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Termites’ Engineering Skills Help Protect Tropical Rainforests From Drought

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termite construction rainforest drought

Termites scamper about on the rainforest floor in Borneo. (Credit: corlaffra/shutterstock)

Termites are minuscule scourges to homeowners, but the wood-chomping critters are also masterful engineers. And now an international team of researchers has found that these construction skills actually help protect tropical rainforests from drought. The insects have an outsized impact on forest soils by helping control moisture in the dirt, a critical component to forest health that climate change and human impacts increasingly threaten. The results also suggest termites could buffer tropical rainforests from drought in the future.

“We previously thought termites were important in tropical rainforests, but we didn’t know how important, particularly during drought,” said Louise Ashton, an ecologist at the University of Hong Kong, who led the new work.

Bad Rap

Termites abound in tropical rainforests. And while Ashton and her colleagues suspected the insects impact the typically lush ecosystems, scientific circles give the bugs little attention (with the notable of exception of prominent biologist E.O. Wilson who has been making the case for the importance of insects for decades). Still, most research on termites revolves around the evolution of their social behavior or pest management. That’s beginning to change, but the bugs’ reputation means it’s taken years to get here. The new research published today in the journal Science took about a decade to come to fruition.

Ten years ago, Theo Evans, an evolutionary biologist and ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth and co-author of the new research, met up with Paul Eggleton, an entomologist with England’s Natural History Museum in London, at a conference. Over a few beers, the duo decided they’d run some experiments to back up rumors that termites impact ecosystems murmuring through their research community.

“The beer may have given us more confidence than was realistic,” recalls Evans, “because it took us years to get the collaborators and funding to run the experiment!”

Turning Tide

The delay turned out to be serendipitous. The team set up their experiment in the rainforests of Borneo at the start of the 2015 El Nino drought. They set out toilet paper—a favorite termite food—treated with a poison that only affected the termites and not any of the areas’ other insects. Over the next few years, the team monitored the forests responses in the plots with fewer termites compared to plots where the termite population remained abundant.

During the drought, termite activity doubled, the team found. And the termites’ hustle and bustle increased the soil moisture. The discovery means “termites were manipulating the water in the soil,” Evans said, which buffered the effects of drought.  “This is the first time this has been discovered.”

The termites’ manipulation of soil moisture, which they do by transporting water using special water-sacs in their bodies, also improved seedling survival in the rainforests during the drought.

“We tend to think of termites only as pests, but they are also helping the maintenance of healthy ecosystems during periods of environmental stress,” Ashton said. Those stresses include drought but also other human impacts such as logging and conversion to agriculture.

“Droughts are predicted to become more common in rainforests due to climate change,”  Evans added. “Logging, even selective logging (for valuable trees only) … reduces termite diversity and abundance, so logged rainforests may be more vulnerable to climate change.”

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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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