Urban Ecology: Evolution in Cities

25 07 2016

Dear Friends: this is the last post of “The Harbinger”. I am  going to end this blog because I am moving back to the US in a month for an extended period. I will be ‘bi-coastal’ for a while, working sometimes in Halifax, sometimes in Massachusetts. Anyway, you can follow my twitter account, which is all about environmental and social justice issues, and modern Buddhism. @shaunbartone  This is a recent article from the New York Times on the rapid evolution of species in urban environments. I had read in the past that human evolution is happening faster than we ever thought possible as well. The question is: how are we evolving and are we evolving for the better?

Evolution Is Happening Faster Than We Thought

Antoine Maillard 

Amsterdam — A friend recently invited me over to see the blackbird that had taken up residence in a potted plant on her balcony.

Serenely incubating eggs in the inner city, this bird had little in common with its shy, reclusive ancestors that nested in Europe’s forests. Early in the 19th century, probably in Germany, blackbirds began settling in cities. By the mid-20th century, they were hopping around on stoops all over Europe.

Many “wild” bird species — like the peregrine falconsred-tailed hawks and laughing gulls of New York — have set up camp in cities. But the thing about Europe’s urban blackbirds (a relative of the American robin, not to be confused with North American blackbirds, which belong to a different family) is that they are very different from their forest-dwelling relatives. They have stockier bills, sing at a higher pitch (high enough to be heard over the din of traffic), are less likely to migrate (in cities there’s food and warmth year-round), and have less nervous personalities.

For many of these differences, genes are responsible. The birds’ DNA, after 200 years or less of adaptation, has diverged from that of their rural ancestors.

For a long time, biologists thought evolution was a very, very slow process, too tardy to be observed in a human lifetime. But recently, we have come to understand that evolution can happen very quickly, as long as natural selection — the relative benefit that a particular characteristic bestows on its bearer — is strong.

Continue reading the main story

And where else to find such strong natural selection than in the heart of a big city? The urban environment is about as extreme as it gets. Temperatures in the city center can be more than 10 degrees higher than in the surrounding countryside. Traffic causes continuous background noise, a mist of fine dust particles and barriers to movement for any animal that cannot fly or burrow. Much of the city is clad in impervious surfaces of stone, glass, steel and tarmac. There is pollution of soil, water and air, mainly human-derived food sources, and an especially motley crew of local and invasive flora and fauna.

With urban environments expanding all over the world, wildlife and biologists alike are starting to treat the city as a true ecosystem. Many species’ original habitats are being squeezed into annihilation. For them, it’s adapt or die. And field biologists like me are following suit. As we have to travel ever farther to find untouched wilderness, we are beginning to realize that the expanding urban sprawl is perhaps not something to be depressed about, but rather something very exciting, as entirely novel forms of life are evolving right under our noses.

A Fordham University biologist, Jason Munshi-South, studies the populations of white-footed mice marooned in New York City parks. These native mice once lived all over the place. But as the city expanded, they became confined to the small pockets of forest left behind in parks. Thus isolated, the mice in each park began evolving a park-specific genetic blueprint. In some parks, Dr. Munshi-South found mice carrying genes for heavy metal tolerance, probably because soils there are contaminated with lead or chromium. In other parks, the animals have genes for increased immune response — maybe diseases spread more easily in some high-density populations.

French biologists have been studying a daisylike weed called Crepis sancta, which normally produces two kinds of seeds: heavy ones that fall to the floor, and light seeds that drift in the wind for long distances. But in Montpellier, in southern France, C. sancta makes reduced numbers of the airborne seeds. Small wonder: The plants grow in pockets of soil on sidewalks, and any seeds that are carried on the wind are likely to land on concrete. The heavy seeds that land at the parent plant’s feet, on the other hand, are pretty certain to find a patch of fertile soil. So plants genetically predisposed to produce more heavy seeds have been favored by urban evolution.

THERE are more examples: Spiders in Vienna are evolving to build their webs near moth-attracting streetlights. In some cities, moths, in turn, are developing a resistance to the lure of light bulbs. Certain Puerto Rican city lizards are evolving feetthat better grip urban surfaces like concrete. Some grass is adapting to the relentless regime of the lawn mower by acquiring a shorter stature.

The most exciting projects are perhaps no longer in faraway forests and canyons, but just there on our doorstep. We evolutionary biologists are trading our expedition gear for subway tickets and studying street grass and house mosquitoes instead of jungle orchids and mountain birds.

And we have millions of city dwellers to help us. Citizen science projects on urban ecology and evolution are springing up everywhere. This year, my students and I will introduce a smartphone app to measure how snail shells in hot inner cities in Europe and North America are evolving lighter colors to shield against overheating. Adeline Murthy of the University of New Mexico used the Christmas Bird Count, an annual census conducted by volunteers, to show that North American cities harbor an avifauna that is pretty much homogenized across the continent. At least 18 bird species are shared by all of them — something not the case in non-urban areas.

In fact, that Christmas data highlights one feature of urban nature that sets it apart from all other ecosystems: globalization. City-adapted wildlife is likely to hitch rides on human transportation and colonize other cities — at least within the same climate zone.

What’s more, as cities continue to grow, they will exchange more goods, people and information over greater distances. So each change in the environment (a particular pollutant, a certain novelty in road construction, a new kind of food source) will spread quickly across the world, and urban wildlife everywhere will be faced with the same novel challenge. Those that evolve adaptations will also easily spread to other cities, leading to a truly globalized urban flora and fauna — continually evolving at breakneck speed to keep up with an increasingly human-dominated world.

Continue reading the main story

Back on my friend’s balcony, I peered through the branches at that nesting blackbird. She returned my stare with one glistening eye, as if to say: “Consider me your Darwin’s finch. And this city is my Galápagos.”

North America’s Renewable Energy Goals

30 06 2016

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and U.S. President Barack Obama at the North American Leaders Summit on Wednesday.
Chris Roussakis/AFP/Getty Images

On one side of the Atlantic Ocean last week, the U.K. instigated the prospect of the European trading bloc—too tightly integrated on monetary and labor policy for comfort—coming apart. On the other side of the Atlantic this week, a more loosely affiliated trading bloc agreed to work more closely together. On Wednesday, the heads of state of the United States, Mexico, and Canada met at the North American Leaders Summit, aka the “Three Amigos” Summit. Among other things, they announced that they would all commit to an effort to get 50 percent of their countries’ electricity from what they called clean sources by 2025.

There’s both more and less than meets the eye here. For the purposes of this 50 percent goal, the Three Amigos are including nuclear energy—which is emissions-free, but not renewable, and from which the U.S. already derives about 20 percent of its juice. What’s more, the three countries already get a combined 37 percent of their electricity between them from clean sources as they define them. Getting to 50 percent in a decade from this high baseline isn’t that much of a leap.


But there are other things at work. Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. are a really powerful trading bloc with a combined population of about 465 million and a combined gross domestic product of well over $20 trillion. They enjoy a pretty high level of trade integration when it comes to physical goods and services, too. But in a few under-the-radar ways, the countries are already using trade to iron emissions out of electricity production. And there’s much more that can be done.

Let’s start with Canada and the United States. Canada is a resources economy: It has vast reserves of stuff people like to use, but not that many people. Thanks to its network of lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls, Canada already gets 59 percent of its power from hydroelectric plants. And because Canada’s eastern provinces, where much of the hydro-capacity resides, border U.S. states with large populations, the country has long exported electricity south. In 2014, Canada exported about 10 percent of its electricity production—an amount equal to 1.6 percent of U.S. consumption—across the border. (In the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, the U.S. sends some power to population centers in British Columbia.)

But there could be much, much more. We may have killed off the Keystone XL Pipeline, but plenty of other energy-carrying pipelines are being pitched. New England and New York are in the unhappy circumstance of having vast population centers in states whose governments wants to iron out both coal and nuclear from their energy mix while resisting the construction of natural gas pipelines that would enable more production of electricity from that fossil-fuel source. So developers have proposed a series of projects and transmission lines that could carry clean power from Canada into the Northeastern U.S. There’s the Northeastern Pass, which would carry hydroelectric power from Quebec into New Hampshire; the Northeast Energy Link, which would carry wind power from Canada and Maine into Massachusetts; and the Can-Am Link, an undersea cable that would convey power from an offshore Nova Scotia wind farm to Massachusetts.

The story is a little different with the U.S. and Mexico, whose trade relationship isn’t exactly what people think. Overall, the trade deficit with Mexico is actually quite small: about $60 billion in 2015, or .03 percent of U.S. GDP. That’s down from $75 billion in 2007. The trade in petroleum used to account for a big chunk of the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico. But as production by Mexico’s state-controlled behemoth Pemex faltered, and U.S. production boomed thanks to fracking, the trade in crude petroleum dwindled. On the other hand, the U.S. has also deployed fracking to great effect in Texas to produce natural gas. The result: Pipelines connecting the U.S. and Mexico are now sending natural gas to Mexico, where factories and power plants use the fuel, which burns much cleaner than coal, to create electricity. Between 2010 and 2015, the volume of natural gas pipeline exports to Mexico have more than tripled. And with gas cheap and abundant in the U.S., there’s the potential for much more.

There’s something else going on in Mexico: For decades, government control put a damper on the growth of the country’s power industry. While the utility-scale solar business in Mexico is still essentially nonexistent, analysts expect the country will install six times as much solar capacity in 2016 as it did in 2015. Wind power in Mexico is somewhat more advanced, and the sectors are already providing opportunity for cross-border opportunity. For example, last year, a newly constructed wind farm in Baja, California, came online—and ships all its power to San Diego Gas & Electric.

The development of large-scale solar and wind farms in power is a boon to the U.S. in other ways. Over the past decade, American companies and engineers have gained considerable experience and expertise in constructing giant wind and solar facilities. So guess who is building and developing some of Mexico’s most ambitious investments? San Diego–based Cannon Power and Spanish turbine maker Gamesa have teamed up to build a giant wind farm 15 miles south of the U.S.–Mexico border. When the Mexican government doled out huge chunks of solar capacity in an auction, the winners included U.S.-based Sunpower and a subsidiary of Canadian Solar.

To a large degree, electricity markets in North America remain highly national. Only a small portion of the power produced in the North American Free Trade Agreement countries flows across borders. But the commitment by all three parties to have more clean energy will intensify such efforts. The U.S. has the potential to be a much larger market for Canadians’ huge wind and hydroelectric power resources. As I’ve noted, sometimes at night there is so much wind power in Texas that the price of electricity goes into negative territory. On those same nights, millions of customers in northern Mexico are starved for electricity. A more robust set of transmission lines crossing the Rio Grande would simultaneously lower electricity prices in Mexico while bringing more revenue to wind farm owners in Texas.

Even if there is less appetite for having people move freely across the NAFTA borders, the incentives and opportunities for electrons to do so are growing. At least one part of the world is coming closer together.

NEB List of Intevenors for Energy East Pipeline

22 06 2016

Good morning,


This is to notify you that the National Energy Board has issued the Lists of Intervenors and Commenters regarding the Energy East Project.  This document could be viewed on the Board’s website at www.neb-one.gc.ca, receipt A77848 or the following link:




Do not hesitate to contact us if you have problems retrieving this document.







Cet envoi est pour vous aviser que l’Office national de l’énergie a émis les listes d’intervenants et auteurs de commentaires  concernant le projet Énergie Est.  Ce document peut être examiné sur le site web de l’Office www.neb-one.gc.ca au reçu A77848 au lien suivant :



N’hesitez pas a nous contacter si vous avez des difficultesSincèrement,


EnergyEast.ProcessHelp@neb-one.gc.ca    or/ou  EnergieEst.Aide@neb-one.gc.ca

Green Party of Nova Scotia not folding, says official agent

20 06 2016

In a posting on the party's website, Ian Charles, the official agent for the party, said "reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

In a posting on the party’s website, Ian Charles, the official agent for the party, said “reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.” (www.greenparty.ns.ca)

The Green Party of Nova Scotia says there’s a “100 per cent chance” it will be running candidates in the next provincial election despite word from the party’s former interim leader last week it was shutting down.

In a posting on the party’s website, Ian Charles, the official agent for the party, said “reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Speaking to CBC News, Charles said he posted the blog to speak directly to the membership.

“I wanted to assure the membership that the party was not going to dissolve and that any questionability in the eyes of Elections Nova Scotia about our status needed to be clarified as well,” he said.

In the post, Charles said he had met with officials from Elections Nova Scotia and assured them a replacement interim leader would be on the job by July 9.

Brynn Nheiley, the party’s interim leader who also ran in the 2015 federal election, announced the party was shutting down on the same website June 14. She said a political party can’t exist without an active membership.

“That was her opinion and that is not the opinion of the rest of the party,” Charles said.

Still registered

The posting from Charles said the Green Party remains a registered party with Elections Nova Scotia and there were no plans to change that.

One of the party’s founders in Nova Scotia, Thomas Trappenberg, spoke to CBC’s Maritime Noon on Friday and said the party was still trying to figure out what prompted Nheiley to say the party was no more.

“We suspect it is simply growing pains as the provincial party has been seeking a new leader,” he said.

Charles agrees with that assessment.

N.S. Green Party leader Brynn Nheiley was the party's last leader. Former N.S. Green Party interim leader Brynn Nheiley said last week that the party was shutting down. (Twitter @Urban_Leaves)

He also suggests the party executive has a differing opinion on the party’s future.

“While Ms. Nheiley and some members of the executive have suggested the party can no longer move forward, there are other members of the executive who do not share this perspective,” he wrote.

Charles admits party engagement is low at this point, but said it usually is with any political party when it’s not election season and it’s not a reflection of the amount of support the party has.

Fall election?

He said the party suspects there will be an election this fall — and it would be ready for it.

“There is a 100 per cent chance that the Green Party N.S. will run candidates for the next provincial election,” said Charles.

He says the reaction to the party’s supposed demise is a good sign.

“The outpouring of supportive comments on social media has certainly illustrated that there is still tremendous support for the Green Party N.S. across this great province,” he wrote.

Charles encouraged “all of you who felt that the previous leadership was not to your liking put forward a viable leadership candidate — or become one yourself.”

Liz May in the House on Democratic Reform

17 06 2016

Watch it. Read it. Share it.
Elizabeth in the House

4-minute read - Electoral Reform Update

Share Now - Ending Homelessness

Join Elizabeth in Ottawa

Learn more at green.ca

Send your letter to NEB to block Energy East Permit

17 06 2016

Unreal! The National Energy Board woke up this morning to a fax tray loaded with over 500 letters of opposition to Enbridge’s permit extension. Have you sent your letter yet

Let’s run the NEB’s fax machine out of ink!

Remember Enbridge? And the oil tanker proposal that should be dead and gone?

They’re about to miss their National Energy Board deadline. This should mean the end of the Northern Gateway project, but instead of heading home to lick their wounds, they’ve gone crawling back to the NEB to beg for an extension on their permits. Why? Because they haven’t managed to convince a single oil company to sign a shipping contract with them, not to mention gain an ounce of social license.

Can’t take a hint, eh Enbridge?

The NEB will be considering the company’s request to drag this Northern Gateway thing out but, in a shocking twist, is accepting comments from the public before making their decision. Sweet! We have until June 27, 2016, to remind the federal pipeline regulator where British Columbians stand on this ridiculous proposal.

This is important. If enough of us write in with concerns, it will be impossible for the NEB — and ultimately Justin Trudeau and his cabinet — to ignore us while making their decision on Northern Gateway.

We really need you to write a letter. Taking no action on this opportunity will give the false impression to the regulator AND the Prime Minister’s office that British Columbians consent to Northern Gateway — that we’ve forgotten about it or stopped caring that toxic, sinking bitumen would be pumped through a pipeline only to be dumped out at our coastline and shipped off to China.

Like most of us here in B.C., I do not consent to having risky projects pushed on my province, and neither should you. We deserve better. We deserve a say.

Can you take five minutes right now to write a letter to the NEB demanding our voices be heard?

Before you whip into a writing frenzy, I should note the catch: the NEB is only taking input by way of hard copy letters through Canada post OR via fax. Luckily, we have a solution that requires no prehistoric equipment – the almighty internet.

Click here to write and send your letter and, through the magic of the interwebs, it will be magically transformed into a fax and sent directly to the NEB.

The regulator has also made it clear they will not be accepting form letters of any kind, so we have provided step by step instructions for you to follow to make it easy peasy to write out your objection in your own words. Click here to see the steps and write your letter.

In the time it takes you to make a coffee, you can help stop a pipeline and keep supertankers from invading our coast. Join your friends and neighbours who have already committed to sending a letter by clicking here. The NEB needs to hear from informed and engaged people like you. We may not get an opportunity like this one again.

For the coast,

Christina Smethurst, Dogwood

P.S. If you write and send a letter to the NEB today, the Prime Minister and his cabinet can’t pretend to ignore the majority of British Columbians who oppose this oil tanker project. We’ll be right under his nose, in black and white. Thank you for joining us in this.

NB Carbon Tax Investment Plan

16 06 2016

New carbon tax plan presented at clean energy conference

Mark D'Arcy is a campaigner for the Fredericton branch of the Council of Canadians, and he is pushing for increased jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Mark D’Arcy is a campaigner for the Fredericton branch of the Council of Canadians, and he is pushing for increased jobs in the renewable energy sector. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

A group of environmental activists in Saint John are urging the New Brunswick government to create a new department, called RenewNB, to oversee a $20 per ton carbon tax investment plan.

The plan was unveiled at the Clean Energy East Summit, held at the same time as the large, more industry-oriented East Coast Energy Conference happening at the Trade and Convention Centre next door.

With numerous politicians and businesspeople attending the larger conference, local clean energy activists felt like their message was being lost, so they got together and put together a free conference with limited funds.

Mark D’Arcy, a campaigner with Council of Canadians in Fredericton, helped to organize the conference.

“We wanted to counter the message, and this project for Energy East is years away from even a decision on it,” he said.

“We’d like to see job creation programs started right now in clean energy and building efficiency.”

But most of the presenters, with topics such as solar, wind, and tidal energy, were speaking to the converted: roughly 25 supporters showed up on the first day, and there were even fewer on the second.

Compounded carbon tax

While D’Arcy was focused largely on the job-creation aspect of the clean energy field, many presenters were more focused on the technology and plans for the energy itself.

Chris RouseChris Rouse is the founder of New Clear Free Solutions, and came up with the plan to reinvest interest from a carbon tax into public renewable energy organizations. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Chris Rouse, the founder of New Clear Free Solutions, came up with the carbon tax and investment plan the group is promoting.

“First, there’s an economy-wide carbon tax where everybody pays their fair share, $15 to $20 per ton,” he said.

“And instead of subsidizing private industry or using it for general revenue, the money is invested into renewable energy projects.”

He said the plan makes a lot of money out of a small tax because of the compound interest, where the money multiplies as it is continually reinvested into the public companies.

Rouse came up with the plan on his own at home, and while speaking with others, he realized if he used basic economic principles, he could make it work.

Now, he is in the process of getting it modelled more professionally so that he can begin presenting it to the province officially.

“Right now, there is a policy vacuum, both federally and provincially, and all the governments are looking at carbon taxes and different types,” he said.

“So it’s really good timing, I guess, that this is going to be an option on the table.”