New Technology Helps Ranchers Maximize Grass Production — NRCS

Photo credit: NRCS

Here’s the release from the NRCS (Brianna Randall):

One out of every three acres in the U.S. is rangeland. Two-thirds of these are privately owned, mainly by ranchers who graze their livestock in the open country of the American West.

Our rangelands produce premium beef, wool, and dairy. But it’s the plants that feed these livestock that are the foundation for profitable agriculture in the West.

But ranchers haven’t had a good way to measure how their grass is faring — until now.

The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), developed in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the University of Montana, allows producers to track changes in the amount and types of plants growing on their property.

RAP is a free online resource that provides data on vegetation trends across the West from the mid-1980s to the present; and it calculates how productive those plants are. A combination of long-term datasets shows landowners how their lands have changed over time, which translates directly into their operation’s profitability.

“We can finally quantify outcomes of rangeland conservation in terms of dollars and cents,” says Tim Griffiths, western coordinator for NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife.

Graphic credit: NRCS

Closing the gap to boost grass growth

Farmers in the central and eastern U.S. have been using technology to track changes in crop production for decades. As soon as they see that their plant productivity is declining — and revenues following suit — they can take steps to address the limitations and boost productivity again.

RAP provides the same power to ranchers.

Graphic credit: NRCS

RAP can show ranchers the gap between their potential production and the actual production they realize in terms of pounds-per-acre of grass. It helps landowners understand how much they can potentially gain by changing management practices to boost available forage and close the gap.

Landowners can see how their plant production has changed in a single month or over the span of several years. The technology can be used to visualize plant productivity in an area as small as a baseball diamond or as large as several states.

“Basically, RAP can prevent lost revenues by showing producers where their land is less effective at growing grass. It helps ranchers put the right practices in the right places,” says Brady Allred, a University of Montana researcher who helped develop RAP.

Preventing trees from robbing ranchers

Photo credit: NRCS

One of the main threats to production and profitability on western rangelands is the expansion of trees onto grasslands. From eastern redcedar destroying tallgrass prairie to juniper marching across sagebrush grazing lands, woody species are costing producers millions of dollars in lost forage.

For example, the now-forested property in Nebraska pictured here produced zero pounds/acre of grass in 2014. But in 1985, RAP reveals that same property produced 2,200 pounds/acre of grass — before eastern redcedar consumed the once-fertile prairie.

“Last year, we quantified that western rangelands missed out on tens of billions of pounds of forage due to trees taking over prairies and shrub lands since 1990,” says Dirac Twidwell, rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska and science advisor for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife.

This yield gap, says Twidwell is “costing producers hundreds of millions in lost revenue each year.”

Take the Flint Hills of Kansas, America’s most productive grasslands and the fourth-largest intact prairie left in the world. In 2019, RAP shows that this region produced 21.3 billion pounds of forage.

But RAP also shows that ranchers in the Flint Hills lost another billion pounds of forage in 2019 due to encroaching trees. That adds up to nearly 800,000 round-bales of hay lost last year.

Put in terms of dollars, those unwanted trees cost Kansas producers $8.3 million in lost revenue in a single year.

Graphic credit: NRCS

Stemming the tide of trees with technology

Using RAP’s satellite imagery, ranchers across Nebraska are burning seeds and saplings before they become trees; and in Kansas, ranchers are using RAP to cut trees across ownership boundaries to restore prime grass grazing lands.

New technology like RAP helps us “help the land” in order to sustain wildlife, provide food and fiber, and support agricultural families long into the future.

Flooding events a major concern for Grand County following #EastTroublesomFire — The Sky-Hi Daily News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow (in m3), and combined relative debris flow hazard. These predictions are made at the scale of the drainage basin, and at the scale of the individual stream segment. Estimates of probability, volume, and combined hazard are based upon a design storm with a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour (mm/h). Predictions may be viewed interactively by clicking on the button at the top right corner of the map displayed above. Map credit: USGS

From The Sky-Hi Daily News (Amy Golden):

One of the biggest concerns following the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County is flooding risk, specifically flooding that picks up debris to create mudflows. Local and national officials are working to get the word out about this new risk and prepare Grand County for a changed landscape this summer…

A number of watersheds were burned in the East Troublesome Fire, including 94% of the Willow Creek Watershed, 90% of the Stillwater Creek Watershed, 42% of the North Inlet Watershed and 29% of the Colorado River Watershed.

Projections have found that water flow from snowmelt and weather events on the burn scar could be 14 times higher than before. According to Grand County Emergency Manager Joel Cochran, the National Weather Service will be monitoring rainstorms that produce even a little bit of rain…

The US Geological Survey has also produced preliminary hazard assessment across the East Troublesome burn scar. The assessment found that most of the water basins in the burn scar present a moderate risk of debris flow hazards with a high risk in certain areas.

County officials have been working to identify specific risks to property and life.

The first part of that included field surveys for damage assessments, which were completed last week. Using additional modeling, risk for various structures have been further assessed and officials are working to communicate that hazard to land owners.

In her Tuesday update to commissioners, Grand County Water Quality Specialist Katherine Morris added that some narrow canyons and roads near flowing water would likely need formal evacuation plans.

#Colorado Water Plan Scoping Workshop: Agriculture Irrigation Infrastructure — @CWCB_DNR, @DARCAonline, Ag Water Alliance

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register.

Join a roundtable discussion focusing on agricultural irrigation infrastructure issues and solutions to inform the 2022 Colorado Water Plan.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, in partnership with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance and Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance, invites you to participate in a virtual, Colorado Water Plan Update Scoping Workshop focusing on agricultural irrigation infrastructure issues and solutions. The format of the workshop will be an expert roundtable discussion that will inform the scoping process of the Colorado Water Plan Update (more information here: https://engagecwcb.org/colorado-water-plan-update).

The Colorado Water Plan provides a roadmap for addressing water resource challenges; informing strategies, policy development, and programming. The event will be open to the public.

More than 25 million drink from the worst US #water systems, with Latinos most exposed — The Guardian

The water treatment process

Here’s an in-depth report from Emily Holden, Caty Enders, Niko Kommenda, and Vivian Ho that’s running in The Guardian. Click through and read the whole article and to check out the story map detailing the problem. Here’s an excerpt:

Millions of people in the US are drinking water that fails to meet federal health standards, including by violating limits for dangerous contaminants.

Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the US and county-level demographic data.

Water systems in counties that are 25% or more Latino are violating drinking water contamination rules at twice the rate of those in the rest of the country.

America’s worst public water systems – those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years – serve more than 25m Americans, the research shows. An estimated 5.8m of these are Latino.

Texas, where millions of residents lost access to water and power during the recent storm, has the most high-violation systems, followed by California and Oklahoma. The average number of violations is highest in Oklahoma, West Virginia and New Mexico.

The six-month investigation of five years of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other data also shows how:

  • Access to clean drinking water is highly unequal in the US, based on race, income and geography
  • Poorer counties have more than twice as many violation points as wealthy ones
  • Some water systems report hundreds of violation points year after year without any action from the government and without being required to notify customers
  • Rural counties have 28% more violation points than metropolitan ones
  • Scientists and former government officials describe a water regulation system that is broken. “Most policymakers believe compliance with environmental rules is high,” said Cynthia Giles, the former head of enforcement at the EPA under Barack Obama, but that belief was “wrong”.

    Experts are most concerned about systems serving smaller communities. They say Latinos are particularly at risk because they often live near industrial farms in California and the west that have polluted local water with nitrates in runoff from fertilizers and manure. They are also more likely to live in the south-west, where arsenic violations are common.

    2021 #COleg: #Colorado House panel debates making pumped hydro a #renewable energy source — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel (HB21-1052 Define Pumped Hydroelectricity As Renewable Energy)

    Pumped hydroelectric generation illustrated. Graphic via The Mountain Town News

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

    The leading Republican in the Colorado House says it’s about time that pumped hydroelectric power plants are considered recycled energy that counts under the state’s renewable energy standard.

    One of the reasons why it isn’t already counted as a renewable energy is because, unlike conventional hydroelectric power plants, pumped hydro requires additional power to move water uphill to an upper reservoir so that it can flow downhill to a lower reservoir through a turbine to generate electricity.

    House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, told the House Energy & Environment Committee on Wednesday the technology now exists to do that either with traditional renewable energy or at least to make it all work carbon neutral…

    McKean said that most pumped hydroelectric plants don’t generate nearly as much electricity as those fossil fuel plants, but they often are used to help keep power costs to consumers down during peak usage times.

    The beauty of them is they can augment power during peak times when costs are higher, thus reducing those costs, and use less expensive electricity to pump the water back uphill during non-peak times, such as late at night, he said…

    McKean also said the pumped hydroelectric plants don’t require a lot of energy to pump that water uphill, adding that it can be done in a number of ways, including through stored power from solar, wind or rechargeable batteries.

    The measure, HB21-1052, which the committee discussed but hasn’t yet voted on, has support from several rural electric associations, the Colorado Farm Bureau and some environmental groups, such as Trout Unlimited, but only if the bill is amended to ensure guardrails are in place to protect aquatic life from being harmed, something McKean said he plans to do…

    Currently, there are only five hydroelectric pump storage stations operating in the state, all of which are located on the Front Range or Eastern Plains, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    That agency also lists 64 conventional hydroelectric plants operating in Colorado, including many on the Western Slope.

    February 2021 #Drought Update — @ColoradoDNR

    Click here to read the update (Megan Holcomb & Tracy Kosloff):

    Drought conditions in Colorado continue as we reach our ninth straight month of above-average temperatures combined with eleven months of below-average precipitation. The state experienced the 15th warmest October-January on record and noted an overall increased temperature of 2.5°F above Colorado’s 20th century average. Despite the cold weather in mid-February, the month has shown warmer temperatures west of the divide and record-breaking low temperatures to the east. Holyoke reached their 5th coldest temperature on record at -30°F and Lamar recorded their 3rd coldest temperature at -27°F on the 15th of February.

    Colorado Drought Monitor February 23, 2021.

    The U.S. Drought Monitor from February 11th recorded exceptional (D4) drought conditions across 25% of the state, which dropped to 18% on the February 18th monitor. Extreme (D3) drought covers 41% of the state; severe (D2) drought covers 30%; and moderate (D1) drought covers 10%.

    The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Nov 16 to Feb 13 highlight the northern mountains and central northern areas of the state in dry conditions. Eastern Colorado reflects select areas of above average precipitation after recent January snowstorms. However, the 12-month SPI map provides more accurate depictions of the 2020 deficits across the state.

    Through January statewide snowpack was 65% of normal. After a few February storms, statewide snowpack rose to 88% of normal as of Feb. 25th. State reservoir storage is currently at 83% of average. Extreme soil moisture deficits and below normal precipitation means all basins should prepare for a low runoff year. The continuance of drought is expected through 2021 and the State Drought Plan remains in Phase 3 activation.

    Water providers report slightly below average storage levels and near normal winter demands. Drought management planning and potential restrictions are being discussed through multiple coordinated groups. In January, over 120 water providers completed a CWCB needs survey to inform statewide drought coordination and near-term Municipal Water Task Force efforts.

    @NASA Snow Campaign Digs Deep in 2021 #snowpack #runoff

    Measuring snow might seem straightforward, but each environment brings unique challenges for instruments. For example, snowfall in forests gets caught in branches or falls underneath the tree canopy, making it more difficult to measure remotely than snow that falls on an open landscape. To dig into these differences, SnowEx measures snow both from the ground and from the air. Credit: NASA / Jessica Merzdorf

    Here’s the release from NASA:

    Whether the first snowflakes of winter fill you with glee or make you groan, winter snowfall is a crucial water source for drinking, agriculture and hydropower for more than 1 billion people worldwide.

    To plan water management and disaster preparedness during the rest of the year, hydrologists and resource managers need to know how much water each winter’s snowpack holds. Currently, ground or airborne observations of that measurement – called snow-water equivalent, or SWE (pronounced “swee”) – are collected at only a very limited number of locations around the world. However, NASA hopes in the future to launch a global satellite mission to track this precious resource from space.

    To design a mission that can measure all the snow characteristics that make up SWE, scientists need to determine what instrument combination to use, since no one instrument can do it alone. Enter NASA’s SnowEx field campaign, which measures snow properties like depth, density, grain size and temperature using a variety of instruments, on the ground and in the air. A potential future NASA global snow mission will combine multiple remote sensing instruments, field observations and models – and SnowEx is discovering the best combination for the job.

    (NASA’s SnowEx ground and airborne campaign is a multiyear effort using a variety of techniques to study snow characteristics, and the team began their new field study year in January 2021. Not only is SnowEx learning valuable information about how snow properties change by terrain and season, but they are also testing the tools NASA will need to sample snow from space.
    Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Scientific Visualization Studio / Boise State University)

    Download this video in HD formats from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

    Meeting the measurement challenges

    SnowEx team members Megan Mason and Gabrielle Antonioli take snow samples at one of the 2021 research sites, which is only accessible by skis. Credits: NASA / Gabrielle Antonioli

    Measuring snow might seem straightforward, but each environment brings unique challenges for remote sensing instruments. For example, snowfall in forests gets caught in branches or falls underneath the tree canopy, making it more difficult to measure remotely than snow that falls on an open landscape.

    To dig into those differences, SnowEx measures snow from the ground and by air. The ground and air teams take similar measurements to compare their results, gauging how similar instruments perform under different conditions.

    “Airborne observations allow us to collect high-resolution data over a large area, allowing simulation of remote sensing observations we might get from a satellite, at a range of resolutions and spatial extents,” said Carrie Vuyovich, SnowEx 2021 project scientist, lead snow scientist for NASA’s Terrestrial Hydrology Program and a physical scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Ground observations do not have the same spatial coverage, but allow us to validate the sensing technique in multiple, diverse locations, and the small footprint simplifies interpretation.”

    This year, the SnowEx team will deploy airborne lidar, radar and imaging systems to measure snow depth, changes in SWE, and the albedo of the snow surface, while collecting similar and complementary data over the same locations on the ground to compare and validate results. The albedo is the fraction of energy from the Sun reflected from a surface, a critical snow property for modeling melt.

    There are three primary goals for the SnowEx 2021 campaign. The first goal is to repeat the L-band InSAR airborne measurement time series that was cut short by COVID-19 in spring 2020. (InSAR is a radar technique that estimates snow depth similarly to lidar, tracking changes in how long it takes for radar pulses to travel from the aircraft to the bottom of the snowpack.) This year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) instrument will fly on a Gulf Stream 3 (G-3) aircraft weekly over each of six sites in Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Montana, from mid-January through late March.

    In 2022, NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch NISAR, a space-based InSAR mission to study Earth’s surface, including land, water, ice and more. SnowEx’s InSAR explorations will inform future snow research with NISAR and other radar missions. The team will use lidar to validate the InSAR measurements on the ground.

    Secondly, the team will use a spectrometer – an instrument that measures the intensity of visible and infrared radiation as a function of wavelength – to study albedo. Measuring albedo with spectrometers is a component of NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) study, which is developing research initiatives to better understand Earth’s land and water ecosystems as part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s decadal survey. This is the first year SnowEx is directly targeting high-quality albedo observations, which will be focused in forested, steep terrain during the melt period. The team will fly NASA’s Airborne Visible / InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer-Next Generation, or AVIRIS-NG, over two sites in Colorado during March and April to collect these observations.

    A third goal for 2021 is to investigate snow properties in prairie landscapes. Snow is difficult to measure on prairies using the same approaches as over mountains because of their shallower depths.

    “Prairie landscapes are identified as a gap in our remote sensing capabilities,” said Vuyovich. “The substrate – the ground underneath – affects the signals and the ability to measure shallow snow. In addition, the spatial distribution of the snow in that environment is different from other environments, and can be difficult to measure and validate. Wind plays a significant role in redistributing snow across the landscape, which includes fields, crops, stubble, and ditches, leaving deep drifts and bare patches.”

    On the ground, teams dig snow pits – car-sized holes in the snow that reach down to the ground – and measure snow depth, water content, temperature, reflectance and grain size in the pit walls. Other team members on skis or snowshoes take handheld probe measurements of snow depth and albedo with field spectrometers. Using a snow micropenetrometer, measurements of the force on the probe tip provide detailed profiles of snow hardness and microstructure. The ground team also uses radar to rapidly measure how snow properties vary across the area of a typical satellite sensor pixel. The radar systems are mounted on snowmobiles or towed while skiing.

    “This year we have some new instruments, like helicopter- and UAV-based lidar surveys, which allow us to adapt to weather and line up these calibration and validation surveys with the airborne radar. The low cost flight platforms allow more frequent surveys over a given area than from a fixed-wing aircraft, which is important for this time series experiment,” said HP Marshall, an associate professor at Boise State University and SnowEx 2021’s co-project scientist. Airborne lidar works by bouncing laser pulses off the surface and measuring the time it takes for the pulse to return. By tracking differences in timing across the landscape, lidar creates a 3D picture of the height and structure of the surface below. Scientists can calculate snow depth by comparing lidar measurements of the same area when there’s snow, with surveys from when there is no snow.

    In addition to collecting observational data, SnowEx’s modeling research helps the team see how snow changes across different terrains and time.

    “Modeling fills in the gaps in the remote sensing and ground observations,” said Marshall. “In hard-to-measure areas like forests, models can use remote sensing observations in open areas to define precipitation patterns, allowing predictions of snow properties in the forest. Some of the remote sensing approaches that measure depth, such as lidar, also require models to estimate snow density, to allow conversion of depth to SWE. Between remote sensing acquisitions, models continue to simulate snow conditions. The models can be constantly updated when and where the remote sensing and ground observations of snow properties are available – all three approaches work together to provide the best estimates of snow conditions.”

    “People use models for different reasons,” Vuyovich said. “Water managers could use models to help make decisions. NASA’s Terrestrial Hydrology Program and SnowEx efforts will help design what we need from a satellite: what coverage, temporal frequency, accuracy and resolution are needed. Models can also help us fill in the gaps we may get between space-based observations.”

    Navigating a challenging landscape

    SnowEx team member McKenzie Skiles, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, uses a hyperspectral imager to study the light reflected from the snow surface. This gives the team important information about snow composition and particle size. Credits: NASA / McKenzie Skiles

    In the sequential component of each campaign, SnowEx teams at sites across the western United States collect snow data weekly from December through May. Normally, this effort is punctuated by an intensive two- or three-week period of intensive data collection in one area, larger than the other site areas. In order to protect the teams during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, this year’s campaign will only include the time series. At each site, only local teams within a 2-hour drive of their home base will collect ground observations over a limited area, to avoid the need for overnight stays or gathering in large groups.

    “This is a pandemic world, and we’re doing a lot virtually,” Marshall said. “I’m excited that we’re able to navigate this, that we have dedicated local field crews who can do this safely, and that we can still get on the snow. Our committed local field teams include students and researchers from many different government labs and universities, who deploy to their respective fields each week, on the same day as the overflights.”

    Most years, NASA and SnowEx partner with local schools and organizations to support citizen science efforts and educational opportunities, but this year, those activities will happen virtually, through blogs, videos, and remote data collection. SnowEx’s primary outreach partner is the Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool, a nationwide program with 70 sites that reaches 35,000 K-12 students. This year, they have developed virtual snow science activities to allow K-12 students to continue to learn about snow during the pandemic (https://winterwildlands.org/homeschool-snowschool/), as well as follow-on activities for schools that have been to Snow School in the past.

    “We’re excited this is happening,” said Vuyovich. “With all of these challenges, we’re excited that people are going to get out in the field and that we can continue to push forward. I may not see much snow here in D.C., so I’ll be living vicariously through these photos and blogs.”

    To follow SnowEx 2021 in the field, watch https://blogs.nasa.gov/earthexpeditions/.

    To learn more about NASA’s snow research, visit https://snow.nasa.gov/.

    Bison rising in #Colorado: From the prairie, heirloom species are slowly returning to native lands — The Tri-Lakes Tribune

    The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, a genetically pure, Brucella abortus-free bison herd is released in the City of Fort Collins Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Larimer County Red Mountain Open Space, November 1, 2015, National Bison Day.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Seth Boster) via The Tri-Lakes Tribune:

    Sometimes when Jennifer Barfield is having a bad day, she’ll drive north of her Colorado State University lab.

    “I’ll end up in a pasture,” she said — a pasture of bison that she helped bring here to this rolling, open canvas near the Wyoming border.

    Barfield, an assistant professor specializing in conservation biology and reproductive physiology, will stand at a distance and watch some of the 100 or so woolly members of this one-of-a-kind group in Colorado. Occasionally the bison come close, so close she can listen to them breathe and chew grass.

    “It’s no secret I’m pretty attached to the animals we have in our herd,” Barfield said. “So sometimes when challenges arise or things are difficult … it helps me just to go out and spend some time with them. They’re very calm and peaceful and reassuring.

    “And, yeah, I really feel like I draw a lot of my motivation and strength from reminding myself of what we’ve done, and that it’s a good thing, and being out there with the animals just really confirms that for me.”

    Jennifer Barfield, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says the growth of the herd has allowed them to share bison with tribal and conservation groups. Photos by William A. Cotton

    A multigovernment collaboration based in Fort Collins calls this a conservation herd, genetic flag-bearers of the original, once-proud bison that roamed the plains in the millions before being hunted to near extinction during white man’s westward expansion. Descendants of those indigenous bison have been largely confined to Yellowstone National Park. They reportedly occupy less than 1% of their historic range.

    But with assisted reproductive technologies steered by Barfield, a growing number of bison with those heirloom genes have set hoof again in Colorado and beyond — pure relatives, without cattle inbreeding.

    The extermination of the American Bison 1870-1889 via http://http://all-that-is-interesting.com/

    Five years ago, on the contiguous lands of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space, the conservation herd began with a male calf and nine adult females, some of which were the result of artificial pregnancies. Sperm and eggs from Yellowstone bison were cleaned by Barfield and her team preceding embryo transfer. This was to ensure the removal of the pathogen causing brucellosis, the disease notoriously plaguing that herd…

    The sperm and egg cleaning treatment was built upon decades of technological advancements at Colorado State. Assisted reproduction development was mostly for the sake of livestock; techniques are routine in the beef and dairy industries, similar to the in vitro fertilization process people know.

    It just so happened that land managers of Soapstone and Red Mountain had been looking for native herbivores. Grazing, managers knew, was important to soil and vegetation and overall ecological balance — balance that prevailed before these lands were bison kill sites in the 1800s, their bones left behind.

    But there was an even greater mission hatched here five years ago, said Meegan Flenniken, with Larimer County’s Natural Resources Department.

    “Our ultimate goal was really to create a herd that could act as a seed herd, to help establish bison with these heritage genetics elsewhere,” she said…

    The lineage late last year expanded to a nature preserve in southeastern Colorado, where 10 bison of the conservation herd were transplanted. In the coming months, a bigger group is due for protected prairie in Montana.

    Facebook’s news blockade in Australia shows how tech giants are swallowing the web — The Conversation


    Facebook’s decision to shut off sharing of Australian news made headlines across the nation.
    AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

    Jennifer Grygiel, Syracuse University

    When Facebook disabled Australians’ access to news articles on its platform, and blocked sharing of articles from Australian news organizations, the company moved a step closer to killing the World Wide Web – the hyperlink-based system of freely connecting online sites created in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

    Though the social media giant has said it will return to the negotiating table and restore news for now, the company has shown its hand – and how it is continuing to reshape the web.

    As a social media scholar, I see clearly that the internet in 2021 is not the same open public sphere that Berners-Lee envisioned. Rather, it is a constellation of powerful corporate platforms that have come to dominate how people use the internet, what information they get and who is able to profit from it.

    Tim Berners-Lee
    Tim Berners Lee, the man who in 1989 invented the hyperlink-interconnected World Wide Web.
    Paul Clarke via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

    Paying for news

    The Australian government’s legislative efforts aim to support the news industry by helping to broker a deal whereby Facebook would pay Australian news organizations for content posted on its platform by users. Right now, Facebook isn’t required to pay for news in any way, and the company objected to this new potential cost of business.

    Berners-Lee warned the Australian government the proposed law could undermine free linking, which he called a “fundamental principle of the web.” Facebook’s own statement of self-defense focused on Berners-Lee’s argument, saying Facebook provides value to news organizations by linking to them. But their statements show that neither has acknowledged that Facebook has, for many people, effectively become the web.

    Back in the 1980s, Berners-Lee envisioned the web as a network of community-minded academic researchers sharing their knowledge quickly and conveniently across the world. The main mechanism for this was the hyperlink – text that, when clicked on, led readers to something they were interested in, or to supporting material on the actual source’s website. This meant information was freely exchanged, with attribution. The priority was helping users find the material they wanted, wherever it was online.

    Berners-Lee’s design serves the reader, but not everyone was as public-spirited: Companies like Facebook have been moving away from this principle since the web’s founding. These corporate platforms are designed to capture and dominate users’ attention – and turn it into money.

    A Facebook news post
    A Facebook post often includes key news content – not just a link.
    The Conversation screenshot of the Guardian’s Facebook page, CC BY-ND

    Keeping users on the site

    When a user posts a link on Facebook, it’s not just a hyperlink as Berners-Lee envisioned. It’s much more advanced, displaying information from the linked page, including, for news stories, a headline, a main image and sometimes a summary of the news users might see if they clicked the link. In this way, users can get a lot of the information without ever leaving Facebook, hurting news organizations’ revenues.

    On Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, users’ options are even more restricted. People can post photos and text, but cannot directly share links to other websites. The only active links in a post are internal, for tagging others on Instagram and hashtags.

    In my view, both cases show that Facebook doesn’t really want an interconnected web: It wants to keep its users on its own platforms. Facebook displays valuable information, but if people don’t click through, or there is nothing to effectively click on, then those who actually created the content will continue to have a hard time making money off their work.

    An Australian media company's Facebook page had no articles on Feb. 18.
    The Facebook page for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. had no articles visible to users on Feb. 18.
    AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

    Possible ways forward

    The situation in Australia is a significant opportunity to examine how much power Facebook has over the ways people can seek information online.

    News media may decide to bid farewell to Facebook, which provides about one-fifth of traffic to media sites in Australia, and not necessarily much revenue in other parts of the world. They might seek other options for digital distribution of their content. But in the near term they may need financial help from somewhere if they have become too dependent on Facebook.

    Or news organizations could negotiate with Facebook directly in deals and avoid restrictive laws, as the proposed legislation is not even final yet.

    News publishers could also ask regulators to help them gain more control over how news content is presented on platforms to increase link referral traffic, which is key to generating revenue. A return to simpler hyperlinks – and adding them to Instagram – could help more users click through on news stories while preserving the principles of the web. Just because advanced technology exists doesn’t mean it’s helpful in all situations or good. But then again, a basic old-timey solution may not work for those trapped in the “attention economy.

    Editor’s note: The Conversation U.S. is an independent media nonprofit, one of eight news organizations around the world that share a common mission, brand and publishing platform. The Conversation Australia has publicly lobbied in support of the Australian government’s proposal.The Conversation

    Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications (Social Media) & Magazine, News and Digital Journalism, Syracuse University

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.