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Floods, fires, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes--we are quick to call them ''natural disasters.'' But are they? Did the great fires that swept Yellowstone in 1988 devastate the park, or did they just ravage our image of the park as a fixed, unchanging national treasure? This lucid, lively book reveals the shortsightedness behind conceiving of such events as disastrous to nature. Indeed, Seth Reice contends, such thinking has led to policies that have done the environment more harm than good--the U.S. Forest Service's campaign against natural forest fires and the Army Corps of Engineers' flood prevention program are examples. He points out ways in which we can better address the wide range of environmental problems humanity faces at the dawn of the new millennium.
Reice argues, in terms refreshingly nontechnical yet scientifically sound, that the traditional, equilibrium paradigm--according to which ''stability'' produces healthier ecosystems than does sudden, sweeping change--is fundamentally flawed. He describes a radically different model of how nature operates, one that many ecologists and population biologists have come to understand in recent years: a concept founded on the premise that disturbances help create and maintain the biodiversity that benefits both the ecosystem and ourselves. Reice demonstrates that ecosystems need disturbances to accomplish indispensable tasks such as the production of clean air and water. He recommends changes in environmental management to incorporate the essential role of natural disturbances.
This book shows that every tornado's funnel cloud, every forest fire's billowing cloud of smoke, has tremendous benefits for the ecosystem it impacts. As anyone concerned with man's impact on the environment will appreciate, this is the cloud's real silver lining.
"A valuable addition to the growing body of nontechnical works that bridge the gap between scientists and a public increasingly savvy about natural resource issues."--Thomas Good, American Scientist
"Reice has succeeded here in making the case for major policy changes in environmental management."--Wildlife Activist
"[A] pithy, nontechnical work filled with interesting examples. . . . A well-presented combination of science and advocacy"--Booklist
"In a narrative style reflecting a strong personal commitment to and belief in conservation, Reice offers an overview of the history, evolution, and current trends in disturbance ecology interlaced with his personal philosophies and policy recommendations. . . . His convictions and commitment to conservation are described with clarity and passion, drawing on personal and research experience."--Chandra Heaton, Ecological Engineering
"Must reading for ecologists."--Choice
"The Silver Lining is well structured, straightforward and highly readable. . . . Reice's blend of pertinent ecological theory, well-chosen case studies, and personal observation is likely to appeal to most environmentally conscious readers."--Science Books & Films
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.-Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," in Essays (First Series, 1841)
Yellowstone National Park, August 20, 1988: "Black Saturday"
It was very hot and dry. Winds had been blowing from the west for weeks. These hot winds sucked the moisture from the leaves, from the trees, from the Earth itself. An ancient 100-foot-tall Lodgepole Pine bent with the force of the wind. Its sap grew sticky and began blistering. The once green needles were drying, falling, and forming a deep brown carpet on the ground. Overhead, a dark cloud, a thunderhead, blotted out the sun. Instantaneously, the air cooled by a few degrees and everything was still: even the birds were silent. Suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light, then a roar of thunder. A lightning bolt raked the old Lodgepole Pine and its sap burst into flame. The flame was fanned by the wind and the tree blazed. The carpet caught fire. The flames were whipped by the wind. The fire spread to the old pine's neighbors. Dry trees exploded as the wall of heat reached them, sendingburning debris in every direction, consuming the tons of fuel that had built up over decades. The fire rushed along valleys and up to the ridgetops, creating its own wind. Firestorm!
The fires of 1988 raged for days. They devoured 989,000 acres of America's first and most revered national park, Yellowstone. Millions of trees were destroyed. In a nightmarish scene right out of Bambi, the mammals fled before the flames. The fire was so intense and spread so rapidly that the young and very old, the sick and the slow could not run fast enough to save themselves. Insects, the most abundant animal life in the forest, had no chance to escape, and millions upon millions were incinerated. Yet, the more mobile animals, the birds and mammals, did survive. The number killed was amazingly low. Night after night, the TV news was filled with pictures of flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air. Images of charred forest were seared into the American consciousness. The message was that this was a terrible "National Tragedy," a loss of America's national treasure. The public, led by the TV news media, looked for someone to blame. "Who was the villain who stole our national park from us?" The implication was that someone or something evil was among us. As Pogo said: "We have seen the enemy and they are us."
This fire was a natural disaster, but was it really a tragedy? From our human perspective it may seem to be a catastrophe, but let's look at the fire from the perspective of the forest ecosystem. Is fire solely evil, or is fire actually part of the natural life cycle of the forest? Can it be seen as a positive force? Was the Yellowstone ecosystem more in harmony with its environment before or after the fire?
Disturbances help generate the mosaic makeup of the habitat. A fire burns out a patch of forest and opens it up to sunlight. Now, small plants, which had been suppressed by the shade of the trees, can thrive, and then a meadow can develop. Every organism is uniquely adapted to a particular type of habitat and a diverse array of habitats can support many more species than a uniform habitat. A variety of habitat patches, in turn, supports a diversity of species and communities. This biodiversity is the foundation of the natural ecosystem services upon which all life depends. Contrary to common thinking, disturbances are not bad, but rather they are valuable-indeed, they are essential for healthy ecosystems. Even the Yellowstone fires brought some important benefits. They created beautiful and diverse meadows of wildflowers and revitalized the forests. The nature of nature is change.
All disturbances are not alike. Some, like wholesale human alterations of natural systems (e.g., dams that "permanently" flood whole river valleys), can be devastating to their ecosystems. In this book, I will address the issues of scale and intensity of disturbances and their effects. Then, armed with these insights, I will examine changes in ecosystem management, and in our own lives, that are necessary if we are to live in harmony with nature's changing rhythms.
How Do Ecosystems Really Work?
The idea that a forest fire is a disaster for the forest is grounded in a long ecological tradition. For a century, we have assumed that constancy is the natural order of things. This basic idea is called an equilibrium model. This model presents an entire structure of thinking about nature, a paradigm. In this view, communities and ecosystems are supposed to remain constant. Is this a realistic view? Do communities really stay the same or are they constantly, naturally changing?
A community is the collection of all the organisms that live together in a place. It is composed of all of the animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and viruses in a known area. We can thus refer to the "forest community" of Yellowstone National Park. As we descend through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the Yellowstone River, we will find that the community of the canyon walls is different from the community of the high plateau, and the community of the river is even more different. The plateau has Lodgepole Pines, caribou, deer, wolves, voles, and grasses. In the Yellowstone River, the terrestrial plateau community is replaced by something completely distinct. The river community is composed of aquatic algae and reeds, mayflies, dragonflies, and fish. Most people, and all ecologists, recognize that communities change in response to changes in climate and environment.
In contrast, our attitudes about how communities respond to variations over time have been very different. We generally expect things to be constant, to continue in the same way, making a tacit assumption that nature is unchanging, constant, forever. We may want it to be true, but that's not the way nature works. Change is the only constant.
My wife and I recently discovered a waterfall in western North Carolina called Catawba Falls. We loved the sight and sound of the water's 150-foot plunge, with its multiple chutes and torrents. The trees alongside the falls were tall and erect. Spruces and firs made a green cloak for the silver, dancing cascade. A large dead log spanned the stream at the base of the falls, at the perfect height to make a bench for us to sit on and soak up the beauty of the scene. We went back to the same spot a year later. We found that many trees had been blown down in a storm and lay strewn like pickup sticks crisscrossing the formerly unblemished cascade. I was disappointed: my waterfall had changed and our "bench" was gone. I felt a sense of loss. Yet, as I stood watching the falls, the altered beauty of the scene slowly transformed my disappointment into a sense of wonder and admiration. This new and revised edition of Catawba Falls was just as beautiful, just as awe inspiring as the previous edition. And the former edition was not the first edition, either. These falls have been transforming for millennia.
This changing waterfall is the life-sustaining environment for the host of aquatic insects and mosses that live in that part of the river. As you look at any river or stream, you can see tremendous variety in the flow of the water. In the midst (and the mist) of Catawba Falls are hundreds of different flow rates. In some places the water is rushing, churning, and frothing into whitewater (the white color is caused by the air bubbles trapped within the water), yet only a meter away the water is perfectly still. The rushing water was diverted by a boulder. Sheltered by the giant rock, a pool of quiet water was formed. These different places, or microhabitats, are filled with different groups of organisms, each adapted through natural selection to live only there. In the fast-flowing chutes are aquatic mosses with net-spinning caddisflies clinging to them. The water carries food to their nets for them to eat. In slightly faster water, blackfly larvae sit, clinging to scoured boulders, with their filtering fans projected up into the flow to catch their dinner. In the quiescent pools, burrowing mayflies feed on the animals deposited in the sediments. At the surface, water striders perch delicately balanced on the surface film, hunting for smaller terrestrial insects trapped on the water's surface. Each of these animals is well suited ("adapted") to its own microhabitat, its own special place in the river. Where the confluence of all their requisite environmental factors occurs, that's where you'll find them. That is what ecologists call their physical niche. I use "niche" as in ordinary common usage; it is an organism's place or role in nature.
However, microhabitats and environments change. If a tree falls in the forest, and lands in the river, it will change all of the flow patterns near it. What was once a fast reach can be stilled. As the water seeks a downstream path around the log, a new chute will form. The microhabitats have all changed, and the community must change, too. What was once an excellent blackfly habitat is no longer suitable for the flies. The animals have to move to survive. Some won't make it. Some were crushed when the tree fell on them. Some will get stranded and die. Some will get up and go. Change is endless and has consequences for all living things. It is as obvious as day follows night and the change of the seasons. What is rare is constancy.
Yet, people are drawn to an image of nature-a model-which assumes a constant environment. We can justify this obviously false assumption because we are overwhelmed by nature's complexity. An ecologist, working even in a rather simple community, must consider dozens of species, all interacting with one another. Some compete with each other for food, while some are food for each other. Just mapping out the feeding relationships, the food web (who eats whom), among the species in a community is a daunting task. Because in all communities, as in Catawba Falls, environmental change (e.g., from a simple treefall to a major disturbance) can rearrange all of the relationships, it is not surprising that ecologists have sought a way of simplifying the complexity.
Ecologists have often assumed that the environment is constant. The equilibrium model starts like old school math proofs: "All things being equal." We know now-as we suspected back in high school-that all things are never really quite equal. Ecologists have built growth, change, and evolution into the equilibrium model of the community. The process of community change is called succession. Succession is viewed as an orderly, sequential process, and its endpoint, the culmination, is called the climax community. Each stage, however transitory, can be treated as an intact community. The climax community is the ultimate, the Platonic ideal community for that environment, "the way things are supposed to be." This traditional, orderly view of nature requires that you have a constant environment to allow the community to reach the climax stage, that is, to equilibrate. This ideal climax community can become a reality only if the environment is actually constant. If the environment is in perpetual flux, then the climax community becomes impossible.
The traditional (equilibrium) perspective also dictates how one views the forces that structure natural communities. If you believe that the proper state of nature is to be in balance, then natural disturbances can be dismissed as aberrant. In contrast, from the newer, nonequilibrium point of view, disturbances are very important agents for promoting biological diversity.
To understand this dilemma, we need a few clear definitions. Community structure is the term that describes how the community of organisms of a given area (a stream reach or a forest tract) is organized. The key idea in community structure is biodiversity. The most basic question about the structure of any community is: "How many different species are there in the community?" To answer that question, we sample the community and count up the different species, a measure called the species richness. If you list all the names of all the species in the community, species richness is the tally at the bottom of the list.
In practice, this species list is abbreviated. In many communities we don't know everyone's name. There are thousands of species of microarthropods (e.g., mites and springtails) in the soil, too many to identify. The number of species of bacteria in soil or in water are myriad and extremely difficult to identify. So, in most analyses of the community, only the well-known and accessible groups are identified and tallied. For example in the Yellowstone mountain forests there are only eight common species of trees, about sixty-five species of birds, and about twenty-five species of common mammals. However, we have hardly any idea how many species of bacteria there are. Sometimes, people refer to local groups of similar species as if they were whole communities, for example, the tree community or the bird community of a forest, when the whole living forest (trees and shrubs, birds and bugs) is the community.
Biodiversity is more than species richness. It includes, among other things, the differences among individuals in populations, the differences among populations, and the relative abundance (or distribution) of individuals among species in a community (the evenness). For now, let's stick to species richness as our primary measure of biodiversity. Communities with higher species richness are more diverse than communities with fewer species. The high biodiversity of the macrobenthic invertebrates (macro = big; benthic = bottom dwelling; invertebrates = animals without backbones, mostly insects) of streams stands in striking contrast to the relative paucity of macrobenthic species in ponds. Ponds have fifteen to thirty species, while streams have nearly ten times as many. Why should neighboring systems with similar, even evolutionarily related groups of organisms (with overlapping families and genera), have such different community structures? What can explain these dramatic differences in biodiversity among similar communities? Understanding the underlying causes of differences in biodiversity is the central question of community ecology. As the great ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson asked in 1959, "Why are there so many kinds of animals?" The same question can be asked about plants as well. We are still striving to answer this most fundamental question. Let me give you a preview of where I am heading: to show that disturbance is emerging as a key force in creating and maintaining biodiversity.
What Determines Community Structure?
Historically, ecologists have been divided about what factors are most responsible for determining the structure of the community.
Excerpted from The Silver Lining by Seth R. Reice Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 8, 2011
Seth R. Reice does a wonderful job arguing the positives to natural disasters around the United States. His book, had very good examples to support his main thesis which is saying that we as human beings on this earth need to understand how we are apart of nature and how we must stop resisting the forces of our natural world. By putting up dams and suppressing forest fires, we are part of the problems and in some cases make them worse. He wants people to understand how ecosystems work and how natural "disaster"s play a vital role in that system. He convinces his readers by giving great examples, showing tables, graphs, and pictures. With these examples, you can tell that he has done great research.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.