Monthly Archives: June 2014

Atlantis, Past and Future

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On the shoreline of the Welsh coast near Borth, violent winter storms caused remnants of an ancient kingdom and forest to emerge from the sea, lending some physical evidence to underpin the area’s deluge myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a sunken realm and forest long said to lie beneath Cardigan Bay.

The remnants of the Borth forest. Photo: Keith Morris/LNP

The remnants of the Borth forest, preserved for thousands of years beneath layers of peat, sand and saltwater.
Photo: Keith Morris/LNP

The Cantre’r Gwaelod legend says that the low-lying kingdom was lost to floods when a maiden neglected her duties and left a well unwatched. The well overflowed, inundating the land. Another version features a wastrel prince who allowed the floodgates to remain open and the sea to flood the city. It’s said that the watery church bells from the lost city can be heard echoing across the sea in times of danger.

In FutureVoices, a collaboration between climate scientists, game developers and writers, a deluge myth of a different kind is being created. FutureCoast is a part of the project that imagines daily life in a not-too-distant future via ‘geocached’ artifacts called ‘chronofacts’, which contain messages and voicemails from various locations.

A 'chronofact' object. Image: Eric Molinksy/WNYC

A ‘chronofact’ object.
Image: Eric Molinksy/WNYC

A sort of online game/scavenger hunt combination held during a period this spring, FutureCoast alerted participants to the presence of an artifact, and invited those who found the artifacts to make recordings of a standard type of voicemail, but imagining themselves facing daily challenges in a future undergoing major climate change, sometime between 2020 and 2065.

The project aims to inspire people to think about their future selves in a changed world, and to make concrete choices today on improving that world.

In most of our ancient deluge myths such as Cantre’r Gwaelod, the flooding and loss of the kingdom is blamed on humans behaving badly rather than the real culprit: climate change.

Today, current climate change is the result of humans, behaving badly.

FutureCoast is one of many warning bells, one that floats out across future seas.

From an illustrated children's book, Cantre'r Gwaewold. Artist: Sian Lewis

From an illustrated children’s book, Cantre’r Gwaewold.
Artist: Sian Lewis

 

Watery Treasure

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Draining swamps and wetlands has, over the course of human civilization, been seen as a way to grasp land from the greedy waters that cover most of the Earth’s surface.

Add to this that much of the drained, reclaimed land is then conveniently located on prime river or coastal property, and the terrestrial inclination to dry out wetlands makes even more sense. There’s gold in them there swamps.

A MODIS image from NASA's OceanColor Web shows floodwaters and sediment emptying into the Gulf. Source: PennNews/NASA

A MODIS image from NASA’s OceanColor Web shows floodwaters and sediment emptying into the Gulf.
Source: PennNews/NASA

Conservationists usually look at the loss of ecosystems, plant and animal life, habitat degradation and so on. But the real price of the gold rush mentality is slowly revealing itself.

The impact of river levees on flooding has become well known over the past couple of decades. Heavily developed rivers areas around the world experiencing regular and expensive inundations when water flow in flooded rivers is blocked from flowing into tributaries, marshes or swamps.

I found a report from 2005 that shows the impact of land drainage on Florida – not in terms of habitat loss, but in terms of local and regional climate change.

Human influence has transformed southern Florida. The transformation occurred not only on land converted to cropland or cities, but even in protected and undeveloped areas like the Everglades. Changes in water flows transformed deep-water sloughs into drier sawgrass marshes, and mangrove forests have shrunk dramatically. Source: NASA

Human influence has transformed southern Florida. The transformation occurred not only on land converted to cropland or cities, but even in protected and undeveloped areas like the Everglades. Changes in water flows transformed deep-water sloughs into drier sawgrass marshes, and mangrove forests have shrunk dramatically. Source: NASA

A multi-disciplinary team examined historical land cover and climate evidence from pre-development Florida (i.e. 19th-century), and found that in comparison to a drier, drained modern Florida, local climates were cooler and wetter in summer, and warmer in winter. The lack of local water cover changed local climate patterns.

This begins to get at the argument made by Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, in a recent piece in National Geographic, namely, that wetlands in their watery form are worth more than the land we take from them.

She cites a new study in the journal Global Environmental Change, which shows that “the global area of freshwater wetlands and floodplains shrank by nearly two-thirds between 1997 and 2011, from an estimated 165 million hectares (408 million acres) to 60 million hectares (148 million acres).”

We’ve never been very good at weighing intangibles against objects of  immediate human value, like land. But Postel makes the argument for putting wetland and watershed services in a language we understand: Money.

Landsat images clearly show different types of landcover in southern Florida. Source: NASA/Robert Simmon

Landsat images clearly show different types of landcover in southern Florida.
Source: NASA/Robert Simmon

Citing the role of wetlands, like those that have been drained in Florida, as well as coral reefs, marshes and tropical forests, in mitigating flood and drought, the research team put together a list of water ‘services’ provided. These include recharging groundwater and filtering water in lakes and rivers, maintaining water levels that facilitate shipping, and several other long-term uses.

The total value of global ecosystem services to humans was evaluated at $120 trillion/year (for 2011). This is compared to a global GDP of  $75.2 trillion/year for the same year.

Now, the question is this:

If we look at everything through the lens of cost effectiveness, do we really believe humans can provide all the same services at a better price, even assuming we could develop the technology to do so?

Is a new condo development, mall, golf course or business center really the most cost efficient way to make use of the golden value of the world’s wetlands?

Carpenter Flight

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I opened my office window the other day to find a row of tiny earthen mounds, little bubbles separated by straight walls. I thought it was an odd collection of dirt that had blown in through the small ventilation hole in the wooden frame. Or maybe a small ant colony, since we get a variety of ants on the out of our old stone house. They like the vines, and we don’t mind the ecosystem of insect, bird and reptile life those vines support – including the ants. As long as they don’t come inside.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

I started to scrape out the mounds with a pen, only to uncover a dozy bee blanketed in rich yellow pollen. The mounds were a nest for the small carpenter bee, a solitary, wild pollinator known for boring holes in soft woods. Of course, this was a small variety of carpenter bee, and she had fit right into the ready-made ventilation holes at the base of our window frames. The bee shook itself and then flew off. When it didn’t return after a few days, I cleaned out the nest.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

Carpenter bees are important wild pollinators, and many farmers encourage their presence even if, like me, they don’t necessarily welcome their nests in the structure of homes.

Another common carpenter bee in our area looks like a giant black bumblebee – harmless, heavy, loud and a bit dopey. I saw this one while out running, happily mining sweet pea blossoms for nectar.

I found this big carpenter bee on some sweet peas outside. It was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my camera, returning when I looked away.

This big carpenter bee was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my phone camera, returning when I looked away.

Then we found two lifeless bees in our garden. No visible damage, just not alive any more. Bodies intact, it’s like they just stopped flying and died.

The United States has announced the creation of a USD 8 million-funded ‘honey bee task force‘ to examine why the U.S. honey bee population has been in severe decline since 2006. We could quibble as to why a pollinator that is necessary for the reproduction of many U.S. food crops and adds an estimated USD 15 billion to the economy (according to the U.S. White House blog) hasn’t deserved a task force of its own for years already. Or I could muse upon the minuscule investment being made in the honey bee in comparison to its overall economic value, not to mention its environmental impact.

I could mention the recent reports showing that neonicotinoid pesticides in use around the world have been conclusively linked with honey bee declines, which might explain why these pesticides are currently banned in the European Union.

These pesticides are now considered to carry the same level of environmental and health danger as the notorious dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. Those who argue in favor of neonicotinoid use point to the increase in the use of older pesticides in their place.

Or I could shake my head at articles, almost invariably found in business publications that cite industry-funded studies, that refute connections between neonicotinoids and bee decline in favor of an array of other causes, most of them not linked to large corporations nor to the global multi-billion dollar industry that neonics support. The producing companies are never mentioned by name (for the record, they’re Monsanto, Bayer and CropScience).

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

What I can say is this: Few studies examine the effects of these pesticides on the decline in wild pollinators like the bumblebee, or the carpenter bee. The much-touted, lately-arrived U.S. task force will not be studying these issues either (not that the funding would be sufficient for that, in any case). Nor do I see a task force anywhere on the more judicious and limited use of pesticides in favor of best practice techniques.

So this year, I’ll be putting out a few havens for carpenter bees and planting a few more flowers that they like. And this year, as every year, I won’t be spraying any pesticides in my garden.

Green & Red Bounty, Unfurling

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A zucchini froth blossom.

A zucchini froth blossom.

A few shots from the garden as it grows. I don’t have much of a green thumb when it comes to the kitchen garden, but watching each vegetable flower and then grow round has been a pleasure.DSC02283

The first tomato.

A long vine with tiny potimarrons, my favorite pumpkin for autumn soups and pies.DSC02287

The tiny tendrils that seem to grow and grasp for a secure hold before my eyes.DSC02289The gooseberry is weighted down with fruit – it’s from the old garden, one of the only soft fruit bushes we kept through the most recent renovation because it just seemed so happy in its spot. I haven’t yet decided what to do with all the fruit. Jam? Jelly? A gooseberry cordial? The most undemanding, reliably productive plant in the entire garden.DSC02290The cherry tree, which was barren last year, bears the best crop we’ve ever had. Too sweet to preserve, we’ll just have to pick and eat as many as we can and give the rest away. DSC02294

Ditto for the grapevine.DSC02303

And the mirabelle plums.DSC02297

What’s left is for the birds.

Nothing like sharing the bounty.

Solstice Run

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The snowy peak of Mont Blanc is between the two stands of trees, a sharp view my phone camera couldn't quite catch. But it caught my shadow catching the view.

The snowy peak of Mont Blanc is between the two stands of trees, a sharp view my phone camera couldn’t quite catch. But it caught my shadow catching the view.

A stunning summer solstice day, some of it spent in the garden staking up tomatoes and peas, some of it spent sitting together, some of it spent in blissful afternoon napping. And some of it spent on a good 7 km run.

Another minute further down the road, facing in the other direction: Solstice sunset over the Jura range.

Another minute further down the road, facing in the other direction: Solstice sunset over the Jura range.

The summer solstice is a bittersweet pleasure. The beginning of summer; when the first day of summer is as glorious as today’s was, it’s hard to feel anything but grateful.

On the other hand, it’s the annual milestone, the shortening of days all the way until winter. Anything we haven’t yet planted might not have time to come to fruition before the next big chill.

Still, when out on a run and confronted by this path ahead, even the big chill can look inviting.

Mont Blanc on the other side of Lake Geneva, still bright in the setting sun.

Mont Blanc like a cloud rising on the other side of Lake Geneva, still bright in the setting sun.

Horses, Railroads, Seeds and War

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I learned a few new words today while on a trip down a research rabbit hole.

And as is so often the case, I can’t remember how I first got to the interesting blog, Cryptoforestry. But get there I did, and that’s when I fell down the hole.

The first word I learned is polemobotany, i.e. war botany. The study of fauna impacted during the course of military activity.

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Greater Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus serotinus), which rode into Sweden on German military trains during WWII.

In a book on invasive species, author James Carlton describes how there was little danger of any unintentional hitch hikers on caterpillar-treaded vehicles from central Europe surviving the trip to desert conditions in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War.

In contrast,  the Australian military took steps to clean military vehicles on its tropical base in Darwin, Northern Territory, to prevent the introduction of invasive species to the similar environment of East Timor in 1999. Of course, the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping force, not an aggressive invader.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Another word I learned is related: polemochores, the followers, or seeds, of conflict. Coined at the end of the Second World War to denote alien plants introduced through war-related activities, this term refers to the tiny agents of polemobotany, the hitch hikers themselves, trespassing along with invasive forces, setting up camp and making themselves at home.

Unlike the invasive humans, however, polemochores would have to fall upon friendly ground to take root and thrive.

A further narrowing of the lens when it comes to polemochores led me to a couple of very specific types of botany study: hippochores. These are seeds introduced by horses and their foraging during the course of human conflict.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

A further term, not nearly as official-sounding but just as interesting, is railroad botany: The botany of railroad tracks. Specifically, the botany of areas in which there are alien seeds transported by rail, particularly during conflict. This enlightening term was found in a 1979 paper titled Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri by Viktor Mühlenbach, which someone kindly added to the Internet.

I found no specific terms referring to seed transportation by trucks, tanks, ships or boots during conflict, but I’m sure they exist.

Overgrown railroad tracks Photo: Frank Dutton

Overgrown railroad tracks
Photo: Frank Dutton

I did, however, find a reference to ‘rubble fauna, the plants that established themselves in the rubble of bombed urban areas during WWII – rubble offering “warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats and (being) a suitable habitat for plants and animals from warmer regions of the world. Many plants that were previously rare became permanent members of the urban flora in war-damaged European cities.”

So many ways to describe inadvertent anthrobotany, the way in which we alter the world around us through our human activities and disputes.

Shape Shifting

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Conservation strategies have been historically focused on getting an overview of the species in a region, and then trying to protect those species that are endangered. I’ve written often before about how important a top predator species can be to the overall health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. For example, the presence of wolves in a natural region can impact the health of the forest and even river flow. 

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions) Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

But like reading the ingredient list for a familiar recipe, we’ve worked on the assumption that carrying out a tally of individual species in a certain area and getting a consistent count usually means that the biodiversity is also remaining the same and will result in the same ecosphere profile.

If a major ingredient is missing or in decline, we work to protect it; if a ‘wrong’ ingredient has been introduced in the form of an invasive species, we work to push it back out. The goal has been to prevent a major loss of biodiversity.

Textures liquid crystals Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

Textures liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

But what if the entire ingredient list is shifting, forming a completely new recipe on the page, even as the number of ingredients remains the same?

A study out in Science shows that around the world, monitoring programs are showing a surprising consistency of biodiversity – but only when it comes to the absolute number of species counted. The composition of the species is an entirely different matter: In some coral reef regions, the number of coral species has dropped significantly, even as the number of algae species has increased. Florida has a wide diversity of species – when it comes to non-native ants.

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century) Source: Oxford Bodley Library

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century)
Source: Oxford Bodley Library

According to authors Nicholas Gotelli and Robert Colwell, as habitat ranges shift under the influence of climate change, some areas might see an increase in nominal biodiversity, but it will be at the cost of traditionally local species in favor of successful ‘generalists’ like invasive weeds, rats or ants.

The study concludes that there “is need to expand the focus of research and planning from biodiversity loss to biodiversity change.”

The change is happening quickly, over just a decade or even a year. A bit like putting a cake in the oven, and then when the timer goes off, opening the door to find instead a casserole.

Future Jam

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This is the result of my Cherry Diversion the other day, a bowl of fat cherries that I turned into a runny but delectable cherry jam which I am redubbing a cherry coulis so the runniness will sound intentional. photo 2

It’s not thin liquid, it just doesn’t quite sit still once put on bread. It’s got a hint of almond and if I do say so myself, it’s not bad.

And here’s some very future jam in one of my secret blackberry patches. Just a few more weeks…

Blackberry blossom

Blackberry blossom

Ringed Recognition

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We were looking at some old pictures the other days, and came upon this one of a kid in the ringed T-shirt. Without even looking at the date, we knew right away it was from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Why? Because just a picture of the ringed T-shirts of our youth calls up such a sense of familiarity, nostalgia and comfort. h-lefebvre-1960s-boy-jeans-striped-t-shirt-holding-bow-and-pulling-arrow-out-of-target-bull-s-eye

We wore them as kids, all the other kids we knew wore them (at least until they were replaced by the tie-dyed shirts a few years later). You weren’t a little kid during that area, in certain parts of the world, without having some version of the ringed T-shirt.

It’s old, personal magic.

The field in rows.

The field in rows.

So why is it that the ringed lines of of the harvested field near our house have the same effect on me?

I didn’t grow up here in France, I didn’t even grow up around fields, and certainly not around wildflower meadows that get harvested for winter cattle feed.

The field, post-cut and pre-rowed. So many different kinds of grass and wildflowers.

The field, post-cut and pre-rowed. So many different kinds of grass and wildflowers.

Still, this early summer vision, which I’ve seen for almost 20 years now, has the same effect on me as a ringed T-shirt. A sense of comfort, a confidence in the familiar progress of the seasons. The meadow grows wild every year, reaches a peak, and then grows wild again until its second harvest in autumn.

A note: This is the same favorite meadow that just a week ago looked like this:

When they were still upright and green.

When they were still upright and green.

Every year, I miss the wildflowers and watch the butterflies bob aimlessly through the empty field for a week or so. And then the new growth begins.

The Whale in the Water

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The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.