November 27, 2011

This stuff exists

Paul Nicklen is a white man who grew up in an Inuit community way up in Northern Canada near Greenland.  He takes pretty amazing pictures of polar bears, seals, penguins and the like for magazines like National Geographic.  He’s trying to put (animal) faces to the story people otherwise are getting kinda sick of — that polar ice is disappearing.

Watching him talk about the polar food chains, you can see his respect for the fragility of the world he grew up in.

I appreciate that.

It takes guts to hang out in the water for days on end with leopard seals.  He’s putting his money where his mouth is.  He’s funny, too.

Gotta restock my shelves.  See you later.

November 9, 2011

Land use over time

Hola my friends,

I recently saw a fascinating animation on Youtube.  No, it was not a cat playing a piano… I know, you cannot believe it!  But what I saw is far more intriguing.  It shows the change in global land use from 8,000 BP (BP = before the present) to 50 years from now (-50 BP, a figure I find amusing). I love to think about great spans of time, so this was like paleontological “catnip” to me.

Eight thousand years ago is when the human population began expanding following the dawn of agriculture.  Like so many simulations of this kind, it’s difficult to really see all the detail in the last couple of seconds, since so much happens so quickly once the Industrial Revolution happens…

The animation was made by ARVE, which stands for Atmosphere Regolith Vegetation, a group of scientists at a polytechnic university in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Research at ARVE focuses on how changes in the terrestrial biosphere amplify changes in the climate system by examining the interaction between soils, vegetation and the atmosphere.

By combining maps of potential vegetation and land use intensity, we create high resolution maps of vegetation and human impact covering the entire Holocene [*] for the Mediterranean. This allows us to address a number research questions, including the time history of human impact in relation to conservation, biodiversity, and land degradation; and the impact of land cover change on terrestrial hydrology and carbon and nutrient cycling.

*The Holocene is the geological epoch we on earth have been in for the last 10,000 years.

We think we on Earth right now are the first people to create areas drastic deforestation.  Far from it.  Of particular interest to me is the re-vegetation of South America:

Following the first contact with Europeans around 1500, nearly 90% of the indigenous people of the Americas were killed, mainly by disease. This collapse in populations led to massive regrowth of natural vegetation, especially forests in the Amazon, Andes, and Mesoamerica. As we race towards modern times we see the settlement of the Americas and Australia by Europeans spreading across the continents, and the development of the human-dominated world we have today.

Indeed, my friends…

October 28, 2011

Encyclopedia of Life

The great biologist and researcher E.O. Wilson gave a TED Prize speech in 2007  and made a plea that we learn more about our biosphere — and build a networked encyclopedia of all the world’s knowledge about life.

His wish served as the catalyst for creating the Encyclopedia of Life, an free online collaborative encyclopedia documenting all 1.9 million known living species on Earth.

Corynactis californica, just one of the 1.9 million entries in the Encyclopedia of Life.

Needless to say, we encourage you to explore the site.  Photos, drawings, descriptions…  it’s a wonderful resource for learning, or for simply marveling at the breathtaking scope of life on this planet.

October 16, 2011

The oldest living things in the world

This chestnut tree in Sicily is approximately 3,000 years old, a mere baby.

Hello my friends,

You might think the oldest living things are Andy Rooney and Larry King, hehe, but no.

There’s a photographer named Rachel Sussman who has been photographing the world’s oldest living things. Many of them are trees, the branches and roots twisted and gnarled, like the tree above.  Some are bacteria, lichens, fungi.  One I very much like is a mysterious mossy-looking shrub in Chile.  There’s also an underground forest (!) near Pretoria, South Africa, estimated to be 13,000 years old, before humans had even developed agriculture.  There’s some underwater sea grass that will — como se dice –  blow your mind.  And what looks like a forest of white tree trunks, which is actually one single tree.  It’s worth looking at her TED Talk, because she talks about her photographs in greater detail how she reached some of her subjects.

They are like the great grandmothers at family gatherings who sit in the corner quietly, observing all the new life around them.

October 12, 2011

‘We must do all we can to find the resources’


The International Council for Science, or ICSU, which has played a behind-the-scenes role in fostering scientific integrity and global collaboration since 1931, has elected Nobel Prize-winning scientist Yuan Tseh Leah of Taipei (Taiwan) to be president of its Earth System Sustainability Initiative  for the next three years.  Yuan addressed the assembly that elected him and talked about the enormous challenges humanity faces:

If we are to avoid catastrophe and ensure humanity’s continuation on this planet, the keyword for the next few decades will be transformation. That is, we must begin to transform our global society into a truly sustainable civilization…

In the past many excellent ideas were abandoned because there was no funding.  This is really heartbreaking.  If there is a worthy idea, we must do all we can to find the resources. Just imagine what we could do if just 1% of the estimated US$1 trillion spent by governments on defense every year could be devoted to global sustainability research. After all, the greatest threats to security today no longer come from across borders but are caused by humanity on humanity itself….

Our primary theme for the coming years must be “Action – and solutions -now!”

Needless to say, we couldn’t agree more, as we count the ever-greater number of creatures on the Endangered Species list.  Occasionally we joke about feeling jealous of our scientific colleagues who work for the defense industry, with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of funding and enthusiasm.  Mustn’t get bitter, though.  Chin up and all that.

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    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
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