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Even Antarctica Has Invasive Species

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Adult Eretmoptera murphyi. (Credit: Roger Key)

Antarctica, a continent isolated by vast oceans and brutal weather, has weathered the impacts of human activities better than most places. It’s clearly not immune, of course — it’s melting — but the South Pole has been spared most other human-caused degradations.

Unfortunately, we can add another to the list. An invasive insect species is spreading across Signy Island in Antarctica, endangering the local ecosystem. It’s a species of flightless midge, Eretmoptera murphyi, and a lack of natural predators paired with a plentiful food supply is helping the insects to thrive.

Insect Invasion

Their assault on Signy actually began in the 1960s, says a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK and the British Antarctica Survey. The small, grey midges traveled to Signy from the South Georgia islands located to the northeast as unintended hitchhikers in a plant transplantation experiment. The plants are gone, but the midges remain.

E. murphyi, it turns out, landed in an ideal environment. The midges are detritivores, a fancy way of saying they eat dead organic matter, and Signy Island is literally covered in the stuff. Much of the island’s ice-free surface is blanketed by peat, partly decomposed vegetable matter, and it’s a feast for the midges. As the insects eat, they transform the peat into soil, producing nitrogen and other waste products.

What’s good for the midges is bad for the rest of the island. Signy is home to a few other species adapted to the harsh conditions, but unused to intruders, like mosses, hair grass and pearlwort. As they turn peat into soil at record rates, the midges can be considered ecosystem engineers — altering the fundamental ecology of the entire island. For delicate species attuned to a specific environment this could prove fatal.

“Signy island is characteristic of polar environments in having a nutrient limited ecology, and we find that the midge can increase levels by 3 to 5 times, bringing the moss banks in line with deposition that would be more like that seen in and around seal colonies,” says Jesamine Bartlett, a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham who’s presenting the team’s research at the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society, via email. “In particular, that nitrogen is in the form of nitrates and nitrites, which is most favored by plants as a fertilizer. So this may have consequences for the vegetation of Signy Island.”

Studying the Spread

Bartlett and her team are currently assessing the impacts the midges have had on the environment to better understand how to protect Antarctic ecosystems from future intrusions. She’s sampling areas of the island with midge populations and comparing them to areas without any to see what kind of changes are occurring. It will hopefully help build a better understanding of what happens when rapid environmental shifts occur.

It appears that the midges are contained for the moment to Signy Island, and the small outcrop is located some distance from the continent itself. Still, says study co-author Scott Hayward, a professor at Birmingham, E. murphyi appears to share many characteristics with another species of midge native to the Antarctic Peninsula, and could probably survive there if introduced. The insects, and their larvae, are small and easily overlooked, meaning it’s possible for them to travel unnoticed on shoes or equipment.

That could be a danger in the near future as warming conditions make it easier for invasive species to push southward and increased human traffic helps invasive species to spread. Two other invasive species, a type of fly, and a type of grass, are currently establishing themselves in different locations on the continent, and Bartlett says each appears to be doing quite well. Scientists have yet to study either in detail, so their impact on native ecosystems is unknown.

It’s clear that Antarctica is far from an unspoiled land. Images of desolate snowfields and barren peaks belie the truth: There are invaders right under visitors’ feet.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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