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.”

Sacred Corn


SAM_0035   In the summer on hot, humid nights, you can hear the corn grow.  My great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father grew corn.  I grow corn in that same rich loess soil of Northwestern Missouri.  Soil laid down by Ice Age glaciers thousands of year ago.  Only on a few hill tops, here and there, will you find non glacial soil. Repeatedly, daily, I walk by the sacred corn plant of life painted on my hall corner.  This sacred corn corner houses three corn maiden kachinas and a drum decorated with corn maidens.  I give thanks to corn for my house and the life I lead.

Corn Song

I sing the song of ancients:

pueblo peoples,

Anazazi, Hopi, Zuni.

I sing the song of an America long gone.

Maya, Aztec, Tolmec.

I sing the song of life:  colors of the rainbow

golden, red, white, blue.

I sing the song of now:  thick, endless

identical rows.

Pioneer, Monsanto,

anhydrous ammonia,

atrazine.

I sing the song of hope and joy:

an ancient reclaiming,

a klaidescope of colors,

butterflies and fireflies.

I sing the eternal human song.

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This is a Navaho kachina.  Kachina are actually Hopi, but Navaho artists now make kachinas as well.  The first corn maiden kachina I bought.

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Spotted corn kachinas, on the left, are unusual.  It took me years to find one.  The kachina on the right was created by R Pino, who is both Hopi and Navaho.

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Every year Pendleton runs an art contest among Native American students.  The winner’s art work is transformed into saddle blankets.  This design, created by Mary Beth Jiron, is the latest in this Student Series. There are three corn  maidens  on each side of the blanket, representing the different varieties of corn grown by native peoples, yellow, red, blue, white, black, and spotted.

Apocalyptic Planet–Part Three: Ice Collapses


It may be difficult for some to believe, but over the last three million years ice dominated earth’s climate. We remain in that long ice age; widespread glaciers still exist.  For most of earth’s long, long existence no ice existed anywhere.  Currently, we are in an interglacial period in which ice has retreated back to the poles and the highest mountain reaches.  Earth as we know it has been shaped primarily by ice and to a lesser extent by volcanoes.  Once ice lay hundreds of feet deep as far south as Chicago and London.  What caused this see saw between Ice Ages and warm, wet periods where the ice retreated or disappeared entirely?  The changing tilt of the earth’s axis. Currently, the earth’s tilt is 23.5 degrees or so.  This tilt causes the seasons in non tropical areas.  Earth’s tilt changes a degree or so over time, causing the alternating periods between extreme ice coverage and warm periods.  At times the change has been so great that no ice remained even on the poles.  Usually, these changes are very slow, over thousands of years.  No longer.

Equatorial glaciers once common in the high equatorial mountains, e.g. Andes, Himalayas, a century ago no longer exist.  Ernest Hemingway once described the glacier on Kilimanjaro as “wide as all the world”.  Now nothing but a few patches of hard snow remain.  The once giant ice fields in northern Patagonia in Chili and Argentina currently lose volume at an ever accelerating rate.  While hiking and kayaking with a filming crew in this area, Childs saw just how rapidly this ice loss occurs.  In one instance a huge ice lake run off from one glacier totally disappeared in two weeks.  In Greenland an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan floated off in 2010 and finally melted in the Gulf Stream.  It narrowly missed shipping lanes and offshore oil wells.  The Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica the size of Yosemite National Park and 700 feet deep had been stable for more than 12,000 years.  It started coming apart over a decade ago.  It eventually floated off and melted.

Why does any of this matter?  Ice keeps the planet cooler.  Solar radiation bounces off into space.  Currently, ice reflects approximately 30 per cent of incoming sunlight.  Few present animals and people are prepared for the hothouse that would exist if much more ice melts.  This is in spite of the fact that radiation from the sun has actually gone down in the last fifty years.  As the planet warms, more ice melts, more heat remains on earth, more ice melts and the cycle continues.  The current acceleration of ice loss causes many scientists to question:  where is the tipping point?  How can we stop this rapidly accelerating ice loss?

Humans are increasing carbon dioxide levels ten thousand times faster than they changed over the last 65 million years.  Our globe is warming; all climatologists agree.  At what point will it be too late to turn this around?  Indeed, can we turn this around?  And if we do, will some of the ice return?  No one knows.  Nothing like this has occurred before in human history.  All this melting ice causes sea rise.  At the current rate a one meter sea rise by the end of this century is plausible.  Many of the world’s largest cities already have a sea level problem e.g.Bangkok.  Furthermore, the water supply for much of southern and southeast Asia depends on water from rivers and glaciers in the Himalayas.  The world’s largest supply of fresh water depends on this system.  Are we ready for a hotter, drier earth?

Blackwater Draw–Part One


Annually, I make a pilgrimage to this ancient place where people hunted on the shores of a lake nearly 12,000 years ago.  It continues to be the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Americas.  For a large part of the twentieth century it was a gravel pit.  The gravel mining created both positive and negative consequences.  Without it, the bones of giant bison, mammoths, dire wolf, saber toothed cat and camels might never have been discovered at all.  However, because the owners of the quarry refused to stop mining, some portions of the site were destroyed by big swoops of the excavator machines.  Frequently archaeologists worked simultaneously along with mining operations, continuing within sight of each other.    Various groups, including some private individuals, attempted repeatedly to buy the site to save its precious stash of bones, artifacts, and ancient wells.  The owners refused to sell.  Finally, in 1978, Eastern New Mexico University purchased the site and continues archaeological excavation there.  They also run the nearby museum adjacent to the university football stadium.

If you expect something wondrous and grandiose, you will be severely disappointed.  A small building houses a teensy museum, restrooms, a few sweat shirts and posters and books for purchase.  An individual sits by the door to take your meager entrance fee–at most five dollars–and answer questions.  These individuals explain they are majors in disciplines related to the site, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, that sort of thing.  A simple gravel trail traverses the site and a smaller trail goes to an ancient well–16 have been found at or near the site–and to a dig inside a building where you can observe the layers unearthed, which group of people left which type of artifacts, and actual bones of mammoths, giant bison, and other animals from the end of the last Ice Age.

People react differently to such sites.  I always remain entranced, overwhelmed, reflective, thinking to myself, “I am walking where people walked and hunted and went about their lives more than 11,000 years ago.”  The most ancient evidence of people is labeled Clovis Man–Clovis, NM, is just up the road.  They never found human bones of these people here , just their spearheads stuck in the ribs and shoulders of mammoths which stood 15 feet at the shoulders.  The people who came later made a different type of spear, called Folsom points.  These people, Folsom Man, lived later by 1-2 thousand years.  Another site, called Folsom, is near the tiny town of Folsom, NM, farther north at the edge of the mountains.  This site is on private land and tours are available only twice a year.  Although I visited the town last year, I have not visited this site.  Other people arrived later and although the collection is smaller, their spearheads remain available for viewing at the nearby Blackwater Draw Museum on the main road between Clovis and Portalis, NM.

When I look at the list of animals who lived here at the end of the last Ice Age, I feel amazed because they include both camels and horses as big as our horses now.  Both of these became extinct as did the saber toothed cat with the humongous canine teeth and the dire wolf.  Giant sloths lived until modern times but nowhere near New Mexico.  How could all these animals live here?  It was wet and green then.  Until the last couple of decades, bodies of water of varying sizes have drawn animals and people to this area.  Giant fields of irrigated corn and dairy farms lowered the water table sufficiently to eliminate any evidence of water.  At the time of Clovis Man a large lake covered the site.  Later, during a 3000 year drought, people dug the ancient wells to reach water.  Because this remained the only place for hundreds of miles with a supply of water, people came.

The trail begins just to the northwest of the tiny building and goes along the top for a couple of hundred feet before it drops down into the gravel pit remains.  The gravel was below all the layers containing human artifacts and ancient animal bones so the pit is wide and deep.

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If your sight is good, you can read this.  The primary source of food for Clovis Man, giant bison and Columbian mammoths, came here for the water.  Archaeologists  theorize that hunters often killed these huge animals while they were in the water where it was more difficult for them to escape and move quickly.  In one place on the trail, evidence of a five bison kill complete with spearheads makes one think just how difficult and dangerous this hunting activity must have been.  I stand there, think about my own 5’4″ height, and wonder what it would be like to have a Columbian mammoth close to me.  Doubtless many died from injuries during such activities.

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The train meanders along the bottom of the gravel pit.  This year, plentiful rain grows abundant grass.  During the last several years, little rain has fallen as evidenced by all the dead trees and bushes scattered around the site.  Normally, this area is semiarid with less than 18 inches of rain per year.

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If spectacular scenery appeals to you, do not go here.  Most of the bones and artifacts were found in the layers at the sides of the pit.  As you walk the trail, markers indicate the location of findings.  Few human remains are found at such sites because these were not permanent settlement places.  Ancient peoples roamed the land in search of water and food.

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Signs, such as this along the trail, illustrate different places where specific bones and artifacts were found.  They also explain the different types of artifacts, their specific uses, and the history of the site.  Maps, like the one on this sign, help the viewer hone in on specifics in relation to where one is standing.  The photo illustrates archaeologists in action during site digs.

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Cliffs, like the one here, surround the site.  In these small cliffs each layer indicates a different age of human activity by not only the type of sediment but also by the type of artifacts and animal bones found.  Just beyond this particular cliff at the west edge of the site, irrigation pivots run in a huge corn field.  The grey at the bottom of the cliff indicates an immense pile of dead, dried, tumble weeds.  This is dry country.

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Approximately three fourths through the trail, the site mangers have erected several structures.  This one is the most primitive.  Others are modern with picnic tables and in one place I saw a giant sand box.  Guessing, I think it must be used to illustrate how one sifts through layers of soil to carefully remove spearheads, bones, pottery, etc.  This is the perfect place for a field trip, not too long, but full of geological and paleontological information.

I go here usually once a year.  If you ask me why, I may articulate something about how it has the oldest artifacts and bones found in North America.  The real reason??  I am not quite sure.  This place fascinates me, connects me with something ancient and wondrous, something undefined and mysterious.