Tag Archives: #beach

Built to Last

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A few days ago, I came upon a technique for preparing chicken. It was a fairly simple thing, butterflying chicken filets, and I hadn’t even been looking up how to do that (I don’t know what I had in my search term anymore, but it definitely contained the word ‘butterfly’). There were a few images. Cut open the filet, open it, cover it with cling wrap and then pummel until tender. No big deal, as meat preparation goes.

And yet, the final image caught my eye.

Butterflying chicken.
Source: BBC Good Food

And I wondered: Why the cling wrap between the meat and the tenderizing roller?

This is a process that takes a few short minutes. Sure, the roller stays clean and the chicken meat perhaps a bit more shapely if cling wrap is used.

Consider this: That strip of cling wrap is only used for a few short minutes before being thrown away (and quickly, because it is covered in chicken remains and within a few hours can potentially infect anything it comes into contact with). Yet it will go on to have a life-span of anywhere from ten years to a few decades, depending on how it is disposed of. Unless it’s incinerated, in which case it might release toxic gases.

All that for a few minutes of use, in a process for which it’s not even necessary. If it’s keeping the roller clean that matters, well…wash the roller afterwards. It worked for centuries, it can work today.

When I was a teenager and deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up (not realizing I would ever fully do either of those things), I considered a future in archeaology, the science of looking back. A friend invited me along on an archeaological dig along the California coast that was part research, part salvage mission.

The remains of a Pomo village located an eroding cliff above a beach in Humboldt county were crumbling, year for year, onto the sand below and being washed away by the Pacific tides. At least, I remember it being a Pomo village. Or Miwok. We found a lot of palm-sized notched stones, sinker stones used for weighting fishing nets, basket remains, net fragments. Much had already been reclaimed by the land and sea.

Sinker stones, Colombia River.
Source: Homestyle/Arrowheadology

One afternoon, I was sifting beach sand through a large sieve. What remained in the sieve was usually large bits of shells, rocks, seaweed. I remember very little plastic. This was in the mid-1970s, so I imagine there was plastic, but it didn’t stand out. What did stand out was a shiny shard of red obsidian, a stone that wasn’t otherwise found in that area. As it turned out, that little shard provided a sliver of proof that this village had traded with tribes to the east of California.

Everything we found had a utility, and we could trace it back to that specific utility. A tiny piece of beach-buried obsidian told us a story.

Now, consider this, a video by Sustainable Coasts Hawaii of another sand-sifting moment, decades and thousands of miles away from my own. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact. Look what gets left behind in the sieve.

The vast majority of those plastic shards are now unrecognizable. They’ve degraded but not into something that can be considered safe – on the contrary, they are both useless and dangerous to sea and land animals. It’s safe to say that most of the plastic likely came from items that had a brief life in terms of usefulness for humans. Deodorant containers. Straws. Plastic plates or forks. Processed food packaging. Oh, all the one-use packaging. The stuff we use to carry other stuff once, maybe twice, then throw away so it can continue a life unseen, slowly falling apart, outliving all of us.

We build obsolescence into the things we need to last, like big appliances and phones, and build the disposable items as if we’ll need them forever.

Consider what we learned from a couple of weeks about a village by sifting along a beach and looking at what they left behind.

What will the world know of us, hundreds of years from now, when our plastic is still filling the world’s beaches?

 

*If, maybe in honor of Earth Day on April 22, you decide to make the move away from cling wrap, here’s a video on how to make a substitute. And before we lose a tear about the convenience of disposable plastic to our daily lives, think about how, once made, we never really get rid of plastic, and how inconvenient that is.

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.

Amidst the Madding Crowd

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Fistral Beach near Newquay in Cornwall is mainly known for one thing: Surfing.

The beach isn’t long, around a half a mile. But it is generally full.

On a recent visit, we watched a constant stream of surfboard-lidded cars arrive at the end of the beachfront road where our friend there lives, turn, and look for a parking spot. Surfers changed into wetsuits on the street. IMG_2776

A surfer website says: “Very consistent, beachbreak peak, that occasionally gets epic.” Indeed.

Even on a calm day of glassy water there are surfers out in the sea, there are beginner’s classes being held on the beach, dozens of people madly paddling and learning to stand on a board, right there on the sand.

On this day, the surf looked pretty decent, at least to this non-surfer. Boards filled the waves, boards filled the beach.

I didn’t take photos of all that.IMG_2777

I was more interested in the water at incoming tide, casting reflections in small pools, or rippling against the sand.

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I went on an early Sunday walk, not early enough to beat the crowds of surfers and families and dogs and kids, but early enough that some of the walk was peaceful and meditative.

It’s the sand beneath the feet and between the toes. It’s the flow and retreat of water.IMG_2770

It’s the sun and subtle reflections.

It’s the hint of past human activity merged into the rocks. IMG_2793The rush of waves that drowns out the sound of bullhorned lifeguards calling out warnings and corralling wayward young.

Two small fish swim in a temporary pond of shadows and light, avoiding notice of nearby children with nets and waiting for the tide to return and carry them back out to the big pond.

Calm among frenzy. It was occasionally epic.IMG_2797

 

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.

 

 

Fight, Flight, or Loll

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We were out early at Drake’s Beach in West Marin, California, under changeable skies. It was low tide, and we were the only bipeds around – the parking lot completely empty, no stray campers or hikers, we had the place to ourselves, at least when it came to other humans.

Drake's Beach, California. Photos: PKR

Drake’s Beach, California.
Photos: PKR

And while there were fewer shorebirds than I would have expected, there were a multitude of large crabs. Mostly intact, mostly dead.

And then we started noticing more remnants of life – traces that reflected the retreating tide in broken shells. IMG_2470

Something I haven’t seen before, countless sand dollars, most of them still alive, scattered at the ebb line. Those small, flat sea urchins with the lovely star patterns that we usually see bleached white – these were still pink and moving.

Some clearly were trying to find their way back to the water, leaving elegant script of their flight. (These two were still very alive, and we put them back in the water.)IMG_2474

Other creatures weren’t ready to give up even an inch of territory, no matter the cost. This palm-sized crab was as fierce as they come.IMG_2519

And then there were those who were neither in fight nor flight mode: They were lolling.

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.  Photo: Oliver Brüning

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.
Photo: Oliver Brüning

It’s not terribly clear from this image (the better camera had given up by the time we got to the bottom of the lighthouse steps), but this small cove below the Point Reyes Lighthouse had a number of seals, all sizes, doing lazy loops while a mother humpback took her calf through its paces, back and forth.

There wasn’t much to do after that then head back to Inverness for a good dinner. Not before having a seat in the empty lighthouse keeper’s chair, though – someone needs to sit there now and again, since the lighthouse was automated forty years ago.

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Covering Our Eyes

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The main centers of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lay like a loose pearl necklace around the coastal edges of the nation.

I’ve never been to any of the NASA sites, but I grew up watching them from a distance.

As a child of the Sixties, the moon launches that took place were an invitation to dream of the stars. They made everything – anything – seem possible. It was just a matter of extending the grasp of our human hands by a finger’s length.

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt Text credit: European Space Agency

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

With the passing of time, those dreams of exploration have expanded in unexpected ways. As it turns out, what we don’t know about space is matched in kind by what we don’t know about our home planet.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say what we don’t know and would like to find about the cosmos runs parallel to what we have chosen not to know, and would rather not find out, about Earth.

We’ve known about human-caused climate impact for a very long time. Even the fossil-fuel industry has known about the effects of its products for longer than any care to admit.

And a rise in sea levels is one of the main effects of a rapidly warming world.

So what to think about the story that many of the most iconic NASA facilities, those stepping stones to understanding our place in the universe and in the environment, are at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of global warming?

NASA and international space agencies around the world provide an array of tools and mechanisms for examining our world as well as others – those first photos of the blue planet bobbing in deep space inspired many to try and protect what turned out to be a rather unique place to live.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells. This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Caption/Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data

Those initial images have been followed by a myriad of eyes that look at our planet in self-examination. In photos, measurements, radar, NASA and its partner agencies have been building an ever expanding archive of information, deepening our understanding of the forces at work here on the surface.

These are visions that aren’t necessarily what I would call the stuff of dreams, but they provide a portal to action in a way that perhaps moon launches didn’t for the average earthbound human.

These are images taken from the perspective of celestials, given to the earthbound. They promote an awareness of what the planet it doing, we are doing and maybe, what we can do it better.

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Goddard

The United States launch pads, were built near coastlines for safety reasons. But latitude plays a role – these are the southernmost regions of the country, and thus closest to the Equator, where “the greater diameter of the planet provides a slingshot effect that gives each rocket more bang for the propulsion buck.” (NYT)

What to say about some of our best technological achievements being inundated by the technologies and habits we can’t seem to quit?

Light Show

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We’re north of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

First evening sunset. All photos: PKR

First evening sunset.
All photos: PKR

 

The place we’re staying is directly on a small beach. Well, ‘small’ is probably the wrong word.

photo 2-5

 

It doesn’t have a poetic name, it doesn’t have majestic cliffs, it doesn’t have any fancy restaurants or hotels or activities.

photo 5-3

 

It’s just a regular, small, coastal beach on the Pacific Ocean. My favorite.

 

Small but filled with the sky. 12316080_10206990175466031_4192824010251365864_n

 

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?

 

Water Falls

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This satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States, in 1999. Lake Powell  Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

This 1999 satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

A crucible for past, present and future examples of extreme climate developments, the western part of the United States – and California in particular – continues to suffer under extreme drought conditions.

Drought is nothing new in California. What’s new (or rather, not very old in geological terms) is a culture and economy built on water profligacy and the presence of 40 million people in California alone. Add in a couple more tens of millions from other western states that all rely on the shared Colorado River watershed, and a drought today looks very different than it did a century ago.

Many of the water rights in California were, however, assigned over a century ago and they are still in force today. Half of all waterway claims in California are in the hands of just 4,000 owners, and more importantly, the water use by these owners is completely unmonitored.

So, while the recently announced California water rationing and fines for overwatering are important steps in gaining some control over water waste, they will not affect some of the largest users in the state (and region).

They won’t have much real impact on those who can afford the fines or whose usage isn’t monitored in the first place.

More importantly, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental flaw in how we use water.

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above. Photo: PK Read

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above.
Photo: PK Read

Amid the talk of eight-minute lawn watering every other day, 500-dollar-fines for water waste and the dry, dry expanses of the famous California hills that should be golden at this time of year but are instead a dusty grey, we were surprised to see these water overflow pipes along the beach. Some were overflowing with what I can only assume was unrecovered excess garden irrigation water.

What a strange sight, the gardens following the erosion of cliffs and the ongoing supply of fresh water all the way down to the beach.

What a strange and outdated concept, this blithe assumption that water should be unlike any other key resource upon which we rely and in which we trade – arable land, forest, gold – and that it will never run out.

That we can just spill it as we please, never mind the consequences.

A cliff-top garden migrates down a cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day. Photo: PK Read

A cliff-top garden migrates down an otherwise rocky cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day.
Photo: PK Read

Beach Sandskrit

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DSC02349We were walking on Malibu beach yesterday as the tide was going out.

It left behind a long tale of the previous few hours, written in seaweed and flotsam.

I didn’t count how many different types of seaweed left their notes on the sand, but from the number of red lobster shells in the receding water line, I’d say local birds, seals and otters have been feasting. And if there were no lobster claws to be seen, that’s because the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) doesn’t have any in the first place.DSC02351

The high tide of our own past few hours was marked by an evening spent on a warm terrace with a good friend, and the Auchentoshan Triple Wood he pulled out to share with us.Unknown

As the name says, this Lowland whisky is matured in three different kinds of wood: Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks, bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry.

It has a combustibly sweet aroma, with a taste that echoes dark chocolate, applesauce, toffee and rum.

It was a delight, as was the day and the company.

One who knows how to read what's skirt in the seaweed.

One who knows how to read what’s skrit in the seaweed.