The Marks We Leave

In keeping with this year’s trend of hot weather and no rain, October in our neck of the woods is, well, hot and dry. The lawn has the consistency of shredded wheat, and a pair of Eurasian magpies has been busily digging it up for insects. I’m still watering plants to help them stay alive long enough to go into their winter sleep. At some point, the heat will break, and my guess is that we will segue right into frost and freezing nights. Again, not great for the plants, trees, birds, animals, or humans. We all need our regular cycles.

Autumn in the Jura mountains

Jura mountains in autumn.
Photo: PKR

I was out on a run – one of the most confusing aspects of this prolonged summer is how delicious the air is, how ideal for being outdoors – anyway, I was out on a run and trying to put aside my concerns and worries about the changing climate, when I came upon this little historical reminder on the running path.

Ammonite fossil on the running track.
Photo: PKR

We live at the foot of the Jura mountains, an area of once shallow seas that changed, epoch to epoch, into layers of sediment, of animal and plant remains, of rock, into the mountains we now have behind our house. The dirt path I run on is an agricultural road, and in the dry dust, there were countless footprints from the runners, walkers, dogs, and horses.

And among them, this little ammonite fossil. At least, I think it was from an ammonite. It’s an imprint fossil, which means at some point, this rock was soft material that held an ammonite (or other ancient marine creature), formed around its impression, and then hardened into stone.

A variety of ammonite forms, from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature).
Source: Wikipedia

If, by some extremely unlikely chance, this path were to stay dry and then be buried under silt in exactly its current configuration, all the current footprints (including mine) would perhaps turn to stone, still surrounding the even older marine fossil. We are all just passing through. If we’re lucky, we leave a lasting mark.

In a strange way, I found this comforting.

Waiting For Rain

I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.

I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). Photo: PKR

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Photo: PKR

In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).

The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.

I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset. Photo: PKR

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset.
Photo: PKR

NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.

As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.

A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?

Temperature reconstructions by Nasa, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming.
Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.

The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.

Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.

Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.

The Right Tree

According to this article, the word ‘tree hugger’ was coined in 1730 to describe a hundreds of Bishnoi villagers in India who clung to the trees of their home to prevent them from being cut down for the construction of a palace. The non-violent form of protest was adopted in the 1970s by the Chipko women of northeast India, who clung to trees to stop them from being clear cut.

There are those who hug trees to protect them, those who hug trees because they feel it helps ease the mind, and those who are called tree huggers not so much because they actually hug trees, but because they embrace the idea that the environment is worth protecting.

I would count myself among the third group.

Acacia tree Source: GalleryHip

Acacia tree
Source: GalleryHip

Koalas hug trees for their own marsupial reasons. Picture a koala in your mind – is it sitting in a tree with its little arms wrapped around a tree trunk? My imaginary dozy koala is. I never gave it much thought, but a couple of researchers in Australia did. And in a new study published in Biology Letters, ‘Tree-hugging koalas demonstrate a novel thermoregulatory mechanism for arboreal mammals, they show that the trees koalas most like to hug are not the eucalyptus trees (which provide their main food source), but acacia trees. Why?

When the researchers studied the trees, they found that the acacia trees had trunk temperatures that were up to 5° C (9° F) lower than the surrounding air, and cooler than the other tree trunks. Koalas are using tree trunks to cool themselves in a hot climate where panting – the usual method of koala body temperature regulation – would cause the animals to lose precious water. Tree-clinging koalas lost half as much water through evaporation compared to other koalas.

The research team is working on models to predict how animals like the koala adapt to climate change. In the case of the marsupials, it might be that they will survive by changing their habitat range and find other cooling trees to cling to as the air grows hotter around them.

As a tree hugger in a changing world, it’s important to find the right tree.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point readers in the direction of another koala-related cooling device, the Hot Koala cocktail.



Cloud Spelunking

Back when global exploration meant finding a place, discovery was fairly straightforward. A given group of people could send some intrepid souls in a direction where none of them had ever been before, be it a valley, a sea, an island or a continent, and then that new place was ‘discovered’. There were gaps between the discovered places, but after a while, most of the gaps were closed and we now have a pretty good idea of where most places are on the surface of our planet.

Exploration has gotten a bit more slippery since then, and filling the gaps can be an elusive undertaking.

Alps in morning cloud, New Year's Day 2014 Photo: PK Read

Alps in morning cloud, New Year’s Day 2014
Photo: PK Read

In the investigation of ongoing climate change, unexplored territory remains. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual fall meeting in December, three scientists who contributed to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report (released in September 2013) outlined three areas that need more intrepid spelunking if the climate change process and its impacts are to be understood.

One misty area is the full functionality of the carbon cycle, or how carbon makes its way between the soils, the plants, water bodies and the air.

Another is how the oceans themselves work at deeper levels. Specifically, how they absorb the increasing heat of the atmosphere.

But, as a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I am particularly keen to follow the research on the role played by clouds when it comes to climate change. How do airborne particles affect clouds? Also, apparently low level cloud cover is migrating to the north and south. What overall effect this will have is currently a foggy area on the map of knowledge.

Mont Blanc, New Year's Day 2014. Photo: PK REad

Mont Blanc, New Year’s Day 2014.
The Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva is visible in the lower right corner.
Photo: PK Read

In my corner of the planet, ephemeral clouds and solid mountains share the skyline. Just because the clouds obscure parts of the jagged outline on some days doesn’t mean the mountain has moved or shifted shape. And, contrary to what climate change deniers might insist, just because we can’t see all the gears and workings of climate change yet doesn’t mean we never will.

It’s commendable that these scientists are exposing gaps in knowledge so that we can send forth more explorers, and reveal the general location of the obscured territories in our understanding of climate change.