Monthly Archives: August 2015

Glacial Flight

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My visit to Alaska last week, to attend a memorial for a young friend, was marked by both tears and laughter.

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska. All photos: PKR

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska.
All photos: PKR

Tears because of his tragic and early death, laughter in memory of his brilliant and raucously funny spirit.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

In the midst of this, I was offered a chance to take a flight over the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

Here are so many textures of harsh beauty. It was hard to take in the vast and wild views – whether viewed from above or below, the landscape defies easy comprehension.

There are 25,000 glaciers across the territory defined as Alaska – all but five of those glaciers are in retreat. The ones that end in water are famous for their spectacular loss of ice in calving events. But the glaciers we flew over were mostly mountain glaciers, most of which end in land – and which are also retreating very rapidly.

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines. Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines.
Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

According to a recent release published by the American Geophysical Union, “Mountain glaciers hold less than 1 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice volume. The rest is held in ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland.

“However, the rapid shrinking of mountain glaciers causes nearly one-third of current sea level rise.”IMG_1772

Meanwhile, as I wrote in a recent post, retreating ice offers a multitude of possibilities in terms of transportation and resource exploitation.

As a New York Times article put it, whether Alaska becomes “an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is now the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition.”

With glaciers as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to believe that formations so old and so large, and that took so long to develop, could disappear in a few short decades. IMG_1770I wasn’t in Alaska as a tourist. I went to remember and celebrate someone who departed far too young, and whose absence has left us all in shock.

So my state of mind on this visit was one of treasuring what we have in life, and mourning the treasures we lose too early.

This unexpected, awe-inspiring and melancholy flight over the rugged, ancient glaciers of southern Alaska – which was paid with a bottle of whisky when the pilot wouldn’t accept any fuel money – was well in keeping with the rest of my short journey there.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Sipping Glaciers

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Travel in the 21st century means you can fly to the other side of the world for a few short days with little more than a toothbrush and a change of clothes.

Which is what I did last week when I flew from Geneva, Switzerland to Palmer, Alaska.

It took me four blissfully uneventful but long flights on very large planes (and a drive in a large SUV) to get to my destination, but the fifth flight was of an entirely different nature, and decidedly retro in more ways than one.

The fifth plane. All photos: PKR

The fifth plane.
All photos: PKR

Pre-flight, we stopped off at a local place and tried a few locally produced goods. Actually, our pilot Rob was having lunch. We arrived late and decided on afternoon cocktails in lieu of food. After all, we were just along for the ride.

Both cocktails were made with vodkas produced by Alaska Distillery in Wasilla, Alaska, just up the road from Palmer.

The Imperial Mimosa included the unlikely (for me) ingredient of Sprite, which I can honestly say I haven’t drunk since around 1985. More importantly, it included Permafrost Vodka, which is made from iceberg meltwater harvested in Prince William Sound.

I suppose of all the things glacier meltwater might become instead of staying put in a glacier, premium vodka is decidedly not the worst.

The Glacier Made Imperial Mimosa (right) and the Alaskan Birch Syrup Coffee Cooler (left).

The Glacier Made Imperial Mimosa (right) and the Alaskan Birch Syrup Coffee Cooler (left).

The Coffee Cooler was a version of a White Russian, one of my favorite deadly sins when it comes to cocktails. It was made using Birch Syrup Vodka, birch syrup being made from a sweet tree sap and similar to maple syrup.

Now, it was a bit early in the afternoon to start trying straight shots of these two vodkas to get the true shape of their taste, so we stuck with our two Alaska-sized cocktails.

And they were both delicious – unique in their own ways. The Coffee Cooler is probably the most flavorful White Russian I’ve ever had, likely due to the sweet vodka and the excellent locally-roasted coffee. The Imperial Mimosa was surprisingly un-Spritey, refreshing and clean.

The menu and the mixes at the Palmer City Ale House.

The menu and the mixes at the Palmer City Ale House.

It appears that Alaska Distillery spirits are readily available in some U.S. states and not at all in others. Nor is are they available yet in Europe, as far as I can tell.

Which is a pity, since I was sorely tempted to try their other highly-acclaimed spirits, especially the smoked salmon vodka and the hemp-seed variant known as Purgatory. But we had a flight to catch.

And while 21st-century travel means getting around the world and back with just a toothbrush and a change of clothes, 21st century travel limitations prohibit carrying bottles of vodka in carry-on luggage over three flights back home with transfer times that require sprints between terminals.

What this means, of course, is that I will have to go back to Alaska.

As for the post-cocktail flight in the Cessna, more on that tomorrow.

Deficit Day

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According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), today marks the point at which “humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” They call it Overshoot Day.

Most of the analogies I see in the press use financial lingo and banking talk to describe this very new phenomenon.

After all, we only starting using more timber, fish stocks and arable land than could be replaced by natural processes in the 1970s. The same is true for the levels of human-generated carbon emissions in relation to how much the planet can naturally process over the course of a year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

It used to be that this ‘deficit spending’ of resources only began late in the year. For 2015, it already arrives six days earlier than one year ago.

But financial descriptions don’t really persuade me, especially in these days of banking institutions that seem to teeter on the edge of financial volcanoes without ever actually falling in.

After all, deficit spending is what we humans, as individuals and communities and nations, do all the time. We live on credit and debt is a shadow dancer for most adults.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

There was a time in human history when we lived like most other species on the planet. If we ate all our stocks and there was nothing left to hunt or gather, we either moved on or we perished.

Animals and plants with an overpopulation in their habitat, faced with a lack of food or resources and made vulnerable to hunger and disease, see their populations shrink in the most unpicturesque manner.

We humans have mostly managed to get around these fundamental restrictions with ingenuity, intelligence, an overwhelming desire for more and sometimes, just dumb luck.

It’s estimated that we now ‘consume’ resources equivalent to 1.6 of Earth’s capacity, i.e. we use what it would take almost two Earth’s to produce and process, every year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Regardless of how we describe this process of overuse – as a deficit, as improvidence, as thoughtless or as greedy – what is profoundly different between the banking world and the natural world is that, at some point, no bailout tactics will be available.

Banking analogies? We should be so lucky.

No matter what humans might think of ourselves and our vast creativity, we are not too big to fail.

Acorus calamus. From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

Acorus calamus.
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

 

Shifting Outlines

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How a map is drawn says more about the interests and intentions of the cartographers than it does about the space it describes.

Take, for example, these various maps of the Arctic. For most of human existence, the Arctic has been a place of myth, fascination and exploration. For a very few, it’s been home.

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606). Source: Wikipedia

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606).
Source: Wikipedia

This first map is perhaps more interesting for its cartographical innovations (the use of the Mercator Projection) than its speculative geography that posits a whirlpool swirling around a black rock that represented the magnetic north pole. Note how closely identified and labeled the claimed territories are, how open and blank the rest is from the perspective of a European map maker.

This next one gets closer to my point of discussion today.

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit. Source: Canadian Geographic

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit.
Source: Canadian Geographic

It shows outlines of the Arctic continent based on survey reports, and leaves out the parts that likely were not yet verified. More intriguing than the map itself are the surrounding illustrations of the riches to be found in the territory. Whales. It’s no surprise that this map is of Dutch origin.

Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Dutch moved many of their whaling operations from bays into the open sea. The Arctic, territory of ice and water, had a major energy resource for that era: whale blubber.

It was only later, when cheaper fuels took its place, that whale oil lost its primacy as an energy source (although it was still being used until the 1970s as, for example, automatic transmission oil in the United States and as a base for margarine).

Which brings me to this map, newly released by National Geographic. Actually, it’s modern and informative for a couple of reasons.

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time. Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map. Caption/Image: National Geographic

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time.
Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map.
Caption/Image: National Geographic

First of all, in its GIF presentation, it shows a trend rather than a static snapshot.

Second, that trend is concerned with the shrinking size of the Arctic, which makes this map a pointed commentary on climate change as much as it is a description of territory.

How that commentary is interpreted in other maps again illustrates our interests and desires.

Because the Arctic is shrinking, many assumptions made over the centuries can be re-evaluated. For example, the existence of a Northwest Passage, the long-sought sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that is only now becoming truly navigable by large ships.

The ice shrinkage also means that more is accessible than new waterways. The sea bed, buried under ice, is now available for exploration. More importantly, for exploitation.

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.  Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

The Arctic has always been subject to territorial claims, but climate change renders those claims much more interesting to the five Arctic-bordering nations: United States, Denmark, Canada, Russia and Norway. All have been in the process of staking out the extent of their extended continental shelves for some time now, some more vociferously than others.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these five countries can claim an extended continental shelf. If the claims are validated, the countries gain exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of their respective extended shelf area.

Which brings me to this map, which outlines potential oil and gas reserves on the Arctic sea bed.

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic's oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces. Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic’s oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

And this, really, is what it’s all about.

The Arctic region has been estimated to hold up to one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves – energy resources almost as outdated as whale oil.

Small surprise, then, that Russia dropped a flag on the Arctic sea bed in 2007. The country has been pushing to claim 1.2 million sq km (463,000 sq miles) of the Arctic shelf.

Which is to say, all of it.

What better way to take advantage of the effects of climate change in the Arctic than by mining it for the very fuels that are causing climate change in the first place?

It looks like the changing Arctic outlines could force a redrawing of the maps in more ways than one.

Varietals of Choice

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Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of articles and blog posts questioning whether organic food is really worth the generally higher cost of the products to the consumer, i.e. whether organic food offers significant health benefits for the person eating it that justify spending more.

The question itself represents part of what I consider our limited perspective when it comes to food production.

Farmers market in France - a single table with 15 tomato varieties from a single organic farmer. All photos: PKR

Farmers market in France – a single table with 15 tomato varieties (plus a couple of eggplant varieties) from a single organic farmer.
All photos: PKR

Food production in all its forms is one of humanity’s key points of influence on our environment. Everything about food production, from land and water use, to the plants and animals we domesticate and cultivate, to the plants, animals and insects we suppress as pests, has a major impact on our surroundings.

We discovered planned agriculture around 10000 years ago, and we’ve been using pesticides in one form or another for over 4500 years. Early pesticides came in the form of using smoke to try and drive away insects, blight and mildew, or sea water to kill weeds.

Mercury, arsenic and lead were introduced in the 15th century, while the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium have been used in powdered form for two millennia.photo 2(6)

But pesticide use as we understand it today – the industrial-scale production and use of synthetic pesticides – is really a product of the post-1940s era when DDT and a host of other chemical compounds were developed and manufactured on a large scale.

Yields rose, prices went down, and the new pesticides seemed safer for humans than older ones like arsenic.

Until it turned out that some of the new products had a number of wide-ranging and unanticipated effects on the environment and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on this.

In response to increased evidence of the impact of these products on wildlife and humans,  more refined pesticides were developed, as well as plants which are genetically modified to resist pests.photo 4(4)

Most of these newer products are currently considered safe for human consumption and for the environment – but then, so was DDT back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are suspected of negatively impacting important pollinators around the world, foremost among them honey bees.

And then there’s the issue of pesticides being combined, or misused, with as yet unknown effects.

Broadly speaking, the focus of industrial farming is to produce more food from any given amount of land. Pesticide use, monocrop farming and less produce diversity, GMO development – all target increased agricultural yields, as well as profitability for the companies selling these products.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind organic food production is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity while avoiding all use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and to do so in a manner that is sustainable and perhaps profitable.

The focus is on the impact of human food production on the surrounding environment, and on reducing any negative impact of synthetic or harmful products on land, plants and animal life – including humans.photo 5(1)

Buying organic isn’t simply a choice between healthy and unhealthy produce for human consumption.

Plenty of conventionally grown foods are perfectly healthy to humans.

Some have almost no pesticide residue. Some – at least in the United States – have residue from up to 29 different pesticides.

Those pesticides, sprayed or added to wherever the produce was grown, eventually end up in the water systems, soil, or on the wind and carried to other plants and animals.

I have no problem with buying conventionally-grown produce, and I have no issue with buying organic.

Where I take issue is when the choice is portrayed purely in terms of cost-effectiveness and health benefits for the consumer.

We have so many choices available these days, and the choices we make matter.photo 2(7)