Learn Something New


After grading 45 essays this weekend, it remains a wonder that I learned anything new.  I did, sadly, once again find a few plagiarizers, but I also read some good essays on which students had obviously spent time.

As a person extremely interested environmental issues, I belong to several environmental organizations and read a lot about related issues.  Here are some of the things I have learned either recently or in the last few days:

-June and July were the warmest June and July on record and the 14th and 15th straight months in which such records have been set.

-Thawing permafrost near the Alaskan Highway has caused it to sink in places.

-In Siberia the same thawing has caused the release of deadly bacteria–anthrax to be specific.

-This past summer, toxic algae affected waterways in states as diverse as California and Utah.  It does not smell all that wonderful either.

-In Alaska so many wolves have been killed that naturalists can no longer research them in their natural state.

-The Republican Platform claims coal is a clean source of energy.

-Hot summers have caused Douglas fir trees to quit growing.

 

 

 

The Sixth Mass Extinction


Off and on the last month, I’ve posted about various issues on climate change and related topics.  Today, Life Science published an article entitled “Extinction Rates Soar to 1,000 Times Normal (But There’s Hope)”.  What causes this enormous spike?  You guessed it.  Humans.

Before recently, the extinction rate was one per every ten million annually.  Now it is 100-1000 every million.  Where do researchers and scientists find hope in this adverse increase?  Let’s look at Earth’s history for a moment before answering that question.  Since life began on our planet, five mass extinctions have occurred, leaving only half of living organisms each time.  Reasons for these extinctions vary from Earth’s shifting axis to asteroids–see previous posts related to effects of changes in the Earth’s axis.  The big question:  how do humans affect the current extinction?       Yes, we caused the demise of the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger, and the dodo bird.  And human poaching and habitat destruction now endanger elephants, rhinos, and all subspecies of tigers, among others.  One problem in accurately determining human effects is that new species are discovered annually so we are not even sure how many species currently exist.  Using what we do know about current species, DNA, and some rather sophisticated techniques, scientists come up extinction rates.

Where is the hope?  The most endangered species tend to range in small areas in poorer countries lacking resources to protect them.  Modern technology can help, using satellite imagery, biodiversity mapping, as well as other methods.  Drones have been used in Africa to track both animals and poachers.  We can focus efforts on the areas where the most endangered species live.

How can you help?  Become a citizen scientist.  Use your smartphone camera and report your findings to scientific conservation groups.  A site called iNaturalist allows ordinary individuals to upload photos of plants and animals, tagging date, location, etc.  This site links to an international organization that tracks endangered and threatened species.

What else can you do:  don’t buy anything with ivory in it, don’t buy anything with the fur or body parts of endangered animals.  Spread the word.  Become more informed, read articles and books related to these topics.  Care.  This is the only Earth; help save it.

 

Apocalyptic Planet-Part Seven: Species Vanish


We all know extinction occurs.  Nearly everyone knows different species of dinosaurs at varied times roamed the earth for millennia.  Bones of all sorts of animals and various hominids are dug up off and on.  Scientists study them, determine their age, where and how they lived.  Scientists and sometimes even average persons develop theories about why they went extinct.  Regardless of which theory a person decides is accurate, these ancient extinctions generally took thousands of years. Recent extinctions are different, e.g. carrier pigeons.  Millions existed a couple of hundreds of years ago; now they are gone.  Why?  Humans.

Various causes exist for the extinctions of ancient species.  A major cause is the climate change caused my the changing tilt of the earth’s axis.  These changes occur over thousands and thousands of years.  What is different now?  Let’s take corn.  Native Americans cultivated rainbow colors of corn in small, frequently irrigated fields.  Where is most corn grown now?  Giant fields of GMO corn grow from horizon to horizon in the Midwest.  And if Monsanto had its way, no other corn would continue to exist for long.   Iowa is a good example.  Wherever this corn is grown, native grasses and other native plants totally disappear, in part due to cultivation.  A bigger issue is herbicides–to have clean fields, nothing and I mean nothing but corn must grow there.  A farmer’s expertise as a farmer is measured my just how super clean his fields are.  The only way to get these totally weedless fields is to use herbicides.  Biodiversity is a key to environmental health.  Little biodiversity exists in giant fields of crops like corn and soybeans.  Fertilizers to obtain huge yields wash downstream and in the Midwest eventually end in the Gulf of Mexico and cause giant marine algae blooms which pulls oxygen from the water to create a dead zone where no marine animals or fish can live.

Perhaps readers have heard of the plight of monarch butterflies.  Compared to just ten years ago, the population has dropped dramatically.  What happened to them?  Roundup.  Over 100,000 tons of Roundup and other brands of glyphosate herbicides are annually applied to crops in the US.  What do monarchs eat?  Milkweed.  Since 1999, 58 per cent of the milkweed has disappeared.  Recently, monarchs experienced a 30 per cent reduction in their numbers in one year.  Are we headed toward a mass extinction?  Some scientists think so.  These scientists are not talking about tigers, elephants, and rhinos being killed at an ever increasing rate for their body parts, but rather about the less noticeable extinctions of various plants and less obvious animals like frogs.  And then there is the problem with bees.  Bees are disappearing at an ever increasing rate due to not only diseases but due to herbicides and pesticides.  Without bees to pollinate the giant fields of almonds and various fruits in California, for example, those foods won’t exist.  See a previous post for more discussion on the importance of bees.  So why care about frogs?  Scientists consider frogs and amphibians in general an indicator of the health of an ecosystem.  Certain more tropical species of frogs are especially subject to the effects of climate change and they are disappearing.

Where I live big bluestem, blue grama, buffalo grass, and other native species grew from horizon to horizon.  This is the high plains.  Root systems of some plants grow twelve feet deep.  It has not rained in over a month.  Where the native grass once grew, crops are now grown.  This time of year finds open fields. Without rain, with the recent endless high winds, dust fills the sky.  To safely return home from town Sunday, I had to turn on the car lights to see.  The dryness fuels wildfires.  Earlier this week, over one hundred homes burned down in a wildfire north of Amarillo.  Drought.

Many human inventions are wonderful and make many lives better, but for some of them, I cannot help but wonder at what cost.

 

 

Random Thoughts at the End of a Rather Long Day


When I realized the time and know 5:30 tomorrow morning will come sooner than I may prefer, I decided I had to write something here to fulfill my commitment to write daily for at least one month–three weeks down and one to go.  Will I continue?  Don’t know yet.  Pluses:  I have gained quite a few new followers, at least ten, maybe more–have not taken an exact count; it proves that if you stick to something, there are pay offs; and it forces me to think about some things I’ve read or experienced in a way that I might not if I were not going to blog about it.

What are some of those things I am thinking about?  First, the weather.  We desperately need rain and this statement comes from someone not all that fond of rain.  I like the green results but do not like to be out in the rain normally.  It is a wonder I love Costa Rica because it rains almost daily at least it did when I was there two summers ago.  Fire warnings are even currently posted on overhead flashing signs on the interstates–not daily, but every time the wind rises which here is almost daily.  Second, when I think about the destruction of volcanoes–from reading another chapter in Apocalyptic Planet last night, I keep wondering what would happen today if another explosion like Krakatoa in the 1800s occurred.  Mass famine I imagine and a bunch of certain types of religious people claiming the end of the world.  Third, after spending two boring mornings giving STAAR tests–the state standardized tests in Texas, and another morning left to go, wondering exactly why I still think standardized tests are good.  Fourth, wondering how to turn this blog into a sort of website where people who want a signed copy of my new book, On the Rim of Wonder, can order it directly from me on this blog/website (I have had requests already which is, of course, a wonderful thing since book marketing is not all that easy).  Fifth, well this will have to wait until another day when my mind is really sharp and we can have a discussion about the effects of poverty and why it is so difficult to escape.

In the meantime, while I was out watering around my house–to keep my xeroscape garden alive (even drought resistant flowers need some) and to, I hope, make my house safer in case of a wildfire, I thought about all the lovely flowers blooming in spite of the dry weather.  Here they are in all their enduring beauty.

 

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Amazon


His milk chocolate, heavy lidded eyes stare at me from the

front of the magazine.

His cheeks display charcoal tattoos, a criss cross

design, tiny Xs on top, stopping where his nostrils flare.

His straight hair barely touches his shoulders.

not the black I expected, but the color of mahogany.

His eyebrows grow thin and wide,

no visible eyelashes.

His skin, color of morning coffee with two teaspoons of milk,

looks clear, smooth.

His full lips only slightly darker than his skin

do not smile.

He, a Kayapo Indian, continues staring.

He lives in Kayapo Territory, Brazil, land the size of

Great Britain and Ireland.

He plans to save it from the rest of us.

He plans to save us from our own worst selves.

 

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The Kayapo and other indigenous Amerindians have lived in the rainforest for millennia.  They and most environmentalists view their rainforest as a priceless haven for biodiversity.  Their Amazon remains a major defense in the fight against global warming and habitat destruction.  Fifteen per cent of greenhouse emissions, more than all the trucks, cars, buses, and planes combined, come from deforestation.  Although Brazil has slowed the deforestation rate by 70 per cent in the last nine years, last year saw a reversal with an sudden increase of 30 per cent.  Brazil also began construction of a network of canals, dams, and a huge hydroelectric project on the Xingu River in the middle of Kayapo territory.  The Kayapo and other Amerindians defeated a larger project in the 1990s. They intend to defeat this one.

The chief of the Kayapo, Megaron, knows what is at stake, not only for his tribe, but also for the rest of us, long term survival.  One  National Geographic article noted, “It is one of the richest ironies of the Amazon that the supposedly civilized outsiders who spent five centuries evangelizing, exploiting, and exterminating aboriginal people are now turning to them to save ecosystems recognized as critical to the health of the planet–to defend essential tracts of land from the outside world’s insatiable appetite.”

Kayapo success can be attributed to their ability to embrace some of the best of the modern world while retaining a strong sense of identity, culture, and traditions, all of which come from the forest.  As Megaron notes, “Before the white man, we were always fighting other tribes.  Not anymore.  We stopped hitting each other over the head and united against a bigger threat.”  For our own long term health and success, we can support them and hope they succeed.

 

If Antarctica Thaws


Recently, my posts discuss a lot about Ice Ages, climatology,  and global warming. Most of it focused on the Arctic.  Apparently researchers in Norway and Germany think another vulnerable area is East Antarctica specifically the Wilkes Basin.  It stretches over 600 miles (1,000 km) inland and is vulnerable to thawing because only a tiny rim of ice on bedrock holds it in place.  If oceans warm and this rim of ice melts, the Wilkes Basin could break lose and melt.  Because the Wilkes Basin slants and this small rim of ice lays below sea level, once unplugged, it cannot reverse.

Antarctica is the size of the United States and Mexico combined.  If it ever melts, sea levels would rise 188 feet (57 meters).  Do not worry.  It will take 200 years for this plug to the Wilkes Basin to melt.  Those of us alive now won’t have to worry about seas rising that high.  However, it does not take much sea level rise to decimate many of our current large cities.  Already, in recent years New York City, Miami, and New Orleans have experienced immense economic flood costs.  Even if the seas rise a little more than seven inches by 2050, the following cities are expected to suffer huge economic losses:  Havana, Houston, Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Baranquilla, Mumbai, Kolkata, Marseille, Istanbul, Athens, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Naples, Alexandria, Athens, Algiers, and five cities in China, including Shanghai.  The latter may explain why suddenly China has taken an increased interest in global warming and how to curtail it.

Apocalyptic Planet-Part Six: Cold and Ice


In spite the current global warming, Earth’s past and perhaps distant future is ice.  This past winter, much of the Midwestern and Eastern United States thought it had already returned.  A friend, forced to attend a mandatory training session, reported that the trainer from Minnesota made fun of those who claim we are warming.  Even though it was March, Minnesota remained a frozen land.  I kept thinking to myself, wait until the heatwave hits this summer.  Then what will he think.

Craig Childs likes adventures most of us would avoid even if we feel rather adventurous.  He flies into a camp in Greenland where scientists, all men, study ice.  Ice does not encourage a lot of life.  No animals, no plants, nothing here–the Greenland Ice Sheet.  The weather remains dreadful most of the year.  On the few days when they can leave camp, these scientists go out to take readings on remote sensors stuck in the ice.  These sensors enable them to determine how the ice changes.  They get to the camp by ski plane during the windows of clear weather which sometimes do not occur for days.  What kind of scientists go here?  Physicists, chaos researchers–yes there is such a thing as chaos research, climate change scholars, ice climate researchers, and an occasional adventurer.  The chaos guy’s interests focus on what cannot be predicted.  He records creaks, snaps, ice sounds.  These giant glaciers emit considerable noise.

This Greenland Ice Sheet is nothing like the ordinary ice we think of.  It’s dry and hard.  Shovels do not work very well.  They use chisels to break off big chunks.  The wind shrieks over the ice, sometimes at 80 miles per hour. It is twenty below in the summer.  Not twenty below Fahrenheit, twenty below Celsius.  To urinate, a guy has to wear parka, mittens, the works, and goes out to the pee pole far enough from camp not to contaminate the drinking water made from melted ice.  Now and then some poor bird gets lost or blown off course.  They don’t last long usually.  Here holes drilled find bedrock thousands of feet below the ice sheet.  One drill came up with spruce tree needles.  Once this very same location was a forest.  Greenland was green!

What happened?  One driver is solar radiation changes caused by the earth’s tilt.  Over tens of thousands of years, Earth swings away from the sun and then back.  These are nearly imperceptible changes.  It takes only a little.  The opening and closing of the Bering Strait also affects climate change.  Current warming aside, Earth’s recent past  (the last 60 million years) is an ice age, partly caused by teutonic plates moving and mountain building which reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it colder.  All this points to human behavior as a factor in the current change to warmer. When Childs asked these scientist if they thought another ice age was on the way, they all laughed.  One noted that change in and of itself is unpredictable.  As one of my students might say, “Duh!”  On its own Earth makes quick climate jumps.  They did make a point to say , “We are tinkering to the point we could initiate a jump on our own.” Some computer models say global warming can lead to another ice age by disrupting climates.  One scientist indicated that humans may be preventing or delaying the next ice age by warming the earth.

Who knows what the future may bring even one thousand years from now.  In the long distant past the entire Earth was covered with ice.  At other times the poles were forests.  Maureen Raymo, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University says, “My feeling is that there is never going to be another ice age as long as there are humans on the planet.”  Some scientists think we will develop a technology to control the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Raymo notes, “If they (meaning humans) were smart, they’d get their act together.”

Gratitude and Dust


Initially, I planned to continue my Apocalyptic Planet series, but today’s events caused me to choose otherwise.  As I sit here writing this, I can see the endless blowing dust through the spotted window.  Sometime today, while I was at work, it sprinkled while the dust blew.  Now every window on the east and north side of my house appears as if someone had thrown handfuls of nearly dry mud at it.  My black car looks the same.  The wind whistles in the flue of the wood burning stove in my bedroom.  This storm  blows harder and longer than the one we experienced last week.  Tomorrow they forecast more of the same.

Saturday I stopped by two greenhouses to purchase some hanging baskets and native flowers.  The mesquite trees kept telling me, “Wait, wait.  Cold will come again. Wait!”  Normally, I obey what the mesquite trees tell me.  They never come out until they know without a doubt the cold is over and they feel safe.  I bought the flowers anyway.  This coming Saturday, Hilltop Senior Citizen Center in Amarillo has their Gala at my house to raise money–complete with a silent auction, food, and drink to raise some much needed money.  I want everything to look springlike and pretty.  I heard the weather forecast on the radio coming home from work.  I just looked again on the Internet.  Frost predicted tonight and even colder tomorrow night.  After I fed Rosie, placing the alfalfa as much out of the wind as I could, I brought the hanging baskets inside and poured a bunch of water on the other new plants. The native plants, tough, worry be little.  The others will not survive 33 degree weather.  Later, I will go out and cover them with old towels, hoping the wind relents and does not blow them off.

Everyone here posts photos of the dust on the Internet and gripes about this horrid weather.  Although I certainly dislike it, I refuse to complain.  This, too, is tornado country.  I listened to the news this morning and again coming home from work.  Thirty four dead, whole towns destroyed, a new school flattened.  Here I see no devastation, only the endless, depressing, annoying dust and wind.  My friends, family, and I are alive, our houses intact.  Rosie huddles behind the barn, still healthy, neighs when she hears me coming.  Gratitude engulfs me.

 

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The iris I was hoping for.

Earth Day


Sometimes when you love nature, the environment, wildlife, wild places, it is easy to become extremely discouraged.  News about the dramatic increase in poaching in Africa condoned by some governments there does little to help.  Data illustrating how the United States is a hub for wildlife trafficking, the push to kill wolves, big oil’s persistence to explore and open fields in the Arctic and other more delicate environments, water waste, climate change denial, a seemingly endless lists of negatives, can make one think about giving up.  The Colorado River is under siege.  The drought ridden Southwest of which I am a part has too many people fighting over too little water. The EPA just approved a new pesticide known to kill bees which are already disappearing, posing a huge threat to our food supply (see a previous blog highlighting how our food supply depends on these same rapidly disappearing bees).  Another mountain top removal coal mine is being proposed in Kentucky and it is next to a school.  The US Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit.  I could probably spend this entire evening adding to this list of negatives.  I could give up, but I never do.  I keep looking for positives and for changes created by people who care.

 

In honor and praise for those who care and for the positives occurring, I am creating another list:

-Ralph Maughan, an Idaho native, continues to work on the saving the pristine wilderness of the River of No Return Country.  He wants to save wolves in a state where politicians have proposed a law to kill 60 per cent of the state’s wolves.  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game plans to professionally exterminate them so there will be more elk for hunters.  No, I did not make this up.  Maughan says, “the wilderness is supposed to be a place where large carnivores, like wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions can exist as they did before humans arrived.”  Now the agency wants to come into a proclaimed wilderness to suit their own purposes. This fight continues.

-In Hawaii many housetops and businesses now glitter with solar panels.  Isaac Moriwake’s consumer advocacy efforts support consumers who want to generate their own electricity through clean energy.  Solar panels totally cover the roof of the new parking garage at the Kapl’olani Medical Center in Oahu.  Hawaii has been able to create a clean energy framework with considerable solar success in spite of traditional utilities’ efforts against it.

-In more remote places like Nepal the WWF helped locals replace wood burning stoves with biogas burners so they would not have to cut down their forests for fuel.

-As Myanmar develops economically and joins the international stage, huge areas of prime forests and native animals are at risk.  Conservationists work with the new government to create national parks and other areas to preserve Myanmar’s rich biodiversity and to listen to local wishes as to how to preserve their valuable natural heritage.

If I wanted to stay up half the night, obviously I could add more and more to each list.  And it is easy to wonder just what can one person do.  For starters, use less water, get rid of all the junk mail that arrives–a later post will describe methods to do this–so it will not add to the landfill and the demise of trees, do not buy furniture made from slow growing tropical wood, adjust your thermostat to warmer in summer and cooler in winter, carry your own bags so you won’t have to use the plastic ones at the store, become politically vocal about conservation.  If you wonder is all this effort worth it, take a walk in the woods, along a beach, through the jungle, on a desert path; fill yourself with wonder.

 

Apocalyptic Planet-Part Four: Seas Rise


As I write this title, it seems a bit counter intuitive that one of the first things I saw this morning was a newspaper discussing many small cities around the Texas Panhandle which are running out of water.  And on the TV news as I write this, the city of Amarillo announces measures being taken to curtail water use, followed by a detailed discussion, explaining how one of these smaller towns plans to address the lack of water.  Drought expands while ice melts and seas rise.

Childs explains sea behavior by comparing it to pouring water back and forth among a bunch of pans.  Ocean behavior varies from place to place.  Louisiana has been losing seacoast at the rate of twelve meters per year and large parts of the Nigerian coastline has lost as much as thirty meters per year, one of the fastest losses on earth–erosion.  The moon causes tides twice a day changing sea levels on the average of two meters each time.  Historically most sea level changes are long term changes.  A major cause of sea level change is temperature.  Half the current sea level rise can be attributed to thermal expansion.  Water warms and spreads out.  Not only does heat expand near the sea surface, but now also expands into depths not previously affected.  Findings by two oceanographers, Purkey and Johnson, indicate an increase in ocean heat 16 per cent greater than previously thought.  Oceans are the largest reservoirs of heat on earth.  Once heated, their size makes them slow to cool.

Purkey also notes that even in the depths of the seas, waves transfer heat.  However, because of the size of the Pacific, an event that occurred forty years ago in the southern Pacific will not reach the northern Pacific for approximately those forty years.  Thus, the warming and subsequent ice melt we see in the north Pacific started in the south Pacific forty years ago.  Another scientist, Carl Wunsch, notes that earth changes remarkably without human intervention.  Nevertheless, he recommends humans do something to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a precautionary measure in addition to discouraging people from settling in low lying areas.  Unfortunately, rising seas do not bode well for much of the earth’s population who live in exactly these low lying areas:  all of Bangladesh, Venice, Shanghai, New Orleans, Bangkok, the Marshall Islands, and many US coastal cities to name just a few places.

St. Lawrence Island north of the Aleutians provides a perfect example of what is happening.  Sea ice breaks up too early, fish species they used to see are gone replaced by new ones they never saw before, and the population of seals and sea lions has altered.  Cancer rates in the villages there have risen dramatically caused in part by the toxic poisons concentrated in the meat of the seals, whales, and salmon they harvest from our polluted oceans.  In 2008, they brought a lawsuit against Exxon, Chevron, and Mobil, claiming that these companies are the world’s major contributors to global warming.  They want these companies to pay for moving their villages to higher ground.  Sea rise necessitates the move.  They lost in District Court, but the case is under appeal.  The court cited that the chain of events causing their predicament is too long to lay blame in one place.  Childs notes that we really need such places to endure, places where people know how to lead minimalist lives, places where people know how to survive.