Monthly Archives: June 2016

Inadvertent Sabotage

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Not long ago, a news story went around the world about a weasel that shut down CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, forcing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to go offline for a few days.

As it turns out, it was actually a beech marten (Martes foina), a cousin of the weasel. The animal gnawed through a cable of an open-air electrical transformer, causing a short circuit.

From time to time we hear stories of animals – usually small mammals – that wreak havoc on large-scale, technologically developed installations.

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.  Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.
Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Almost always, these stories are told with a kind of breathless David versus Goliath glee at a victory of the tiny over the towering, the power of the small over the great.

At the same time, there’s also a tone of uncertainty and bafflement – shouldn’t we be better at protecting Very Important Human Things against wild creatures by now?

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn't survive. Source: Huffington Post

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn’t survive.
Source: Huffington Post

As if the animals were intentionally trying to take us down a notch or two by showing how fragile our machines really are.

But I think the uncertainty speaks more to how we see ourselves and our achievements – it seems like complex structures that supply so much energy, or which are so advanced, demonstrate just how far removed we are from other animals on the planet.

Until we realize how easily these structures can be inadvertently rendered useless, at least for a while.

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya's Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived. Source: Kengen/Independent

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya’s Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived.
Source: KenGen/Independent

It also shows how close we still live to other life and animals for whom our fences are obstacles that don’t pose much of a challenge.

If we need protection from their intrusions, there’s probably no way to reliably protect them from wandering into the wrong tangle of wires.

For better or worse, we are all in this together.

 

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive. Source: FranceTV

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive.
Source: FranceTV

*I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that beech martens are also regular criminals at our place, chewing through cables in car engines and generally making mischief. They’re protected, so no trapping allowed.

We live close to CERN in rural France on the border to Switzerland, so the only aspect of the news story that surprised us was that the animal was first reported to be a weasel – everyone around here knew right away what kind of culprit it must have been.

 

Fish and Steel

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The image of thousands of fish washing up on a shore is almost never a metaphor for lucky circumstance. It’s almost always a sign that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong.

Back in April, fishermen in four central Vietnamese provinces, mostly outside the main tourist centers, started finding fish washed ashore. Fishing suddenly became easier than ever with countless fish drifting into the nets. Unfortunately, eating the catch was making people sick.

And then the deep sea fish started washing up. And then a small whale. Whatever was killing fish in off the coast of central Vietnam, it was spreading far offshore.

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).  Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).
Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

Suspicion fell on a sewage pipe flush carried out on a steel plant by run by the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group. A sewage pipe connecting the plant to the ocean was discovered two years ago by divers, but it wasn’t until the Formosa allegedly cleaned this pipe, using 300 tons of imported chemicals described as “extremely toxic” by experts, that the massive fish die-off began.

Even three miles off shore, fishermen are finding entire areas of dead fish and squid. Dead fish are washing ashore by the ton.

Formosa company spokesperson Chou Chunfan didn’t help matters by telling an interview that “the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish. Before acquiring the land, (Formosa) already advised local fishermen to change their jobs. Despite our early recommendation, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”

Formosa has gained a reputation around the world for its disdain when it comes to environmental standards, yet it continues to build factories in numerous countries, including the United States and Cambodia. It has paid millions in fines, but the sums are far too minor to be of any real punitive significance for Taiwan’s largest industrial conglomerate.

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator). Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator).
Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

The Vietnamese government has publicly recognized the environmental disaster but refuses to make any direct accusations.

Now the situation has spiralled beyond a regional issue into a much larger confrontation between protesters angry about government corruption and a possible high-level cover-ups. Protesters have attacked mainland Chinese workers employed by the Taiwanese company – a continuation of attacks over the past couple of years against numerous Chinese-owned factories.

Beyond the disastrous environmental and human consequences of this story, it caught my eye because, well, I visited the central coast of Vietnam a couple of years ago. I went to the types of small fishing villages that are being devastated by the Formosa spill. There is little there in the way of business – except for fish.

Fishing is what people do, fish is what people eat, the coastline is the livelihood and life of the area.

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei) Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei)
Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

It’s not clear to me where the choice between catching fish and developing the steel industry (as outlined by the Formosa spokesman, who has since been fired) was ever one to be made by inhabitants affected by the Formosa steel plant. The Vietnamese government belatedly told residents not to eat the toxic fish from their catch, and offered compensation in the form of bags of rice and 50,000 dong (approximately $2.20).

It’s not clear to me how mainland Chinese laborers imported for the steel plant, who were attacked and four of whom were killed during anti-Chinese protests when the steel plant was being built in 2013, are really responsible for the effects of a sweetheart deal between a Taiwanese conglomerate and the Vietnamese government.

Anyway, even if the local fishermen had been given a choice between fish and steel, shouldn’t they have been employed by the factory if they had, like their government, chosen steel over fishing?

Meanwhile, a large stretch the coastline of Vietnam is poisoned, and the dead fish washing ashore signify what some are calling Vietnam’s Chernobyl moment.

I’ll be interested to see how well the economics of this deal really work out for both the Communist Vietnamese government and the company that seem to operate on the notion that we can live without marine life as long as we still have steel.

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus). Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus).
Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF

 

 

Fewer Footprints

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When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Microplastics.
Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.

 

 

Keeping a City at Bay

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The Presidio in San Francisco was established as a fortified base by the Spanish in 1776 as El Presidio Real de San Francisco or The Royal Fortress of Saint Francis.

It was the northernmost outpost of a Spanish empire in decline.

The Spire, by Andy Goldsworthy. Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio's re-forestation program. Photo: PKR

The Spire (2008), by Andy Goldsworthy.
Composed of 37 steel-armatured cypress tree trunks, felled as part of the Presidio’s re-forestation program.
Photo: PKR

We were there recently with a friend, in the Presidio’s current life as a public-private project – part park, part residential area, part office campus for commercial and non-profit organizations. It’s changed a lot since I spent time there back in the 1980s, when it was a quiet place of dilapidated barracks and virtually abandoned administrative buildings.

The Presidio has always had a special place in the city – its existence as one of the choicest bases in the United States military (golf courses, views of San Francisco Bay, beaches) protected it from the intense urban development that took place elsewhere.

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend's wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map. Source: W. Elliot Judge

A map of San Francisco, circa 1950, hung on a friend’s wall. The Presidio is the entire green area at the top of the map.
Source: W. Elliot Judge

It remains a place of tall cypress trees, sweeping lawns, surrounded by the blue of the bay and the ocean, with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.

The base was decommissioned by the military in 1995, and has since become part of the National Park Service. The area that President Harry Truman once proposed as the U.S. headquarters for the United Nations is now a (not entirely undisputed) public-private development that includes a campus for non profit organizations.

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio. Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

Old Coast Guard Station and Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio.
Photo: Will Elder/Wikipedia

From The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park (Lisa Benton-Short):

“The Presidio is a community within a park within a larger community. We are reminded by such accidents of geography that each of us is placed in human life within the concentric circles of relationship to others and to the natural world.”

In a throwback to when neighboring farmers grazed their cattle on Presidio land, goats now keep the weeds in check.

Goats provide mowing services as part of the City Graze project. Photo: PKR

Goats provide mowing services as part of the CityGrazing project for sustainable landscaping.
Photo: PKR

Who would have thought that a military installation, established 240 years ago as a point from which to develop new settlements, would end up fortifying an entire swathe of territory as parkland for the future?

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy leads through an upper forest path. Photo: PKR

Wood Line (2011) by Andy Goldswrorthy. Eucalyptus branches curve through a standing eucalyptus grove near Lovers’ Lane, the Presidio’s oldest footpath
Photo: PKR