Saturday, May 31, 2008

Is China's Space Program Armed for Apollo 2.0? Live @ ISDC 2008

At a next-gen conference on the future of exploration, PM columnist and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds looks at how little we still know about the Chinese antisatellite test—but how far the country's out-of-this-world activity has come.
China shocked the world with its recent antisatellite missile test, but the motivations are still unclear nearly a year and a half later. (Illustration by Jeremy Cook)

WASHINGTON — It's not your father's space program anymore. That's one of the clear messages here at the International Space Development Conference, where the future of exploration is being picked apart by top minds looking for the Next Big Thing—and the Next Big Power in Space.
Yesterday's panel on the Chinese space program made that modern message especially clear, demonstrating just how far exploration has come since the days when "space" meant NASA and its Soviet counterpart ... and not much else.

I found the discussion particularly interesting, not just because it showed China surging ahead compared to relatively stagnant United States program, but because it was a reminder of just how little we know about the actual workings of the Chinese government. Economically, they've opened up. Politically, not so much. In space? That's tricky.

China's out-of-this-world interests are nothing new—they're currently on their eleventh five-year plan. And, in one reassuring view, China is operating like a "normal Asian power" as it accumulates capital, builds overseas markets and grows its industries, in space as elsewhere. On the other hand, some aspects of China's behavior, like its antisatellite weapon test last year, don't fit comfortably with this model, and suggest there's more going on than just market-building. Yet, 16 months later, Western analysts don't understand the decision process that led to that test, or even have a clear picture of who the decisionmakers were. Dean Cheng, the China specialist for research firm CNA, almost stated the obvious: "This has important implications for crisis management." Yeah, it suggests that it will go badly.

What's clearer is that the Chines have ambitious future plans for space. They're working on Lunar exploration, including a lander, a sample return mission and an eventual human mission. They're working on rendezvous and docking in orbit, and they're looking toward a manned spacelab. They're also building a new Long March V booster, which will be comparable to the Saturn V. What's more, China is selling commercial satellites on a turnkey basis, using all of its technology so that U.S. export control laws don't apply—something that appeals to customers like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

China views space as an asset at numerous levels: technological, political, commercial and militaristic. Now the U.S. remains the strongest military power in East Asia, and depends heavily on space. But when China proves its technological prowess, that gains political and diplomatic points among its neighbors and with client nations around the world. It also makes Chinese citizens proud—part of the government's effort to harness nationalism. And the Chinese government hopes that a big push in space will help produce a generation of scientists and engineers, as the Apollo program did here in the States.

Space experts differ on whether China wants to compete directly with the U.S.—perhaps, given our slow and fumbling efforts, beating us back to the Moon—or simply displace Japan as the prime technological power in Asia. On the one hand, the U.S. retains a huge lead, while China is still building up spacecraft, like lunar probes and orbital docking equipment, that we mastered back in the 1960s. On the other hand, like America in the 60s, China is forging ahead, while the U.S. in the 21st century is, at best, standing still.

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Saturn's Titan has Implications for Understanding of Life Throughout the Galaxy

NASA's Cassini spacecraft buzzed Titan last month, coming close enough to taste the Saturnian moon's atmosphere. The data acquired has implications for our understanding of life throughout the galaxy, as well as Earth's own past.

Titan_ir_2The second largest moon in the solar system, Titan has long been of interest for hopeful exobioligists. As the only other body we know of with surface bodies of liquid, complete with nitrogen, methane and complete seasonal weather weather patterns (similar to Earth's). It even has beaches, though you'll need a little more than a swimsuit to visit. Vast bodies of chemicals constantly stirred by wind and wave, heated over a gentle sunlight heat with the occasional dash of articles from Saturn's magnetosphere for spice - a perfect recipe for life. Just like a certain planet you might be familiar with (look down if you forget).

Of course there a few minor differences from our own blue-green globe. There's no oxygen for one thing, but if you think that's a problem then you're guilty of "aerobic respiration prejudice" (don't worry, most multicellular organisms are). It's also really quite amazingly cold - so cold that it has awesomely-named "cryovolcanoes", where boiled (or even just melted) water is enough to set off seismic-level explosions. Again, that's a barrier that's been overcome by homegrown Earth bacteria, so there's no reason it couldn't be managed elsewhere.

Cassini's onboard instruments have detected hydrocarbons containing up to seven carbon atoms. How important is that for life? Here's a hint: molecules with carbon in them are called organic, and those without are inorganic. Carbon is kind of a big deal, and the more (and more complicated) carbon compounds present the further towards the great cosmic chemical cocktail that is "life" you are. Some scientists believe that the Titanian interior, with its greater temperature, could already host microbial life - but it'll be a while before we can check that (unless we get real lucky, and some alien cells get real unlucky, with a cryovolcano eruption). One thing's for sure - the craft is only on the sixth of forty-five planned flybys so we can expect to hear a lot more about this real soon.

PS Yes, it is ironic that we're expecting Titanic lifeforms to be single celled.

Posted by Luke McKinney. Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

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Robot Dog Therapy

Do you crave the companionship of a pet, but can't be dogged by the commitment? New research suggests that robotic dogs can give you some of the same benefits you'd get from the real thing. This ScienCentral News video explains.

[If you cannot see the youtube video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: William Banks, St. Louis University
Length: 1 min 27 sec
Produced by Jessica Tanenbaum
Edited by Jessica Tanenbaum and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

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Is There a Solution to the "Continent of Plastic" that Pollutes the Pacific?

Trashpattern_2 The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.

Plastic bags, once icons of customer convenience, cost more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil per year and leave the environment to foot the bill. Each year the world produces 500 billion bags, and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the wildlife that eat them.

Eco-friendly legislation that targets the production and distribution of plastic bags has been introduced in Israel, San Francisco, Ireland and China. Addiionally, a recent scientific discovery (see below) offers a potential long-term solution to the global plastic crisis.

Since stories have started surfacing more recently, many have wondered, if the rumors are true. Are there really 'continents', or massive floating garbage patches residing in the Pacific? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren't solid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.

But if there is an unfathomably massive collection of plastic junk out there, then why doesn't everyone already know about it, and why aren't we doing something about it?

Well, there are several reasons. First, no one is keen to claim responsibility for these monstrosities, which exists in one of the most remote spots on the planet. It's easier to ignore than to deal with, at least in the short term. Most of the plastic is floating just below the surface where explorers, researchers, and scientists can get a good close-up view, but it is nearly impossible to see the massive quantities of submerged trash in photographs taken from great distances. This makes it easier for naysayers to disregard the problem as a mere myth, in spite of all of the well-documented research to the contrary. Clean up seems nearly impossible at this point, so even those who are well aware of the situation have adopted the famous ostrich cliche of burying their heads in the sand. Even so, this polluted, chemical filled junk is finding it's way onto our dinner tables.

Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.

"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."

The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.

Ian Kiernan, the Australian founder of Clean Up the World, started his environmental campaign two decades ago after being shocked by the incredible amount of rubbish he saw on an around-the-world solo yacht race. He'll says he’ll never be able the wipe the atrocious site from his memory.

"It was just filled with things like furniture, fridges, plastic containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles, light globes, televisions and fishing nets," Kiernan says. "It's all so durable it floats. It's just a major problem."

Kiernan says it’s killing wildlife in a vicious cycle. Holding an ashtray filled with colorful pieces of plastic he told The Sydney Morning Herald, "this is the contents of a fleshy-footed shearwater's stomach. They go to the ocean to fish but there ain't no fish - there's plastic. They then regurgitate it down the necks of their fledglings and it kills them. After the birds decompose, the plastic gets washed back into the ocean where it can kill again. It's a form of ghost fishing, where it goes on and on."

A Dutch study in the North Sea of fulmar seabirds concluded 95 per cent of the birds had plastic in their stomachs. More than 1600 pieces were found in the stomach of one bird in Belgium.

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.

Since his first encounter with the gyre in 1997, Moore created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to help study the problem. Canadian filmmaker Ian Connacher joined Moore last year to film the garbage patch for his documentary, I Am Plastic.

"The most menacing part is those little bits of plastic start looking like food for certain animals, or the filter feeders don't have any choice, they just pick them up," noted Connacher.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is hiding beneath the surface of the islands of garbage. Greenpeace reports that about 70 per cent of the plastic that makes it to the ocean sinks to the bottom, where it then smothers marine life on the ocean floor. Dutch scientists have found 600,000 tons of discarded plastic on the bottom of the North Sea alone.

A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers soak up the resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. The researchers found that non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water. As small pieces of plastic are mistaken for fish eggs and other food by marine life, these toxins end up at the dinner table. But even without the extra toxins, eating plastic is hazardous to health.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of plastic found at sea is washed out from the land. The journal Science last year predicted seafood stocks would collapse by 2048 if overfishing and pollution continued. If the seafood stocks collapse, a lot of humans will follow. So, is there anything we can do to prevent this?

Greenpeace says embracing the three Rs - reduce, re-use and recycle - would help tackle the problem. Plastic recycling is lagging well behind paper and cardboard. Part of the reason is because many people aren’t even sure what recycling options exist in their area. But there are other challenges for plastic recycling too. Some plastics release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and are more expensive to recycle than to simply create a new product from petrochemicals.

The widespread use of bioplastics could largely reduce the amount of plastic strewn around the world. Traditional petrochemical-based plastics are non-degradable and non-renewable; degradable plastic breaks into smaller pieces in UV light but remains plastic. Then there are two kinds of biodegradable plastic that break down in compost - one from a petrochemical resource, the other from a renewable resource such as corn or wheat, which is known as bioplastic. Bioplastic is by far the most environmentally friendly option. Dr Katherine Dean, of the CSIRO, says corporate firms are now becoming increasingly interested in bioplastics.

"When oil prices soared in 2005, that changed a lot of people's perspective, because bioplastic became quite cost-competitive," she says. "All of a sudden it wasn't just about doing the right thing."

The company Plantic Technologies, has developed biodegradable plastic for everything from food and beverage packaging to medical, agricultural and sporting applications. The chief executive of Plantic, Grant Dow, says once composted, the plastic would become nothing more than carbon dioxide and water.

"For all intents and purposes, it looks like plastic and feels like plastic and does the same thing as plastic in the application," he says.

"It will only biodegrade in the presence of heat, moisture and bacteria, so it will sit in your cupboard pretty much indefinitely, but when the bacteria get to it in compost, that's it. It's gone."

While parts of our oceans have already become inhospitable soups of plastic and plankton, we can at least mitigate the future consequences by making smart individual choices. Experts say the best way to mitigate the damage down the road is by buying less products that contain plastics or plastic packaging, recycling, lobbying for safer bio-degradable plastics, and by purchasing reusable cloth grocery bags among other strategies.

That said, a solution to the world's plastic crisis may have a possible long-term solution: a Waterloo, Canada teenager, Daniel Burd, has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster -- in three months, he figures. Burd recently won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment.

Burd’s discovery isolated two strains of bacteria (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas) that work together to consume polyethelene plastic at record rates, yielding a culture that rendered plastic bags 43% decomposed after six weeks, with the only outputs being water and an infinitesimal amount of carbon dioxide. The system is cheap, energy efficient, and easily scalable for industrial applications. “All you need," Burd says "is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."

Burd's discovery will not solve the whirling vortexes of plastic garbage in the North Pacific, but with an infrastructure in place to harness Burd's innovation, there's hope to prevent future damage to the planet.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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Clive Thompson on How Man-Made Noise May Be Altering Earth's Ecology

Illustration: Gretchen Smelter

Bernie Krause listens to nature for a living. The 69-year-old is a field recording scientist: He heads into the wilderness to document the noises made by native fauna — crickets chirping in the Amazon rain forest, frogs croaking in the Australian outback.

But Krause has noticed something alarming. The natural sound of the world is vanishing. He'll be deep inside the Amazon, recording that cricket, but when he listens carefully he also hears machinery: The distant howl of a 747 or the dull roar of a Hummer miles way.

Krause has a word for the pristine acoustics of nature: biophony. It's what the world sounds like in the absence of humans. But in 40 percent of the locations where Krause has recorded over the past 40 years, human-generated noise has infiltrated the wilderness. "It's getting harder and harder to find places that aren't contaminated," he says.

This isn't just a matter of aesthetics. The contamination of biophony may soon become a serious environmental issue — Krause says that man-made sounds are already wreaking havoc with animal communication. We worry about the carbon emissions from SUVs and airplanes; maybe we should be equally concerned about the racket they cause.

Krause's argument is simple. In a biophony, animals divide up the acoustic spectrum so they don't interfere with one another's voices. He shows me a spectrogram of a wilderness recording, in which all the component noises are mapped according to pitch. It looks like the musical score for an orchestra, with each instrument in its place. No two species are using the same frequency. "That's part of how they coexist so well," Krause says. When they issue mating calls or all-important warning cries, they aren't masked by the noises of other animals.

But what happens when man-made noise — anthrophony, as Krause dubs it — intrudes on the natural symphony? Maybe it's the low rumble of nearby construction or the high whine of a turboprop. Either way, it interferes with a segment of the spectrum already in use, and suddenly some animal can't make itself heard. The information flow in the jungle is compromised.

Krause has heard this happen all over the world. For example, the population of spadefoot toads in the Yosemite region of the Sierras is declining rapidly, and Krause thinks it's because of low-flying military training missions in the area. The toad calls lose their synchronicity, and coyotes and owls home in on individual frogs trying to rejoin the chorus.

And as Krause has discovered, it doesn't take much to disrupt a soundscape. California's Lincoln Meadow, for example, has undergone only a tiny bit of logging, but the acoustic imprint of the region has completely changed in tandem with the landscape, and some species seem to have been displaced. The area looks the same as ever, "but if you listen to it, the density and diversity of sound is diminished," Krause says. "It has a weird feeling."

Biologists were initially skeptical of Krause's theory, but he's slowly gaining converts. Now even bigwigs like Harvard's E. O. Wilson have gone on record in support.

So how do you quiet an increasingly cacophonous world? Perhaps we should be developing not just clean tech but "quiet" tech, industrial machinery designed to run as silently as possible. More regulations could help, too. Cities have long had noise ordinances; wilderness areas could benefit from tighter protections as well.

Some of this is just about educating ourselves. We all recognize ecological tragedies by sight — when we see pictures of clear-cut areas, say, or melting Arctic ice shelves. Now we need to learn to listen to the earth, too.

Last year, Krause brought biophony to the masses by creating an extraordinarily cool add-on for Google Earth. Download it from his site and you can click on dozens of locations worldwide to hear snippets of their soundscape.

I select the Amazon rain forest and my office is suddenly filled with a mesmerizing mix of hoots, cries, and rustling. It's spooky — like nothing I've ever heard before.

And like nothing I'll ever hear again, if we don't watch out. "Earth has a voice," Krause says. "We can't let it go silent."


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Floating Wind Turbines Could Revolutionize Wind Power

The first large-scale ocean-based wind power project is set for beginning research.

StatoilHydro announced plans to test offshore wind turbines, starting with a 2.3-megawatt turbine measuring 65 meters high, buoyed and tied down by three anchors. While not the only ocean-bound wind turbine project in the works, this new project, called Hywind, will launch in 2009 off the coast of Norway and is particularly unique because of how far off shore the turbines can be placed. Because they float instead of being tied to the ocean floor, they’re operable in depths up to a whopping 700 meters. And when the average ocean depth off Norway is about 1,450 meters, this means they can go way, way off-shore.

Issues to be analyzed include the cost of getting the power generated back to landlubber users, its efficiency at generating power while being knocked around in waves and storms, and the ability to safely perform maintenance on the units. This research will take a good chunk of time before offshore wind farms are a reality, or even practical. Not mentioned in the article but also important to research is any impact on marine life, especially sea birds, that not only a single unit but an entire fleet of wind turbines may have.

This is an interesting alternative to land-based wind farms, which seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Ocean-based wind farms will take out some of the ugly factor, though they present more obvious technical issues than land-based turbines. Yet, they may be more practical for large-scale power creation for big cities than flying wind power generators, depending on how the testing goes.

The undertaking is huge, but I am optimistic that utilizing our vast ocean space for generating sustainable power is in the near future. It may even be possible to combine water-generated power with the wind-generated power, maximizing efficiency of the resources invested in creating the turbines.

Meanwhile, I would love to see bright painted letters donning the first turbine "Ishmael".

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Restoring Rare Beauties

BIOLOGIST Arthur Shapiro has been chasing butterflies since he was a teenager in Philadelphia. He’s netted them in exotic locales from the Alaskan Subarctic to the Andes. But Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California–Davis, is also an expert on common North American butterflies, those familiar species that breed in home gardens and feed on plants at the edges and in fallow pockets of modern cities, towns and suburbs. For more than 36 years, Shapiro, whose wild graying hair and beard call to mind a frontier mountain man, has regularly walked fixed routes monitoring butterfly populations at ten sites from Suisun Bay to the Sierra Nevada. Lately, his biweekly hikes have inspired mostly questions—and worry.

“I used to be able to walk 15 minutes from my lab and find common sootywing larvae. Now I know of only one permanent colony in the whole county,” Shapiro says. “Butterflies that were once considered utterly common, including willow hairstreak, large marble and West Coast lady, are going into a tailspin, and nobody knows why.”

Other lepidopterists share Shapiro’s concern. Worldwide, many butterfly species have begun to falter and even disappear. In this country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has designated 23 species as endangered or threatened.

Fewer colorful insects fluttering around the garden is more than an aesthetic loss. Butterflies play a key role in plant reproduction, transporting pollen from flower to flower. They provide food for birds and other insects. “People may say, ‘Why care about butterflies? They’re just insects.’ But butterflies are bellwethers for ecosystems, and we’re seeing butterflies at risk across the U.S.,” says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based national nonprofit that campaigns for invertebrate conservation. “Everywhere you look, there are butterflies in decline. That really tells us something is wrong.”

Butterflies suffer from the same ills that plague all wildlife these days: habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and global warming. But experts say the insects also face unique hurdles. Their dizzyingly complicated life cycles may take one or two years to complete. They spend long periods as vulnerable larvae and pupae. And they form complex interdependent relationships with entire suites of other animals and plants.

In addition, many butterflies have extremely exact needs that may vary depending on life stage. In California, home to 15 of the federally protected species, larvae of the endangered San Bruno elfin, for example, prefer the leaves of sedum, a succulent. Later larval stages feed on the plant’s flowers, while adults are believed to sip nectar from manzanita, huckleberry and other plants. The endangered Smith’s blue, native to sand dunes of California’s central coast, has mouthparts that exactly match the depth of buckwheat flowers. “Since their life cycles can be so complex, it’s not enough to just set aside land or to save one host plant,” explains John Shuey, chair of the conservation committee of The Lepidopterists’ Society and director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s Indiana office.

Further complicating butterfly conservation, the biological details of their lives often remain murky. In many cases, scientists do not even know what a species’ caterpillar looks like or what the adult eats. Take Southern California’s Laguna Mountains skipper: When scientists gathered at a recent conference devoted to the species, they realized they still did not know which nectar plants it uses for food or whether it produces one or two broods a year. “There’s a whole world of things we don’t know, things that no one has had the time or money to study yet,” says Jaret Daniels, assistant director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera Research at the University of Florida. “Oftentimes, we don’t have the information to make informed decisions about which species are declining.”

Daniels and most other researchers point to habitat loss as the number one cause of butterfly declines—and in the United States, perhaps no habitats have been so thoroughly changed as the meadows, grasslands and sparsely wooded prairies, barrens and savanna often favored by butterflies. Since these ecosystems are so easy to turn into subdivisions, farms and industrial parks, they have all but disappeared from most of the lower 48 states. In the Midwest, for example, less than 1 percent of pre-settlement oak savanna remains; in the Northwest, it’s less than 3 percent. With space limitations that severe, it can be difficult to bring a species back from the brink, or even to convince authorities that it is an achievable goal worth the trouble.

A decade ago, for instance, John Fleckenstein, a zoologist with the Washington National Heritage Program, conducted a butterfly survey in the grasslands of Puget Trough. “Grasslands have taken a hit from development here,” he says. Fleckenstein ended up capturing two island marble butterflies, a species that had not been seen since 1908. Intensive surveys of more than 200 sites between 2005 and 2007 turned up island marbles at 44 locations. Fleckenstein estimates that the number of individual butterflies is in the low 100s. “The island marble is in trouble,” says Hoffman Black of the Xerces Society, which has teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity to wage a so far unsuccessful battle to get the species listed as endangered. “With populations this small, just a small fluctuation, a disease or a big storm, can send it spiraling.”

Even intact habitats can be risky places for butterflies. Since the insects spend long periods as soft, slow-moving caterpillars, or as immobile pupae busy metamorphosing into butterflies, activities such as “hiking and horseback riding, even crews removing invasive species, can wipe out an endangered colony,” says Hoffman Black.

On an undulating stretch of sand dunes some 60 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada, a less benign pursuit threatens the Sand Mountain blue, a species found nowhere else on Earth. Though no subdivisions or industries sprawl over the nearly 5,000-acre Sand Mountain Recreation Area, on weekends the dunes become one of the West’s most extreme spots for off-road vehicle enthusiasts. “Off-road vehicles strip the vegetation, including Kearney buckwheat [where the blue feeds and pupates]. So not only is the host plant lost, but the butterflies are run over,” says desert ecologist Daniel Patterson, southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has sued for federal protection of the butterfly.

As with legions of other creatures, global warming also threatens to wreak havoc on butterflies. In North America, butterfly experts report that some cool-loving species seem to be moving to higher elevations as their native habitats get too hot. “We’re clearly seeing climatic effects where species are moving upslope,” says Shapiro. A 2005 study in Spain showed that 16 butterflies have shifted their ranges upward 700 feet over the last 30 years.

But what happens when there is no more upslope? That situation may soon face the Uncompahgre fritillary, a species that favors tundralike environments above 13,000 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The butterfly flits in and out of patches of dwarf willow, a plant that depends on constant watering by year-round snowpack. Before 1995, scientists knew of only two Uncompahgre colonies. Intensive searching by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program revealed more, the last discovered in 1998. But experts now worry that increasing temperatures may cause the species’ habitat to vanish completely.

Rising temperatures can also cause butterflies to get out of sync with the food plants they depend on. Along North America’s West Coast, a study led by Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, showed that the range of Edith’s checkerspot is contracting. According to Parmesan, who has studied the species for more than two decades, 80 percent of the populations in the southern portion of its range in Mexico have become extinct. The reason, she believes, is that warmer temperatures are causing host plants on which butterflies lay their eggs to dry up before caterpillars hatch.

Fortunately, the plight of checkerspots, fritillaries and other butterflies has begun to rally a wide variety of organizations trying to save the insects. Many efforts focus on the obvious goal of restoring habitat, but some butterfly lovers are trying more radical solutions: In many states, scientists from universities, zoos and conservation groups have reared generations of butterflies in captivity so they can be reintroduced. Portland’s Oregon Zoo, for instance, has partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to raise Oregon silverspots until they pupate, then return them to their native coastal headland habitat. Once common from northern California to Washington, only 57 Oregon silverspots were tallied in 1998. Today, though still imperiled, they number in the hundreds.

A handful of conservation biologists are even floating the idea of “assisted migration”—taking butterflies from places where they are threatened and moving them to more congenial locales. The critically endangered bay checkerspot, for example, could be whisked from its native San Francisco Bay Area—becoming too developed and too warm—north to a cooler, more rural place. But the issues are complex: Do you just move the butterfly? Or do you have to move its host plant and other elements of its habitat? And how do you know if a butterfly will integrate smoothly into its new habitat without disturbing the natives?

“We’re going to have to seriously consider assisting species in moving to new habitats—humans have put up too many barriers to expect wildlife to follow changing climate on its own,” says Parmesan. “The biggest questions will be ethical, deciding which species to assist, which areas are okay to invade, and when to let nature take its course, even when that means allowing something to go extinct.”

Dozens of zoos and natural history museums, meanwhile, have featured butterfly exhibits to encourage public awareness. Volunteer-based butterfly monitoring censuses like Monarch Watch and the Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network track the health of butterfly populations. In 2001, FWS, along with a coalition of universities, zoos and conservation organizations—including NWF—formed the Butterfly Conservation Initiative to promote habitat restoration, research and public education.

Thanks to such efforts, at least a handful of butterflies have been saved from oblivion. In Florida, populations of the showy, black-and-yellow-streaked Schaus swallowtail already had begun to plummet by the 1970s. The pressures of mosquito spraying, overcollecting and decline of the tropical hardwood habitat where the insect lives pushed it onto the endangered list in 1984. Then, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed Schaus habitat, the wild lime and torchwood forests that cover high elevation hammocks of the upper Florida Keys. When the storm surge receded, fewer than 20 of the butterflies survived in the wild.

Luckily, the University of Florida’s McGuire Center had just collected 100 Schaus eggs to use in a captive-breeding program. By simulating daily spring rains with a garden hose and hand pairing butterflies, its scientists successfully reared the eggs to adults. For three years, they reintroduced the butterflies at seven sites. Though droughts and hurricanes have brought numbers down from highs of about 1,400 in 1996 and 1997 to some 200 today, scientists say the colonies seem to be self-perpetuating.

To the north, Karner blue butterflies once flew over states from Minnesota to Maine, living in grassy, sandy barrens and savannas cleared periodically by natural fires. Then fire suppression and development reduced the insect’s numbers; by 1992, only six states still had Karner blues. The butterfly’s plight inspired a far-flung coalition: federal and state wildlife agencies, universities, zoos and nonprofits that have been rearing Karner blues to reintroduce to the wild. Private landowners in Michigan, Wisconsin and other states have restored habitat, as have military installations and parks. Karner blue reintroductions are now underway in northern Indiana, Ohio and New Hampshire and are being planned for Michigan. Though many populations remain small, they seem to be hanging on.

“We’re working our way to recovering viable populations throughout its range,” says Cathy Carnes, the Wisconsin-based Karner blue recovery coordinator for FWS. “People recognize that by recovering Karner blues they’re doing more than saving one species, they are restoring imperiled ecosystems and a host of other species that depend on them.”

Heather Millar is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer.

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