Citizen science and the loss of the loon

The sight of a painting-perfect loon on a lake this weekend reminded me that I covered the annual loon count on this blog three years ago. In that post, I discussed how Bird Studies Canada had turned the national summer pastime of watching loons into an exercise in “citizen science” — the involvement of non-scientists in scientific endeavours.

Now the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey has yielded important scientific evidence.

The common loon, with its characteristic silhouette and unearthly like-no-other-animal calls, stands out in another way. It is an “indicator” or “sentinel” species, defined as an organism that is sensitive to the environment and hence can provide an indication of the health of that environment. A canary in a coal mine, a distant-early-warning system.

In a study published this year in Avian Conservation and Ecology, authors Tozer, Falconer and Badzinski used the data from citizen observations to model the reproductive success of common loons in Canada. Loons are sensitive to changes in pH (acidity) and to methylmercury, making them an important indicator species for changes in these variables. Furthermore, methylmercury in combination with higher temperatures and acidity has a synergistic effect — more than the sum of its separate effects — on loon breeding success.

The analysis shows that loon reproduction has been going down at a worrying rate since 1992. Reproduction is more successful in western Canada than eastern. These findings are correlated with changes in acidification of lakes and methylmercury levels, but the authors caution that there may be unknown factors in addition. A correlation like this one is suggestive, but cannot prove cause-and-effect.

According to the model these authors developed, at a certain pH level in a lake, loons no longer reproduce enough to replace themselves. That is, the population no longer increases but starts to decline. In biology, this is called the “source-sink” threshold.

In lakes with a pH of 6.0, this threshold may have already been breached in 2001, according to the calculations. Other lakes with a current pH of 8.0 probably won’t hit this point until about 2034. Overall, the authors figure that the population is still increasing, but marginally, and if the declining trend continues, the total population will soon start to decline.

This is a different picture from the one painted by another study, the breeding bird survey, which showed increasing numbers over the same period. By contrast, while this new study indicates overall increase, it shows lower success rates, decelerating into the negative zone in some areas.

It’s an impressive achievement for citizen science, which has proven its worth, providing more data than possible in a limited scientific survey.

It’s also a red flag on environmental mercury and continuing acid rain. These problems have not gone away — far from it. The loon’s call is a warning not only about one of our iconic fauna but also about the future of our delicate lake ecosystems.

What will be the legacy of International Polar Year?

A selection of the Canadian contributions to International Polar Year appear in the November 2012 issue of the journal Climatic Change, available free online. Guest editor of this special issue, Tanuja Kulkarni, told me that the choice of journal reflects one of the main concerns of Canadian research during the year (really two years): how Canada’s arctic is changing and adapting (or not) to warming temperatures. (In the interests of full disclosure, Tanuja is a friend, and I’m proud of her role in this important publication.)

But the second main thrust for the IPY research was the health and well-being of northern communities. While there have been three other IPYs in history, they have focussed on hard sciences, whereas this one brought in the social aspects. As well, community knowledge played a role in many of the research projects, including those collecting scientific evidence.

As the authors point out in the introduction, past IPYs dating from the 1880s to the 1950s broke new scientific ground. From them, we learned about the jet stream and the ozone layer, among other discoveries. They also fostered international collaboration instead of competition, which allowed sharing of new knowledge that would not otherwise have been possible. They set the stage for the continuing international scientific exploration of Antarctica, as an example.

So what will come out of Canada’s work on the 2007-2008 IPY? A few years ago, I attended a symposium by IPY-funded researchers as part of the annual Canadian ecology and evolution conference. They were doing important research on the changing tree line, which in some places is moving northward year over year as the climate warms, with important effects on albedo and ecology. Others were studying what happens as permafrost melts, releasing additional greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere, in a vicious circle that exacerbates climate change.

Climate, ecology, community — the interdependence of these systems is becoming increasingly apparent. A holistic view of our north is one of the positive legacies, certainly. Understanding the global effects of what happens in northern Canada is another. We will hear more in years to come about what is called the “cryosphere”: snow, permafrost and ice. These play a much more influential role in world climate and ecology than we ever imagined.

And, if we learn anything at all, we will learn that Canada has a challenge shared with only a few other arctic countries as guardian and steward of the north. There is a danger with the end of IPY funding that we will lose the momentum of this important research. We need to continue to explore the land — and sea — that are now less mysterious and more complex than previously thought.

Commercial solar energy: in my lifetime

I’ve been hearing about solar power all my life. And I was getting pretty cynical. Yeah, yeah, solar power. And world peace, tricorders, an end to disease and so on.

So I was surprised to read in recent reports from the International Energy Agency that there is a real shot at commercially viable solar power within the next decade.

Why now? The hurdle until recently was the high cost of photovoltaics, the systems to turn solar energy into electric current and put it on the grid. While sunshine is free, the cells that trap it rely on a certain grade of silicon (expensive to produce). Then land must be found for solar plants, and then the cells must be mounted in large glass installations. Power generated is often direct current at an inappropriate voltage. So transformers and other equipment are involved to produce alternating current at an appropriate voltage and add it to the existing grid.

However, there have been recent technical achievements that have resulted in lower-cost cells based on technologies such as cadmium telluride.

To encourage “green” energy solutions, many governments (including Ontario’s) have supported solar energy through feed-in tariffs, in which providers are paid a premium price (a form of incentive or subsidy) under long-term contracts. The price often reflects the cost of production, rather than the market cost of electricity.

However, with costs coming down, experts are talking about the magical moment of “grid parity,” when the cost of providing power from photovoltaics matches the market cost of electricity. At that sweet spot, solar power becomes commercially viable. This has actually been achieved in some international systems. As the new technologies come on stream, it will be more and more common. In the same way that lofty windmills are a familiar sight in the Gaspe, arrays of glass-plated solar-catchers will appear on abandoned industrial land (brownfields) or next to cow pastures. And the world will become a better place.