Great US Ecological Catastrophes

Geog.-492A (three units)

Spring Semester

Tuesdays, 9:30–10:45 AM, Tree-Ring Building 110 (ground-floor classroom)
Thursdays, 9:30–10:20 AM, Shantz 338 (OSCR computer-equipped classroom)

Course Details

For this course, human-caused ecological catastrophes are defined as slowly developing, negative environmental changes that were caused at least to some degree by human actions. They were widespread spatially and long-term temporally, and they impacted society greatly.

Five past catastrophes in US history of particular note ("Great") will be covered in depth:

  • Dust Bowl
  • Eradication of the Passenger Pigeon
  • Wholescale Alteration of Forest Fire Across Western Forests
  • Loss of Perfect Trees: The American Chestnut and the American Elm
  • Mobilization of Lead (Pb) in the Environment
One modern-day issue will also be analyzed for its potential to become an environmental catastrophe:
  • Global warming
Two principal methods of teaching/learning will be employed in this course:

  • Strategically reading non-fiction sources, including whole books, popular magazine articles, and scientific journal articles
  • Making videos (fear not, everyone can do this, it's not hard)

Instructor Paul Sheppard, Assoc. Prof. of Dendrochronology
407 Tree-Ring Building, 621-6474, sheppard @
Office hours: MW 11:00 AM, or by appointment

Prerequisites Upper-division (junior or senior) standing
Tier 1 and Tier 2 Natural Sciences completed

Course Objectives
  • Become aware of selected past human-caused ecological catastrophes in US history
  • Quantify ecological catastrophes in terms of geographical extent, temporal length, intensity, and societal impact
  • Compare and contrast the modern-day issue of global warming with those past ecological catastrophes
  • Read extensively on one past ecological catastrophe, including at least one non-fiction book
  • Read more generally on all selected ecological catastrophes, including articles from lay magazines as well as scientific journals
  • Develop video production skills, including displaying movies and still images, adding text and narration, and including music
  • Collaborate in small groups to produce a 5-minute video on one of the selected ecological catastrophe
  • Peer review the videos produced by fellow students on the other selected ecological catastrophes

Course Outcome This course will serve as an upper-division elective for majors in History, Environmental Sciences (Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences), and Environmental Studies (School of Geography and Development)

Six 1-page essays, with citations

Two 1-minute videos

Five in-progress videos

Four 1-page peer review of other videos

One 5-minute final group video

One 1-page book review,
which implies reading one of our books

All semester: In-class attendance and active participation







  Late work will be accepted, but will be graded down according to how late it is.

Examinations There will be no exams in this class.

Fieldtrips For each selected ecological catastrophe, a short trip in and around Tucson will be taken. Each small group will take only the trip relevant to their chosen catastrophe:

• Dust Bowl: A local farm to view arid-land agriculture and dust abatement measures, and interview an expert
• Passenger Pigeon: International Wildlife Museum, to see a mounted Passenger Pigeon, and interview an expert
• Forest Fire in the West: Mt. Lemmon, to see burn area of the 2003 Aspen Fire, and interview an expert
• Loss of Perfect Trees: Reid Park, to see Aleppo pines, and interview an expert
• Lead in the Environment: An EPA air monitoring site for airborne lead, and interview an expert

Transportation will be provided using UA vehicles. A student course fee of ~$10.00 will cover the vehicle expenses.

Attendance and Participation Attendance in class will be recorded and active participation in class will be expected.

Absences for sincerely held religious belief, observance, or practice will be accommodated where reasonable.

Absences pre-approved by the UA Dean of Students (or dean's designee) will be honored.

Readings and Texts No single textbook exists for this course, but this course will be reading-intensive. Students will be expected to read at least one book on the ecological catastrophe chosen to study in-depth. These books are easily and economically obtainable on-line.

Students will also be expected to read many shorter articles on all five ecological catastrophes. These articles will come from popular lay magazines as well as scientific journals and will be made available from this course website as password-protected pdfs.

Special Materials Producing videos requires software dedicated to this task. The UA provides all students access to the Adobe Suite, including the video software that will be used in this class. It is free to download, and it is also installed and freely accessible on computers of the UA Libraries.

  • Adhere to the ABOR code of conduct and the UA Code of Academic Integrity.
  • Adhere to the UA Threatening Behavior by Students Policy prohibiting threats of physical harm to any member of the University community, including to oneself.
  • Adhere to the UA Policy creating and maintaining an environment free of discrimination and harassment.
  • If you must arrive late or leave early (something not encouraged), please do so quietly.
  • If you have a phone (who doesn't?), please turn it off during class. If you must talk on your phone (does anyone talk on the phone anymore?) or text message someone during lecture, please do that outside of class.
  • If you must read the newspaper (anyone?), tackle the Wildcat crossword and sudoku puzzles (anyone?), study for other courses (occasionally), sleep (lots), surf the web, update Facebook, Farmville, shop Ebay, play online poker, watch DVD movies, binge watch Thrones, or do anything else not related to this course during our lecture time, please do it elsewhere, not in class. These activities are obvious (click here for an example) and are officially considered disruptive. See here for a UA student opinion about surfing the web in class.
  • Click here to see research saying people who multitask really aren't good at multitasking.
  • Racism, sexism, or violence will not be tolerated in the classroom.
  • It's acceptable—even encouraged—to collaborate with fellow students in this course. However, cheating will not be tolerated, including but not limited to:
    • Copying work of fellow students.
    • Plagiarism (click here for a definition of plagiarism).
  • Special note on plagiarism: Some definitions of plagiarism imply that all that is necessary to avoid it when copying someone else's text is to put it in quotes and then cite the original source. While technically this may be true and acceptable in some academic settings, copying someone else's text (put in quotes or otherwise) is hereby NOT acceptable in this course. This includes text from fellow students or students from past semesters, published articles or newspapers, and web sites. In short: Citing yes, copying and/or quoting no.
  • Another note on plagiarism: If you'd like a fictional account of plagiarism, try Stephen King's, "Secret Window, Secret Garden," definitely a horror story. The movie adaptation, "Secret Window" with Johnny Depp and John Turturro, was good, too.

  • In compliance with Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), students who require special assistance will be suitably accommodated. Students must be registered with the University and a minimum of 5 days notice for such accommodations is requested.
  • Students requiring special accommodation: Please notify the professor and provide the Disability Resource Center letter within the first few days of the course.
  • Student athletes and others who need signatures periodically: Please notify the professor that you'll be needing signatures generally, and please alert the professor before a particular signing period is due so that your most up-to-date grade can be calculated.

Subject to Change Information contained in this course syllabus, other than the grade and absence policies, may be subject to change with reasonable advance notice.

Course Schedule


Identifying and Characterizing Human-Caused Ecological Catastrophes

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic ():
• Smithsonian ():
• Natural History ():

Scientific Journal Articles
• 2006: Environmental catastrophe—Past and present

• 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Basics of Video Production

• The UA Adobe Suite: UA Office of Digital Learning

• Compiling still images, text, narration, and music into a video: It's not as hard as it seems

• 1-minute video on anything, with still photos, text, narration, and music
Ecological Catastrophe: The Dust Bowl

• Timothy Egan: The Worst Hard Time (search online outlets)

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic (September 1984): Beyond the Dust Bowl
• National Geographic (September 2012): The new Dust Bowl
• Smithsonian (June 1989): The Dust Bowl: Half a century ago
• Natural History ():

Scientific Journal Articles
• 2007 Technology and Culture: Review of "The Worst Hard Time"

Field Trip
• ½-day trip to a local farm to see arid-land agriculture and dust abatement and agriculture in an arid environment, and interview an expert

• Small group: begin producing video, submitting your progress every Friday until "draft" day
• Others: 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Ecological Catastrophe: Eradication of the Passenger Pigeon

• James Ralph Johnson: The Last Passenger (ILL, or search online outlets)
 – Kirkus Review: Review of "The Last Passenger"

• Alan Eckert: The Silent Sky—The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (ILL, or search online outlets)
 – The Wilson Bulletin: Review of "The Silent Sky"

• Joel Greenberg: A Feathered River Across the Sky—The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction (UA Library: QL696.C6 G74 2014)
 – The Independent Review: Review of "A Feathered River"
 – Environmental History: Review of "A Feathered River"
 – Journal of Field Ornithology: Review of "A Feathered River"
 – New York Review of Books: Review of "A Feathered River" (or a web version)

• Mark Avery: A Message From Martha—The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and Its Relevance Today (ILL, or search online outlets)
 – The Well-Read Naturalist: Review of "A Message From Martha"
 – Mark Avery: Author's website

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic (September 1936): An ad invoking the Passenger Pigeon
• National Geographic (October 1936): Game Birds of Prairie, Forest, and Tundra
• National Geographic (August 2018): Extinction of bird species, including the Passenger Pigeon
• Smithsonian ():
• Natural History ():
• Online: Project Passenger Pigeon
• Online: From Billions to None
• Online: US Fish & Wildlife Service: From Many, to Few, to None
• Online: Smithsonian: The Passenger Pigeon
• Online: Audubon Society: 13 Memories of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon
• A Passenger Pigeon cartoon

Scientific Journal Articles
• 1910 American Midland Naturalist: The Passenger Pigeon
• 1912 The Auk: A last word on the Passenger Pigeon
• 1913 Bird-Lore: Observations about the Passenger Pigeon
• 1914 Outing: What became of all the pigeons?
• 1930 Science News-Letter: Passenger Pigeon observations by John J. Audubon
• 1947 Silent Wings: A memorial to the Passenger Pigeon (images and photos)
• 1947 Silent Wings: Aldo Leopold: On a monument to the pigeon
• 1947 Silent Wings: The Passenger Pigeon in Wisconsin
• 1947 Silent Wings: Attitude in conservation
• 1947 Silent Wings: The great Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon nesting of 1871
• 1980 Biological Conservation: Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, contemporary conservation
• 1980 Contributions in Science: Passenger Pigeon bones found in archaeological sites of New Mexico
• 1985 American Birds: Gone forever
• 1986 Quaternary Research: Role of Passenger Pigeons in the rapid Holocene migrations of nut trees
• 2003 Conservation Biology: Effects of Passenger Pigeon on presettlement forests
• 2014 Frontiers in Ecology: A century later: lessons learned from the Passenger Pigeon
• 2014 Wildlife Society Bulletin: 100th Anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon extinction: lessons
• 2017 Ethics, Policy & Environment: De-extinction—Should we bring back the Passenger Pigeon
• 2017 Ethics, Policy & Environment: We can't bring it back

Field Trip
• ½-day trip to the International Wildlife Museum to see a Passenger Pigeon, and interview an expert
 – This museum has an admission fee: $4.00.

• Small group: begin producing video, submitting an in-progress video every Friday until "draft" day
• Others: 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Ecological Catastrophe: Wholescale Alteration of Forest Fire Across the American West

• Timothy Egan: The Big Burn (UA Library E757 E325 2010)

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic (October 1899): Pinchot: Forests and fire
• National Geographic (January 1911): Protecting forests from fires
• National Geographic (July 1912): Graves: The fight against forest fires
• National Geographic (July 1946): Fire lookouts
• National Geographic (July 1968): The 1967 fire year
• National Geographic (February 1989): The 1988 Yellowstone Fire
• National Geographic (September 1996): Fire—A new awareness
• National Geographic (July 2008): The West—Always on fire now
• Smithsonian (January 1994): Where there's Smokey, there's never any fire
• Natural History ():
• Scientific American (April 1917): What to do to prevent enormous forest-fire losses
• Trail Guide: The Pulaski Tunnel (Wallace, Idaho) Guide

Scientific Journal Articles
• Ecology 2005: Federal forest-fire policy in the United States

Field Trip
• ½-day trip to the 2003 Aspen Fire burn area, and interview an expert

• Small group: begin producing video, submitting an in-progress video every Friday until "draft" day
• Others: 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Ecological Catastrophe: Loss of Perfect Trees: The American Chestnut and the American Elm

Books: Chestnut
• Susan Freinkel: American Chestnut—The Perfect Tree (UA Library SD397.A48 F74 2007)

Books: Elm
• American Forestry Association: The American Elm

• Thomas Campanella: Republic of Shade—The American Elm (search online outlets)
 – Introduction: The glory of New England
 – Chapter 6: City of Elms
 – Chapter 8: Boulevard of Broken Trees
 – Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians: Review of "Republic of Shade"

• Rachel Carson: Silent Spring (UA Library QH545.P4 C38 1987)
 – Chapter 8: And No Birds Sing

Popular Magazine Articles: Chestnut
• National Geographic (February 1990): Chestnut: back from the brink
• Scientific American (December 1906): A disease which threatens the American chestnut tree
• Scientific American (March 1912): American chestnut tree blight
• Scientific American (January 1914): The chestnut blight
• Scientific American (July 1990): Chestnut blight
• Smithsonian (September 2004): Chestnutty

Popular Magazine Articles: Elm
• National Geographic (November 1955): The American elm: Symbol of dignity and grace
• Scientific American (November 1976): Urban trees: American elm
• Scientific American (August 1981): Dutch elm disease
• Smithsonian (June 1998): Racing to revive our embattled elms
• Natural History ():

Scientific Journal Articles: Chestnut
• 1926 Science Newsletter: American chestnut now near extinction
• 1974 Journal of Forest History: Death of American chestnut
• 1982 Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club: Ecological significance of American chestnut
• 1999 American Biology Teacher: American chestnut blight: an agent of biological & cultural catastrophe

Scientific Journal Articles: Elm
• 1934 Science: The Dutch elm disease
• 1935 Current Science: The Dutch elm disease
• 1936 Science News Letter: Even dead trees (elms) present Dutch elm disease menace
• 1937 Science: Eradication of Dutch elm disease
• 1951 Journal of Wildlife Management: Effects on wildlife of DDT for controlling Dutch elm disease
• 1960 Journal of Wildlife Management: Songbird breeding populations affected by DDT for Dutch elm disease
• 1960 Journal of Wildlife Management: Songbird mortality due to Dutch elm disease control
• 1961 Cranbrook Institute of Science: Bird mortality in Dutch elm disease program
• 1965 Science: Bird mortality after spraying for Dutch elm disease with DDT
• 1979 Environmental Conservation: Environmental implications of Dutch elm disease
• 1999 Forestry Chronicle: The American elm and Dutch elm disease

Special: Newsclips About Tucson's Aleppo Pines
• 2018: Tree by tree, Tucson losing big shade trees
• 2018: Fungus might be involved in Aleppo pine needle problems
• 2015: Bark beetles have spread to Aleppo pines in Green Valley
• 2015: Pine engraver beetles in the low elevation Sonoran Desert in Tucson
• 2014: Beetles ravaging Tucson's big pines

Field Trip
• ½-day trip to Reid Park to see Aleppo pines, and interview an expert

• Small group: begin producing video, submitting an in-progress video every Friday until "draft" day
• Others: 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Ecological Catastrophe: Mobilization of Lead (Pb) in the Environment

• Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner: The Lead Wars (ILL, or search online outlets)

• Lydia Denworth: Toxic Truth—A Scientist, a Doctor, and the Battle Over Lead (ILL, or search online outlets)
 – Online review of "Toxic Truth"
 – Review of "Toxic Truth"

• Mona Hanna-Attisha: What the Eyes Don't See (ILL, or search online outlets)
 – Chapter 11: Public Health Enemy #1

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic (June 1995): Lead Pollution
• National Geographic (September 1927): Ethyl Lead
• Smithsonian ():
• Natural History ():
• The Nation (March 20, 2000): The Secret History of Lead
• Newsweek (July 15, 1991): Lead and Your Kids
• Wikipedia: Claire Patterson
• Wikipedia: Herbert Needleman
• Doonesbury (1982): Relevant cartoons
• Another lead cartoon

Scientific Journal articles
• 1931 British Medical Journal: Cumulative effects of infinitesimal doses of lead
• 1965 Archives of Environmental Health: Contaminated and natural lead environments of man
• 1979 New England Journal of Medicine: Reduced performance of children with elevated lead
 – 1979 New England Journal of Medicine: Editorial about Needleman et al.
 – 1979 New England Journal of Medicine: Commentary and response on Needleman et al.
 – A correction to Needleman et al. (1979) was published in 1994, appended to the original article
 – 1993 Ethics & Behavior: On being a whistleblower: The Needleman case
• 1983 Lead vs. Health: Trends in blood lead levels in the US from 1976 to 1980
• 1987 Pediatrics: Pediatric lead poisoning—The silent epidemic continues
• 1990 New England Journal of Medicine: Long-term effects of exposure to low doses of lead in childhood
• 2000 Environmental Research: Removal of lead from gasoline
• 2002 Neurotoxicology and Teratology: Bone lead levels in adjudicated delinquents
• 2005 International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health: Lead in gasoline, a public health disaster
• 2016 American Journal of Pediatric Health: Elevated blood lead levels in children of Flint, Michigan
• 2017 Environmental Health Perspectives: Herbert Needleman, in memoriam

Field Trip
• ½-day trip to an EPA air monitoring station, and interview an expert

• Small group: begin producing video, submitting an in-progress video every Friday until "draft" day
• Others: 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
Modern-day Global Warming: Compare and Contrast with Past Catastrophes

Popular Magazine Articles
• National Geographic (April 2017): Climatic Change—7 Things to Know
• National Geographic (July 2018): Climate—The more things change …
• Smithsonian ():
• Natural History ():

Scientific Journal Articles

• 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
First Draft Video:
Dust Bowl (with Global Warming)

• 1-page peer review commentary on this draft video
First Draft Video:
Eradication of the Passenger Pigeon (with Global Warming)

• 1-page peer review commentary on this draft video
First Draft Video:
Wholescale Alteration of Forest Fire Across the American West (with Global Warming)

• 1-page peer review commentary on this draft video
First Draft Video:
Loss of Perfect Trees: The American Elm and American Chestnut (with Global Warming)

• 1-page peer review commentary on this draft video
First Draft Video:
Mobilization of Lead (Pb) in the Environment (with Global Warming)

• 1-page peer review commentary on this draft video
Any other modern-day events that might be turning into catastrophes?

• 1-page single-spaced essay with 5+ sources cited
• 1-page review of the book you read this semester
• 1-minute video tutorial on any video technique you learned this semester
In-class Premiere of Final Videos, With Discussion, Open to Guests

• Poll of visitors: Based on student videos, which "catastrophe" merits the moniker, Worst Ever?

Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721