Tag Archives: #Arctic

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:

 

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.

Patch Job

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A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

 

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.

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.

Arctic Oil Hubris

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Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin

 

 

Heedless Ways

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Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)

Portrait of Living Wind

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Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon.  Photo: Scientific American

Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon.
Photo: Scientific American

A century ago this month, the world’s last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in the Cincinnati Zoo, long after the last passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild. The passenger pigeon, once populous beyond imagining, took only a century to disappear.

It seems that more than one factor was responsible for the population decline and how well the passenger pigeon thrived, from breeding habits (they bred communally in large flocks, and didn’t breed in captivity) to human influence (hunting, habitat loss and deforestation).

To a 19th-century European hunter sitting in the middle of a vast colony of the birds, though, it must have seemed like endless flocks of passenger pigeons were just the way of the world. When the first alarms were raised, including an 1857 bill in Ohio to control hunting and protect the birds, the overall response was simple disbelief.

Martha

Martha

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” (Wikipedia) Subsequent efforts over the next 40 years were fruitless.

And so to the declines in the shorebirds of the Eastern Hemisphere, epic migrations that take place between Australia and the Arctic along the eastern coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and along the Yellow Sea. An estimated 36 bird species, their populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have used the flyway for most of human memory. Their numbers are dwindling. Very quickly.

Some species, including the curlew sandpiper, have seen their numbers collapse by up to 95% over the past few years alone. The culprits? Hunting, habitat loss, deforestation. And yes, there are several international agreements in place meant to protect migratory birds and their habitats.

It would seem the people doing the agreeing and the people doing the hunting and developing don’t share common goals.

Or maybe the hunters and developers and those who support their right to action just don’t believe in extinction.

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900. Source: Wikipedia

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1947, Aldo Leopold said of the passenger pigeon, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

When will we, then the marshes, and finally the shores, begin to forget the last shorebird?

Or have we already begun?

 

Dickens, Luck & the Woolly Mammoth

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A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.   Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar  via Reuters

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.
Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar via Reuters

“Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Charles Dickens (born 7 February 1812), Great Expectations

So many of Charles Dickens writings are concerned with those who succeed and those who fall by the wayside. Usually in his novels, success (or at least, survival) can be due to a number of factors in life, chief among them being that fickle friend, Luck. Failure (or death) comes often enough in the form of hunger or at the hands of those stronger and more brutal.

And so to the survival or demise of prehistoric megafauna, the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, the giant sloth, the woolly rhinoceros, the great creatures that once wandered the planet and still populate our imagination.

A new study out in Nature set out to find a strategy to predict which creatures might survive the current climate change based on past extinctions. What they found, finally, was that Luck played as much of a role as human hunting and encroachment, habitat destruction, and changing temperatures.

A visit to my favorite tree-of-life site, OneZoom.org, shows that only a fraction of the megafauna around 40,000 years ago are still with us today, with the numbers dropping regularly. The fact is that some species were just more fortunate than others.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana. Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana.
Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest

The woolly mammoth, for example, had long been thought to have gone extinct due mainly to hunting. However, the study points to the woolly mammoth’s reliance on foraging for the protein-rich forbs, flowering plants, that once carpeted its northern territories. As the climate changed, the prairies and fields of forbs gave way to less nutritious grasslands. The woolly mammoth, like many of Dickens’ most virtuous characters, simply starved to death.

Dickens’ world was nothing if not unfair in whom it chose to favor.

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

For the extinct heat-sensitive Eurasian musk ox, rising temperatures proved too much for it to survive.

For the dwindling number of elephants and rhinos still alive today, it may be a human hunger for their tusks and horns. For the polar bear, receding ice.  Some of them may just surprise us by proving more adaptable than expected.

But in the meanwhile, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from Dickens on the 202nd anniversary of his birth, and do all we can, for as many as we can.

Luck doesn’t have to be the name of the game.

Unforeseen Gatherings

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Walrus

Sea ice located along the shallow continental shelf of the Bering Sea usually provides a diving board, a hunting perch and resting place for female walrus and their young. With sea ice retreating into water too deep for hunting, the walrus have had to find safer shores.

Around 10,000 of them have gathered on a small barrier island near the village of Point Lay in northwestern Alaska. They were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been carrying out aerial surveys of marine mammals in areas of potential gas and oil development.

It’s not the first time the walrus have gathered on dry land to escape treacherous waters. While there, they remain more vulnerable to hunters, polar bears, and other stress factors that have, in the past, prompted deadly stampedes.

What looks like a termite mound here is actually a massive walrus pod. This clickable image can be enlarged.

Walrus gathering on Alaskan coastline Image: Stan Churches/NOAA

Here’s a quick update on a couple of topics I’ve followed over the past year:

Elvers

I’ve written several times about the ongoing discussion surrounding the American eel. More specifically, the harvesting of young eel – elvers – during their spring run along the American East Coast in spring.

Prices for live elvers have skyrocketed over the past few years due to high demand in Asia, where the local populations have been decimated by overfishing, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The young eel are shipped to farms, where they are grown to adulthood and sold for consumption all over the world.

In light of how little is actually known about the current population and health of the eel population, there was talk earlier this year of tightening regulations when it comes to fishing elvers. This has, for the moment, been postponed until further notice. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American eel management board has been unable to reach a consensus, likely pushing any decision until right before the 2014 season starts in early spring.

My overview of the American eel is here, with some of the other posts here and here.

A good discussion of the current fraught situation is here.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Pangolin

One of the more obscure objects of international animal smuggling is the odd pangolin, the scaled anteater which inhabits its very own lonely branch on the mammalian tree of life. I’ve talked about them here, when I looked at seizures of illegal shipments.

Pangolins are in demand because their scales (which are no different in composition than fingernails or hair) are used in some traditional medicines, while pangolin meat and fetuses are served as a delicacy in some East Asian cuisines. The pangolin is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The pangolin is considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked animals, yet I find very little on conviction rates following seizures.

Six men were convicted in Malaysia this year of smuggling 150 pangolins, sentenced to a year and jail and fined. Meanwhile, over seven tons of pangolin – some of them still alive – were confiscated by customs officials in Hai Phong, Vietnam. And in a baffling decision, the seized goods were auctioned off rather than destroyed, thus re-entering the illicit market.

No mention of what happened to the smugglers themselves.

The world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group met in Singapore in July. Perhaps this will bring more attention this unique creature, hopefully before it is trafficked into extinction.

Infographic: Annamiticus