Monthly Archives: March 2015

Leafing Out

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There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies

 

It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

 

Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

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The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4

 

And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Antarctic Shiver

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Everyone knows the best scare stories are those in which the most obvious and visible danger turns out to less dire than an unsuspected peril revealed only later, the deadfall that sends a shiver down the listener’s spine.

We’ve all heard about the Antarctic ice shelf melt-off that’s been taking place with increasing speed and frequency. But at least there was always a comforting swathe of East Antarctica, the thick part that wasn’t floating like a massive ice cube in a warming drink.

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier. Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size
of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier.
Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

As it turns out, what lies beneath a large part of East Antarctica is not, as previously thought, solid earth. Rather, it appears that there might be water flowing through large subsea troughs, regions of the seabed that slope away from the ice above, allowing warmer water to melt the largest ice sheet in the world from below.

Most research to date has focused on West Antarctica. An international team of scientists carried out the study, published in Nature Geoscience, to investigate why satellite images seemed to show that the Totten Glacier was growing thinner.

Carrying out measurements by plane flyovers, the resulting cartography indicated the presence of invisible valleys and warm water carried there by heavy salt concentrations.

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier. Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier.
Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The ice is 480 m (1600 ft) thick in some places. To get to the bottom of the ice from the height of a plane, three methods were used: gravitational measurements, radar and laser altimetry.

The radar was used to measure the thickness of the ice. Gravitational pull on the plane was measured at various points to determine the location of the seafloor beneath the ice.

The next step will be to send down underwater to verify initial study results and monitor activity of Circumpoloar Deep Water at the base of the glacier.

Actually, like turning on all the lights after the end of a good scary story, the next step for me will be to remind myself that if and when the sea rises to Pliocene Epoch levels, we might have had time to develop more effective ways of living with a lot of water in places where there is now land.

I also recommend a visit this other, more benign exploration into how ice behaves, the Icicle Atlas. I think the images of icicles forming look a bit like shivers running down a spine:

 

A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue's Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip. Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue’s Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip.
Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

Of a Circular Nature

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A flood control project in the Pikine suburb of Dakar, Senegal, has changed a community by redirecting flood waters into basins and creating urban gardens from the water.

Aerial view of Pikine with flooded areas in the center. Photo: John Scott-Railton

Aerial view of Pikine with flooded areas in the center.
Photo: John Scott-Railton

Previously, the flood waters that inundated the area were left to either recede on their own – during which time all stores remained flooded and the streets impassable – or the water was pumped into the ocean.

Close-up of homes abandoned to flood waters and weeds. Small garden plots can be seen at the top left. Photo: John Scott-Railton

Close-up of homes abandoned to flood waters and weeds. Small garden plots can be seen at the top left.
Photo: John Scott-Railton

A surface system of drains channels the water to a new underground canal. From there, the water flows through a natural filtration system and through a series of basins.

This results in a water reservoir that remains intact through the long dry season. Herb gardens, rented out for a nominal fee to families, are cultivated for market sale. The image below is a screenshot from a short film on the Live With Water project (click here to view the film), which was initiated by two local Pikine women.

A water basin containing captured rainwater.  Image: Live With Water/Thomson Reuters Foundation

A water basin containing captured rainwater.
Image: Live With Water/Thomson Reuters Foundation

There’s a strange circular aspect to this story: Created in the 1950s, the area was only really settled in the late 1970s, when people from drought-stricken regions relocated to Dakar. They were sold land that became Pikine, which is now a city of over one million.

At the time – during years of major drought – the low-lying land was dry. The area was, however, actually situated on the beds of dormant, shallow lakes. With increasing heavy rainfall during the short rainy season, beginning in 2005, the lakes did what they do. They filled with water.

So those fleeing drought ended up on flooded lake beds, redirecting an over-abundance of water into reservoirs.

Megalithic stone circles, Siné Ngayenne, Senegal. Photo: Didier Euzet

Megalithic stone circles, Siné Ngayenne, Senegal.
Photo: Didier Euzet

Flavor Assumptions

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I walked out of the house this bright morning and found a small blossom on the rosemary bush near our entrance, the first one of spring. We moved in almost twenty years ago, and the plant was massive and gnarled, even back then.

According to the neighbors at the farm next door, the rosemary bush was planted at least twenty years earlier. I trim it, sometimes, or not, and it just carries on year after year, blooming and growing and scenting the air around our house with its clean, piney perfume.

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.  Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679) Source: Alain R. Truong

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.
Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679)
Source: Alain R. Truong

Rosemary as an herb is even more deeply rooted in Western Europe cuisine and culture than the old plant is against our house wall. I cook with it all the time, combining it with whatever seems right–thyme, parsley, oregano, garlic. They all seem like intuitive flavor pairings.

There’s a beautiful interactive map of flavors created a couple of years ago by Scientific American that diagrams flavor connections between various foods, from rosemary to roast beef.

In Western cuisine, the tradition is to pair foods with overlapping flavors. I was raised in the culture of Western cuisine, which is probably why pairing rosemary with thyme or basil seems natural to me.

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.  Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds. Source: Scientific American

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.
Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds.
Source: Scientific American

A recent study showed just how different other traditions can be. Indian cuisine, for example, tends to pair non-matching flavors and chemical compounds, rather than those that have many points of overlap.

The study, called Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine, starts by stating that “(c)ulinary practices are influenced by climate, culture, history and geography. Molecular composition of recipes in a cuisine reveals patterns in food preferences.” The food elements that form the basis for this kind of negative flavor pairing are spices.

The study authors posit that Indian cuisine developed along both nutritional and medicinal lines, and that the availability of spices played a large role in that. Perhaps the lack of ready accessibility to spices in Western culture–until fairly recently spices remained expensive–is one reason they play a smaller role in Western food matching.

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.  Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and
presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.
Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

At any rate, I was surprised at how many of my own assumptions about which foods and flavors intuitively go together are based on the culture in which I was raised. I love Indian cuisine, I cook it occasionally, but I can’t say the pairings come naturally to me.

If assumptions as fundamental as ‘what tastes good together’ are so determined by culture, where do other assumptions diverge unseen?

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) Source: Plantcurator

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Source: Plantcurator

The Urge to Affiliate

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photo 1I was out on a run yesterday, my usual loop, when I found this piece of tree bark lying across the path.

Here along the border between France and Switzerland, we’re in the midst of a bise blanche, a fierce wind that blows down through the Geneva basin from the north.

A bise blanche weather forecast looks cheery – wind and sun, like this:Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.35.12 But the wind is a bully, cold and muscled. Roads and paths are littered with parts of trees and debris.

This bark segment caught my eye because it was colonized by so many different groups of lichen, moss and insects and spiders. Part of an arboreal architecture, home to so many other forms of life.photo 3-1

I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few pictures.

It’s a vision of life living on and with other life. photo 3-2

I had planned on writing today’s post on biophilic design. It’s defined as the integration design principles for architecture and urban planning with ‘biophilia’ – “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” (Erich Fromm in 1964) and “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Edward O. Wilson in 1984).photo 1-1

The concept of bringing nature into cities and buildings has been gaining traction (taking root?) over the past couple of decades.

There are aspects of sustainability (green walls and vertical gardens, for example), but many correlate the integration of nature into design, including sunlight, with lower stress levels and better health and improved well-being.photo 2-1

Industrialization and its design aesthetics often led to a distancing from nature in homes and cities; many would argue this has been to our detriment (not to mention damaging to the environment). Biophilic design is an ongoing discussion on letting nature back in.

Feeling the wind blow through me while looking at this heavily inhabited bit of bark on a blazingly sunny afternoon, it’s almost impossible to imagine keeping it out.

Life finds its way in everywhere.photo 2

World Wildlife Day 2015

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Today is World Wildlife Day 2015, which this year highlights the challenges of the illegal trade in wildlife.

World Wildlife Day, on the 3rd of March, marks the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The global trade in wild animals and their body parts is estimated by UNEP at US$50-150 billion per year. The global illegal fisheries catch is valued at US$10-23.5 billion a year and illegal logging, including processing, at US$30-100 billion.actionposter_thumb_elephant

These numbers don’t include the costs of fighting poaching, the impact that fight has on local communities, or the indirect costs of border security – after all, 90% of all illegal animals and animal parts are shipped across international borders.

These numbers don’t include issues like the introduction of non-native species in the form of exotic pets and the havoc they can wreak on local eco-systems (not to mention the introduction of foreign pathogens).

They don’t include the cost of fighting the organized crime that is funded via illegal wildlife trade.

What can each individual do besides sign a petition, make a donation or offer support today at #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime?

As I said in an earlier post on ivory, we can cut of the trade on the consumer end. That saltwater fishtank might be a nice conversation piece, but the fish in it were likely harvested at the cost of an entire coral reef habitat.

Find sustainable alternatives to traditional medicine that calls for endangered species like pangolin or rhino (after all, people have been substituting buffalo horn for rhino for years).

That supposedly antique ivory trinket was probably made from poached elephant tusk. If that hardwood lumber for your floors is being sold at a price too good to be true, chances are its been illegally logged. And so on.

What you buy as a consumer ripples out through the entire environment of the illegal wildlife trade.

I thought I’d repost Farewell, Forest Symphony, something I wrote a couple of years ago on the interconnectivity of one single endangered species, the elephant, on its entire ecosystem.

It’s not a short post – but what is true for this particular animal is true in other ways for all the other endangered animals and plants:

They, and we, are all part of something larger.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via Mongabay.com

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via Mongabay.com

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).

The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

From an interview in an article on Mongabay.com:

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told mongabay.com. Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core. Source: Herbwisdon

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core.
Source: Herbwisdom

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known.

It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.

The Taste of Contrition

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I have no excuse for myself. I normally shun flavored coffees and teas. You won’t find me ordering a tiramisu latte or chocolate banana black tea. Coffee Mate® creamer flavored like Girl Scout cookies? I’m not judging, but…thank you, no.

I grew up in San Francisco, mostly, and back before the mad coffee house movement put a coffee franchise on the corner of every block, we used to head to North Beach for Italian coffee. Sometimes, if I was feeling fancy, I’d get a shot of orgeat syrup in my latte. That was about as close as I’ve gotten to the whole flavor trend.

Caffé Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco

Caffé Trieste, North Beach, San Francisco

I still drink coffee, mostly black, mostly strong. But these days, my drink is mostly tea. Black tea, the kind you can stand a spoon in, i.e. black as black coffee, but tea.

So, I bought some gifts at The Chocolate Room when I was in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, and one of those was a small tin of tea from Harney & Sons.Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 12.47.40The label says Florence – Flavored Black Tea. And then the tin got lost on a bookshelf until this week, when I rediscovered it. It’s getting near its sell-by date, I don’t want to give anyone stale tea, so I thought I’d just drink it myself this week.

No big deal, I like black tea with floral notes, this stuff is just variation of black tea. I didn’t give it much thought.

And now I am in the uncomfortable position of having to eat my own words alongside every single heavenly cup of what turned out to be chocolate hazelnut flavored black tea.

Worse, I am already getting anxious at the thought of how to obtain more for myself once the tin is empty, which at my current rate of consumption won’t be more than another 48 hours.

What have I learned? First, that labeling matters – if this box had said chocolate hazelnut flavored tea on the outside, I would never have tried it. Second, that I need to expand my horizons, at least when it comes to tea. I don’t see Girl Scout cookie coffee in my future, but I might be open to trying more adventurous tea products.

Third, and perhaps most important, never get addicted to something of which you cannot easily get more.