forest Service looked at the loss of more than 100 million ash trees in the East and Midwest.


Three years later, in 2009, after the invasive insect spread to the neighborhood. Photo courtesy Dan Herms, Ohio State University.

After analyzing 18 years worth of data from 1,296 counties in 15 states, researchers found that Americans living in areas infested by the emerald ash borer, a beetle that kills ash trees, suffered from an additional 15,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more deaths from lower respiratory disease when compared to uninfected areas. When emerald ash borer comes into a community, city streets lined with ash trees become treeless.

“ There’s a natural tendency to see our findings and conclude that, surely, the higher mortality rates are because of some confounding variable, like income or education, and not the loss of trees,” said Geoffrey Donovan, a research forester at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. “But we saw the same pattern repeated over and over in counties with very different demographic makeups.”

The researchers analyzed demographic, human mortality, and forest health data at the county level between 1990 and 2007. The data came from counties in states with at least one confirmed case of the emerald ash borer in 2010. The findings — which hold true after accounting for the influence of demographic differences, like income, race, and education—are published in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Although the study shows the association between loss of trees and human mortality from cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease, it did not prove a causal link. The reason for the association is yet to be determined.

The emerald ash borer was first discovered near Detroit, Michigan, in 2002. The borer attacks all 22 species of North American ash and kills virtually all of the trees it infests.

The study was conducted in collaboration with David Butry, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Yvonne Michael, with Drexel University; and Jeffrey Prestemon, Andrew Liebhold, Demetrios Gatziolis, and Megan Mao, with the Forest Service’s Southern, Northern, and Pacific Northwest Research Stations.

Environment: USGS researchers quantify carbon sequestration in western ecosystems

Forests, grasslands play important role in carbon cycle


New study to help inform resource management. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Western forests, grasslands, shrublands and other ecosystems sequester about 100 million tons of carbon each year, equivalent to about 5 percent of the nation’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report released this week by the U.S. Department of Interior.

“This important study confirms the major role that our natural landscapes have in absorbing carbon and helping to counter-balance the nation’s carbon emissions,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes. “This kind of groundbreaking science not only will help us be more effective stewards of our lands, but it also helps reveal how our forests, wetlands and rangelands in the West — and throughout the nation — are positively impacting the carbon cycle.” Continue reading


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