Category Archives: Green

Environmental thoughts

It’s A Hot One

Standard

The little digital thermometer on my window here in south-eastern France read 50.1°C (122.2°F) yesterday. Today it’s even higher.

55.3°C (131.5°F). I definitely need to move this device. The actual temperature is 32°C (89.6°F).
Photo: PKR

Not that the outside air is really that hot. It’s just the sun heating the glass of the window to that searing temperature. Until I get around to moving the thermometer to a location that offers more accuracy, there’s not much point in panicking about the numbers on the display.

Still, according to Meteo Swiss, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far in our region, 35.5°C (95.9°F). These days, the announcements of monthly, yearly or all-time heat records being broken beat down with the worrying regularity of a leaky faucet.

It’s not just a subjective feeling that the summers are getting hotter and drier, the winters shorter and warmer. When we moved to this area of high mountains and lakes, winter meant thigh-deep snow at least three times per season. Now it’s knee-deep once a year. And summers?

Hm. Let me go have a look at that thermometer again.

There’s a pretty video making the rounds this week, a striking representation of temperature anamolies over the past hundred years or so, broken down by country.

It starts off as a rayed sphere of blue, yellow and orange, showing average highs and lows above a baseline. By 2000, it’s a pulsing sun of spiky red lines.

Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, created the visual using publicly available data from NASA earth sciences programs. These are the very programs that have had their budgets cut by 9% under the new U.S. administration, in favor of planetary science programs.

Unlike my window thermometer, this climate data is accurate. Ignoring it won’t make the raw information change, and it won’t change the fact that anyone and everyone with the means needs to act now to make Lipponen’s visual – and our planet – stay in the safety zone.

Swift Moment

Standard

A cloudless evening and the shrill cries of a small group of European swifts on an evening hunt for insects.

A summer concert told in sharp notes.

The swift has a wide range and enough numbers to be merit a population status of Least Concern from the IUCN. Considering the slow but persistent declines in common birds such as house sparrows due to habitat loss, it’s good to see a familiar bird adapting to changing circumstances.

The old farms in our French village all have ledges placed between the beams of barns for to support nesting birds (and to keep the floor beneath somewhat cleaner), a nice old habit that made space for wildlife in a way that modern garages and houses don’t.

Our own garage is still open and has old beams, home to several swift nests every year. Seeing them whisk in and out of the buildings at breakneck speeds is a thrill that never gets old.

A few of the many ledges for nests in the barn next door.
Photo: PKR

 

I found this interesting clip on the extreme lifestyle of the European swift – it can stay aloft for up to ten months of the year, and naps while gliding. Swifts might be common, but they are very special.

Root Migration

Standard

What do a rare high-altitude Alpine snow flower and a sturdy South African cousin of the daisy have in common? They aren’t related, they look nothing like one another, and they are natives to completely different habitats in different parts of the world.

But over the past few years, they have both been on the move.

Rockfoil – Saxifraga androsacea
Source: Wikimedia

The saxifrage species, also known as rockfoil, is a tenacious ground plant with that waits all winter under snow cover before bursting forth with a graceful stalk and small blossoms. It’s a plant of extremes – extreme cold, extreme altitude, it thrives in rocky soil where little else grows. But the temperatures for which it is adapted are becoming more seldom, and with them, so is the plant.

Meanwhile, the South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a tall herbaceous plant with bright sunny blossoms, is happy to take up the space. Able to survive higher temperatures and unfussy about altitudes, it is adapting well to Alpine heights. The ragwort’s seeds arrived in exports of South African wool, and are proving very comfortable in a number of regions across Europe and the rest of the world.

South African ragwort – Senecio inaequidens
Source: ResearchGate

According to a long-term study of one Italian region, Alpine winters are rapidly becoming warmer, up to 1.2°C (2.16°F) over the past 20 years, with tourism and skiing heading ever higher in search of winter sports, impacting the environment. And while both tourists and ragwort are happy at a variety of altitudes, saxifrage is running out of places to go.

What the two plants share mobility, but are separated by the extent of their comfort zones. With climate change, the ragworts will settle in, the saxifrages will be unsettled. Whatever other plants or animal life that relied on an ecosystem that includes this little saxifrage species will change along with its disappearance.

It’s a sign of profound transition that a plant native to South Africa is growing on Alpine rock faces. What we know of this ancient landscape as it has always been will have to be altered.

For the moment, the plants have movement and terrain in common. Their destinations, however, won’t be the same. One will likely adapt and move onwards, the other will likely move into memory.

Rockfoil
Photo: Florasilvestre

Cartography of Extremes

Standard

Maybe it’s the instinctual part of humans that makes us obsessed with the biggest, the strongest, the highest, the illustrious measurements that dazzle. Whether it’s the highest mountain, the broadest lake, the longest river, we look for inspiration in extremes.

Whether it’s justified or not, we do the same in societies. The biggest economies, the loudest voices, the heaviest sticks get all the attention. The heavyweight nations win the privilege of gathering together and trying to coordinate the world’s economy and, to a certain extent, its immediate future. To the extent that it’s possible during a few short days, a summit like the G20 in Hamburg promises an opportunity for representatives from the largest 19 economies, plus the European Union, to sit down together and talk about the world.

A cartography of the G20 might look a bit like this map from 1849, all the biggest players in the same place, at the same time, a landscape of superlatives.

A combined view of the principal mountains & rivers in the world (1849)
Image: J.H.Colton via David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This Group of 20 nations holds 85% of global GDP, 80% of world trade, and 75% of the world’s population. Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of host country Germany, has promised to put climate change at the top of the agenda as the world’s most pressing issue. In response to the United States leaving the Paris Agreement, she stated, “We cannot wait until every last person on earth has been convinced of the scientific proof.”

But what does that mean? The countries most impacted by climate change, by and large, are not the largest economies, and are not present at the G20. The countries that are at the G20, by are large, are the large economies which – through industrialization, consumer and disposable economies and resource exploitation – are the main contributors to climate change in the first place – and likely ones that will have to contend with climate-based migration.

Even if they’re all in the same room and have the best intentions, are they the top team to undertake wrenching challenges to institutions and economic assumptions in order to avoid further temperature and sea rises? After all, the G20 was created in 1999 to promote global economic stability, not to promote radical restructuring.

Because as we’re seeing with every passing year, there all kinds of new extremes to be charted, and we’ll need everyone at the table to navigate them.

All Abuzz

Standard

A friend challenged me to take nature photos for a week, and it resulted in several very nice shots of our garden, if I do say so myself.

But one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exercise took place when I went to take pictures of the two lavender bushes in front of our house. I planted them a few years ago, replacing ones that had gotten woody and sparse. These two bushes are veritable pollen engines, and the air around them is usually humming.

Photo: PKR

But it was only when I leaned in to take photos that I realized just what a busy miniature ecosystem these two plants have become. There were at least three different bee species in addition to the humble honeybees I usually see there – unfortunately, I couldn’t get all of them to pose for me. Several of them kept insisting on harvesting from lower branches, out of easy camera range.

And then there were the hummingbird hawk moths, the closest thing we have here in France to hummingbirds, at least in terms of size, movement and preferred food source.

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).
Photo: Wikipedia

There were several other small pollinators, flitting black creatures I couldn’t catch on camera, as well as wasps, which I left alone. And then there are the lizards that lurk on the stone wall and the countless birds in the branches of the climbing vine, all waiting for an easy meal.

Photo: PKR

All this around two lavender bushes, a small world on our terrace. One more argument, if any were needed, on the value of planting for pollinators, even in limited spaces.

Photo: PKR

Heating Up, Cooling Off

Standard

It’s a paradox of life that what gives us pleasure in moderation often gets us into trouble when we get greedy.

I’m not talking about food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or any of the other things that might come to mind. Because the second-highest heat index ever recorded in a city was marked today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran – a mix of high humidity and soaring air temperatures yielded a ‘feels-like’ of 74°C (165°F).

So I’m talking about air conditioning.

Air conditioners in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: PKR

Modern air conditioning, the kind that transforms vast stretches of hot agricultural land into productive cities with office buildings and booming economies, was only invented in 1902. Before that, the height of technology when it came to cooling was the rotary fan, which was used as far back as the 2nd century in China (only for the very wealthy).

So what’s the paradox with air conditioning? Well, there are a few. For one thing, that delicious cool air comes at a price. It’s considerably more expensive than your average table or ceiling fan when it comes to electricity, because it needs a lot more power. A ceiling fan uses 25 to 90 watts of energy; central air conditioners can use as much as 2500 to 3500 watts. Even with increasing efficiency in AC units, and the expansion of renewable power generation, AC is still an energy intensive alternative.

Old-fashioned air-conditioning in Dubai. The tower catches wind from four directions and channels it down into the house.
Photo: Denise Chan/Flckr via The Ecologist

And then there are the ozone-depleting refrigerants. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs used for cooling are all greenhouse gases. The worst of the coolants have been banned in western countries (starting in the 1980s with the Montreal Protocol*). HFCs were banned in a 2016 treaty signed in Kigali, Rwanda, with phase-out starting in 2019 in the United States and then gradually for other countries, notably China (2024) and India (2028).

Meanwhile, AC use is rising rapidly in these countries as the middle class expands. Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be installed by 2050. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that we went for millennia without it, or have architectural techniques for coping with heat without AC – methods both ancient and new.

The more we use air conditioning, the hotter we make the planet, and the more we need air conditioning.

So get out your hand fan, crank up your ceiling fan (or in my case, table fan), and get ready for the next heat wave.

*Reagan signed the Montreal agreement with the words, “The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. (It) is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”

Although President Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, there is little worry he will do the same for the HFC agreement – the phase-out is supported by the two U.S chemical companies that make HFC alternatives, the DuPont spinoff Chemours and Honeywell International.

 

Abundance of Sun

Standard

June 21 marks the longest day of this year in the northern hemisphere, and thus, it’s officially summer. Happy Summer Solstice!

At least here in south-eastern France, the dog days have already begun – hot and sunny and cloudless and dry.

We’re in the midst of the year’s first proper heat wave, with the temperatures at near-record highs. There’s the sense that every year now, or at least most of them, will be record-breaking when it comes to heat.

We hooked up cisterns to catch spring’s ample rainfall – with any luck, that water will see the kitchen garden through what promises to be a very long season of sun spread over ever-shortening days.

 

 

Six of One

Standard

I have an affinity for hybrids of technology and nature, whether in art or engineering. There was the Coniferous Clock made of cedar, fresh and green in spring, brown and withered in winter, that told a simple tale of a year’s passing.

Here’s a new take on using plants in a sleek design: The CityTree, made by Green City Solutions. CityTree is an urban air filter that uses moss to remove pollutants from city air.

CityTree.
Photo: Via CNN

In a cool trick of using densely packed moss that has more leaf surface area than other plants, the self-contained, mobile units are solar-powered, self-watering and are monitored via sophisticated sensors. They are estimated to remove the same amount of pollutants from city air as up to 275 trees. This can, according to the inventors, add up to the annual removal of 240 metric tons of CO2 per unit.

Like the super neat SmartFlower Solar installations of blossom-shaped solar panels that follow the arc of the sun across the sky – one is at a supermarket just down the road from our house – this is a great concept that has its price. In the case of CityTree, each unit is currently priced at around $25,000. The company states that the units are made from a high proportion of recyclable materials and have a long life, but how does that really break down in terms of resources, disposal, and maintenance over the long term?

CityTree with optional bench.
Image: Green City Solutions

Still, I like it. Even if achieving equivalent results doesn’t always mean the methods were equivalent. Six of one isn’t always the same as half a dozen. After all, plant a hundred trees or cover a hundred house walls in ivy, and you’ll be filtering city air for decades with very little overhead. But for that, you need the soil, the water and the will.

It’s a sign of our poor urban planning that we even need to talk about CityTree, but I have a feeling we might just be seeing more of them. The makers boast that CityTree has the services of a whole forest on the surface of 3.5 sq. meters (37 sq. feet).

It’s an intriguing and creative solution. They’re nice to look at, and I bet they smell almost like a forest.

Oakwood forest, Scotland.
Photo: Forestry Commission Scotland

A Part of It

Standard

So many of us live in cities these days that when we think of The Environment, we think of it as something separate, elsewhere, an entity apart from our daily lives. 

Design & Nature shop window, Paris. Photo: PKR

We see slogans like Save The (Insert habitat or animal name here) and it’s not a place or creature we know like we know our own piece of green, or our family pet. 

We can say we are all part of a whole, but we go to a park and don’t take off our shoes to really feel that. 

We see a new construction project go up and like it or don’t like it, but don’t apprehend that this, too, is our own creature environment changing, and changing us. 

Design & Nature shop window, Paris. Photo: PKR

What does the loss of a glacier, a forest, a species of songbird have to do with your daily life? Go out and find the nearest patch of dirt or green or tree. Take off your shoes. Look around and be there, a part of it just for a moment. You are there as much as any of the creatures and habitats – no more, no less. 

It’s World Environment Day. Protecting parts of life doesn’t mean putting them in a museum or under glass any more for them than it would for you. It means protecting ourselves. 

Pieces in the Mosaic

Standard

Over the past few decades, we’ve grown used to campaigns imploring us to save one animal or another. Usually the photogenic or impressive species. Save The Whale, Save The Panda, and so on. Shortly after the United States’ Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a case came along about a modest creature, the Tennessee snail darter. In keeping with its unprepossessing name, this innocuous little member of the perch family became famous for getting in the way of a construction project, the Tellico Dam.

The snail darter wasn’t considered glorious enough, in and of itself, to be a contender for ‘Save The’ status. And if the Endangered Species Act had been passed unanimously in the Senate and 390-12 in the House of Representatives, the snail darter showed the limits of congressional commitment. There were those who correctly saw that the movement to save the snail darter was not a campaign for a single species, but for an ecosystem at the expense of an infrastructure project.

Fish, Roman mosaic.

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee argued at the time that “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. (…)we who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

This type of hierarchical perspective – the attitude that some animals are more noble, more glorious, prettier and thus more worthy of protection than others because we are impressed by them in some way – is one of those markers of humanity that trips us up time and time again. It’s typically human to not see the forest for all the trees.

It’s hard to imagine in this automated age, but let’s try to picture the mosaic of a human city as an ecosystem brimming with different species. Let’s insert activities and services in that world in the place of species, which often perform ‘services’ in their ecosystems.

St. Stephen mosaic, Askalon.
Source: Kingdom of Jordan

And at some point, some of the smaller activities start to disappear. Flower shops, say, or soap manufacturers, winemakers. Not disastrous, but not ideal. We miss the soap quite a bit, and the wine, and we give up decorative bouquets.

And then maybe a few bigger activities. Gas stations. Grocery infrastructure. Clothes shops. Coffee growers. We can still function and adapt, but life isn’t what it was. And then maybe a few big ones. Banks, grain growers, water infrastructure maintenance, cell phone towers. Electricity generators.

If we acknowledge that our society needs most of its parts to fully function, why should it be any different for the individual species of a given ecosystem?

The Lod mosaic.
Source: Espoarte

It’s been decades since various laws, treaties, and organizations were formed around the world to protect the environment, from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and yet for the general public, species preservation is still by and large perceived as a one-off undertaking.

We are only beginning to understand the role that species play in the mosaics of their ecosystems, even as they are going extinct at the greatest rate since the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. Meanwhile, as we insist that our human ecosystem is has more value, we are losing up to 140,000 species every year.

We imagine societal dystopias all the time in books, movies and games. We don’t even know what the ecosystem we call home will look like as we move further through the Anthropocene extinction event currently underway.

So do your bit. Support endangered species movements and campaigns. Saving a species, even something as ‘lowly’ as a snail darter, means a lot more than just saving a pretty face.

I wrote this for International Endangered Species Day – but it’s equally relevant for International Day for Biodiversity. Obviously.

And if you think that’s too many days to think about biodiversity, conservation, endangered species and extinction, my response would be: it’s 363 short of how many days these issues are of relevance to each and every one of us.

 

*Note: The snail darter is now considered ‘vulnerable’ after a few more small populations were found elsewhere in Tennessee. The economic impact of the Tellico Dam has not been assessed.