Tag Archives: Switzerland

It’s A Hot One

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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.

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Circumnavigational Wonder

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The world’s first circumnavigation by an aircraft powered only by the sun was just completed this week.

The Solar Impulse 2, created and flown by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, landed in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight time – spread over the course of 17 months and 42,438 km (22,915 nmi) of Northern Hemisphere territory.

It’s a strange thing to live in an age when scientific breakthroughs seem so commonplace as to barely merit more than a passing mention before they are lost again in the onslaught of information.

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) - An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.  Image: via Dataisnature

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) – An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.
Image: via Dataisnature

We spend all of a few minutes or a few hours in wonderment before moving on to the next amazing novelty. Time moves more quickly these days than it once did.

I try to imagine the days when even an innovation in clock making and mechanics could provide the discussion of an evening, or longer.

The remarkable clockwork globe here was an innovation in its own time. Its movement was built by Gerhard Emmoser, clockmaker to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was inspired by the words of Philip Melanchthon in contemplation of Plato:

“…the wings of the human mind are arithmetic and geometry…

Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies, see the fateful meetings of the stars, and then understand the causes of the greatest things that happen in the life of man.”

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.  the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy. Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.
the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy.
Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Solar Impulse 2 flight was 15 years in the making. Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg shared piloting duties of a plane equipped with 17,000 solar cells. The undertaking has a dual purpose: To show that it can be done, and to inspire the ongoing pursuit and implementation of renewable energies over fossil fuels.

Exploration, research and innovation aren’t just matters of pushing boundaries of what we already know – they are about dreaming into areas about which we know nothing. The clockwork globe was no doubt inspired not only by the soaring words of Melanchthon, but by ever-growing knowledge of how the world might look from above.

Who wouldn’t want to circle the globe from the comfort of their own drawing room?

Four hundred years passed between the first circumnavigation of the world by water in 1519 (by an expedition initially led by Ferdinand Magellan over three years) and the first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 (by a the United States Army Air Service aviator team over 175 days).

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2. Source: The Guardian

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2.
Source: The Guardian

Less than a hundred years passed between that feat and doing the same thing using only the sun as fuel.

We figured out how to harness electricity less than two hundred years ago using water power and coal; transforming sunlight into electricity happened around the same time, but the problem has always been storing that energy for use as needed.

The Solar Impulse 2, like other major achievements in science, engineering and exploration, reminds us that there is always further to go.

Just let that sink in for a few minutes, or a few days.

As Melanchthon wrote, “For I know that you are certainly convinced that the science of celestial things has great dignity and usefulness.”

Words as true now as they were over four hundred years ago.

The Solar Impulse 2. Source: Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse 2.
Source: Solar Impulse

Gumdrop Moon

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Different cultures have different names for the full moons of the year, and January’s is called anything from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon to Winter Moon to Moon of the Terrible.

But the moon that rose over Lake Geneva last night, caught here as we drove across Mont Blanc Bridge, was nothing so fearsome as to warrant its usual names.

This was a soft Gumdrop Moon, one day before it waxes full, shining above in pastel skies and reflected in the lake below.

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: PKR

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: PKR

The Spoils of the Day

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The village of Vufflens-le-Château. All photos: PK Read

The village of Vufflens-le-Château.
All photos: PK Read

Sometimes the constant presence of natural beauty can lead to a certain forgetfulness of the visual bounty all around.

We’ve lived near Lake Geneva for a long time, and while I revel in the views of mountain and lake, I don’t always appreciate just how lovely the area can be.

Fortunately, friend, writer and local expert on the area Catherine Nelson-Pollard invited me along on a day excursion, and I got a good reminder.DSC03701

Twice a year, once in spring and once in fall, hundreds of winegrowers in Switzerland open their cellars to visitors.

I’d characterize the Caves Ouvertes event as one of the few real bargains in Switzerland: For the price is CHF 15 (around $15, or €15), intrepid wine tourists get a wine glass, a little neck pouch to carry it, a wine passport, a map, and almost unlimited tasting opportunities for as many wineries as you can visit in a day.

A free bus service takes pass-carriers from vineyard to vineyard along a number of possible routes in each wine-producing canton.

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

We did a short route in the canton of Vaud, which neighbors Geneva.

Swiss wines aren’t widely known outside the region. They tend to be lighter than their French or New World relations.

Production levels are generally small, and vineyards dot the lakeside, the hills and mountain foothills in small parcels. Almost all are tended by hand. This is not a business of vast profits and expandability of scale. DSC03704

 

A glorious day in mid-May, white clouds blown across the lake by a bise wind rendered gentle by the warm temperatures and the sunshine. Here a château, there a wall curving inward with age.

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I had driven over the border from France, so my car was waiting for me back in Nyon, a short train trip from where the wine tours started.

Because I’d have to drive home later, I maintained a strict tasting regimen – small sips, lots of water, dumping the remainder of the tasting sample once I had determined whether I liked it or not. It’s the most sober wine tasting I think I’ve ever experienced. At least, for my part.DSC03713

Over the course of the afternoon, fellow travellers in other groups got ruddy faced. Someone next to me forgot the wine glass she had just put in her neck pouch and broke it against a table.

It was time to head home.

But not before buying a few bottles to share at home.

A good reminder to extend my local range from time to time, and not take its beauty for granted.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass - which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass – which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

The Urge to Affiliate

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photo 1I was out on a run yesterday, my usual loop, when I found this piece of tree bark lying across the path.

Here along the border between France and Switzerland, we’re in the midst of a bise blanche, a fierce wind that blows down through the Geneva basin from the north.

A bise blanche weather forecast looks cheery – wind and sun, like this:Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.35.12 But the wind is a bully, cold and muscled. Roads and paths are littered with parts of trees and debris.

This bark segment caught my eye because it was colonized by so many different groups of lichen, moss and insects and spiders. Part of an arboreal architecture, home to so many other forms of life.photo 3-1

I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few pictures.

It’s a vision of life living on and with other life. photo 3-2

I had planned on writing today’s post on biophilic design. It’s defined as the integration design principles for architecture and urban planning with ‘biophilia’ – “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” (Erich Fromm in 1964) and “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Edward O. Wilson in 1984).photo 1-1

The concept of bringing nature into cities and buildings has been gaining traction (taking root?) over the past couple of decades.

There are aspects of sustainability (green walls and vertical gardens, for example), but many correlate the integration of nature into design, including sunlight, with lower stress levels and better health and improved well-being.photo 2-1

Industrialization and its design aesthetics often led to a distancing from nature in homes and cities; many would argue this has been to our detriment (not to mention damaging to the environment). Biophilic design is an ongoing discussion on letting nature back in.

Feeling the wind blow through me while looking at this heavily inhabited bit of bark on a blazingly sunny afternoon, it’s almost impossible to imagine keeping it out.

Life finds its way in everywhere.photo 2

Solstice Splendor 2014

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Sunrise and sunset on the solstice.

To the east, the sun breaks a new day above the sharp peaks of the young Alps.

To the west, the day comes to its end as the sun sets behind the gentle slopes of the ancient Jura range.

Welcome, splendid Winter.photo-3

Solstice Run

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The snowy peak of Mont Blanc is between the two stands of trees, a sharp view my phone camera couldn't quite catch. But it caught my shadow catching the view.

The snowy peak of Mont Blanc is between the two stands of trees, a sharp view my phone camera couldn’t quite catch. But it caught my shadow catching the view.

A stunning summer solstice day, some of it spent in the garden staking up tomatoes and peas, some of it spent sitting together, some of it spent in blissful afternoon napping. And some of it spent on a good 7 km run.

Another minute further down the road, facing in the other direction: Solstice sunset over the Jura range.

Another minute further down the road, facing in the other direction: Solstice sunset over the Jura range.

The summer solstice is a bittersweet pleasure. The beginning of summer; when the first day of summer is as glorious as today’s was, it’s hard to feel anything but grateful.

On the other hand, it’s the annual milestone, the shortening of days all the way until winter. Anything we haven’t yet planted might not have time to come to fruition before the next big chill.

Still, when out on a run and confronted by this path ahead, even the big chill can look inviting.

Mont Blanc on the other side of Lake Geneva, still bright in the setting sun.

Mont Blanc like a cloud rising on the other side of Lake Geneva, still bright in the setting sun.

Anticyclonic Haze

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A few hours north of where I live in France, but the haze looks about the same. Photo: AFP

A few hours north of where I live in France, but the haze looks about the same.
Photo: AFP

It’s been a hazy couple of days here on the eastern edge of France, dry and cloudless but when I look out the window, the air above (the currently invisible) Lake Geneva is whitish-yellow.And indeed, checking the news, I find that three-quarters of France is under a high pollution alert. City bikes are free today in Paris, leave the car at home, etc., due to “anticyclonic conditions and cold nights followed by more hot days.” Which means we have a high pressure system settled firmly above the country, and the air pollution isn’t being dispersed.

This week, the Chinese government announced a massive new program to fight pollution and restructure its economy to be more environmentally sustainable. This isn’t due to some newfound altruistic leaning into the green. China is choking on the fruits of its growing economy, and not just because of the almost tangible blankets of smog filling some of its cities. The water is either drying up or polluted and the growing areas of soil are so damaged that they can no longer be farmed.

Tiananmen Square, October 2013 Photo: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

Tiananmen Square, October 2013
Photo: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

One solution is to import water in the form of food grown elsewhere, to outsource major polluting industries off Chinese soil.

Another is to change course. As of this week, China has said it will “resolutely declare war against pollution as (it) declared war against poverty”. Premier Li Keqiang described smog as “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development”.

A high pressure weather system makes for warm, sunny days, until it doesn’t anymore and it causes haze and lack of rain instead. Considering China’s long spell of high pressure economic success, if we are measuring success in terms of GDP, it will be interesting to see what the country can do if it truly throws its weight behind wrapping its economy around sustainable development, and what the costs, both financial and human, of this course change will be.

Two Trails

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The running path, taken earlier. Looks pretty much like this now – a little less green on the ground, a little less blue in the sky.

A brisk wind is chasing rain across the sky in quick, sharp intervals, strobe lights of sunshine cutting through. Just enough for a good run under a blue sky, between the raindrops.

I had planned to write about spring barley and the malting process that leads to single malt whisky, but before I could even get started, I fell down a rabbit hole of farming information regarding the glut of malting barley being stored from last year’s crop, how storage capacities of Scottish maltsters have been fully reached and what that means for existing barley stocks in terms of germination and export.

Fascinating stuff, the long path that leads up to the malting process itself. At least, to an amateur agricultural nerd and single malt enthusiast.

So, instead, I’ll head into a spot of sun, and leave with the promise of more malting stories to come at a later date, when the running trail isn’t beckoning more than the path of barley.

Next weekend, though, the plan is to introduce a new cocktail of my own invention, the Scaly Anteater, in honor of World Pangolin Day on 15 February.

For now though, a song of neither the whisky trail, nor my running trail here in France, but a trail song of a slightly different nature.