Monthly Archives: August 2013

Life Pulse

Standard

I’m going to be posting a bit less frequently for the next couple of weeks until September 1 – not going away, just not here quite as often. Champagnewhisky is putting its feet up for summer.

Here are some images of our planet’s life pulse, the advance and retreat of the seasons across the hemispheres. John Nelson downloaded 12 cloud-free Earth images for 2004, one for each month, from the Nasa Visible Earth, stitched them together, and created moving mosaics of the Earth’s cycles. It’s worth heading over to Nelson’s own description of how and why he made this project – funny, insightful and well-written, with lots of cool links.

Breathing Earth from above Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth from above
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

The movement of ice and the annual ebb and flow of vegetation is hypnotic, and now I want more. I want to see various years placed next to one another, to compare and contrast. I want animated ocean images of hurricane seasons and calm doldrums. I want a moveable feast of the ocean’s great currents, laid out in front of me.

Breathing Earth - Various views Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth – Various views
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Nelson says the images look to him like the Earth is breathing – for me it looks like a tidal flow, but the essence is the same: The Earth has life cycles, just like the rest of us.

 

 

The one that got away

Standard

In honor of the unnerving, unexpected and unidentified insect I found in my attic yesterday – which I am sorry to say got away and is likely breeding more of its kind up there – I thought I’d post a work of earth art that might have been made by this many-legged, hairy, slithering, liquid piece of large live exoskeleton (in my dreams of last night, anyway), but which was actually made by a talented Swiss artist named Sylvain Meyer.

Art: Sylvain Meyer via: eMorfes

Art: Sylvain Meyer
via: eMorfes

 

Curlew Farewell

Standard
Flocks of Eskimo Curlew Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Flocks of Eskimo Curlew
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The last time an Eskimo Curlew was seen and positively identified, it suffered the same fate as when it was first officially identified and illustrated by John James Audubon himself: It was shot and then examined by an ornithologist.

Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) Source: BirdLife International

Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis)
Source: BirdLife International

It’s been exactly fifty years since that last bird was felled, and as such, it has attained a sad definition threshold for moving from the ‘Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)’ list to that of ‘Probably Extinct’. Known breeding grounds have been empty since the late 1930’s.

So stop the clocks for just a moment and consider the once-abundant Eskimo Curlew that replaced the hapless Passenger Pigeon as the game bird of choice (until it was put under protection in 1916), ponder the swift demise of the Eskimo Curlew that once darkened skies with their density, and which disappeared with alarming and almost baffling rapidity.

It wasn’t just the hunting that led the Eskimo Curlew down that long path of no return, it was two other key factors, combined with uncontrolled hunting.

Suggested migratory route of the Eskimo Curlew. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Suggested migratory route of the Eskimo Curlew.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during its migration northward in April and May, the Eskimo Curlew depended almost exclusively on the abundant insect foods of native tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. In the late 1800s, these critical habitat patches were virtually eliminated by wholesale conversion of prairies to agricultural fields and by widespread suppression of wildfire.

“(Also), extinction of the Eskimo Curlew’s primary spring food item, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper”, played a key role.

The Eskimo Curlew branch of the Tree of Life. Search the Curlew's name to zoom in further and see its status, along with that of its nearest relatives. Source: OneZoom (Birds)

The Eskimo Curlew branch of the Tree of Life. Search the Curlew’s name to zoom in further and see its status, along with that of its nearest relatives.
Source: OneZoom (Birds)

Over on the OneZoom phylogenetic tree of life, the Eskimo Curlew is still marked in the more hopeful red of ‘Critically Endangered’ rather than the funereal ‘Extinct’ blue of the long dark night – the Curlew still hasn’t been officially declared gone for good. The State of the World’s Birds, released by BirdLife International this June, stated that one in eight bird species around the world is currently on the brink of extinction.

Perhaps a small Eskimo Curlew cluster has taken up a hermetic residence somewhere unexpected, and will surprise us all with a miraculous re-appearance. Until then, we have the famous illustration by Audubon, who prophetically compared the Eskimo curlew to the passenger pigeon while both species still filled the skies.

Wildlife artist John James Audubon's famous portrait illustration of two Eskimo curlews as seen during his 1833 research expedition to Labrador. Photograph by: Handout , Postmedia News

Wildlife artist John James Audubon’s famous portrait illustration of two Eskimo curlews as seen during his 1833 research expedition to Labrador.
Photograph by: Handout , Postmedia News

More:

Great article on about the Eskimo Curlew and its significance on Canada.com – From endangered to extinct: the tragic flight of the Eskimo curlew by Randy Boswell

 

Trash Tsunami

Standard

This certainly isn’t the case for all beaches and surf areas surrounding Java, but…photographer Zak Noyle was shooting Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya in a remote, mostly uninhabited bay and this is what they found.

This shot was taken in the formerly pristine waters off of Java, Indonesia. According to several sources, the 17,000 islands of Indonesia have a serious problem with trash disposal. Java, with a population of 135 million people, is the world’s most populated island.

Many areas lack reliable, clean waste disposal systems, so many people burn their trash, including plastic garbage. Whatever doesn’t get burned ends up in the most unlikely places, while strong currents can carry trash far from any town or city where it was generated.

Looks an ideal testing ground for new ideas for waste disposal infrastructure and technologies on limited land mass.

More:

HuffingtonPost article – Photographer Captures Waves of Trash in Indonesia by Gabriela Aoun

Backwards Boom

Standard

Our region has been in the midst of a large-scale building boom for many years now, a result of the success of the Lake Geneva area in attracting business. There are apartment complexes and large suburban tracts under development at every turn.

Over the past decade, the land prices for this area of France surrounding Geneva has seen some of the highest prices in the country, rivalling prime areas of the French Riviera and Paris.

The dream - A screenshot from the web sales site of a nearby development underway. A multitude of vague green promises are made on the sales prospect.

The dream – A screenshot from the web sales site of a nearby development underway. A multitude of vague green promises are made on the sales prospect.

And yet – the area is covered with concrete and cinder-block construction with little insulation, thin plastic window frames, a lack of solar panels, and so on and so forth. The French mountain villages and towns on both sides of Lake Geneva are all subject to long, cold winters, and very hot summers, i.e. a climate in which energy efficient construction would be of particular benefit.

When I look at the concrete buildings that abound in my adopted home – all of which will stand for at least another 20-40 years – I can’t help but think that they will all need expensive retrofitting at some point, or will become woefully expensive to maintain as temperatures fluctuate and fuel prices rise. By that time, the original developers of the projects will have long made their profits and the cost will fall to the current homeowners to comply with future, more stringent energy and carbon footprint regulations.

The current reality.  Photo: PK Read

The current reality of the same development.
Photo: PK Read

Yes, France does already have some good energy regulations on the books, but I’ve watched the buildings go up and seen how they are made – and I’ve read how they are presented by the various development companies online. The gaps between the two are sometimes as askew as a badly-hung door, even if I assume that, at the very least, they must be in minimal regulatory compliance. They stand in stark contrast to the few, very distinctly green developments, which look different even during the construction phase.

Green building regulations and their implementation and enforcing compliance are works in progress all over the world. As a native Californian, I grew up with ever-increasing building regulations when it comes to energy efficiency, and I know that many homeowners consider them onerous.

But in light of the massive construction boom here and in so many other places, the lack of more intensive, forward-looking building regulations and their enforcement just seems short-sighted.

More:

The Atlantic article on the challenges of green building regulations – Green Building’s Growing Pains by Jeffrey Spivak 

A listing of building energy codes in France from the very informative Sustainable Buildings Centre.

 

Barrel Art, Without the Whisky

Standard

I feel that so many traditional handicrafts qualify as art, and one of these still has to be barrel-making – the cooper’s art. When it comes to whisky, the type of barrel used and what was previously stored in the barrel make up a good portion of the art of the spirit.

Cooper's workshop, Open air museum Roscheider Hof, Konz, Germany Source: Helge Klaus Rieder

Cooper’s workshop, Open air museum Roscheider Hof, Konz, Germany
Source: Helge Klaus Rieder

A few years ago, Glenfiddich commissioned Barrel Art from Johnson Banks, and I liked some of the results. All are quite clearly made from whisky barrels.

And then there’s this wood-less piece:

Johnson Banks Barrel Art - Double Helix Source: Johnson Banks

Johnson Banks Barrel Art – Double Helix
Source: Johnson Banks

Here are some more recognizable barrels from a set commissioned by Brown-Forman Travel Retailer:

Brown Forman Barrels Source: Bornrich

Brown Forman Barrels
Source: Bornrich

From Wikipedia:

“Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.

“A cask is any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge in the middle of the container. A barrel is a type of cask, so the terms “barrel-maker” and “barrel-making” only refer to one aspect of a cooper’s work.”

These days, coopers are mainly called upon to make barrels for wine or spirits, and most barrels are no longer produced by hand.

Many years ago, I found an old example of a cooper’s work in Germany, a well-used, hand-made wooden washing tub that had been dismantled. It’s not quite whisky barrel art, but I made a small shuttered window in a door that had been permanently bricked up in the old stone tower of our house.

A stone door in our tower, with an installation we put in. The stripes on the wood doors are from the metal bands, the frame of the piece is from the bottom of the old wash barrel. Photo: PK Read

A stone door in our tower, with an installation we put in. The stripes on the wood doors are from the metal bands, the frame of the piece is from the bottom of the old wash barrel. 
Photo: PK Read

The interior of the barrel window.

The burnt-looking stripes mark where the level of the water and soap once churned. A tiny Balvenie dram with lavender from the garden. Old ceramic plates we found in the house form the mosaic. Photo: PK Read

The burnt-looking stripes mark where the level of the water and soap once churned. A tiny Balvenie dram with lavender from the garden. Old ceramic plates we found in the house form the mosaic.
Photo: PK Read

More:

A video on barrel-making:

Lazy Afternoon

Standard

It’s a lazy afternoon here – the rains have stopped (for now); it’s hot, but not too hot, a fluffy cloud kind of day to not do very much.

Here are a few shots from the farm right next door on a lazy August afternoon.

Phlox Photo: PK Read

Phlox
Photo: PK Read

This wall, the outer wall of a woodshed, is in a dormant state right now and looks like it’s just a place to hang wire – but during the harvest season, it is filled with shelves of squash, pumpkins, piles of string for binding together various vines.

Barn wall Photo: PK Read

Barn wall
Photo: PK Read

Out in the orchard, sheep were dozing against one of the woodpiles.

Sleepy sheep Photo: PK Read

Sleepy sheep
Photo: PK Read

Other sheep from the flock saw me from across the orchard and came running, hoping for a few chunks of old bread.

Eager sheep Photo: PK Read

Eager sheep
Photo: PK Read

I obliged. Who could say ‘no’ to those sheep eyes?

Begging sheep Photo: PK Read

Begging sheep
Photo: PK Read

Have a good weekend!

 

 

What we talk about when we talk about war (III)

Standard

As with any kind of accounting process, in order to track changes in the environment and climate, a certain level of baseline knowledge is necessary – a point of departure.

The past decades have seen a steady compilation of information that allows society to gain a better grasp on the state of the planet, human impact, and possible trajectories. Conflict zones present particular difficulties – not only does war compromise the human and natural environment on almost every level, from bombing to landmines, from water and land pollution to habitat destruction, but it can also render environmental research into a lethal undertaking.

A FARC rebel stands guard on a hill in Montealegre Colombia.  Credit: Juan B. Diaz/AP

A FARC rebel stands guard on a hill in Montealegre Colombia.
Credit: Juan B. Diaz/AP

One place where research slowed to a trickle was Colombia. According to a new article out in Science, the country estimated to “rank first in the world in number of flowering plants, second in birds, and sixth in mammals” saw environmental accounting all but stop during the years of armed guerilla warfare and intense drug-trafficking from the mid-1980s until recently.

But with conflicts receding in some areas (though not all), scientists have started re-entering the field. And they have some interesting observations.

 A 2012 study reported on a decade's changes in forest cover in and around Colombia. Source: Science - AAAS


A 2012 study reported on a decade’s changes in forest cover in and around Colombia.
Source: Science – AAAS

Aside from the sheer number of new species to be named, bioprospecting bonanzas and new insights into a place of extremely diverse climates and topologies, there has been an unexpected benefit – if one cares to call it that – of the years of disarray: The areas that were no-go zones also avoided the massive land development and deforestation that has taken place across the South American continent. Areas previously under cultivation have seen reforestation.

And these effects will probably be temporary, because as areas become conflict-free, developers will follow.

From the Science article:

“As fighting ebbs, road builders, miners, and ranchers are racing into many of the same regions that biologists are exploring. 

The national government is encouraging development with tax breaks for palm oil plantations and biofuels. Foreign investments in Colombia’s petroleum sector leapt 20-fold in 2011 over the level a decade ago, to more than $9 billion. Mining companies looking for coal and gold account for $4 billion more invested per year.”

Colombia is poised to again become the world’s top producer of gold. Source: Escape from America

Colombia is poised to again become the world’s top producer of gold.
Source: Escape from America Magazine

This is contrasted with a modest budget of $30 million dollars allocated by the Colombian government towards the protection of its 57 national parks.

It would be a sad paradox if these unique ecosystems were better protected by conflicts that render them too dangerous for most people to tread, as opposed to peace that opens them to exploitation.

More:

Science articleVenturing Back Into Colombia by Antonio Regalado

Escape from America Magazine articleGold Mining in Colombia Legally by Don Ewert

What we talk about when we talk about war (I) & (II)

 

 

 

Millet for Water

Standard
Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) Source: Lost Crops of Africa

Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
Source: Lost Crops of Africa

I’m always impressed and surprised by how thoroughly new cultural habits can develop and take hold, how quickly we can forget that life was ever any different. Examples abound in terms of technology (iPod, anyone?), but I’m talking more about food habits. When I was a kid, the fast food lifestyle was just starting – but going to a fast food place was a novelty. Meals were eaten at home, at school, and very occasionally, in a restaurant – fast food was a birthday treat, an oddity.

In some areas of the world, habits and customs that seem like they are deeply rooted in time are actually not all that old. Maize cultivation in Africa, for example, has been around for centuries – but it’s only really celebrated a triumphal victory over other crops in the past 60 years. It has high crop yields, people like it, it’s not bad as a vegetable or a grain. That would be fine if maize had some of the qualities that have always marked more ancient small grain varieties like sorghum and millet – drought resistance. And the ability to grow in arid conditions is becoming ever more important.

Maize types Source: TNAU Genomics

Maize types
Source: TNAU Genomics

A short excerpt on pearl millet from an older book called Lost Crops of Africa, Volume 1 (1996):

“But over the decades, more and more farmers—especially in southern Africa—have abandoned it and switched to maize.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, international research efforts have made maize more productive than pearl millet; for another, government incentives have given maize an added financial advantage; and for a third, easier processing has made maize more convenient to use. The momentum for change has now gone so far that maize is often pushed into pearl millet areas to which it is poorly suited and where it cannot perform reliably.

(But) of all the major cereals, it is the one most able to tolerate extremes of heat and drought. It yields reliably in regions too hot and too dry to consistently support good yields of maize (or even sorghum).”

Pearl millet Source: Pioneer

Pearl millet
Source: Pioneer

And now, calls have grown even louder for grains like millet, and vegetable crops that don’t require as much water as maize, to replace what is now the ‘traditional’ crop of maize – biodiversity as a strategy to face increasing aridity.

As with fast food, the displacement of older habits hasn’t necessarily shaped up as healthy and sustainable.

Sometimes, progress means turning an eye to what came before.

More:

IPS article on a return to biodiversity in gardening in Kenya – Growing Peas and Greens to Maximise Water Usage by Miriam Gathigah

Connect the Dots

Standard

Earlier this summer, NASA released a projection of potential temperature increases and precipitation changes across the United States from now until 2100, based on two different scenarios: In one, concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions are addressed (i.e. a CO2 level of 550 ppm), in the other, they aren’t and development continues on as it is now (CO2 levels at 800 ppm).

Mosaic of annual and summer temperature visualizations, two different projections of CO2 emissions Source: NASA

Mosaic of annual and summer temperature visualizations, two different projections of CO2 emissions
Source: NASA

In both cases, temperatures go up and precipitation increases dramatically in some areas and disappears from others. But the scenario in which emission concerns remain unaddressed is, indeed, the stuff of nightmares.

It’s taken me a bit of work to unravel the knot of why the news coverage of this projection – which usually only included the worst-case forecasts – bothered me.

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 800 ppm. Source: NASA

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 800 ppm.
Source: NASA

When I look at the coverage of this item, as well as at the increase in doomsday books/movies/television shows that project a future of apocalyptic climate change, it seems like what we are doing is paving the way towards an acceptance that the worst-case scenarios are somehow unavoidable – thereby absolving anyone from taking definitive action now, when it is needed. Panic and resignation are hardly the best cornerstones for constructive action.

Scenario showing temperatures during June, July, and August (US summer) with CO2 levels at 550 ppm. Source: NASA

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 550 ppm.
Source: NASA

And I think that what’s disturbing is the disconnect in the general media between these dystopian visions and the actions that are moving us closer to them with every passing year.  There is rarely a realistic context of current financial, corporate, energy or government policy offered when these predictions are forecast. Thus, the scenarios seem to just manifest themselves as if that’s the way it has to be.

Climate catastrophe entertainment, both fictional and in the news, has replaced the Cold War nuclear war scare stories of my youth, or the alien invasion (again, Cold War inspired, but a different flavor) of the previous generation.

Annual precipitation projections for 2100. Scenario B1 is for CO2 levels at 550 ppm; A1 represents CO2 levels at 800 ppm. Source: NASA

Annual precipitation projections for 2100. Scenario B1 is for CO2 levels at 550 ppm; A2 represents CO2 levels at 800 ppm.
Source: NASA

And this is part of what makes it possible for someone like Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to state in all seriousness that these scenarios are all but inevitable, that they are primarily just another geo-engineering problem to be solved, as well as a justification for carrying on as usual.

It almost goes without saying that I don’t agree.

What can be done?

Beyond what you are already doing, demand better coverage in the media – coverage that connects the dots for people who don’t follow this news regularly.

What we do today matters for tomorrow.

UltimateEarth

More:

The NASA visualizations can be viewed as short films. For temperature projections, go here. For precipitation, go here.