Forest Fires, Terra Nullius, and Mercury in Fish

It’s been a busy summer for our Terra Informers, so this week we’re revisiting a favourite show of ours. We’ve got some great stuff coming up for the fall, so stay tuned!

Today we talk to a researcher who is investigating how climate change is affecting the way that wild fires interact with forest ecosystems, we explore the colonial concept of Terra Nullius and how it ties in with modern environmental issues, and we hear from a biologist who is studying the accumulation of mercury in the fish we eat. All that, plus your wrap up of the week’s news headlines, on today’s edition of Terra Informa.

Download this week’s show.

The glow of a ground fire illuminates the canopy of a pine forest against the black night sky.
Professor Jill Johnstone has found that with climate change increasing the frequency of fires, they’re  having significant new impacts on our forests. Photo by the US Department of Agriculture.

Terra Nullius
What is the Doctrine of Discovery or terra nullius? Today on the first episode of Decolonize Your Mind, a segment that looks at environmental issues with a decolonizing lens, we ask this question, along with a bunch of others. What’s colonization? And what is the responsibility of environmentalists to look at these kinds of things? We’ll also hear an audio clip from Winona LaDuke, speaking about the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery and some of her thoughts on empire.

Effect of Climate Change on Forest Fires
Across North America we’re getting into the thick of forest fire season. Have you ever wondered how fires change the forests they burn, though? Or how that might change now that fires are coming more often, and getting more intense? Terra Informa’s Chris Chang-Yen Phillips reached University of Saskatchewan ecologist Jill Johnstone in the Yukon to ask her about her research studying fire in forests there. She explained how climate change is making fire a disruptor of boreal forests, rather than a regenerator.

More on this story: sdf, Forest recovery after fire in a changing climate (PDF), Northern Plant Ecology Lab Cookbook, yourYukon

Mercury in Fish
Most people consider fish to be a healthy dinner choice, and for the most part, they’re right. But there is a complication – some fish species can absorb mercury, a toxic heavy metal. Some of this mercury is natural, and some of it is from industrial pollution. Can anything be done? And what species of fish should we be wary of? Today Terra Informa correspondent David Kaczan chats to Tina Willson, a researcher at the University of Wyoming.

One comment

  1. I know this is an old post now, but I thought it might amuse you to learn that Open University stdunets had to critique this same article as part of the Science and the Public MSc module end of course assessment this year. What follows is NOT my assignment, but the result of writing the assignment and thinking about this guy Whether you agree with Simon Jenkins or not, you have to agree he is a brilliant journalist. Every time he writes something negative about scientists, it gets wild disagreement which actually just reinforces the points he’s (rhetorically) making.In this case, every bone in my body wants to (violently) disagree with the man. He attacks science like a pitbull, ripping the flesh from it’s still live body. His prose is offensive, vitriolic and drips with venom.And yet, when you take the rhetoric out of the equation, it’s almost like he actually has a point which is worth making.Speaking personally, it never came as a surprise that scientists are human, that they make mistakes and even *shock* some of them commit fraud. It is worth noting, however, that when it happens it tends to get in the news because unusual things are newsworthy; I’m not convinced the same can be said about estate agents or lawyers lying It’s also true the handling of the IPCC AR4 error (the Himalayan melt) could have been handled much better, that the public perception of the swine flu pandemic reasonably looks like the government was predicting ~60K deaths, that 10 years to investigate Wakefield is poor and that peer review needs (urgent) reform. None of this is news to anyone who has maintained a remote interest in how science works over the last ten years.It’s also true that science is negotiating a new relationship with society. It’s no longer a magic academic black box into which we feed our taxes and get out social and technological improvements. It reminds me a certain amount of the way in which teenagers negotiate their relationships in society, with the accepting of responsibilities and duties.Where Jenkins goes wrong is that he makes the implicit assumption that occasional issues mean the entire vast tissue of different scientific disciplines is corrupt. Yes, it needs work and he’s right to make inferences about the negative effect of the commercialisation and commoditisation of the scientific process, as thalidomide and rofecoxib both illustrate but it’s still massively successful.I would actually agree with Jenkins’ conclusion in this case: the regulation of science is inadequate. Anyone can claim to be a scientist Gillian McKeith anyone? and I think that the doing of science is sufficiently important that we should make it a (set of) protected profession(s). Secondly, scientists do need to be held to account: if someone breaches the rules (I quite like the Mertonian norms as a set of standards) and brings the profession into disrepute, merely being barred from publishing should not be sufficient.In addition, we can no longer trust employers to enforce standards. In the past, publically-funded universities disciplined scientists if they crossed boundaries, but today, when university funding depends on scientists pulling in research funds, and when so many scientists are employed by companies who have a vested interest in scientists making money (rather than being ethical, honest etc ) we need professional bodies to start protecting the profession and individuals.None of this alters the fact that Jenkins sets out to annoy scientists every time he writes. However, it’s just possible that he might have a point behind the offensiveness.

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