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tv   Tech Know  Al Jazeera  September 19, 2015 6:30pm-7:01pm EDT

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lots of other lives around the world. >> bill browder, thank you so much for your time. >> thank you. >> appreciate it. this is techknow, a show about innovations that can change lives. >> the science of fighting a wild fire. we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity and we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science by scientists. tonight: technkow in search of the great american prarie. >> we're in the prarie state yet ironically, we have such little of it left. >> farming and overdevelopment killed it, now get ready for this... an explosition of color and the
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return of these native animals. >> how many plant speices do you have in here? >> but volunteers trying to bring back one of the planets most complex ecosystems ran into trouble. >> we just needed something to help level the playing field. >> why a certain animal from america's past was needed to pull off the impossible. >> we've just arrived at the nachusa grassland and i'm seeing these bisson for the first time. >> marita davison is an environmental biologist. tonight, a trip to the heartland. >> oh, there's a baby! >> cara santa maria is a neuroscientist. i'm phill torrez. i'm an entomologist. >> the epic drought of 2015 takes a hidden toll. from above these trees may look green and healthy, they are not. >> here we see somthing that's dramatically different. >> now the technology that can see what we can't. >> that's our team... >> i'm a prarie barber. >> ... now let's do some science.
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hey guys welcome to techknow. i'm phil torres joined by cara santa maria and marita davison. and today we are going to talk two environmental stories and to start off the great american prairie. to me it's one of those iconic images of what the u.s. used to be. unfortunately, now it's almost entirely just a part of our history. >> yeah, there's been a lot of over development of farming, and the suburban explosion that's really taken a toll on a lot of prairie ecosystems. illinois has been extremely hard hit. it's changing but there's been a big change in the landscape there. yeah and this is happening across the u.s. but i gotta say what i really love about this story is there's a bit of a twist. >> so, there is. i don't want to give anything away so lets go about 90 miles outside of chicago where they are bringing back a little piece of history. >> it's kind of a big piece of history. >> ok a big piece of history. >> it's a good one.
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>> you are looking at a 35-hundred acre experiment in a growing field known as "restoration ecology." this is the nachusa grasslands preserve in franklin grove, illinois, 90 miles west of chicago, where the nature conservancy is rolling back time, 200 years, to restore a tall grass prairie that was almost extinct. >> we are in the prairie state yet ironically we have such little of it left. at the time of european settlement about 2-thirds of the state, some 20-25 million acres of the state was tall grass prairie. we have less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the native prairie that is still intact. >> the mission is being overseen by 3 illinois natives -- jeff walk, director of science for
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the nature conservancy, project director bill kleiman and restoration ecologist cody considine. >> it was a vast landscape dominated by those grasses but the real diversity of the prairie was in the wild flowers the forbs the broad leaf plants and thousands of species of insects that dozens of birds and mammals and reptiles that called the prairie home, along with animals like the bison. what was once this vast landscape across much of illinois has been virtually eliminated and turned into the corn belt. >> but illinois isn't alone. since the late 1800's prairie grasslands across the united states have been steadily vanishing. >> i have heard grasslands in general referred to as the unheralded counterparts of the rain forest and grasslands have a critical role in terms of climate change as well? >> in a prairie most of that carbon is stored in the soil, so it's very secure for very long term storage as soil organic matter. >> in essence, the plants of the
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tall grass prairie absorb carbon dioxide, trapping it in the deep roots. the restoration began in 1986 growing from a small plot of remnant prairie, land that had never been farmed, >> don't worry keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. >> and starting with fire the process hasn't changed much in 30 years. >> it's completely fire dependent, without fire we could not have prairie. the vegetation grows more vigorously most species of plants have a season of more intense blooming right after the first year and second years after a fire. >> no one knows that transition better than restoration ecologist cody considine. >> cody we're standing in what looks to me, at least, two very different types of areas. what happened here? so yeah so we're right on the line of two different prairie restorations. the one right here was planted 2 years ago, and the one behind was planted 3 years ago.
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so what we're seeing, as these prairie restorations get older, more plants emerge, they get more mature, they're flowering, so they're quite dynamic. >> how many plant species do you have in here? >> for this particular planting i believe we have 130 species, ranging from here's a native western sunflower. this is a clonal species. we have rattle snack master here, we have grass leaf goldenrod here, an echinacea here, a pale purple cone flower. it's already flowered. >> all those bloomers started here. >> alright so, this is the seed room. >> project director, bill kleiman. >> well you might think that the prairie seed would find its way out into these former cornfields but it doesn't walk very fast. so we would have to wait millennia. whereas we can collect a seed from the remnant prairies bring it out to a cornfield that we're retiring, plant it, and it'll grow in that year. >> do you have a sense of how many seeds you and the
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volunteers here have planted over the years? >> about 250 species a year so it's millions and millions of seeds. >> conventional wisdom was to plant ten pounds of seeds per acre. but, bill ordered 50 pounds, and the fields blossomed, none of it would be possible without a corps of volunteers, like jay stacy. >> so what are you cutting today? >> this particular forb is called prairie coreopsis, scientific name corpeopsis palmata. >> how long have you been doing this? >> i've been doing this, this is my 21st year. >> i'm a prairie barber! >> all the tall grass planting was a little too successful. >> we just needed something to level the playing field. >> what they needed was something to thin out the grass,
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like an enormous vacuum. the solution? not a dyson, but a herd of bison. a posse of 800-pound grazing machines. >> we've just arrived at the nachusa grasslands and i am seeing these bison for the first time and i feel like i have been transported back 150-200 years. its pretty remarkable to see these enormous animals that were almost wiped out from north america. oh there's a baby, there's a little one. oh, a couple of them. bison have been part of the vision of the project since the very beginning, but it has taken us close to 30 years to be able to put together enough of a landscape where it was a practical consideration for us. it's the nachusa herds first mating season. and coming up on techknow, the arduous journey they took to get here.
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>> we want to hear what you think about these stories. join the conversation by following us on twitter and at aljazeera.com/techknow.
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>> they're living large on the nachusa grasslands preserve in franklin grove, illinois. the first herd of american bison in these parts for 2 centuries. these iconic bison were the missing link for a massive restoration of this endangered tall grass prairie run by the nature conservancy. >> would you say that they have been a game changing factor here? >> oh yeah, these animals are going to make a difference on the prairie. >> i hitched a ride with nachusa project director bill kleiman
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and restoration ecologist cody considine to track down the bison in their 500 acre grazing area. >> why are the bison so important to the restoration process? >> bison eat grass and the disturbances they are creating puts diversity on the landscape. as they graze the nutrients are going in one end and its coming out the back end and you are getting a very quick nutrient cycling on the prairie. >> those bison "patties" are spreading seeds and fertilizing the soil. >> what's the average weight of a full sized bison? >> the cows can range from 800-1100 pounds and the bulls as they mature, the can get up to 2,000 pounds. >> so how many bison do we have on the reserve? >> 30 adults, and 16 calves. a calf was just born last week, a little tiny one you could easily pick it up. >> it's pretty exciting to think
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about a calf being born on the illinois prairie that hasn't happened for probably 200 years. >> what happened to bison here? >> there was a tremendous slaughter of bison in the 1870s and 1880s. >> jeff walk is the chief scientist for the illinois chapter of the nature conservancy. >> it's estimated by the turn of the 1900s there were 400 to 1000 animals that had persisted out of that massive herd of 30 to 60 million. >> that's close to extinction. >> it's absolutely close to extinction. >>there was definitely a market for the hides, for the meats. also part of it, it was encouraged by the us government as a strategy to help reduce the food supply for the native americans in the conflict with the native american peoples. it's estimated there are about 400,000 bison now in north america. >> but most of those bison were bred with cattle for meat production. only about 20,000 are pure american bison. >> that genetic line dates back
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to 1913, when 14 bison from the bronx zoo were trucked to wind cave national park in south dakota at the behest of teddy roosevelt. so when it was time to bring bison to nachusa, they looked for a posse with a wind cave lineage. >> we went to broken kettle grassland another nature conservancy preserve in northwestern iowa in october of 2014 and brought back 20 animals with us. we essentially separated off the animals that we were going to bring back to illinois . make sure they had a clean bill of health. 7 of the females we strapped gps collars onto. so we could get real time movements of the animals. >> tracking those movements with the gps collars is julia brockman a bison researcher at
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southern illinois university. >> what kind of data are you receiving? >> so we're getting location information, a gps point on a map every hour, 24 hours a day. >> so can you show me what you've been seeing? >> sure. these are the bison locations for yesterday they seemed to be spending a lot of time along their corral and trap pasture. and i can corroborate that because we were there and i saw them there. >> and what would you say is the ultimate goal of your study? >> having that amount of data really changes how we look at their movements and their selection. it helps to understand what type of habitat they'll like for reintroductions in the future. >> among the 2 dozen scientists doing research at nachusa, is doctor holly jones, a conservation biologist at northern illinois university. with her team, she's trapping and tagging small mammals to assess the impact of the big bison. >> so its completely a restoration ecologists playground. i get so excited about this field site.
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let's see if someone is in there. there is! small mammals are food for aerial predators, things like hawks, things like owls and so it's really important to know how they're doing to be able to say how the prairie is doing as a whole. >> and that's because, if the small mammals are tasty enough to become good prey, they are feasting on a healthy environment of insects and plants. >> what are you seeing? >> since bison have been introduced we've had 13 lying ground squirrels which was very surprising. the line of evidence is pointing towards a shift in community composition. >> there are different plots of land that are being restored at different times from all the way back 20 years ago we can look at a plot of land like this that was restored four years ago and look at a plot of land over there that was restored six years ago and in one season look at how restoration progresses. now we thank him for his science and send him on his way. go head buddy, go on your way.
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>> less than a year since the bison's arrival the environmental impact is subtle. some changes to plant growth and small animal populations. but the biggest change may be on humans. >> people are very connected to this herd and they still feel that these are their bison's. that this is such a cool thing that we've returned this iconic mammal to illinois. it's exciting. >> i gotta say i love when you guys bring back things from the fields, especially from somewhere as iconic as tall grass prairies so marita, what did you bring us. >> all right phil, first you've got to stand up. >> ok. >> tell me how tall you are? >> i'm about 6'2. >> ok, so here is a tall grass from the tall grass prairie. >> that is some tall grass. >> it's tall. i mean i was literally swimming in this stuff, you know. >> this is amazing. >> this is part of the vegetation we are talking about. >> and this is what the bison munch on. >> that's exactly what they munch on.
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this is what the bison were brought in to help control. >> i could use some of this. >> now, these are little seed pods. they look like musical instruments but they are seed pods of some of the vegetation on the prairie. >> they've got a nice little ring to them. i like it. >> and this is what they've been using to re-plant native vegetation. >> and lastly... >> and the last piece of the puzzle, this is bison fur. >> wow. >> oh, it's surprisingly soft. >> and you can see there's stuff in there. >> there's a lot of stuff in here. >> so you can see really easily how bison could be dispersing, these large seed dispersers across the prairie. this is even kind of shaped like a bison, i like the thing. >> when i was looking at that footage, i was blown away by the color in the prairie. the biodiversity, the flowering plants, and i wonder if a lot of people have that preconceived notion that nothing grows out there. >> if i told you cara, that along with tropical
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rainforests, prairie lands and other grasslands are the most biodiverse complex ecosystems in the world, would you believe me? >> i mean i believe you because you are an expert. >> it's totally true. >> but it just blows my mind. you know i thought it was so important to learn about how important the prairie land is here in america for you know this big climate change problem that we are all facing. these grasses and these types of plant actually act as sort of a carbon sync don't they? >> they really do. the bulk of the plants in the prairie are not above ground. they're underground because that's how they survive fire. they actually are a big factor in storing carbon. >> yeah and that really does feed into the very next story. marita and phil you both tag teamed a little right, both from the sky and from the ground. >> yeah, i got to see california forests from an airplane like no other. >> and while you were in your flying laboratory i was on the ground, seeing the reality of trees and what's taking them down. >> we're coming back right here on techknow.
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>> welcome back to techknow. i'm cara santa maria with marita davison and phil torres. now marita you and phil had a chance to follow some scientists to focus in on the california drought. >> we did and they are using some really sophisticated equipment. >> now marita, you went up in
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that specially outfitted plane while i got to take a hike in the los padres mountains just outside of la. i think you may have gotten the better part of the deal here. >> ok maybe, it was a really fascinating way to see the forests in a way the naked eye just can't. >> this drought is so epic, it's so out of the norm that we actually don't have an answer to what we can expect long term. >> four years into california's epic drought, reservoirs are near empty, farmers hurting, and its forests are aflame or under attack by opportunistic pests. >> so we're seeing tree mortality all over the landscape. >> but in order to understand these changes to forests, scientists must first assess their health, using field observations, and airplanes. >> we have the most advanced airborne remote sensing package that i know of on earth today. >> for over a decade, ecologist greg asner has been monitoring the health of forests around the world in an aircraft called the
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carnegie airborne observatory. techknow first profiled his work mapping the amazon in a previous episode this time, we joined him on his latest effort; to map drought- plagued california forests in his tricked out dornier 228. >> in the back of the aircraft are unique sensors designed to take measurements of the forest canopy while the plane flies over it. >> we're flying over about 8 million trees per hour. >> one of these instruments is known as lidar. this instrument is a laser system that fires two lasers out of the bottom of the plane in a pattern that images the forest canopy or whatever it is that we fly over, in 3d. what the instruments do is provide us a very accurate, very unique way of understanding the amount of carbon stored in california's forests. if you don't put carbon in forests, then it ends up in the atmosphere and that contributes to climate change. >> the plane is also equipped with a pair of spectrometers
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used to detect the chemical composition of trees. it was time for takeoff. >> where are we going today? >> today we're heading out, pretty close to the oregon border where we have a lot of forest that's unknown in terms of its drought stress. >> and with that we were off. from the air we could see reservoirs and rivers clearly depleted of water. >> lake shasta reservoir? >> that's right, that's a lot of water missing when you see that much brown. >> but the forest canopy actually looks pretty green. >> to the naked eye here they look like they are in pretty good shape. the majority of california's forests are under drought stress today. so my guess is that most of these forests are in trouble. >> back at the lab, asner's team got to work analyzing all the data -- that's where techknow's phil torres picks up the story. >> so you did a flight with marita, these are the results. >> looking out the cockpit it looked green, but here we see something that's dramatically different. >> and what do you see? >> we see that the forest varies
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from what we would consider pretty average conditions in the yellows and the blues up there down to areas that look severely drought stricken in red. >> next we looked at an area where the drought stress was more acute. >> so, so this is from los padres national forest. this is what it looks like when you fly over. grey green, looks like your typical southern cal forest. this is what it looks like in chemical detail. >> those trees are doing okay but everything else is showing severe drought stress and that's showing here in red. >> now that we have the view from above, we decided to head out for a boots on the ground perspective. >> i'm standing here in the middle of los padres national forest, and as you can tell from all the dead trees behind me, there's plenty of evidence of the impact of a multi-year drought. >> one of the biggest problems here? a bug that attacks water-stressed pine trees. >> now we're talking, ah, there's a bunch. >> tom coleman is
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an entomolgist with the u.s. forest service. >> there's a lot of dead trees right here. >> yeah, this is a nice little active spot for bark beetles. >> bark beetles kill more trees than any other kind of insect or disease in north america. when you look across the landscape and see this patch work of dead trees. the mortality is quite dramatic. >> so this tree here is full of thousands of bark beetles, does that mean all the trees around here are now susceptible? >> right now from what i've seen it's just basically across the entire landscape. >> have you ever seen it this bad? >> not here in california. >> so just 10 minutes away we were looking at the devastation caused by pine beetles and now we can see the damage done by forest fires, there's a lot going on here. so even though the wildfire's actually gone through an area and caused major mortality, we'll still see bark beetles
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coming in afterwards. >> scientists studying our forests are concerned about the impacts from drought -- not just in california, but also around the world. >> now what we are starting to worry about is if how somehow these droughts are somehow all interrelated and linked at a global scale. >> so it seems a lot of the forests of the world are in trouble, droughts putting pressure on them. >> we don't know exactly how much the global forest cover is at risk but we're in that process now of finally getting those measurements we need to make those predictions. >> the scientists that are studying these things. they can say here's the problem but their hands are tied. they, all they can do is wait for the drought to be over,for el nino to pass and try to influence management and policy. >> they need to get the data into the right hands. i think that's the plan. it has to get into the hands of managers and decision makers so they can actually implement changes. >> and whether we are talking about managing america's grasslands or america's
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forests, one thing is for certain, if we have healthy ecosystems, we will one day have a healthier climate. >> absolutely,thank you for the stories today you guys. now from prairie being restored by bison to forests being decimated by beetles, one thing's for sure. it's a complex ecosystem out there but there's a lot of scientists working hard on it. that's it for now. we'll see you next time here on techknow. >> dive deep into these stories and go behind the scenes at al jazeera dot com slash techknow. follow our expert contributors on twitter, facebook, instagram, google plus and more. >> where we are standing right now will be the panama canal. >> this will be flooded. >> we have upgraded for bigger ships. >> now we go for weeks without water. >> techknow's team of experts show you how the miracles of science...
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>> this is what innovation looks like. >> can affect and surprise us. >> i feel like we're making an impact. >> awesome! >> techknow - where technology meets humanity. >> this is al jazeera america. i'm erica pitzi, here are the top stories. pope francis is in cuba for his first visit to the united nations. plus the struggle to feed thousands of refugees in camps across europe. some living off less than $2 a day. john keran

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