The Natural World
Thursday, October 30, 2008
In the Long Run...
...Keynes was right. According to a new report, at the rate we're consuming the earth's resources, we'll need two planets by 2030. The authors cleverly call it an "ecological credit crunch."
My cosmological worldview isn't so species-centric as to be terribly concerned about the planet Earth. When people say we must save the planet, what they're really saying is we've got to save ourwelves. The planet did just fine without us for billions of years. And while it's a wonderfully beautiful place that we really ought to take better care of, it will do just fine without us, too.
But just for the sake of a good debate, what great philosophical quarrels would be resolved were humans to follow the dinosaurs into extinction? And in whose favor?
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Things that make you go, Whoa:
Melting ice in southern Chile caused a glacial lake to swell and then empty suddenly, sending a "tsunami" rolling through a river, a scientist said Thursday...
The water bored a 5-mile tunnel through the glacier and finally emptied into the Baker River on April 6.
"The remarkable thing is that the mass of water moved against the current of the river," Casassa told The Associated Press by telephone from the Center for Scientific Studies in the southern city of Valdivia. "It was a real river tsunami."
According to reports, Manny, Sid and Diego managed to escape without injury.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Every now and then, one man's insanity becomes so powerfully sane that it's worth paying attention to. Tim Dundon is just such a man:
Instead of studying what he was doing and implementing it, the county came after Dundon because "...they were afraid that good health was gonna break out." Of course, Dundon's the type of American original that counties have been trying to shut down for two hundred years. Fortunately for us, they haven't managed to yet.
(Via The Revealer.)
Monday, December 17, 2007
Cell Reproduction And The Happy Microbe
I remember a book I read when I was about twelve called "Who Should Play God" that dealt with recombinant DNA -- the insertion of tiny snippets of genetic material into already existing chromosomes to create previously non-existent (but "all-natural") hybrid life forms. It's the procedure that eventually led to genetically modified food crops and the like. But at the time it was still an unknown bio-technology (if the word even existed back then) that inspired the kind of alarmist paperback jacket copy -- POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS NEW TREND!! -- that, along with baseball biographies, easily separated my twelve-year old self from the weekly book allowance my Dad used to give us.
So it's pretty incredible that only twenty-seven years later, we're now at the point where scientists will soon be working with interchangeable, LEGO-like blocks of DNA with which they can construct an entirely artificial chromosome. That then gets deposited into "...a chassis and power supply for the artificial systems we are putting together..." (You remember? That thing we used to call a cell back in the old days?) And presto, change-o, you've got yourself a brand new artificial life form.
The creepy part is how the scientists talk about removing the organism's genetic urge to reproduce so they can squeeze even more "work" and profits out of their new "inventions". Of course, they're only talking about yeast and bacteria microbes, but it's enough to make you wish for some E. Spartacus strain to rise up and free their miserable microbial cohorts.
On a more serious note, if humans can create life forms, it seems to be a very strong argument in favor of "intelligent design". On the other hand, it's a pretty convincing rebuttal of the idea of an infallible designer.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
An Inconvenient Runway
This sort of article really brings into focus the genius and folly that is humankind:
A passenger jet has made a historic landing on a new blue ice runway in Australia’s Antarctic territory and regular flights are expected to start within a week, officials said yesterday.
But trips on the Airbus A319 to the Wilkins Runway will be for scientists and research staff only, with no plans to open the airlink to tourists, project manager Charlton Clark told AFP.
The runway is 4km long, 700m thick and moves about 12m southwest a year because of glacial drift.
In the first trial landing on Monday, the plane pulled up within 1,000m despite the lack of friction to grab the wheels on the ice.
Clark said work had begun on the A$10mn (US$8.7mn) runway 70km from Australia’s Casey research station in 2005, with crews living in shipping containers.
"Just living in that environment, with conditions of minus 35 degrees and up to a hundred knots of wind, let alone doing the work, was an amazing undertaking," he said.
Using laser levelling technology, they graded and shaved the ice flat and must keep grooming it to keep it snow free.
The runway was named for the adventurer and aviator Sir Hubert Wilkins, who made the first flight in Antarctica 79 years ago.
In just 80 years, we've gone from first flight to a mile-long, laser-levelled commercial jet runway. And really, what better way to study the icecap than to encourage the very activities that are melting it?
Friday, December 7, 2007
Is Somebody Trying To Tell Us Something?
A 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck off of Bali, where the UN conference on climate change is meeting. The quake was "strongly felt" by the conference. Luckily, there was no threat of tsunames. I think it goes without saying that losing all of the world's diplomats responsible for negotiating an agreement to rolling back climate change would be a pretty major setback for the larger cause of rolling back climate change. The image of it happening, on the other hand, does add a certain urgency to the conference's outcome.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
It turns out we have a model of a planet experiencing a "runaway greenhouse effect" right next door. The latest orbital probe of Venus has led European Space Agency scientists to speculate that our neighbor in the solar system was once partially covered with water.
"Probably because Venus was closer to the sun, the atmosphere was a little bit warmer and you got more water very high up," he said.
As water vapour is a greenhouse gas, this further trapped solar heat, causing the planet to heat up even more.
It was a "positive feedback" - a vicious circle of self-reinforcing warming - that eventually caused the planet to become bone dry.
Talk about an uninviting environment, by the way: 457 degrees farenheit on the surface, with sulfuric acid-laced clouds. Ouch.
Update: And speaking of bone dry, this article on the coming water scarcity is pretty thought-provoking.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Whoa. Colombia's covered in white powder. No, seriously. Almost the entire country of Colombia (39 out of 42 districts) got hit by a freak hail storm yesterday. Parts of Bogota were covered by six feet of ice. Le Monde has got some pictures. Crazy stuff.
What's striking about these stories now is that the first thought I have --and I'm sure I'm not alone -- is that it's a result of global warming. Were there freak hail storms in Colombia before? Heck if I know. But the advantage of the hypothesis that global warming is our fault is that it follows logically that there are things we can do to remedy it. The only conclusion that global warming negationists can reasonably defend, on the other hand, is that we're seriously screwed.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Nothing like a good meteor crashing to Earth to put things in perspective. It left a crater 65 feet wide by 15 feet deep, in a barren plain of the Peruvian Andes. The water that filled the crater boiled for ten minutes from the heat. 200 people complained of a gas causing nausea and dizziness, but an expert said they were probably suffering from psychosomatic sympoms:
When a meteorite falls, it produces horrid sounds when it makes contact with the atmosphere... It is as if a giant rock is being sanded. Those sounds could have frightened them.
He took blood samples just to be on the safe side.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Other Way, Dick
For someone who was once a militant vegan, I'm surprisingly tolerant when it comes to hunting. I've eaten meat for years now, but even when I was a vegan I considered it less inhumane to hunt an animal (ie. give it at least a chance of getting away) than to raise one for slaughter. Still, there's something about this that makes me do a doubletake. It's from President Bush's executive order directing Federal agencies to make hunting a priority in wildlife and habitat management planning:
Sec. 2. Federal Activities. Federal agencies shall, consistent with agency missions:
...Establish short and long term goals, in cooperation with State and tribal governments, and consistent with agency missions, to foster healthy and productive populations of game species and appropriate opportunities for the public to hunt those species;
So maintaining healthy and plentiful game species is no longer an end in itself, but a way to guarantee better hunting. This is obviously a sop to traditional GOP constituencies, like the gun lobby and culturally conservative hunters. But it also seems like a nod to the evangelicals, whose belief that God gave man dominion over the animals drives so many of the Christian hunting ministries.
Like I said, I have nothing against hunting. But I question whether the Federal government should be taking an active role in promoting it. This administration in particular, given Dick Cheney's track record.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Marguerite & Charles
I just got back from a friend's country house in Ardeche, about five hours drive from here on the winding back roads that I prefer. The area is wild and road access is difficult, but it had been an industrial center during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the waterways that connected the valley to the Rhone river. Now the industry is long gone, and the old stone factories are being transformed into country homes for Dutch and Parisian families.
My friend just bought the place this winter, so we spent the first few days clearing brush and equipping the house. Then we walked the property, which includes a peaceful chestnut forest up on a high ridge.
He had mentioned his elderly neighbors, Marguerite & Charles, who according to the previous owner managed to hang on in their old age over on the other side of the ridge. While we were up there we passed by their house and, sure enough, Marguerite was out watering her plants, so we stopped in front of the gate and introduced ourselves.
She invited us in and offered us some apple juice. Then she explained that Charles had passed away two months ago, and that she would be leaving for a nursing home on Monday. Her husband's family had lived in the house for four hundred years.
"Everything's the same," she said, gesturing towards the valley below as she showed us out, "except there are no more sheep and goats."
It was a poignant echo of the running conversation my friend and I had been having for the previous three days. He was just offered a severance package by a major French record label, and we'd been discussing what the music and recording industry will eventually look like once it restructures in response to the new technologies that have undermined its revenue model.
The technological advances of the past fifteen years have had an enormous impact on the social, cultural and economic landscape. But they're just the accelerated culmination of a four hundred-year economic cycle, unevenly distributed across the planet, that seems at times exhilarating, at times incoherent. Some of us wonder what happened to vinyl. Others wonder what happened to the factories. Still others wonder what happened to the sheep.
Marguerite seemed pleased when I explained that my first name was a Biblical name from the old testament.
"That's good," she said. "We need to bring the past back to life."
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
You might have heard about the lake in the Chilean Patagonia that suddenly disappeared last month. The initial hypothesis was that an earthquake that recently hit the region might have opened up a fissure on the lake's floor, thereby draining the water. But a recent flyover by Chilean experts revealed a breach in the glacial barrier that served to dam the lake. The likely cause of the breach was a rise in the lake's water level, which in turn was due to increased glacial runoff as a result of higher regional temperatures. So while the phenomenon is a common occurence in the Patagonia's lake systems, in this case it was exacerbated by global warming.
Those of you with small children will already be familiar with the science behind the story, since it's basically the premise behind Ice Age 2.
Friday, June 29, 2007
It's always surprised me that both critics and proponents of Intelligent Design overlook the fact that we ourselves are intelligently designing new forms of life. Which means that: a) it's certainly possible that life as we know it evolved from an intelligently designed antecedent; and b) that in no way proves that the intelligent designer was an omnipotent, morally flawless being.
More likely, he (or she) was just a poor schlep in a lab coat on a distant planet, who forgot to wash his hands one day after work, thereby contaminating a soon-to-be-launched space probe with a new strain of bacteria he'd just come up with.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Cause And Effect
You'll remember last week's Whopper of the Day, wherein Tony Snow vaunted the Bush administration's "unparalleled" commitment to global warming. Here's Robert Sullivan, former associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, describing how that widely recognized commitment somehow managed to tone down the emphasis on human responsibility for global warming in an exhibit on climate-change:
"It just became tooth-pulling to get solid science out without toning it down," said Sullivan, who resigned last fall after 16 years at the museum. He said he left after higher-ups tried to reassign him...
Sullivan said that to his knowledge, no one in the Bush administration pressured the Smithsonian, whose $1.1 billion budget is mostly taxpayer-funded.
Rather, he said, Smithsonian leaders acted on their own. "The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully," he said.
It's funny how counterintuitive the effects of an unparalleled commitment can be.
Friday, April 27, 2007
The Chinese Emissions Myth
Now that it's become somewhat laughable to deny the reality of global warming, the excuse of choice for doing nothing to limit greenhouse gas emissions has become China. As in, If we enact costly environmental standards while the Chinese do nothing, we'll be putting ourselves at an even greater competitive disadvantage for global trade. Only trouble is, China's actually engaged in a pretty ambitious energy modernization and efficiency program:
But new evidence suggests that, despite a fast-growing economy that could make it the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitter as early as this year, China may be getting on board. In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, it could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet.
Indeed, if the nation's leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China – not the other way around.
There are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out, like actually meeting the goals they've set (energy efficiency climbed only 1.2% last year instead of the 4% called for) and reducing their dependency on coal-fired electric plants. But the new plan, which aims to increase energy efficiency nationwide by 20%, could eliminate 1.4 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2010. By comparison, the US is only expected to eliminate roughly 185 million tons by the same date. What's more, all of the reductions are self-imposed, although China and Japan have recently agreed to develop a successor to the Kyoto Treaty.
So next time you hear someone say that when it comes to emissions reductions, we should only do as much as the Chinese, remember: They're probably right.
Monday, April 9, 2007
Two Wrongs Make Me Right
Every now and then, for reasons I can't well explain, I find myself trying to formulate an argument in defense of some aspect of George W. Bush's presidency. Which is to say, I consider the possibility that I (along with most of the people whose opinion I respect) am wrong, which I think is an important exercise for even the most firmly held beliefs. Especially for the most firmly held beliefs.
Take, for instance, the President's well-known track record of appointing to regulatory boards the lobbyists and executives from the very industries to be regulated. I wondered whether his critics (that is, me and most of the people whose opinion I respect) weren't ignoring the fact that when it comes to regulatory oversight, there's really no such thing as neutrality.
In other words, there are people who want to log national forests, drill for gas and oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and manufacture and buy products that pollute the environment. They think they should be allowed to do those things because they don't think there's anything wrong with it. For these people, an appointee who emphasizes preservation over use isn't neutral, he or she is partisan.
So, I end up thinking, maybe what we're feeling now is what these people have been feeling for all the years when the regulatory agencies were stacked against them.
Then I go and read Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s piece in Vanity Fair about environmental appointees in the Bush administration, and I realize that I was wrong for ever having considered that I might be wrong about George W. Bush.
There is one silver lining. When corporate lobbyists become the government, they no longer have to bribe anyone to get regulations to go their way.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
Unlike the Bush administration, which is doing everything in its power to downplay, if not outright deny, global warming, the US military is taking the threat it poses seriously. So much so, according to an article in Le Monde (French language), that it's developing new strategic approaches based on projections of climate change's impact.
Some of the scenarios they're considering include competition for water resources in the Indian sub-continent, a scramble to secure shipping lanes opened up by melting arctic ice shelves, aggravated climate-related instability in the oil-rich African continent, and massive population migrations.
As for adjustments, the military foresees three fundamental changes in strategic planning, according to Thomas Morehouse of the Institute for Defense Analysis:
"Prepare for a greater number of humanitarian operations and peacekeeping missions; adapt coastal infrastructures; elaborate a more efficient energy policy."
This last point is not insignificant: the American army is the world's biggest energy consumer, on which it spends almost $11 billion per year. Something that limits its flexibility:
"On the battlefield, 70% of the tonnage transported is fuel." (Translated from the French.)
Or as John Ackerman of the Air Force Staff College put it, "We'll have to slide from the War on Terror towards the new concept of Sustainable Security."
The good news is that as far as the military's concerned, the crises provoked by climate change do not necessarily mean heightened conflict. They could lead to cooperative efforts as various regional actors join together to confront common threats. The determining factor? What approach to energy policy we decide to take.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
So What's The Problem?
After a very mild winter and several weeks of early summer-like weather, yesterday afternoon the sky suddenly blackened and it began to snow. Now it's freezing out, and as I went outside to get something to cook for dinner it occurred to me: Global warming = Less cold + Less people. In other words a much more satisfying beach experience. So be advised that I am hereby officially in the pro-Global warming camp.
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Radioactive Supply & Demand
One of the consequences of skyrocketing gas & oil prices, political and geological uncertainties surrounding existing supplies, and growing concerns about greenhouse gas-producing emissions has been a dramatic increase in the number of uranium-powered nuclear reactors either under construction or already brought online in the past decade. Reactors that were fed by existing stockpiles of uranium leftover from nuclear power's 1970's glory days. But now that those supplies have dwindled, there's been a global run on uranium. So much so that the price has jumped from roughly $10/pound ten years ago to $85/pound today. And with yearly demand far outpacing production, the pressure on price doesn't look like it will let up anytime soon.
Uranium. It's the new oil.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Seen Any Bees Lately?
One of my friends here is a beekeeper. And a few years ago, he told me that his bees had started disappearing. Each year since then, it's gotten worse: fewer hives, fewer bees in the ones that are still active, and, not surprisingly, less and less honey.
According to this article in the IHT, beekeepers in 22 states are facing the same problem this year, only more dramatic and more sudden. Of course, bees are the primary agents of pollenation for the plant world. So when you haven't got any bees, what you've got is problems. Pretty freakin' scary.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Props To... No, I Can't Say It
There are a lot of means available to state governments to break through the inertia that can sometimes develop in Washington. One of them is simply to take action. That's what California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and Arizona have done to fight greenhouse gas emissions. The Western Regional Climate Action Initiative requires the five states to define an emissions target within the next six months. They will then develop a market-based approach, to be announced over the next 18 months, to meet the target.
I'm not enough of an expert on this kind of stuff to know whether they've chosen an effective strategy. (Any readers with expertise, feel free to weigh in in the comments.) But it's nice to see some policy initiatives being driven from the state level. It's one of the advantages of a Federal system like our own. All it takes is a governor willing to flex some muscle.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
The World Is Your (Tainted) Oyster
We've already heard alot about the Hollywood blockbuster apsects of global warming: Rising ocean levels, flooded coastal regions, hurricanes, droughts, etc. Now here's an LA Times article on the impact of climate change on the spread of disease, and it ain't pretty: The spread of marine bacteria into previously frigid waters; disease-bearing ticks and mosquitoes migrating further north and into highlands; allergy-provoking weeds thriving and producing more pollen.
I'd kind of made my peace with spending Christmas vacations on the beach in Nebraska. But if all I'll be doing is sneezing, I'm not so sure anymore.