Monthly Archives: October 2014

Flea Glasses and Hidden Spaces

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Imagine the excitement of using one of the world’s first magnifying glasses back in the 16th century. All those creatures and items too tiny for examination with the naked eye would have suddenly revealed some of their secrets.

Early magnifying glasses were so popular for looking at minuscule life forms such as fleas that they were sometimes called ‘flea glasses’. The workings of bodily and natural mechanics that were once hidden by size were revealed.

Ah, well. The opportunities available today for finding hidden spaces are multitudinous. I saw these images and wanted to share them.

Wheat flowerbud, winning image in the 2014 Australian Museum New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography. Taken with an electron microscope. Photo: Mark Talbot

Wheat flowerbud, winning image in the 2014 Australian Museum New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.
Taken with an electron microscope.
Photo: Mark Talbot

It’s not just size or distance that has been revealed by new viewing methods, it’s time.

There are countless cellular processes that have been well-studied and photographed – but here’s a new option for viewing these processes in real time and in 3-D.  Lattice light-sheet microscopy uses extremely rapid pulses of ultra-thin sheets of light to scan living cells.

Below, a still image from the film showing HeLa cell division.

This kind of tool can help researchers better understand the actual behavior of cells and processes, furthering understanding of how cancer cells develop, for example.

But as the new microscopes inventor, Dr. Eric Betzig, has said, there are undoubtedly many applications for this kind of vision which haven’t even been discovered yet.

Because, of course, sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for until we find something looking back at us that wants further investigation.

HeLa division.  Source: Chen et al via Science

HeLa cell division.
Source: Chen et al via Science

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Heedless Ways

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Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)

Telling Time

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There’s a new chill in the morning air, in spite of unseasonable warmth. Winter is still around the corner, according to the calendar, but it’s still as warm as late summer. We wore shorts yesterday. A few roses shoot another round of late blossoms that might cost the plants dearly, a couple of the tomato plants are pushing out tiny doomed tomatoes even as the leaves turn and fall.

I can see the confusion all around me – I live in an area that, while under heavy construction, still counts as rural. Out my front windows are houses, Geneva in the distance; behind the house are only meadows, forest, a stream and then the Jura mountains. Here, nature and I still interact directly, I can see her changes and moods beyond temperature and precipitation.

Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. That number is expected to rise to between 70-80% by 2050.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid. Source: Guardian/UNFPA Click the image for a full view.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid.
Source: Guardian/UNFPA
Click the image for a full view.

And that means that, even more than today, most people will have a relationship to the natural world that is determined by city planners, landscapers, with human needs and requirements paramount. How are we supposed to understand sustainability when most Earth dwellers won’t be directly confronted with changes to the natural world that still lays outside the cities, but which impacts the cities every day?

We live by our human clocks – nature’s clock runs on its own time.

Bril, a Japanese design collective, has designed a clock that tries to import nature’s time into human homes.

The Coniferous Clock Image: Bril/Dezeen

The Coniferous Clock
Image: Bril/Dezeen

It’s a Coniferous Clock, a time-device made entirely of cedar, with no hands or numbers.

It starts the year green and slowly browns over the course of an entire year.

According to Dezeen, “The Coniferous Clock references traditional sugidama, also known as asakebayashi: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together, clipped into a sphere and hung up when sake – Japanese rice wine – was pressed following the rice harvest. When the cedar leaves had dried and the sugidama had turned completely brown, it was a signal that the sake was ready to drink.”

Bril co-founder Fumiaki Goto is quoted as saying, “We could feel the seasons in our homes as if we were in forests.”

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year. Image: Bril/Dezeen

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year.
Image: Bril/Dezeen

For the moment, my neighbors and I continue to treat our homes and gardens as if the seasons still follow the regular course we’ve come to know. We are, after all, creatures of habit. It’s in our nature. Even if we don’t move from our old house here in France, if we are still around in 2050, we will live in an urban area.

Our habits have changed those of nature’s, and those changes are only news stories to many people living in cities, the resources all come from elsewhere.

How well and quickly will we be able to adapt our habits to the world that lives beyond city borders, but which affects everything that goes on within those borders?

Serious Buffoonery

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A gathering of orangutans is called a buffoonery. A buffoonery of orangutans implies some very high amusement, and indeed, I imagine if enough of the ginger apes were to get together, hilarity and hijinks might ensue.

But as most people know by now, orangutans don’t have much to laugh about. Between deforestation and the illegal animal trade, it’s all been looking a bit grim for the old man of the forest.

A buffoonery of orangutans Artist: Kim Rebecca

A buffoonery of orangutans
Artist: Kim Rebecca

Many years ago, I spent some time working in the biofuels sector, and palm oil was gaining market shares over other types of biodiesel.

Palm oil has some advantages in that palm oil trees can be grown and harvested year round and the yield per acre is better than many other oil crops, including soybeans and rapeseed.

But even back then, we all knew that palm oil had some very serious drawbacks. Besides a couple of technical disadvantages (for example, palm oil biodiesel isn’t as resistant to cold weather as other biodiesel oils, and it has to be transported over rather large distances from plantation to end user), there is one key problem with palm oil: The best growing climates for palm oil plantations are sometimes shared by rainforests. Which means that palm oil production is often based on mass deforestation.

I remember asking an oil trader from Indonesia, a fellow who was proposing some major trade with my company, about this small hiccup in what was supposed to be a renewable, eco-friendly fuel production. What role did safeguarding habitat, for orangutans and countless other creatures and plants, play in sustainable palm oil production?

His response? He laughed and told me that the majority of the Indonesian rainforest had been chopped down and converted to plantations already, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The damage had been done, it was time to make some lemonade out of the environmental lemons we had on hand. As for the animal and plant life? Maybe they’d live in the new plantations, if they didn’t hinder the farming.

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia
Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

The company I worked for at the time decided we didn’t need to deal in palm oil at all. It’s nice to take a stand, but in any case, palm oil isn’t just being used for biodiesel fuel. Its uses are many and like the little lies told for social convenience, palm oil can be found almost everywhere.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization founded in 2004, around the same time I had that disconcerting conversation, undertook an initiative to decouple palm oil production from deforestation. And while the Indonesian trader may have thought he was selling me on palm oil futures, it turns out he was only partially correct. Not all rainforests had been eradicated, and orangutans aren’t really tolerated on plantations.

The RSPO has had some real success lately in achieving the goal of getting companies to agree to use only sustainably produced palm oil that does not result from deforestation. And this, in turn, is good for wildlife and rainforests alike.

Indonesian palm oil crop Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

Indonesian palm oil crop
Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

I suppose a fatalistic approach to matters as they stand might be a comfort to some. After all, if all is lost, why worry about losing any more? Make hay while the sun shines.

A buffoonery of a different sort.

I’m glad organizations like the RSPO, the companies that have decided to join the initiative, and the many wildlife conservation groups in these areas don’t have the same fatalistic sense of humor as my ex-conversation partner.

For an on-the-ground look at deforestation in progress, here’s a good documentary on the complexities of the issues in Papua New Guinea, On Our Land.

Tapping Out

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The town of Porterville, California has been in the news over the past couple of months because it is one of the places where taps are running dry as the state’s drought grinds on into its fourth winter. Several municipal wells have run dry, some residents are coming to rely on charitable deliveries of bottled water. Images are shown of home kitchens with dishes piled high because there’s no water to wash them. Water rationing has come to an extreme here; it’s no longer voluntary, but based on the amount left in the plastic bottle.

There are a few points that strike me about the coverage I’ve read thus far, aspects that reflect the history and attitude of the western United States towards water as much as many unspoken assumptions in developed countries with traditionally plentiful water supplies.

The story, as it is framed now, tells of wells running dry amid climate-change driven drought. But that’s really only a small part of this story.

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

As I was reading an article in the New York Times about the travails of families without running water, I noticed that many of the families mentioned were agricultural workers who were coming home from a long day in the produce packing companies to find they couldn’t take a shower. Well, okay, that’s a bad situation. But presumably if there is still produce to pack, then the agricultural and packing facilities still have water, right?

No mention was made of who supplies water to Porterville, which lies in Tulare County, deep in the rich agricultural belt of California’s productive Central Valley. Why is the Central Valley so productive, if it’s in what’s a very arid climate?

Because of the Central Valley Project (CVP), a water redistribution program planned during the early 20th century, but  created mainly between 1930-1980 to move water from the rivers and lakes of Northern California to the Central Valley, land of rich soils and unreliable rainfall. The agricultural methods used in the Central Valley were never adjusted for the climate because there was no necessity – there was always water, thanks to the CVP.

But what about the municipal water supply? If there was water for growers, why are taps running dry? Because the city of Porterville, like many other Central Valley cities, is ‘self-reliant’ when it comes to water. It uses wells and surface water for the urban water supply.

If the 2007 Porterville Public Utilities Report is any indication, as of 2007 there was enough confidence in the groundwater supply that there was no Water Shortage Plan at all. This in spite of numerous multi-year droughts within the past 100 years.

The CVP isn’t responsible for the water of the towns and cities it helped create along with the agricultural plenty; at the same time, the CVP neither monitors nor enforces any specific, climate-appropriate irrigation techniques. Which means that up until recently, many growers were irrigating their fields using flood methods – 3-4 feet of water across entire orchards – using borrowed, unmetered water.

A broader view - groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

A broader view – groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Speaking of borrowed water, using bottled water for residents without running water means water depletion of another kind, since bottled water requires three times the amount of water in the bottle to manufacture and transport each bottle. That’s not including all the fossil fuel used in manufacture, transport and delivery. An LA Times article includes a picture of a delivery Crystal Geyser water to a home; Crystal Geyser uses water bottled in seven locations around the country, only two of them in California. The others are all at least 1000 miles away.

None of the articles include the aftermath of all those bottles: the non-biodegradable plastic waste. And when it comes to extra waste, don’t even get me started on the stories of Californians using paper plates and canned food to avoid cooking and washing dishes.

And all those lawn-watering restrictions, short showers and delayed toilet flushes? The proverbial drop in the bucket: Urban use of water accounts for 20% of all water use in California. The rest is all agricultural and industrial. Except that, of course, the agriculture and industry sectors draw from a different tap than everyone else – so maybe all those dying lawns and stinky toilets serve a purpose, after all.

The Porterville story, and by that I mean both the actual events in drought-stricken Porterville and the ‘story’ in news reports of taps running dry, is a parable for our attitudes towards water.

When we’ve got a lot of it, we are profligate. Extravagant. Realms are built on shifting shores in the belief that the years of plenty will last beyond our own short horizons.

The past century has been one of the wettest in the western United States in 7000 years, but water use strategies were based on those historically high amounts continuing indefinitely.

Telling the stories of the drought in ways that narrow the lens to individual or local tales of woe may win sympathy or readers’ eyes on the page, but if those stories stop at the human interest level, it serves little purpose in putting the stories in context.

And a lack of context means that the same practices of poor water management across all levels of planning, including different rights for different segments of society, remain below the surface when what is needed is a complete re-examination of our attitudes towards water and its use.

Below is a recent infographic on safe tap water around the world, or rather, lack thereof.

Source: NeoMam Studios

Source: NeoMam Studios