Lessons for the new year

Eva Emerson
Sandy Schaffer
It’s that time of year when people think about turning over a new leaf, making a new start, setting new goals. Reading over this issue, I found inspiration for a few New Year’s resolutions of my own.

Stop and watch the birds — and the ants. Since I live in a city, I often feel far away from nature and its wonders. But as intern Kate Baggaley reminds readers in her story about urban ecology, nature is everywhere, even in dense urban centers. It’s a matter of pausing long enough to take it in. Shift your perspective on those pigeons congregating at the park, the ants attacking someone’s discarded lunch or even the rats lurking beneath the trash dumpster. You might find something interesting. Urban ecologists have done just that, discovering how some wild things thrive in cities. And some of those creatures play surprisingly important roles in ecosystems constructed and dominated by humans.

Be willing to demolish once-useful structures and strategies, but do so thoughtfully and deliberately. And then monitor the results. Tearing down two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River, which runs through Olympic National Park in Washington state, was a dramatic move, as contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze describes. As the river returns to its native course, scientists are carefully tracking downstream changes, from a greater number of salmon breeding grounds to the creation of new riverbanks. As more aging dams around the country are targeted for possible removal, the Elwha experience can inform the best practices for bringing health back to these artificially altered landscapes.

Be grateful. Life on Earth could have been obliterated by gamma rays from nearby stellar explosions, physics writer Andrew Grant reports. But it wasn’t. Earth happens to be in the sweet spot, where destructive gamma rays are a rare, if real, possibility. Many exoplanets, scientists argue, might not be so lucky. That could mean a slimmer chance that life evolved on those worlds. The study is a reminder that we live in a special spot at a special time.

Happy 2015 to all.

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