Archive for the ‘Books, Movies and Aquariums’ Category

The Long Decline of Shorebirds.

Friday, December 11th, 2015

First we – or at least our ‘sportsmen’ – shot most of the migrating shorebirds along the US east coast.

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

They are mostly small birds, but they are famous for their annual, energetically costly flights between Arctic feeding and breeding grounds in the northern summer to coastal mudflats in far southern latitudes in the southern summer, sometimes 9000 km or more away. Two of the major flyways they use as they migrate follow the eastern coasts of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

They need to stop on occasion on these flights to feed on the coastal mudflats and sandy shores of eastern North America and of the Yellow Sea on the coast of China, and some of these areas attract – or used to attract – vast numbers of the migrants.

And that’s the problem.

In the 1800s, and lasting until the early 1900s, ‘sportsmen’ gathered at the extensive mud flats and sandy shores along the US east coast during migration season where the migrating birds gathered to feed, and they shot them by the many thousands, year after year, until not many were left, and the hunt was finally terminated, as usual far too late.

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

Cleveland Bent, a famous ornithologist of the turn of the century (he lived from 1866 to 1950), wrote Life Histories of American Shorebirds, filled with fascinating detail you don’t see in modern field guides. He also shot a lot the birds he wrote about, and then lamented their decline.

He wrote that the birds were “like a huge cloud of thick smoke, a very grand and interesting appearance. As the showers of their compatriots fell, the whole flock took flight, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction”.

And: “Those were glorious days we used to spend on Cape Cod in the good old days. There were shorebirds to shoot, and we were allowed to shoot them. It is a pity that the delightful days of bay-bird shooting had to be restricted. Ruthless slaughter has squandered our previous wealth of wildlife.”

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, Yellow Legs, Dowitchers , Wilson’s Snipes – the list goes on and on. Shorebirds were hunted close to extinction, some for meat but mainly for sport. Not unlike Passenger Pigeons and American Buffalo of the same era.

Yet only limited recovery of the shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway has since occurred.

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots - and other migrating species - have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north.  (virtualbirder.com)

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots – and other migrating species – have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north. (virtualbirder.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Having more or less survived the hunt, migrating shorebirds on the Atlantic Flyway have been further stressed by the loss of coastal wetlands and feeding habitats over the past century. For shorebirds migrating along the coasts of east Asia from Siberia to Australia, following the Australasian Flyway, conditions are becoming far worse.

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

The problem once again is loss of food-rich coastal staging areas, particularly around the Yellow Sea, to agricultural and industrial development. China’s new Great Wall, sealing off the sea along much of its coastline, is eliminating most of the remaining mudflats, and eliminating the shorebirds as a result.

So we hunted many species close to extinction. We have damaged or destroyed the coastal wetlands they depend on for food. And now sea levels are rising, faster in many places than remaining coastal wetlands and mudflats can keep up.

A bleak scenario, once again. We could dream of not only agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C but also to recover the coastlines, to back our development away from the wetlands, mudflats and beaches, to eliminate sea walls instead of building them to hide behind, and to free rivers of their dams.

Since all that is not going to happen, let us at least agree to protect the coastal wetlands not just for the absorbing barrier they provide us against encroaching seas, but also for the food they supply for the migrants in critical areas like Delaware Bay and the Yellow Sea.

And let’s try, if we can, to slow the rising of the seas.

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Lessons from Tambora

Friday, October 30th, 2015

As time runs out for us to stop the planet from warming further, stratospheric aerosol-based Solar Radiation Management continues to be a possible option. No one believes that it solves the problem – at best it buys more time for us to control our emission of greenhouse gases.

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technologies, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technology, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Most scenarios involve injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, but alumina and even diamond dust have been proposed. The idea of course is to shield the Earth’s surface from incoming solar radiation. The most conservative approach would involve injections that would build slowly, complementing CO2 emission mitigation and perhaps CO2 capture, and would be reduced and terminated as mitigation efforts grow. One author calls this the ‘less sub-optimum’ scenario.

It probably is.

We do, however, have plenty of relevant if uncontrolled experiments to think about before jumping for the SRM solution: the eruption of volcanoes. A major eruption, particularly a tropical one, ejects a massive amount of sulfates into the stratosphere 20-40 km above the Earth’s surface. Detected in the ice-cores of Greenland and Antarctica, each of the 16 largest eruptions over the past 2500 years was followed by a decade of colder temperatures, reflected by slower growth in tree ring samples.

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

So the connection is very clear: reduce the incoming solar radiation with reflective stratospheric particulates, and the planet cools a little.

Sounds too good?

For most major volcanic eruptions we have only the vaguest of information about subsequent biological and sociological effects. Fortunately, we now have a detailed account of the aftermath of one of the largest of these eruptions. Tambora – The Eruption that Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, recently published, tells the astonishing tale.

Tambora's explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora’s explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora was a 13,000 ft (4000 m) peak on Sumbawa Island of the Indonesian archiplelago until, in 1815, it blew much of its top half 30-40 km up into the stratosphere. Though no one at the time made the connection, the sulfate ash cloud spread quickly around the planet with cascading cataclysmic impacts over the next three years. Wood has explored the events and connected them convincingly.

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

In Europe, the US Atlantic States, Yunnan Province in China, Bangali India, Indonesia – crops failed for two years, harvests were lost to frost, drought and floods, while starvation and famine killed huge numbers of people, forced populations into riots and survivors into emigrants, tearing apart the social fabric of communities and families. Cholera raged in Bengal, Typhus spread though Ireland. Meanwhile, Shelley and Byron wrote sensitive apocalyptic poems based on what they saw in Switzerland while Turner painted his famous sunsets in England.

Records of Tambora’s impact on Africa, South America and Australia don’t seem to exist. But though so much of Europe and eastern North America was devastated, Russia and the US states and territories further west were unaffected: there farms flourished and farmers sold their grains at high prices to starving Europeans and Atlantic Americans. Destitute eastern Americans migrated west to the rich grain-growing land around the Mississippi.

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and  starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

And then in 1818 the skies finally cleared, bumper harvests returned, and the misery receded. Some repercussions persisted – shifts in attitudes about colonialism in India and optimism in the US, a shift to opium poppy growing in Yunnan, and cholera drifted on around the planet. As well, the US western farmers lost their market and their farms, bringing on the US depression of 1819-22.

During the three year impact of Tambora’s eruption, global mean temperatures appear to have abruptly dropped only about 1 degree Centigrade, yet many places around the planet experienced the crop failure, famine, epidemic disease, and catastrophic social disruption. Wood’s account is both gripping and very worrisome.

So we are well warned. If we do too little about the rate of current climate change, the scenarios are bleak. If we intentionally embark on Solar Radiation Management, we will without doubt provoke a cascade of unintended effects that could be just as bleak.

There is no quick fix. Our only option remains what it has always been. The importance of the upcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change grows ever greater.

Conserving Emperor Penguins

Friday, November 14th, 2014

A remote-controlled rover that looks like a pile of chick feathers with a chick’s head on top has successfully penetrated the defenses of a colony of Emperor Penguins on Antarctica, getting close to the penguins without stressing them.

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

We know a lot about Emperor Penguin breeding behavior from 5 decades of observations on the colony at Terre Adelie, one of the 45 breeding colonies that ring the continent. There adults have been electronically tagged for id and heart rate and other measurements. That colony gave us the movie March of the Penguins

Alone of all the penguins, the Emperor breeds on the sea ice during the Antarctic winter. As winter descends, each female lays her single egg, gives it to her mate, and leaves for a very long walk out to the edge of the sea ice, as much as 100 km away by then, where she forages for krill before walking back again, arriving two months later just in time for her egg to hatch. During those two months, each male brooded the egg his mate laid, stuffed into a feathery pouch just above his feet. When the female arrives she finds her now starving and very stiff mate in the huddle of males, and he transfers the egg to her and then in turn walks away to the distant ice edge to forage for krill, to return two months later.

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

Of course this has all occurred in weather as extreme as this planet offers – extreme cold, high winds, totally dark almost all the time. A single mistake – an egg unprotected for a minute, a parent lost or delayed, unexpected climate stress – and the breeding effort fails.

As the ice recedes with the spring melt, adults don’t have to walk so far to obtain krill, the chicks grow large enough to be left in huddling creches, and both parents forage for food for their growing chick. By the time fall arrives, the chick is large and agile enough to begin to forage on its own. If by chance it survives its first winter feeding at sea, it has a reasonable chance of making it to adulthood, breeding for the first time when it is about 15 years old.

Meanwhile, environmental stress plays its increasing role. In years with very cold conditions, the extent of the sea ice forces the adults to walk much further, and chick mortality is greater. In years with warmer winters the sea ice is less extensive, the krill feeding on the under-ice algae have less to feed on and the foraging penguins find less food, and again chick mortality is greater. In warm years, sea ice can also break up under the feet of the colony, and then most chicks are lost. Successful breeding is a delicate balance of sea-ice extent, size of krill schools, and parental condition.

So we know that Emperor Penguins grow large, live long, and breed late, with the lowest possible clutch size. Chick mortality is usually very high, around 50%, and the mortality of surviving fledged chicks through their first winter is often just as high.

Altogether a harsh and extraordinary existence.

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be 'quasi-extinct', by orange as  'endangered', by yellow as 'threatened', and by green as 'no threatened' (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be ‘quasi-extinct’, by orange as ‘endangered’, by yellow as ‘threatened’, and by green as ‘no threatened’ (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

What’s ahead? Winter sea ice will, over the next century, continue to recede around much of the Antarctic coast, in some places much more rapidly than others. Of the 45 colonies, probably ten will go extinct, seven on the ice of the Ross Sea will probably persist, and the rest will decline enough to be endangered, vulnerable to extinction. The models indicate 2/3 of the colonies will be less than 1/2 their current size.

Look ahead longer than a century, and few colonies remain. A bleak prospect. Clearly now is the time for enlightened conservation efforts.

Knowing how many birds there are is an essential first step. Colonies were photographed by satellite in 2009 using a variety of filters, identifying 45 – some never visited and others rarely seen. The current total population estimate is around 600,000 birds. Changes that occur in colony size and location will show up clearly in similar future surveys.

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

A penguin reserve – no fishing, no tourists – is the essential next step. The Ross Sea, where sea ice loss is expected to be least, is the obvious choice. It would provide a refuge, though even there colonies are expected to shrink. And of course there is resistance to protecting the Ross Sea from fishing, particularly from the Russians.

The third step? We’re back to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this week the US and China have given us cause for at least some slim hope.

Now, adding even more detailed and reliable information to support effective conservation, the rover-chick has arrived. It has its own camera peeking out in the middle of its chest, and it can get close enough to adults to read their electronic ids and download physiological data. It creates little stress among the adults, unlike a human creeping into the colony to gather the data, and it can roll right into creches where it appears to be accepted. We’ll know more about the state of the penguins as global warming stresses increase.

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

Perhaps some of the colonies of Emperor Penguins will adapt to the loss of sea ice. Four colonies have apparently moved back onto the glacier ice shelf, well above sea level, as sea ice has receded. But they may not be able to adapt to diminishing schools of krill.

The other too-famous movie ostensibly about Emperor Penguins, ‘Happy Feet‘, includes concerns about the effects of global warming. Its solution? Humans and penguins dancing enthusiastically together as a call for action. Absurd and mindless fantasies are not helpful.

Emperor Penguins are a worthy icon for illustrating the stresses and effects of climate change and global warming. Their long-term survival is anything but certain, probably even unlikely, but they seem to intrigue us enough to care about them. Successfully conserving them conserves so much more of what we could lose.

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

Talking About Climate Change.

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.

The Great Barrier Reef : We Barely Knew You

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

We are going to lose our coral reefs within the next century – including the greatest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification will kill them. This is without the overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution that already seriously stress them. Some very tolerant and adaptable coral species will probably persist, but the reefs will crumble.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

Coral reef biologists continue to have depressing annual meetings. Individuals, scientists, NGOs and other organizations all continue to search for ways to protect reefs and give them more time to adapt to what lies ahead. But what lies ahead is bleak indeed.

What to do? Just accept it and watch it happen? Find some way to prevent it? Though much has been written about this, Ian McCalman’s new book The Reef is an intriguing contribution.

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook's imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook’s imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

It is, to start with, a very fine book. It tells the history of our emerging understanding of the Great Barrier Reef through the journals and accounts of 20 people, in 20 chapters, starting with Captain Cook’s trip up the GBR Inner Passage in 1770, one he was lucky to survive with his repaired ship still floating.

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Then some of the naturalists on board subsequent navigating trips by other ships used the opportunity to get to know the Aborigines and the geology and some of the biology of the reef. The naturalists mainly counted species, all well known long before that by the coastal Aborigines.

Some castaways from ships wrecked on various parts of the reef at the north end near Torres Straight were saved and adopted by Aborigines, and lived to tell their remarkable stories about the people who were radically different from their popular reputation as savage, violent and ignorant cannibals.

And then in the early 1900s came the trained naturalists and scientists who began more serious study of the reef. Maurice Young’s year long expedition in 1929, leading a team of 14 scientists (amazingly for its time, 6 were women) revealed a lot about corals and their commensal and possibly symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae).

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

Yonge and the team wrote extensively about the year, drawing attention to the great uniqueness of the GBR – and unintentionally attracted hordes of tourists with all their collateral damage. So close to the mainland, the unprotected reef became stressed by resorts, pollution, uncontrolled fishing, destructive dynamiting, and growing interest by oil and gas companies.

All of this provoked the increasing concern of the conservationists and ecologists emerging over the past half century. In 1979, after great conflict among the players, the GBR Marine Park was finally created. In 1981 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

McCalman concludes the personal narratives with an account of the naturalist and coral expert, Charlie Veron, who early on recognized the growing threats to coral reefs from climate change. He published his own fine book in 2009 with the sobering title A Reef in Time: the GBR from Beginning to End.

Charlie Veron's book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

Charlie Veron’s book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

At the very end of his book, McCalman tries not to leave us in fatalistic despair about the reef by sharing the anecdotes of some very resilient humans, determined to not give up.

But that is not enough.

The only real hope for any kind of coral reef survival is rapid reduction of CO2 emissions. We need to dispel the myths that prevent the US, Canada and other nations from taking action. And we need to nourish plausible new ideas, like the cap-and-dividend proposal of US Congressman Chris Van Hollen which even libertarians seem to like.

But all of this has happened far too quickly. Just under three centuries will have passed from our ‘discovery’ of the GBR to its probable destruction at our hands.

We thought we would have more time together.

The Current and Sixth Mass Extinction

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert has written a most unusual book. She has described the current mass extinction, known as the the Holocene extinction, or the Anthropocene extinction, or the Sixth Extinction. comparing it with the previous mass extinctions, of which 5 are famously massive. The cause varies – in each case something major and global occurred and changed the world: glaciation at the end of the Ordovician, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid terminating the Cretaceous. The cause of the current mass extinction is us.

Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book (salon.com)

Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book (salon.com)

Kolbert writes lucidly and with good humor about the history of the idea of catastrophic evolutionary change, including the resistance by many (including Darwin) to that idea despite the overwhelming evidence. Over the past 200 years, that evidence has become increasingly strong and detailed, combining detailed excavations of fossil beds, reconstruction of the chemistry of past atmospheres and oceans, and an understanding of continental drift forever forcing continents together and ripping them apart again.

Five mass extinctions have been identified in the fossil record. Each one changed the world.  (washingtonpost.com)

Five mass extinctions have been identified in the fossil record. Each one changed the world.(washingtonpost.com)

Mass extinctions have been defined in different ways, but one of them is that 75% of existing species must be lost in a relatively brief geological time. Since we obviously haven’t lost that many species yet, are we really in a the midst of a mass extinction? The data are sobering: at the current rate of species achieving endangered, threatened or extinct status, we will hit that 75% mark with a couple of thousand years if not a lot sooner. That is an extremely brief geological time. We are well into what can only be called mass extinction if we don’t change course.

Species of birds,  mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects,  corals and plants are becoming endangered or lost at a rate typical of a mass extinction (nature.com)

Species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, corals and plants are becoming endangered or lost at a rate typical of a mass extinction (nature.com)

The current loss of marine species is harder to document than the loss of terrestrial species, but fisheries have collapsed from overfishing, coastal ecosystems have been radically altered by human development and pollution, ocean acidification now threatens oceans globally, and coral reefs have little future. The loss is everywhere.

Wooly rhinos, along with many other very  larges species mammals and birds were hunted to extinction (angelfire.com)

Wooly rhinos, along with many other very larges species mammals and birds were hunted to extinction (angelfire.com)

All of this is well accepted fact, and Kolbert tells the story well. Only at the very end of the book do her conclusions emerge. They are, to say the very least, not optimistic.

She proposes that we are causing the current extinction not with malevolent intent, but because we are genetically driven: “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it…Indeed this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate, to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.”

Neanderthals did not coexist with us for long, though long enough that we carry a few of their genes (ornl.gov)

Neanderthals did not coexist with us for long, though long enough that we carry a few of their genes (ornl.gov)

And there Kolbert ends her book. It deserves to be the best-seller that it is, but I do wonder if people are really reading her last chapter. It is a very cold bath.

So let’s continue past her ending. Can we change ourselves sufficiently to sustain reasonable biodiversity that let’s us all live on a livable planet? I think so. I have to think so.

We are way over-populated now, but a stable and even declining global human population lies not far ahead. That will help.

We can also, now, thoroughly protect very large ecosystems – like the Arctic and Antarctic, Canada’s Boreal forest, the Amazon basin, north and south cold-temperate coasts – along with many smaller ecosystems. That will help.

We can continue to educate the people of the world so that the seriousness of the the issues is truly recognized. Given knowledge, we are not stupid. Ignorance is treatable.

We can continue to press for more alternative fuels, reduced burning of fossil fuels and and lower emission rates of greenhouse gases: even the oil companies are prepared for Carbon taxes, if only they were forced to comply.

Our destructive dark side – war, poverty, greed, corruption and all the rest – can seem to be overwhelming, but we can continue to struggle to learn ways to diminish and suppress them, as we have done with slavery and racism: we know they need not dominate our various cultures. Velvet revolutions and true cooperation are not just dreams.

Our greatest challenge of course is ultimately time. We may not have enough of it. We may still slip over the edge into the bleakest of futures that won’t even include us.

But that is not inevitable, and we are more than the product of our genes.

We have to be.

Delectable Abalone

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

When you eat an abalone, which is a kind of marine gastropod or snail, you eat the chewy and tasty muscle that is – or was – its foot.

Have you eaten farmed abalone lately? Might be worthwhile.

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus - each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus – each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

The immense stretch of floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China is one of 20 stories featured in Watermark, the new movie by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, whose previous film was the remarkable Manufactured Landscapes.

Burtynsky's photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom,com)

Burtynsky’s photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom.com)

Although Waterpark lacks much narrative or a clear focus, the videography is again extraordinary, and the story on the abalone farms stands out – it includes a little more detail and complexity, even a little explanation with the briefest of reflection. Millions of acres of Luoyaun Bay are covered with tethered, floating pens where abalones are grown, fed on kelp until they reach harvestable size. There is no larger abalone farming site in the world.

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Abalones are grown increasingly easily, in onshore water runways, in floating pens in the sea, and in sea ranches where bottom predators and competitors have been removed. Abalone are herbivores, eating microalgae when they are small, kelp when they get larger – and neither kind of food supply is in short supply. Done right, the farming has little effect on the kelp canopy which is cut for feeding the mollusks, for it regrows rapidly.

Only a few species are now cultured, and most of the aquaculture occurs in China, with much less in Chile, USA, and Australia. Any sea ranching gets bad press from Monterrey Seafood Watch because of the ecosystem modification that is involved, but farmed abalone get ‘Best Choice’ designation from MSW.

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

This all is very recent. Few abalones were farmed in 1970, though there was a limited commercial fishery which soon depleted the available stocks. Commercial fishing is now illegal most places, though not yet in Mexico. By 1990, a few farms around the world produced about 300 metric tons of abalone, by 2000 about 1000 mt. Now the annual total is more than 100,000 mt, and most of it is in China.

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

There are few drawbacks to sea-pen aquaculture, but they do exist – mainly risks from disease and from storms. The Chinese now culture an abalone that is a hybrid of the naturally occurring Chinese stock and the more disease-resistant Japanese stock – both from the same species, Haliotis discus. As for storms, tying the floating pens together in immense masses reduces the potential wave impact- though how much so is still untested by an intense typhoon.

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010.  (fishtech.com)

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010. (fishtech.com)

An aquaculturist working on the Luoyuan Bay pens, interviewed briefly in Watermark and thinking about the possibility of typhoon impact, observed that nothing lasts forever. Clearly a healthy attitude to have these days, but even if a damaging storm hits, the pens can be quickly rebuilt and the culture reestablished, and it can all continue.

Unlike fish farming – think salmon, halibut, cod, shrimp – abalone farming is resilient, sustainable, low-impact, non-polluting, non-destructive, algae-based farming. What more can we ask for?

And cut thin, pounded well to tenderize it, then pan fried or sauteed briefly, abalone is no second-best substitute: this is fine food.

Jellyfished

Monday, September 30th, 2013
Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) form huge blooms in many of our oceans (guardian.co_.uk).

Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) form huge blooms in many of our oceans (guardian.co_.uk).

Increasing jellyfish blooms are a symptom of the challenged health of our oceans. Where fish have been fished down or out, jellyfish thrive. Where oxygen levels drop too low for many organisms, jellyfish thrive. Where a community then flips from fish-dominated to jellyfish dominated, recovery is difficult to achieve.

Jellyfish blooms clog fishing nets, intake pipes of desalination and nuclear plants, cause mass mortality of salmon in coastal farms, decimate fisheries already in steep decline, and sting swimmers out of the water at beaches everywhere.

Nomura's Jellyfish are giants, up to 200 kg and 2 meters in diameter, and do much damage to fishermen's nets in the Sea of Japan (fastcompany.com).

Nomura’s Jellyfish are giants, up to 200 kg and 2 meters in diameter, and do much damage to fishermen’s nets in the Sea of Japan (fastcompany.com).

In a new book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, Lisha-ann Gershwin documents the ravages of jellyfish blooms and the deterioration of marine ecosystems, and her final conclusion is a very cold bath: we have permanently wrecked the oceans, we can’t fix what we have done, and all we can do now is adapt to the inevitable lousy changes that have already begun.

Box jellyfish (Cubomedusae) have powerful stings, and drive swimmers out of the water, as they did in the northern Mediterranean this past summer (Selby, flickr.com)

Box jellyfish (Cubomedusae) have powerful stings, and drive swimmers out of the water, as they did in the northern Mediterranean this past summer (Selby, flickr.com)

What do we do with that? Ignore it, I think, and continue to try to mitigate the extent of the changes. The new IPCC report clearly illustrates the different outcomes of different levels of atmospheric CO2, and the long-term advantages of stabilizing those levels soon are extraordinarily clear.

But Gershwin also writes about some of the remarkable biology of jellyfish, for they are more than just graceful but dangerous animals. Perhaps the most intriguing is one of a group of small species of the genus Turritopsis, which grow to about half a centimeter in diameter and are now common in most tropical and temperate oceans.

Turritopsis dohrnii medusa, about 1/2 cm in diameter, with a bright red stomach and a ring of tentacles (turritins.com)

Turritopsis dohrnii medusa, about 1/2 cm in diameter, with a bright red stomach and a ring of tentacles (turritins.com)

Like most jelly fish, it has a two part life cycle. When jellyfish (medusae) are sexually mature, they shed eggs and sperm into the water, and then die. A fertilized egg develops into a tiny creeping planula larva that settles onto some hard substrate and then grows into a colonial hydroid or polyp that feeds on microplankton in the surrounding water. Eventually other buds on the hydroid develop into very small medusae which then escape and swim off.

Typical life cycle of a hydrozoan jellyfish (devbiol.com)

Typical life cycle of a hydrozoan jellyfish (devbiol.com)

All Turritopsis do this, and because they are all small as adult jellyfish, less than 1cm in bell diameter, they are also very small when they first break free of their hydroid source, less than 1mm in diam.

At least one species of Turritopsis though has remarkable further capabilities.

When starved or physically damaged, where other jellyfish would just die, the medusae of this species instead can undergo an amazing transformation. The mouth and tentacles are resorbed, and the bell shrinks into a blob-like cyst that falls to the bottom, attaches to the substrate, and grows into a hydroid or polyp colony once again, reversing the usual life cycle. And there large numbers of new medusae develop, all clones of the original damaged medusa.

Reversing the usual life cycle, Turritopsis medusa 'transdifferentiates' back into a hydroid (newtimes.pl)

Reversing the usual life cycle, Turritopsis medusa ‘transdifferentiates’ back into a hydroid (newtimes.pl)

This is truly an extraordinary event, about as close to immortality as one can get.

Not surprisingly, as our medical use of stem cells grows ever greater, we are very interested in how cells that had been specialized for one function in the medusa ‘transdifferentiate’ into quite different cells in the hydroid.

Meanwhile, Turritopsis has spread around the world’s oceans, from Spain to Japan to South Africa, probably assisted by the ballast water of transport ships. It is wonderfully adapted to survive in this changing world, and may in turn play a role in the changes.

And it is also a reminder of how extraordinary it is to be a living being on Planet Earth, whether as a jellyfish or as a curious human.

Crossota alba is another small hydrozoan medusa, one that lives in deep water and drifts around in the dark, tentacles extended, preying on the plankton that it drifts into (whoi.edu)

Crossota alba is another small hydrozoan medusa, one that lives in deep water and drifts around in the dark, tentacles extended, preying on the plankton that it drifts into (whoi.edu)

Dan Brown’s Inferno

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno is now at the top of best seller lists wherever it has been published. A lot of people are going to read it.

Dan Brown's Inferno could influence millions (wikipedia.com0

Dan Brown’s Inferno could influence millions (wikipedia.com)

Apart from its loving detail of Dante, art, museums, Florence, Venice and Istanbul to support the chase and adventure, it has a very serious central theme: we are rushing toward a catastrophic end to human society as we know it. The amazingly intelligent characters in the book who are worrying most about all of this conclude that human over-population is the underlying cause.

A hard-to-read graph in the book condenses the evidence. It is a compilation of graphs of the acceleration of pretty well everything in the past 50 to 250 years, originally published in The New Scientist on Oct 12, 2008 as a Special Report, entitled How Our Economy is Killing the Earth. You may need library access or a subscription to read the whole report but the link lets you see some of the underlying data. It is certainly worth looking at, for it bears no good news:

Color version of the graph from Inferno (newscientist.com)

Color version of the graph from Inferno (newscientist.com)

To help you read it where the print is too small:
Time runs along along the bottom or x axis – 1750 on the left with 50 year increments to 2000 on the right. The scales on the vertical or y axis are all relative to a low starting point on the left, but of course vary immensely depending on what is being measured, so no numbers are included.

12 measures are graphed, 5 starting in 1750, 4 in 1900, and 3 in 1950. Some graph global data, some are restricted to the USA.

Starting in 1750, and working down, are Northern hemisphere surface temperature (orange), Global population size (red), CO2 level in atmosphere (blue), GDP (dark red), and Loss of tropical forests and woodland (green).

Starting in 1900, and again working down, are Water use (blue), Paper consumption (yellow), Species extinctions (green), and Number of motor vehicles (black).

And starting in 1950, Tons of fish caught (blue), Foreign investment (light grey), and Ozone depletion (dark grey).

Obviously this is an odd graph, for the scales on all of the measures have been adjusted to make the lines coincide as much as possible. But the essential point is still a valid one – all measures increase rapidly, on their own scales, at about the same rate, at about the same time, and none show signs of slowing down.

Although Brown’s characters are convinced that the causal, driving force is the growth of the global human population, the reality is of course a lot more complicated, for consumption and capitalism also do a lot of the driving.

A famous view of Earth, a reminder that population and consumption are only loosely correlated (earthlights.com)

A famous view of Earth, a reminder that population and consumption are only loosely correlated (earthlights.com)

While we wait for the human population to finally level off, we could do a lot to reduce the rate of growth of almost all of the other measures.

Meanwhile, the graph should worry us all. If it looks like we are generally out of control, we are. With luck, some of the people now in power will read Inferno and become infected by its sense of urgency.

The Revolution Movie

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Rob Stewart has now made another movie, Revolution. He started out intending it to be about save the oceans, but realized the issues were greater than that, and shifted his intent to saving the planet.

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

He describes the death of coral reefs, the threat of ocean acidification, the endless use of carbon fuels, the destruction caused by the Alberta Tar Sands, the impact of deforestation, the increase in coastal dead zones, and the occurrence of ‘death by climate change’. He joins and films the growing recognition by people, particularly young people, that action is needed now.

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

If you are new to some of this, then Revolution is worth seeing. It certainly has heart. It has won best documentary and audience favorite documentary at film festivals, and it is attempting to have a life in commercial theaters now.

Scattered through the film are some truly unusual and beautiful sequences – a spectacular and poisonous cuttlefish, delicate seahorses clicking their way around a branch of coral, Madagascar lemurs running in their bizarre sideways gallop, reminders of all that we stand to lose.

But a film about saving the planet is the hardest of all to make. The topic is huge, the possibilities for enticing narrative are very limited, the target audience difficult to identify, and the opportunities for depth and insight are limited. Even Al Gore’s famous film Inconvenient Truth struggled with the same problems.

Sharkwater, Stewart's first movie (sharkwater.com)

Sharkwater, Stewart’s first movie (sharkwater.com)

Better to focus, I think, on an issue that perhaps represents the whole, but makes story telling possible, and allows time to dig into the issue. Stewart’s first film, Sharkwater, was like that, showing us the beauty of sharks and the ugly practice and devastating impact of shark-finning. It helped, and continues to help, in the efforts to regulate and ban shark-finning, even though the harvest goes on, and sharks remain under threat of extinction. Limited in scope, it is an effective film.

At the end of Revolution Stewart films some of the young people protesting the formal, closed meetings of the climate change conference, COP 16, held at Cancun in 2010. Their concerns were real, justified, and ignored, and emotions ran high.

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

This was just another protest, however, and not the beginning of any bottom-up revolution. The world continues with business-as-usual, unconvinced that catastrophe lies ahead, irritated with unpragmatic environmentalists.

Except that the predicted human upheaval and global insecurity associated with climate change are now worrying military and intelligence communities, as well as The World Bank. They are considering the probable yet somehow unthinkable consequences of the global temperature rising by 4 degrees, which is where we are headed unless major reductions are made in our CO2 emissions. This is an odd kind of hope – top-down ‘revolution’ is hardly an attractive prospect.

Placard at COP16 - frustration with inertia

Placard at COP16 – frustration with inertia

The best advice remains, as Will Rogers once said, and Bill McKibbon quotes concerning our current carbon-fueled rush toward a 4 degree increase: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.