Monthly Archives: January 2017

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

Up Close and Personal

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It’s generally acknowledged that we are now officially in the midst of a major phase of extinction when it comes to plant and animal life on our home planet. Whether it’s called the Sixth, the Holocene or the Anthropocene Extinction, this wave of die-offs is the biggest in almost 70 million years, when three-quarters of all plant, animal and sea life perished in the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction.

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales. Image: Adrian Steirn via Africa Geographic

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales.
Image: Adrian Steirn

There are a couple of key differences between these two major extinction events.

For one thing, the earlier extinction is widely considered to be the result of a massive asteroid impact that had a series of long-lasting effects – but there is some disagreement on that origination story. Other causes could have been a series of volcanic eruptions, or climate change, or sea level change. At this great distance, we don’t know if it was one factor or a combination of factors. In any case, it was a planetary change caused by elements far beyond the control of the species that went extinct as well as those that survived.

This time around, we have a fairly clear idea of what is causing the current round of extinction, which is proceeding at a rate estimated at 140,000 species per year. That’s every year, not a cumulative number. Species are dying off at far higher rates than we can count them.

This time, we know that what’s causing this epic die-off is a combination of climate change, habitat loss, human impact in the form of hunting, industry and pollution.

Contrary to the last time around, this is no outside force: This time, a single species is having the impact of a major asteroid. Or a series of volcanic eruptions.

On a positive note, in the midst of all this, there is hope. As it turns out, when we put our collective mind to a task, we can turn the tide. New Chinese regulations banning the ivory trade, a crackdown on trafficking in pangolin products and a classification by the IUCN of the animals as extremely threatened, might well end up saving these animals from oblivion.

It’s the efforts of people on the ground, like the Pangolin Men and the Tikki Hywood Trust shown in these images by Adrian Steirn, that make the crucial difference. Coalitions of farmers and activists, municipal and state bans on the use of known insecticides or the promotion of green havens, big regulations combined with hands-on local work and dedication, it all counts.

We won’t save everything, but we can slow the rate considerably. Individual efforts can make a real difference.

What animal or plant will you help save today?

All photos used with the kind permission of Adrian Steirn.

Fueling Fossil Feelings

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Over the past year, a variety of elections, polls and movements have demonstrated that, for all the endless access we have to information, we are entering an era that emphasizes acting on emotions and fears rather than weighing facts.

Maybe it’s because the constant tsunami of facts threaten to overturn our personal vessels – it’s easier to pilot the waters on ‘what feels right’ rather than take on board a slew of uncomfortable realities that might swamp us.

Screenshot, 'This Moment, and Beyond', an ad promoting Fueling U.S. Forward. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward/YouTube

Screenshot, ‘This Moment, and Beyond’, an ad promoting Fueling U.S. Forward.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward/YouTube

And for every moment of uncertainty, there are those who are ready to exploit fear in the name of profit.

It appears that a new initiative to promote the fossil fuel industry is one such undertaking. At a time when the effects of climate change are measurably underway, with each successive year being the latest ‘hottest on record’ and higher CO2 levels impacting everything from polar ice levels to drought, you might think that people would applaud rising renewable energy use, improving technologies and lowered costs.

But Fueling U.S. Forward, a public relations group funded by the oil and petrochemical conglomerate of Koch Industries, is a large-scale outreach program in the grand tradition of the tobacco and soft drinks industries: When threatened with scientific information that could negatively impact long-term profits, a multi-pronged approach is taken of discrediting critics and promoting all the benefits of the industry’s products to specific groups.

In the case of Fueling U.S. Forward, the goal is to undermine the proliferation of alternative energies and technologies (such as electric cars and solar panels) by casting them as damaging to the financial interests of minorities and millenials – and at the same time, promote the familiarity of fossil fuels while intentionally obscuring the widely known dangers inherent in their continued use.

A blog post implying that without fossil-fuel based energy, citizens will lose access to the Internet, entertainment, and connectivity. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

A blog post implying that without fossil-fuel based energy, citizens will lose access to the Internet, entertainment, and connectivity.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Through soft marketing in the form of concerts and events with ‘informational aspects’ and funding to activist groups, Fueling U.S. Forward promotes the well-established Koch agenda of rolling back support for renewable energies, legislation and regulation.

This is a perfect moment for this kind of strategy. Emotions are high, fear is rampant, and fossil fuels are what we know. It should matter that polls show the majority of U.S. citizens support clean air regulations. But given that the incoming U.S. administration has drawn heavily from Koch allies for a variety of key posts, including climate change skeptics and people with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, policy-making and public messaging is likely to fall in line with the oil industry goals.

Screenshot from Fueling U.S. Forward. Innovation is portrayed as impossible without fossil fuels. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Screenshot from Fueling U.S. Forward. Innovation is portrayed as impossible without fossil fuels.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Fueling U.S. Forward’s President and CEO Charles Drevna has called burning fossil fuels the ‘pro-human’ solution. One need only look to the ongoing smog crisis in China to see the effects of unregulated burning of fossil fuels (mainly coal) and vehicle emissions – over a million deaths were attributed to poor air quality in 2012 alone. Unless you are a climate change skeptic (and if you are, thank you for giving champagnewhisky a look!), it might be hard to comprehend how an industry can focus so intently on continued profits in the face of generating so much verifiable damage to human health and the environment. But the simple fact is, for these folks, profits determine their view of the world, and not the other way around.

Statistics are implemented to imply that without fossil fuels, economic security is at risk - and with it, health and standards of living. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Statistics are implemented to imply that without fossil fuels, economic security is at risk – and with it, health and standards of living.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

We can acknowledge the debt we owe fossil fuels in the history of human progress without being bound to them for the foreseeable future.

We can also acknowledge that in this emotional era, vigilance and determination to focus on long-term goals of sustainability and the insistence on hard facts to achieve those goals will count more than ever before in fighting something that is as dangerous as climate change: the intentional instigation of fear in the name of profit.

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Frost Love Note

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View across the fields. Photo: PKR

View across the fields. Photo: PKR

The past few weeks have been a feast of fog and frost. Thick fog lingers, the moisture freezes to every surface outside, the world is held in suspension…and then a couple of rays of sunshine break through and within minutes, the hard days of frost quite literally evaporate.

I’ve a fondness for this season, a time in our area that finds many of our neighbors in a grey funk due to the lack of sunshine. Lucky me, I like the comforting uniformness of fog. The white ice sculptures that are still trees, blades of grass, fallen leaves make for excellent viewing, appearing as they do like still actors revealed by a slow-moving curtain.

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

But what I really like is how transient it is. Back and forth, we drift in and out of cracking white-in-grey days to brilliant sunshine without the deep commitment to winter that will come with the first deep snowfall. There’s nothing transient about two feet of snow, especially once it’s been shoveled from the paths and driveways into large piles. That frozen stuff will stay put for weeks, if not months.

Not this frost, though. It’s quick as a hot breath on a cold window. There just long enough write a quick love note…and gone.

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR