Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Plant Encyclopedia – a Review & a Recommendation

© University of Pennsylvania
    Floras have a long illustrious history. They lie at the heart of modern science in field ranging from taxonomy through medicine to biology and modern ecology. Among the most ancient of disciplines horticulture and the cultivation of plants has inspired the aggregation of plant lists since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among the most famous floras of modern time is Leonhart Fuchs' (17 January 1501 – 10 May 1566) great illustrated herbal flora 'De historia stirpium commentarii insignes'.
    Today we have a new edition to the library of floras, The Plant Encyclopedia that takes advantage of the latest technologies just as Fuchs did when he used the then latest techno app, the printing press. This just released Global Guide To Cultivated Plants is an "…open-authored wiki resource, authored by the public worldwide; an information platform project of the organization Aden Earth. Passionate gardeners, horticulturists, and botanists around the world create these plant pages. Information in the Encyclopedia is designed for fast and easy gardening reference."

    Using a wiki model and seeking knowledgeable authors to update and expand its offerings, I amdelighted to see that invasive species issues are recognized as part of the comprehensive species discussions/ The entry for Hedera helix, English ivy reads:  Hedera helix (Common Ivy, English Ivy) is a species of Ivy native to most of Europe and western Asia. It is labeled as an invasive species in many parts of the United States, and its sale or import is banned in Oregon. 

  The level of detail and the ease of use should encourage gardeners and horticultural professionals to both add content and use this successor to such venerable tomes such as 'Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada' written and compiled by L. H. Bailey in the early 20th century.

    Among the many features I like the etymological notes for each species as well as the featured authors page In this fast paced world where finding the right information by searching through many books is fast becoming a lost art, The Plant Encyclopedia is packed with information and growing everyday. I expect this project and resource to become a must-go-to site for landscape professionals and gardeners every where.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New Report Focuses on Climate Challenges to Naval Forces

New Report Focuses on Climate Challenges to Naval Forces

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ruminations on the Complexities of Invasive Species

The blog posting, Biologists as engineers of the living world, offers an opportunity to expand on my theme of the wicked inconvenience of invasive species.[1] Should we engage in biological engineering to solve invasive species problems? Invasive species are a wicked problem, a type of problem that is found in many social and physical systems. A very well know wicked problem intrinsically related to invasive species is climate change. In two sentences I have described two complex systems that are regularly reduced or simplified into complicated explanations with associated multiple conflicting solutions. In a complicated system, on the other hand, the members or parts and their interactions or connections are equally important. Unless redundancy is built in, when one part or connection fails, the entire system fails. In a complex system on the other hand the members or parts are of no individual importance, and a loss of one is not critical. However, the connections are important and it is the loss of a connection or interactive pathways that can dramatically alter the whole system. In a complicated system simple rules give simple predictive results whereas in a complex system, simple rules result in unpredictable outcomes. 

Invasive species are, in some sense, a symptom of a perturbation in or a disturbance of ecosystems. Ecosystems are dynamic networks of interactions and relationships that are most assuredly not collections of static, predictable entities. One does not predetermine the exact flight path of a bee or the precise flow of a stream but rather one describes the most probable direction and boundaries in which the system may be found in the future. More specifically it is possible estimate the probability of certain outcomes weighing one against another but it is not possible to say for certain which outcome is certain in all cases for all time.
Ecosystems are also adaptive which means that their individual and collective activities, actions and behavior change as a result of inputs, interactions and behaviors. Invasive species are the result of some action or sequence of actions that result in the movement of one species into a new region. By definition, invasive species are the harmful-to-humanity, non-indigenous pathogens, plants or animals that are introduced as a result of human activity into a novel ecological system – into our backyards and homes. It is worth noting that as a rule it takes more than one introduction event, so the establishment of an invasive species through human activity enhances the portability of success. The complexity lies in part within the many assumptions that I just made in trying to define what the problem is, and I have not yet discussed cascading effects of species introduction on ecosystem services.
To engineer a solution, we start with an identification of a need or problem, and then work to develop a tool or process that becomes the solution. We try to economize costs, which usually but not always means some linear answer more or less in a straight line preferably with as few gaps as possible. A prosaic example is a plow. The need is to break up the soil and the ecosystem so that a food source can be easily planted. The engineered solution today is a metal shape that cuts or rips through the land in a straight line. The plow works wonders if you keep your eye on the goal which is to make planting easy and short term yields. At the same time the engineered solution creates unintended new problems such as erosion and soil nutrient run off. This is the fear inherent in the linear approach to biology.
The interesting side product of the engineering marvel we know as the plow is the ability to disturb the earth inexpensively, repeatedly and, therefore, chronically produce a disturbance pattern that favors certain species over others. And these species are either called weeds by farmers and gardeners or invasive plants by natural area managers and ecologists. This unintended product is possible anytime one applies linear thinking to non linear systems and is even in an ironic twist guaranteed by definition. The unexpected outcomes from engineering in a straight line should not be a reason not to consider engineering complex systems. Rather it is an invitation to think first and consider using applied complex system theory as an integral part of the engineering process. 
Historically, when faced by a problem in landscaping we engineer a simple, cost effective solution. Since landscaping usually includes plants, the landscape architect will engineer a plant solution if he or she can. The discipline of horticulture admits to the need from time to time of other expert professionals, but the ultimate design engineering rests with the landscape architect. The odds are slight that the client will pay for a comprehensive team of equals including hydrologists, ecologists, biologists, entomologist, and a dozen other specialties in advance of identifying a particular problem. In other words, we do not set out to identify potential problems that may affect the common ecosystem, but restrict of future externalities, our deliberations are directed to the landscape at hand to keep costs from quickly becoming prohibitive. And so we specify English ivy, Hedera helix, as a general purpose groundcover to minimize planting costs as well as maintenance cost in the near future. 
Linear engineered solutions are not solely found in ornamental gardening. In order to meet the insatiable demand for goods, the wooden shipping pallet is a simple engineered platform. Take a tree from the fields near where a product is made, create a pallet, and send the product on the pallet to a new ecosystem. Hidden on board on or in the pallet may be living hitchhikers foreign and deadly to the receiving ecosystem. This is straightforward, simple and deadly to ahs trees. The emerald ash borer is eating the ash trees of North America. The borer most likely arrived on wooden pallets or shipping craters which, had an interdisciplinary team been assembled might have been avoided. And with identification of a risk, protocols could have been put in place to reduce the risk of millions of acres of dead trees.
Biological systems may perhaps be engineered if we keep a few key things in mind. First complicated linear and determined systems produce controllable and predictable outcomes, while complex adaptive systems can produce novel, creative, and emergent outcomes.[2] Biological systems are complex systems of the latter type, and will require a sympathetic engineering strategy that changes some aspect of the system and then works with the biologic system while it adjusts to the change. The traditional assumption of straight-line thinking will be dangerous if applied to complex biologic systems. The dependable ascertain that every observed effect has an observable cause will lead inevitably to unintended consequences. A belief that the whole can be understood by taking the system apart and studying the pieces will tend to produce surprises many of which could be unpleasant. The problem of complex systems, the challenge of biology is that they are rooted in chaos theory and wickedly defy any predictive detail modeling.
We should not be afraid of engineering. We should be afraid, however, of treating biologic systems like cars. We can tool a solution to a door lock with every reasonable expectation of a predictable outcome; we cannot tool biologic systems in the same way and expect to predict the result. On the other hand, this is not a reason, to adapt engineering to a process of nudging complex systems, pushing their constraints, and observing the results in an endless dance with our universe.

[1] Link to multiple posting on the wicked inconvenience theme of invasive species:
[2] Jones, Wendell. "Complex Adaptive Systems." Beyond Intractability. Ed. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Ocotber 2003. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A Response to a Resilient World’s Outcry

    The Resilient World (Does Invasion Confer Resilience?)[1] speaks to me directly. As with all wicked problems, the complexities of the problems at hand overwhelm the casual observer. Almost instinctively we find one counter example and claim significance. Waugh identifies a key issue of factual convenience in invasion biology. He writes that, for many of us, all it takes is "…one out of one hundred biological invaders…" to provide objective balance in the face of "…overwhelming evidence to the contrary."
    "Ecosystems", Waugh writes, "adapt to external conditions. Biological exchange is part of that process." Adaptation is a hall mark pattern that emerges out of complex systems. The nature of ecological systems is one of semi-autonomous entities each doing its own "thing" it different physical and temporal scales. The resulting interactions create a feedback system, a pattern of activity, we call adaptation.
    This is not a linear operation. We cannot push one part of the ecosystem and predict the outcome exactly or specifically. Unlike in our cars, for example, which are complicated systems but not complex, wherein, when we push down on the accelerator, we "know" (predict with certainty) that the car will go faster, ecosystems do not respond with any absolute predicative certainty. We know that if we cut all the tress down, there will be no trees, but we do not know for sure that the other large scale results will be. We cannot say for sure whether we will create a meadow, a desert, or something completely devoid of life. We can list the probable outcomes within a range of possibilities. The lack of certainty drives our desire to "balance" the fuzziness with statements of fact however biased they might be. We turn to the expectation to prove the rule because it is comforting, and allows us to concentrate on more mundane activities such as preparing our tax returns or deciding which channel to watch.
     Added to out discomfit imbued by uncertainty, is the Aristotelian way of seeing the world which reduces everything to a category of either or (A .or. B; beneficial .or. harmful to human need). Invasive species must accordingly be either good or bad. Because of the factual convenience some claim a "good" state from invasive species thereby negating the demonstrable harm in spite of a preponderance of evident to the contrary. On the other hand, there is a similar all or nothing state of mind held by those who, in Waugh's words, try to mitigate or prevent the "collapse of tropic levels and simplification of ecosystems, resulting in loss of diversity and thus [the] loss of adaptive capacity."
    What we need to do, is to think of invasive species in terms of wicked problems and to apply "fuzzy" logic to the issues of invasion biology. Fuzzy logic is thinking in terms of A .and. B, not A .or. B. Fuzzy logic asks how many bits of an apple can one take before what is left is no longer an apple. Applied to invasive species we might ask how much in some percentage sense harm and benefit a particular species has on a specific region at a certain time. Using fuzzy logic we could assign a metric to each species of jar/benefit based upn a specified ecosystem. We could model this metric through time adjusting our inputs and observing feedbacks as we nudged - "engineered" - the system. We xould explore parameters of resiliency noting events that push the ecosystem towards a transition state that might either create a novel ecosystem or cause the system to crash.
    Waugh also refers to the by now deeply imbedded problem of native versus alien, but that is another blog for another day. Deciding what is native in a world with rapidly changing climate, atmospheric gas rations and rising water levels is more than I can address in 600 words or less


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Invasive Species – a Question of Harm

    Invasive species are a problem. But deciding where they are a problem leads us to questions of when they area problem and to whom they prove to be a problem. An invasive species is "an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." according to the United States Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance White Paper submitted by the Definitions Subcommittee of the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC) and approved by ISAC on April 27, 2006. Setting aside for a moment the definitional debate about natives versus non native and the role of dead white Europeans in the introduction and cultivation of non indigenous species, we are left with the challenge of determining the meaning of harm.
    Because everyone knows what harm is when it impacts him or her personally and immediately, scant attention is paid to what is actually meant in the realms of politics and opinion. In my soon to be published book on invasive species certification policy, I write that "[h]arm is subject to interpretation, and there are differing schools of thought about harm and acceptable risk. For some the issue is how much harm from [an invasive or introduced species] is acceptable, while for others, the principle question is how much harm is avoidable." Harm in the context of invasive species and invasion biology as well as ecosystem services, "…can mean general harm to public welfare or it can be specific harm to the consumer or to the industry."

    Quantification of the harm from invasive species is the point of departure for all conversation, debates, regulations and legislation. In essence there are "two views that are diametrically opposed at the critical point of how one assesses harm, and until this is understood it is impossible to reach consensus." So the actual debate revolves around how much harm and therefore what level of risk is achievable and acceptable.[1]
The idea of harm, and its accompanying level of risk acceptance, colors any discussion about forms of control and regulation. For some of us there is a feeling that we should try to reduce the harmful impacts of invasive species as close to zero as possible, while others think that perhaps given all the other needs of mankind that there is an upper boundary or threshold of acceptable minimal impact that can be accepted. This divergence is a problem in setting standards for management of invasive species for the closer one tries to get to a zero risk the closer the cost go to infinity.

    Related to the identification of an acceptable level of harm is the problem of externalization of costs onto the natural systems. When we transport anything from one ecosystem to another, we do so because there is a human demand behind the movement of the product. If this product becomes an invasive species or a vector (a means of transport) for an invasive species and in the words of my friend and blogger John Waugh and the costs of that activity is not internalized, we are faced with deciding between our short terms needs and our long term choices.

    To put all this in perspective, how much destruction or alteration of a natural system are we willing to pay to prevent? How much damage or impact will the running bamboo that I plant on my land cause to surrounding landscapes? How much impact will the seed from my puple loosestrife have on biological diversity in my ecosystem? How bad could the accidental release of one snakehead into a storm water management pond really be in the big scheme of things? How many new species can be introduced into an ecosystem before it is no longer viable as a self sustaining system? How bad novel ecosystems are and what impact will they have on our quality of life tomorrow, and how will we assess this impact?

    The problem framed by these questions is all about you and me and our individual needs and wants right now. They do not address the cost to our grandchildren. In effect our troubling answer is to transfer the costs to a murky future. When we allow a historic human structure to decay and disappear we deny something of cultural value to the future. It cannot be recovered, pnly vaguely remembered a little while. If you cannot touch it, sense it, work with it, it becomes part of the past drifting in to musty memory. When we willingly allow the loss of species and their habitat we deny the future its turn to be a part of a greater whole. Loss is part of the grand equation of life, but loss due to direct immediate human action is a choice.

    These questions assume a certainty of the immediate that is allusive and in most cases illusive. Our by now automatic resort to science wherein we expect concise clear absolute answers simply brings us to Bertrand Russell's observation that "[e]verything is vague to a degree you don't realize till you have tried to make it precise."[2]

[1] Thompson, J. P. (2011). Certified: Feasibility of Audit-Based Certification to Prevent Invasive Plant Pests in the Nursery Industry. Washington: Northeast Midwest Institute. 112 pp +xii
[2] Russell, B. The Philosophy of Logical Atomism