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Inventorying the ark: A pragmatic approach to extinction

ASU center's first tool is a water decision-making tool for corporations.
It's heartbreaking, but biodiversity center knows we can't save everything.
ASU center provides training for network that produces extinction Red Lists.
October 27, 2015

ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes creating solutions to conserve — where possible — including decision-making tools for corporations

Biological diversity is the variety of life on Earth, ranging from the microverse of crabs, barnacles and mussels nestled in a tidal pool to a macroverse of baboons, giraffes and elephants ranging across savanna and veldt.

And it’s disappearing. Too often we read about another species in danger of extinction. Ninety-eight percent of tigers are gone. There are four northern white rhinos left in the world — three at a conservancy in Kenya and one in the San Diego Zoo. Thirty percent of frogs are nearing extinction. Honeybees are vanishing across the globeAccording to National Geographic (tigers), UC Berkeley (frogs) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (bees). .

There’s no longer a question of how we're going to save all these species. The reality is we’re past that point.

“We can’t save everything,” said Anita Hagy Ferguson, program coordinator for ASU's Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. “We’re not operating in that la-la land. It’s heartbreaking, but we are operating with real data, with real reality, and you cannot save everything. You have to make choices in what to save and how to save it, so that we can move quickly.”

The center was created a year ago to pragmatically stem the tide of loss in what has been called the Sixth Extinction. Its mission is to make discoveries and create solutions to conserve, where possible, and to manage biodiversity for the long term as the world rapidly changes.

“If we don’t have anyone who can understand nature, how can we protect it?” said founding director Leah Gerber, a marine conservation biologist and a professor with the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

A tiger lies by a fallen log.

According to National Geographic, 98 percent of tigers are gone. As more and more species become at risk, wise — and swift — decisions must be made. “You have to make choices in what to save and how to save it, so that we can move quickly,” said ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes program coordinator Anita Hagy Ferguson. Photos by Freeimages.com

The centerThe Center for Biodiversity Outcomes is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Life Sciences.’s research focuses on five areas: biodiversity assessment and decision tools; governance and biodiversity; advancing corporate sustainability; public health and biodiversity; and engagement of underserved youth.

Educating two groups with little knowledge of nature — decision makers in business and government, and those underserved youth — is the key behind those five research areas, center officials said.

How will the center know it’s making a difference? When corporations automatically think about their impact on the natural world, when government agencies and conservation groups ask for help in solving problems, and when young people who traditionally aren’t involved with the natural world choose careers in conservation biology.

“As far as success, our metrics are impacts on decisions, on society and on building our capacity to address biodiversity challenges,” Gerber said.

New methods

Conservation scientists know they’re losing the fight. Traditional methods, like roping off a habitat and telling people "hands-off," aren’t working.

“A big reason is because biodiversity conservation problems aren’t really problems inherent with the animals and plants,” Hagy Ferguson said. “They’re human-social problems.

“We want to work with the local people who live in those places where those species live. We want to work with people who fish for a certain kind of fish that’s going extinct. Even though it’s a resource, they have an interest in its conservation from a resource perspective. Our objective is to work on multiple scales.”

Going out and studying something and tossing results back to interested parties hasn’t worked for conservation biologists either.

Instead of coming down from the mount of academia and bestowing knowledge, the center’s approach is to go to the outside world and ask questions. What kinds of problems do you have, and how can we help? What is your need? Researchers offer questions in a scientific framework, applying rigorous methodology. They then go back and say, “Here is how we’re going to answer this question. What do you think? How can you work with us?”

“Even when people make an effort to communicate science to the public, it’s difficult to do it in a way that’s meaningful to them,” Hagy Ferguson said.

When Gerber meets with non-profit organizations and other non-governmental groups, she often hears this: “I need a decision on this thing that needs to be made tomorrow and I have no data.”

Two ways the center aims to answer that type of query are with tools and people. “There’s a very practical way we’re trying to make some inroads and stem the flow of loss,” Hagy Ferguson said.

A stream runs over rocks.The first tool being created by the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes is a water decision-making tool that will help corporations assess risks to the public, the environment and their business associated with their water use. It will be presented to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris in December.

Decision-making tools

The general public cares about biodiversity. It reflects well on a corporation — it’s one reason why Dawn puts pictures of seals on bottles of soap. Coca-Cola has an intensive water-conservation campaign and plan. It looks good for them, but they are also aware that if there’s no water, there’s no Coke either.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices are a sign it’s an important issue in the corporate world. Launched in 1999, the family of indices evaluates the performance of 2,500 companies based on an analysis of economic, environmental and social performance, assessing issues like corporate governance, risk management, branding, climate-change mitigation, supply-chain standards and labor practices. The trend is to reject companies that do not operate in a sustainable and ethical manner. British Petroleum was booted off in 2010, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, many corporations have no idea how to go about becoming sustainable.  

What Gerber recognized was a demand from the corporate sector on data and analytics.

“Not that necessarily the corporations altruistically care, but a lot of shareholders want to make socially responsible choices, so there’s a demand,” she said. “But they’re not scientists. They don’t have the capacity. So we have this opportunity to provide relevant information and to provide new tools that can be used. I would define success as large corporations using tools that consider nature’s services and resources in everyday operations.”

The first tool being created by the center is a water decision-making tool. The decision-support tool will help corporations assess risks to the public, the environment and their business associated with their water use. It will be presented to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris in December.

“I think people are going to see that and say, ‘I want in,’ ” Gerber said.

The center is also creating a biodiversity offsets tool. A logging company using it might decide to cut down five trees in that area, but to plant five others in this area.

“What we’re trying to do is to get them closer to doing that equal thing,” Hagy Ferguson said. “Help people to recognize that that place you actually want to pull out trees is a super-biodiverse area.

“It might not even be a tree-for-tree thing; it might be we’re going to take these trees and contribute to the tiger fund. It’s trying to see if we can have corporations replace the impact in some way. ... The tool helps them make decisions, but it also protects their bottom line.”

Another focus of the center is to produce highly trained scientists who will have an immediate impact in a field that is beginning to seek them. Traditionally, graduating with a conservation biology degree meant either academia or a competitive job market with few openings.

Non-profits such as the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and Conservation International all have programs targeted at youth.

“What we’re going to do is grab those youth and pull them through college, and then they’re going to pull them back from us when they’ve gone through our program and give them jobs,” Hagy Ferguson said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the largest professional global conservation network, with almost 11,000 scientists volunteering. Most people know it from its Red List, which usually appears in the news as a headline that something is on the verge of extinction. More specifically the Red List tells the world what’s looking good and what’s not for a particular species. The IUCN is doing a worldwide inventory of everything.

“We can’t make decisions about what to save if we don’t know what we have,” Hagy Ferguson said. “Doing the assessing and Red Listing is a very particular methodology, and you have to be specially trained for it. They are the global standard because their data is good data, and their data is good data because they follow a very rigorous standard. It’s reliable.”

The center, which has several faculty affiliates who work with IUCN, is providing IUCN training.

“What we want to do is position ASU as an IUCN training center,” she said. “We’ll train people for Red Listing, which gets students out in the field and learning a practical methodology.”

The center has big goals and small, specific ways of moving towards them.

“I am confident we’re going to get there in the next couple of years,” Gerber said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

 
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Rock on: Is your meteorite real?

ASU Center for Meteorite Studies is world’s largest university-based collection.
Public invited to bring in a rock to ASU to see if it's a meteorite Nov. 7.
Iron meteorites are "the core of a small planet," said ASU's Meenakshi Wadhwa.
Meteorites are finds or falls (seen falling). Falls are sexier in science world.
October 28, 2015

Public invited to Earth and Space Exploration Day at ASU to have specimens identified

The breathtaking possibility that they may have found an object that fell to Earth from millions of miles out in space will draw hundreds to the one-day-only meteorite-identification event at Arizona State University’s Earth and Space Exploration Day next month.

The crushing probability that it isn’t will be mollified by the opportunity to view the Meteorite Gallery’s spectacular collection at the annual event on Saturday, Nov. 7.

“Usually one or two turn out to be meteorites,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the Center for Meteorite Studies. “The probability that any one of them is a meteorite is pretty small.”

Her office voicemail states that the center does not identify potential meteorites on a regular basis.

Despite that, “I still get one or two messages every day asking if they can bring one in,” said Wadhwa, who is also a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

The meteorite identification program was suspended five years ago because the center was swamped by requests.

“Most people don’t know what a meteorite is,” said research professor Laurence Garvie, collections manager of the Center for Meteorite Studies. “Not every heavy dark magnetic rock in the desert is a meteorite. It has to be slightly different in a particular kind of way. That’s the thing.”

ASU professor Meenakshi Wadhwa

Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of ASU's
Center for Meteorite Studies, shows
some of the hundreds of small stones
from the Chelyabinsk meteorite that
exploded over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The desert Southwest is one of the better places to find meteorites because there’s not as much vegetation.

Meteorites fall into two categories: finds and falls. Both are named after where they were found, like Coolidge or Rancho Gomelia or Mayday.

A find is discovered on the ground. A fall is witnessed plummeting to Earth and then retrieved. Falls are much sexier in the meteorite world. The authoritative Meteoritical Bulletin carefully describes the circumstances of the discovery, noting such details as terrified cats and barns full of dust.

Meteorites can be tiny. The center possesses close to a kilogram of the famous Chelyabinsk meteorite, which was recorded by hundreds of cameras as it crashed into the Russian city on Feb. 15, 2013. That meteorite was the size of a Volkswagen bus. Before it shattered in the atmosphere, damaging more than 7,000 buildings and injuring more than 1,500 people, it weighed about 10,000 tons and traveled about 41,000 miles per hour.

“These things are continually hitting the Earth,” Wadhwa said. Fifty to 100 tons hit Earth every day.

Most are dust-size particles. “Meteor showers are not going to drop stuff,” Garvie said.

The center also owns a piece of broken window glass from Chelyabinsk. In the meteorite world, owning a piece of collateral damage as well as the meteorite itself is highly prized.

A meteorite is shown close up.

Meenakshi Wadhwa of the Center for Meteorite Studies displays a piece of the Allende meteorite, found in Mexico in 1969. She said the white sections are made of some of the oldest elements in the universe, dating back 4.56 billion years. The ASU center has about 2,000 different types of meteorites in its 40,000-specimen collection; it is the largest university-based collection in the world.

A 26-pound meteorite fell on Oct. 9, 1992, hitting the trunk of 18-year-old Michelle Knapp’s red 1980 Chevy Malibu in Peekskill, New York. The meteorite was still warm and smelling of sulfur when Knapp went out in the driveway to see what had happened. She sold the car — which she had just bought for $300 — to a meteorite collector’s wife for $10,000 and the meteorite for $69,000. The car has since traveled the world to museums and mineral shows.

Garvie pointed out there is not a black market in meteorites. “That’s a misconception,” he said.

When Wadhwa was curator at the Field Museum in Chicago, a meteorite shower hit the city. People called the police, thinking vandals were throwing rocks at their houses. The police confiscated many of the meteorites. “At the police station they were lined up like suspects,” she said.

Garvie holds out a specimen from Mars that was discovered in Morocco. Martian meteorites are the only materials from other planets ever recovered by humans. The ASU center has about 2,000 different types of meteorites in its 40,000-specimen collection; it’s the world’s largest university-based collection.

“We can learn a lot about planetary processes from them,” Wadhwa said. “That’s the core of a small planet you’re looking at there.”

“Let’s hope we get a meteorite this year,” she added.

Earth and Space Exploration Day

What: This annual event offers special science-related activities for students age 5 and up, families, educators and anyone interested in exploring Earth and space. In addition to the meteorite-identification event, there will be 3-D astronomy shows; special talks on volcanoes, earthquakes and planetary science; and interactive displays in the Gallery of Scientific Exploration. Visitors can also see a replica of the Curiosity Mars rover, explore "A" Mountain (Tempe Butte) on a guided field trip, bring rock samples for Dr. Rock to examine, and much more.

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7.

Where: Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. Find an interactive campus map here.

Admission: Free. Parking will be free as well.

Details: http://sese.asu.edu/earth-and-space-exploration-day. To register for the event, visit https://nasa.asu.edu/ESE-Day-Registration?destination=ESE-Day-Registration.