On Dust

This is the Amazon rainforest. Or at least a part of it.

Last week, an item in the Guardian (UK) highlighted a surprising connection between the Amazon rainforest and the Sahara desert — how one region in Chad supplies the Amazon with half of the rainforest’s mineral nutrients.

Around 40m tons of dust is carried by prevailing winds from the Sahara to fertilise the Amazon basin each year. This is a very satisfying finding, since the extraordinary fertility of the Amazon rainforest – one of the richest and most biodiverse places on earth – has been a puzzle. Tropical rains leach nutrients from jungle soils, and the soils of the Amazon forest are notoriously poor, which is why clearance for cattle farming is such a bad idea. Biologists had calculated that the forest needed at least 50m tons of fresh mineral nutrient each year to keep its trees tall and in leaf. In 2006 an international team of researchers established that at least half of this annual mineral supply is quarried from one tiny location in the Sahara, the Bodélé depression in Chad. A combination of fortuitously placed mountain ranges that flank a basin of diatomite sands so focus the winter winds as to scour the depression and lift from it an average of 700,000 tons of dust each day, and air-freight it across the Atlantic.

So for thousands of years, and without any fuss, a tiny part of one of Africa’s poorest countries has annually subsidised the growth economy of one of the world’s most richly endowed. This discovery is yet another insight into the intricate dance performed by earth, air, fire and water in the service of life; and another reminder of the enduring intercontinental interdependence that sustains human civilisation. We should respect the IUCN‘s [International Union for Conservation of Nature] concern for the deserts. Without green things, we could not breathe. Without deserts, there might be no forests.

NASA’s Earth Observatory posts satellite images of massive dust clouds — including the one above — blowing from deserts (and other brilliant photographs from space).

According to the Climate Matters blog of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, scientists from a wide range of disciplines convened earlier this summer to coordinate their research on dust, much in the way that the oceanographic community came together in the 1990s to collaborate more effectively. Why dust?

Dust is a global phenomenon. Where it comes from, where it goes, and how it impacts climate and the biogeochemistry of land and oceans are questions that span all the realms of earth science.


Dust influences the radiative balance of the planet in two different ways, either directly by scattering and absorbing incoming solar radiation, or indirectly by changing the optical properties of clouds, themselves an important player in the climate system. Dust also contains iron, a limiting nutrient in many areas of the ocean, so when dust falls onto the ocean, it can act as a fertilizer for the growth of algae, or phytoplankton, which uses CO2. Dust not only affects climate, but also is influenced by it: its production, atmospheric transport and deposition are sensitive to climatic conditions.

During Earth’s history, dust has been strongly linked with climatic conditions: Ice cores and marine sediments tell us that the ice age world was much dustier than today’s world. Thus dust is both a driver and a passive recorder of climate change under different climatic regimes of the Earth’s past. However, its exact role in past climate change remains poorly constrained. Understanding the links between dust and climate in the past will be crucial to evaluate the future impacts of dust on the Earth’s climate system in a warming world.

One could add a recent study (here and here) that suggests soot may be the second greatest contributor to global warming — behind carbon dioxide, but ahead of methane. Produced by the combustion of fossil fuels and borne around the globe by winds, soot helps to accelerate the melting of glaciers and Arctic ice by absorbing more of the sun’s radiation. Controlling soot may be the most effective short-term measure to slow warming.

On this ceaseless swirl of land, air, and water, everything is in motion. The movement patterns are part of the relative stability of the climate system around which life has evolved and upon which we rely. Climate change’s uncertain impacts on the atmospheric and oceanic flow and upon the well-timed relationships between plants and animals naturally raise great concern. Wind and water also transport pollutants across state and national boundaries and even from continent to continent. Whether they involve global warming or specific pollutants, these vast connections make all life “downstream.”

Biodiversity and the City 2: In an urban world, where are the ecologists?

What happens to biodiversity in areas that become more urban? The short answer, not surprisingly, is that urbanization decreases biodiversity.

In a review article published in Science a couple years ago, Nancy Grimm and colleagues wrote that urban land use tends to

reduce both species richness and evenness for most biotic communities, despite increases in abundance and biomass of birds and arthropods. Because the urban footprint extends far beyond municipal boundaries, urbanization may also reduce native species diversity at regional and global scales.

Cities have a huge impact through local habitat loss and fragmentation. More broadly, urban consumption helps to drive global environmental change.

The longer answer, however, is that we don’t know enough about urban biodiversity and how to protect ecological systems amidst urban growth.

This is significant, because the Earth is more and more an urban planet. The Population Institute recently forecast that the human population will grow to nearly 9.5 billion by 2050. Between natural increase and migration, most of the population growth will occur in cities in developing nations. By 2030, two thirds of humans will live in urban areas.

Climate change/destabilization, biodiversity loss, and agricultural land grabs (stemming in part from food demand from urban areas) may drive much of the urban migration in the developing world.

“Ecologists shun the urban jungle”

While tools like wildlife corridors and habitat conservation plans can help to preserve ecosystems facing rapid urban growth, several recent items highlight the vast challenge of supporting biodiversity in an urbanizing world.

First, conservation research is simply not looking at urban areas.

An item in Nature News suggests that only one in six papers on conservation addressed regions used by humans and only 4% studied urban or suburban areas.

The world’s top ecologists are failing to study the landscapes that most need work, and they risk delaying conservation efforts and making their subject irrelevant.

That is the stark message from US researchers who have quantified the extent to which ecologists devote themselves to pristine wilderness at the expense of inhabited regions. The bias is a major problem for both the field and the environment, they say, because it is areas used by humans — which take up most of the Earth’s land-mass — that are in most need of conservation.

The piece discusses work presented this past week at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). According to Terry Chapin, the new president of the ESA:

It is really important that ecologists do research on areas populated by people. I would hate to go so far as to say studies of pristine areas are not important, but we clearly need to know much more about the direct ways in which we are affecting the biosphere.

There are undoubtedly ecologists whose research focuses on the urban landscape, but this still appears to be an emerging field of study. This article mentions five research “nodes” addressing urban environments as social-ecological systems (including the previously quoted Nancy Grimm):

Marina Alberti’s at the University of Washington, Nancy Grimm at Arizona State University, Stewart Pickett and colleagues at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, Mark McDonnell at the Australian Research Center for Urban Ecology, and Herbert Sukopp in Germany.

Second, as a post on Conservation Bytes suggests, conservation studies rarely lead to actual conservation, in part because of the siloed approach of researchers whose communication primarily echoes within the academic arena. The presentation cited was specific to tropical forest research, but the post also discussed considerations for all researchers.

These tidbits reflect the recent state of biodiversity research, which may in turn highlight the traditional bent of academia and its funding sources, as well as the difficulties of studying complex urban-ecosystem interactions. They also say little about the efforts of ecologists working for nonprofit organizations, such as Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy or especially local conservation groups, or for local or state departments of natural resources/environment/parks.

But the two realizations above may contribute to a significant third item: While there has been an increase in the number of protected areas around the globe, little progress has been made towards the goals set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (2002).

On a positive note, 2010 and the International Year of Biodiversity have brought relative successes on the biodiversity front, even as climate change’s roller coaster year continues (Copenhagen, Climategate, climate bill in the US Congress, etc.). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study brought attention to the economic benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services. A June conference in Busan, Korea, has led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — basically an IPCC for biodiversity. IPBES promises to bring greater coherence to fragmented conservation efforts.

Given the growing human impact on living systems across the globe, more foresight, research, and action is needed to ensure that governments (and individuals) protect urbanizing landscapes for biodiversity as well as climate change resilience.

Part I focused on a wonderful video promoting the Biodiversity Campaign from the European Commission on the Environment.

Biodiversity and the City

Part I

On Worldchanging, Amanda Reed posted this remarkable video from the Biodiversity Campaign that the European Commission on the Environment launched earlier this year.

It’s a lovely piece that I hope reaches a large audience. What is surprising is the explicit focus on connecting urbanization and biodiversity loss. The ad seeks to shift the ways in which city dwellers envision the world.

This is brilliant. Now that more than four billion human beings — half of the human population — live in urban settlements, fostering a deeper understanding of connections between humans and nature and our intertwined futures has become increasingly difficult. Yet this remains a central challenge for our civilization, as it continues to press alarmingly against planetary boundaries.

According to the description of the video:

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth including ecosystems, species and genes. We are part of biodiversity and our lives depend on it. And this life supporting biodiversity is disappearing from our cities at an alarming rate. Today it is the sparrow, but tomorrow it could be us.

Amanda Reed writes in the Worldchanging article:

While the video above is more about a problem than a solution, I think it is a compelling way to communicate the issue of biodiversity and interconnectedness to a large audience, which in turn can perhaps spur greater action and interest in solutions. The trick though, is to grasp the large scope of the issue, and spur action at the right scale and speed.

Reed goes on to suggest that the actions for change recommended by the Biodiversity Campaign are overly limited to the individual scale and, hence, insufficient to address the “large-scale systems of industry” that drive global biodiversity loss. Indeed, the problems are in large part systemic, making change necessary at many levels.

Business decisions make sense from a narrowly economic perspective optimizing the path from source to market. New reports connecting business and biodiversity — such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) — will help to educate the business community and policy makers, expand consideration of ecosystem services, and tip businesses towards less harmful options.

Campaigns that reframe our relationship with nature – specifically as an urban species – serve as an important complement.

Bill Reed on “The Practice of Living System Design”

Architect Bill Reed recently spoke at the Living Future 10 conference in Seattle. Reed, a principal at the Integrative Design Collaborative, was a founding board member of the US Green Building Council. Julia Levitt from Worldchanging wrote a nice piece about Reed’s talk, which was part of a panel entitled, “Integrating the Whole System — The Practice of Living Systems or Regenerative Design.” (A video and transcript will be forthcoming on the Living Futures website.)

Reed was just one of many fascinating speakers at what must have been a marvelous event. Check out this item from Worldchanging for more coverage.

Some excerpts of Levitt’s piece:

[Reed] opened by offering two big questions to the audience: if sustainability is about sustaining life, then what is life about? What will our design practices and organizations look like if we are intentional about sustainability?

“Sustainable” and “regenerative” are words which, when spoken conscientiously, evoke a much more comprehensive and long-term vision than “green,” “recycled,” or even “energy efficient.” Even “carbon neutral,” he argued, isn’t really his idea of sustainability. If the ultimate goal is to replicate nature and to create systems for sheltering and feeding ourselves that are truly regenerative, it’s important to recognize that sustainability is not the same as zero.

“‘[D]o you want to do LEED, or do you want sustainability?’

It seemed that in his experience, many have simply become so used to thinking at the level of individual, segregated components that they’re unable to easily see the system or their place within it. In order to think systemically, one needs to reestablish relationships; to feel connected and to care; to be personal and up-close rather than academic and arm’s-length. To underline this point, Reed quoted Wendell Berry: “no one ever called his home an ‘environment.’”

As he put it, it’s important to remember that “living systems aren’t just about buildings and things. The people who work on them are regenerated, also.”

Earlier this year, Reed spoke on “The Practice of Living System Design” as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. His talk addressed “the need to redevelop a conscious understanding of the whole system of life-giving processes that shape the places we live in order to reintegrate our building—and our communities—with life on Earth.”

William Reed: The Practice of Living System Design from BSA on Vimeo.

A couple of tidbits from the talk:

Sustainable design “is not just carbon neutral…it’s fundamentally about our relationship with place.”

Restoration…doesn’t mean restoring something to its original condition…It actually means restoring an ecological subsystem to the condition where it has the ability to self-organize and evolve.

The talk is well worth watching. Reed imparts his wealth of knowledge and experience about integrative ecological design.

Nature in the City: promoting community-based ecological stewardship

With its focus on regional stewardship and “re-inhabiting the land,” the following item from Peter Brastow resonated with me.

Brastow directs Nature in the City, a project of the Earth Island Institute that focuses on local ecology and stewardship in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nature in the City recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Last week I experienced an acute episode of realizing that our message of community-based ecological stewardship is missing still, not only in the public-at-large, but also even within the environmental activist community. This realization repeats itself over and over again and in fact, was largely the justification for the Nature in the City Symposium at World Environment Day 2005.

Peter Berg of Planet Drum expresses eloquently that real sustainability must be grounded in a bioregionalist perspective whereby people are aware of and living in harmony with the natural systems of which we are all a part. But the broader environmental community seems to continue to limit the definition of sustainability to green buildings & technologies, recycling and clean energy.

The lack of attention to protecting and connecting with our city’s ecology is a function of our larger society’s fundamental and wholesale disconnection from nature. We have culturally evolved as a species to become totally separate, physically and psychologically, from the rest of nature. Most humans nowadays pretty much operate in the modern human realm as sort of a layer on top of the rest of nature, uncaringly and/or unknowingly exploiting the rest of the biosphere. We go about our daily lives without the slightest understanding of the nature and biodiversity all around us; including while performing all of the critical “green” tasks of installing solar panels, achieving zero waste, and closing the “ecological” loop, as it were.

“Green” and “ecological” are in quotes because well-meaning folks use the terms without any understanding of our local ecology, of the native plants, animals, and habitats that characterize San Francisco’s natural heritage. Inspired by the philosophy of bioregionalism, we at Nature in the City aim to demonstrate the way to break down the nature-culture dichotomy by physically, materially connecting people and nature where we live, everywhere.

When we physically re-inhabit the land, we derive mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being and a deepened sense of place and meaning in our lives, learning more intimately how we are interconnected with all other living things; we restore a more positive relationship of mutuality whereby local nature also benefits from our careful stewardship by becoming healthier and more abundant. Two weeks ago, we learned that the Green Hairstreak butterfly found its way to one of our brand new stewardship sites at 14th and Pacheco along the corridor between its two remaining populations in the Hawk Hill and Rocky Outcrop natural areas. We photographed an individual on a coast buckwheat – one of the two host plant species for the butterfly – that we planted between the streets!!

Re-creating healthy, positive relationships with nature is revolutionary, because it means rethinking how we live on the planet, globally, and in our own communities, neighborhoods and backyards. Evolving a new culture of community ecological stewardship is ecological sustainability. If we are to survive on this planet amidst natural beauty and abundance, we must learn how to recreate an actual physical, sustainable relationship with the rest of nature by taking care of the land and healing our ancient human-nature relationship, becoming, literally, part of the natural history of San Francisco.

[links and highlights are from the original note]

Next, I’ll post some thoughts inspired by this letter.

Some thoughts on cities and nature while perusing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Green City, Flickr CC photo by alykat (Alyson Hurt)

This morning I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, not two blocks from home, looking at a stack of books by Annie Dillard, whose works I have not read.

I opened up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which won Dillard a Pulitzer Prize) and landed on this passage:

The general rule in nature is that live things are soft within and rigid without. We vertebrates are living dangerously, and we vertebrates are positively piteous, like so many peeled trees.

This oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed as by Pliny, who writes of nature, “To all the rest, given she hath sufficient to clad them everyone according to their kind: as namely shells, cods, hard hides, pricks, shags, bristles, hair, down feathers, quills, scales, and fleeces of wool. The very trunks and stems of trees and plants, she hath defended with bark and rind, yea and the same sometimes double, against the injuries both of heat and cold: man alone, poor wretch, she hath laid all naked upon the bare earth, even on his birthday, to cry and wraule presently from the very first hour that he is born into the world.”

I am sitting under a sycamore tree: I am soft-shell and peeled to the least puff of wind or smack of grit.

Humans are a dynamic, weedy, and increasingly urban species.

Soft-shelled, we armor ourselves with technology. We build humancities, our correlate to anthills and beehives. As a social species, like ants and bees, our well-being depends upon mutual aid, social networks, and cultural adaptations — of which technology is a manifestation.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted aphorism applies here: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization celebrated its annual World Health Day. This year’s theme was “Urbanization and health: urban health matters.” Continue reading

Spring Brings Citizen Scientists Together

Spring buds, Flickr CC-2.0 image by Eugenijus Radlinskas

Last week, my almost-three-year-old daughter glanced out the window and cheerfully shouted, “Look, the tree is making leaves!

The first buds on the branch or leaves in the garden, the first purple martin or monarch butterfly or hummingbird…these little changes in our natural surroundings grab our attention and herald the arrival of spring.

Each first sighting triggers a kind of awakening. “Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment,” wrote Ellis Peters.

In order to take in spring’s sweep across the land (and seas), however, you often need a higher vantage point — perhaps a hilltop or an aerial photo.

Or sometimes, with just a few shared observations by Citizen Scientists, a map, and a little imagination, you can begin to appreciate spring’s steady march.

Here are a couple of sites reporting the first sighting of birds migrating northwards:

Purple martin sightings (as of 4/1/2010)

Purple Martin scout map

Hummingbirds (as of 4/1/2010)

Hummingbird first sightings as of April 1, 2010

Several migration sites, including one for hummingbirds, can be found at Journey North, a wonderful educational resource.

For the flora-minded, Project Budburst collects observations of “phenophases” of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses.

Some Citizen Science projects I find intriguing are the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds and a study of American eels in the Hudson River.

Also, check out the the USA National Phenology Network for more about phenology (“nature’s calendar”) and climate change.

Monarchs resting on rocks, Flickr CC image by Pendens Proditor

Monarch butterflies

Of special note this spring is the monarch butterfly. The monarchs have begun their journeys along several migration corridors and can travel thousands of miles. But according to several news articles (here, here, and here), the monarch population faces a dire situation.

This year may be one of the worst for the monarch butterfly, experts are reporting. Severe hailstorms in Mexico (one of the monarch’s winter home) followed by fifteen inches of rain has left the population decimated by up to 50 percent this year. Add to that the ongoing issue of habitat destruction, and the future of the monarch begins to look a little shaky.

If you’re interested, check out Monarch Watch and participate in the Monarch Waystation Program (also here) to create, conserve and protect monarch habitats.

Citizen Science works

The convergence of backyard naturalists, academics, and the internet is fueling the growth of Citizen Science, which involves the participation of nonscientists in research, including the crowdsourcing of observations of nature.

From the News and Observer:

Nonscientists like Bragg [Benton Bragg, who is helping out with a barred owl study] throughout North Carolina and the nation are participating in a smorgasbord of projects, studying birds, amphibians, plants, mammals, chemistry, dinosaurs, climate change, light pollution, the galaxy – the list goes on.

Citizen science involves nonscientist volunteers gathering and reporting data for scientific studies. Less often, they help analyze it. Participating is a two-way street. It not only funnels data to scientists faster than they could accumulate it using only trained researchers, it also gives citizens a window to science.

An article in BioScience magazine (March 2008) asks “Citizen Scientists, Can Volunteers Do Real Research?

In the end, what have citizen scientists achieved? Has their labor actually helped advance scientific knowledge? Yes, says Bonney [Rick Bonney of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology], pointing, for example, to complete and accurate maps of the breeding ranges of every North American bird. And with the help of volunteers in gathering data, researchers have been able to track the progress of conjunctivitis in house finches, the first time scientists have ever followed a disease in a wild animal. Citizen scientists have also collected data that helped scientists develop guidelines for land managers to preserve habitat.

Treehugger also published a nice piece on Citizen Science last year:

Where Big Science works by putting a few very highly trained people with a lot of money at their disposal in charge of rare and expensive machines, Citizen Science works by sending nearly anyone you can grab into the field with a simple task, simple equipment to do it, and a willingness on the scientists’ part to sort through the results. It’s messy, at times, but it works.

Beyond supporting research, Citizen Science projects promote scientific literacy and conservation efforts. Citizen Science encourages individuals, families, and schools to engage with local nature; it can reveal the ways in which nature’s networks connect communities across the continent. In this era of both global environmental change and “nature deficit disorder,” Citizen Science offers a way for folks to take steps forward together.

Happy spring!

Other projects

Birders World lists over 100 projects for birders interested in participating in citizen science.

National Projects (a sidebar to the News & Observer article):

Firefly Watch: Project based at Boston Museum of Science. www.mos.org/fireflywatch
Frog Watch USA:
Learn about wetlands and help conserve amphibians by reporting the calls of local frogs and toads. www.aza.org/frogwatch
Project BudBurst:
Track the first leafing, first flower and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses in your area. www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/index.php
Open Dinosaur Project:
Help create an online database of dinosaur limb bone measurements used to investigate questions of dinosaur evolution. opendino.wordpress.com
Great Backyard Birdcount:
Annual program to identify and count birds where they live over four days in mid-February. www.birdsource.org/gbbc
Project FeederWatch:
Put up a bird feeder, watch the birds that use it and report your sightings online. www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw
Report bird sightings to help create an online globally accessible database showing bird distribution and abundance. ebird.org
Galaxy Zoo:
Global program for armchair astronomers to sort and classify a million different images of galaxies according to shape. www.galaxyzoo.org

More projects: ScienceForCitizens.net or www.eenorthcarolina.org/presentations/citizenscience.pdf

[Note: The examples listed leaned heavily to the Eastern United States. Any suggestions for projects or migration maps from other parts of the Americas (or the Earth) are welcomed!]

Circumnavigate This! Two Ocean Voyages: One by Land, One by Sea

All Life has its roots in the meeting of earth and water. –TH Watkins

The Blue Marble - NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli

When you look at photos of the Earth from space, what do you see?

Does the ocean frame the land? Or does the land frame the ocean?

This question relates to an aspect of vision called figure-ground perception. You probably have experienced figure-ground questions in visual illusions like this image. As creatures of the land, we’re inclined to consider the land as the primary object, or figure, and the seas as background. The seas seem relatively flat and uneventful, although belying tremendous mountain ranges (more here) and teeming life hidden beneath the surface. Yet from space, Earth is a blue planet. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean.”

What do you look at when you stand at the ocean’s edge?
If you’re like me, when you arrive at a coastline or beach, you’ll look first across the vast expanse of water towards the gentle curve of the horizon. Then your eyes will scan to the right or left and follow the meeting of land and water off into the distance.

The shape of that coastline — whether sandy beach, rocky shores, or precipitous bluffs — reveals a history of interaction between land and water, a relationship uninterrupted for eons. The coastline connects.

I’ve recently come across two ambitious journeys — one by land and one by sea — that are focusing attention on our world of water: how we are affected by the health of our oceans and the potential social and ecological impacts of sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising: A ferry in Guinea

One by land: Atlantic Rising

A trio of young explorers has taken the terrestrial route, basically driving their Land Rover around the Atlantic Ocean to engage students and bring attention to coastal areas, habitats, and livelihoods along the Atlantic that will be affected by sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising explores what will be lost around the Atlantic Ocean if sea levels rise by one metre. Our work in low-lying communities around the ocean rim is journalistic and educational. We are creating a network between 15,000 pupils; enabling them to build friendships, share experience and collaborate on climate change projects. We are also reporting the stories of people whose lives are already being affected by sea level change and providing a platform for marginalised voices.

Sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, Atlantic Rising follows the Atlantic’s potential coastline across 31 countries. The journey so far has taken the trio from London to the West African coast. Along the way, they have encountered threatened wetlands, vulnerable villages, and inspirational conservation efforts. From Ghana, they crossed the Atlantic by container ship to Brazil and will now follow the one-metre contour to North America.

Launch of capsule for the Message in a BottleIn February, Atlantic Rising released Message in a Bottle, a satellite-tracked buoy that contains letters from students living in communities along the Atlantic. Students can follow the buoy’s path to learn about ocean currents, as well as engage with children from other participating schools.

Our project draws upon the historical connections between Atlantic countries to build new relationships around the Atlantic rim. It confronts pupils with the different global experiences of climate change and shows them the realities of sea level change in other Atlantic countries.

While sea level rise will ultimately vary significantly depending upon topography, wind and current, Atlantic Rising’s journey brilliantly highlights the fragility of ecosystems and the interconnected future of all people living by the sea.

The Around the Americas Route

One by sea: Around the Americas

In the tradition of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, Nansen and Amundsen’s Fram, and the HMS Challenger, the crew of the 64′ sailboat Ocean Watch has undertaken a modern voyage of discovery, called Around the Americas. A project of the Pacific Science Center and Sailors for the Sea, Around the Americas is circumnavigating the American continents “with the mission of inspiring, educating, and educating citizens of the Americas to protect our fragile oceans.”

A permanent crew of four highly-experienced “nautical geezers,” led by Captain Mark Schrader, and rotating scientists and educators staff the Ocean Watch on its 25,000 mile (40,200 km) voyage, which launched from Seattle in late May 2009. The crew’s logs make for fascinating reading.

From Baffin Island in the Arctic Sea to the Straits of Magellan near the tip of South America, the Ocean Watch is traversing every possible climatic region of the seas. The crew is conducting science experiments on subjects as varied as polar science,  jellyfish populations, ocean currents, pollution, and underwater ambient sound.

Schrader: “We hope the adventure of the trip will get people’s attention, but then we need to demonstrate with good science that we’re approaching a critical time for the health of our oceans.”

The Ocean Watch is now one of six small boats to make it through the Northwest Passage, west to east. Back in 1982, Captain Schrader circumnavigated the globe. At the time he wanted to sail the Northwest Passage.

But with the Arctic ice pack, it wasn’t possible at the time. In the past 100 years, only about 100 boats have made the passage, most of them Coast Guard ice breakers. Now, the conditions have changed dramatically. We need to make people aware of what’s happening in the oceans before we lose the Arctic ice pack all together, before conditions become irreversible.

Last month, the Ocean Watch was sailing off the shore of Chile between ports of call, when the earthquake hit and tremors raced undersea. The quake and tsunami savaged the land and triggered alerts thousands of miles away; the crew, of course, did not feel a thing. Please read the log entry about Chile.

Seascape, Straits of Magellan

This off-hand comment by one fisheries researcher captures in simple terms the need to understand better the oceans:  “It’s a big black box out there. Things have been wacky.”

Check out David Thoresen’s beautiful photographs on Flickr. And for the latest position of Ocean Watch, look here.

H/T to @eclecticechoes, @geographile for “Mountains in the Sea” link

Credits: “Blue Marble,” NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Atlantic Rising photos, courtesy of Atlantic Rising; Seascape, courtesy of Around the Americas, ©David Thoresen

Loosely Knit : 2 March, 2010


1. photo of Ilulissat Icebergs, Disko Bay, Greenland (Flickr/CC photo by kaet44)

Every year, 20 billion tonnes of icebergs calve off the Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier and pass through the Ilulissat Icefjord.

2. Understanding deep ocean circulation and climate modeling

If you follow the latitude lines from much of Europe westward across the Atlantic, you tend to run into Canada. Even if you go to the southern tip of Spain, you’re not much further south than the Virginias. Canada, of course, has a reputation for being rather frozen and inhospitable, while Europe goes to pieces if it snows for more than an hour or two. The difference is mainly due to ocean currents.

At the north edge of the Atlantic Ocean, warm surface water cools off and sinks, drawing in more warm surface water from the south, generating a warm surface current along Europe’s Atlantic coast. Portions of this current comes in from the tropics near Africa and South America, and more is drawn in from the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In addition to making Europe a pleasant place to live, this current also provides the main source of ocean mixing—that is, these currents act to cool the ocean surface temperatures and heat the deep ocean.

More on thermohaline circulation, also known as the “ocean conveyor belt.”

See also:Freak Current Takes Gulf Stream to Greenland

Artic Tern Migration, map courtesy of Carsten Egevang

3. World’s Longest Migration Found–2X Longer Than Thought

Miniature new transmitters recently revealed that the 4-ounce (113-gram) [arctic tern] follows zigzagging routes between Greenland and Antarctica each year. In the process, the arctic tern racks up about 44,000 frequent flier miles (71,000 kilometers)—edging out its archrival, the sooty shearwater, by roughly 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers).
Photo: Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.COM
Since the birds often live 30 years or more, the researchers estimate that, over its lifetime, an arctic tern migrates about 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers)—equal to three trips to the moon and back.

See also: The Arctic Tern Migration Project

Bird of the Sun, a beautiful photographic tribute to the arctic tern by Carsten Egevang

Map of global shipping routes by Bernd Blasius

4. A Year of Global Shipping Routes Mapped by GPS

Scientists have come up with the first comprehensive map of global shipping routes based on actual itineraries. The team pieced together a year’s worth of travel itineraries from 16,693 cargo ships using data from LLoyd’s Register Fairplay and the Automatic Identification System, which tracks vessels using a VHF receiver and GPS.

A few hot spots logged the majority of journeys. The busiest port was the Panama Canal, followed by the Suez Canal and Shanghai.

5. The Mariana Trench to scale

Click on the link for an amazing graphic of the deepest point in the ocean.

via kottke:  “representation of how deep the Mariana Trench is. Turns out it’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really deep.”

Here come the floods


CC/Flickr image: USGS

The first flood of the season arrived early in Natchez, Mississippi.

Meteorologists at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center of the National Weather Service had been tracking late January rainfall (“high-water events”) upstream in the Mississippi River Basin.

On Jan 21, the Tennessee River Valley got 1-2 inches of rain, on Jan. 22 the Ohio River Valley received 1.5 inches, on Jan. 24 1.5 inches fell over the Missouri River Valley and on Jan. 25 the Tennessee River Valley received another 1.5-3 inches of rain.

Under “normal” conditions, the Mississippi doesn’t rise significantly until March, as snow melt and other precipitation starts flowing down the river. Even prior to this early precipitation, autumn had dumped substantial rainfall on the Midwest (“the wettest October ever in St. Louis”). As a result, water tables are already high. Spring rain on top of a saturated ground equals more flooding.

Communities along rivers in the Midwest are bracing for would could be a whopper of a spring flood season, with the National Weather Service warning of a “high probability” of significant flooding along parts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries.

Big Watershed

The Mississippi River Basin is remarkably vast, drawing water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces and covering 40% of the continental United States. Water takes approximately three months to flow from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine the rain and snow melt shedding off this broad landscape, collecting in the capillaries of streams, merging into rivers, and amassing into the slow wave that rolls down the Mississippi. On the Lower Mississippi, forecasters can see a flood building a long way upstream.

On February 8, the Mississippi reached flood stage at Natchez. While the crest of the flood has already passed New Orleans, flood stage waters continue in some areas between Natchez and Baton Rouge. As the river remained above the 48-foot natural riverbanks this past weekend, crews in Natchez keep a close eye on “sand boils” that form as water displaces soil under the city’s levees. Sandbagging around these boils is part of the seasonal fight against floods. When the river subsides, the crews will wait for the next rise later this spring.

A report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program predicted for the Midwest:

“an increase in precipitation in winter and spring, more heavy downpours, and greater evaporation in summer, leading to more periods of both floods and water deficits.” More “droughts, floods and other extreme events,” in other words.

The flood of media

While the weather is a topic of daily chatter pretty much everywhere, I suppose most people in the U.S. pay little attention to river levels these days. “How’s the hydrological cycle?” rarely comes up in polite conversation. Rivers (and the seas) aren’t as central to most people’s livelihoods or for commerce and transportation as they once were — even though 500 million tons of commercial traffic continues to move on the Mississippi each year.

As spring nears and so does the snow melt, media coverage of Midwestern floods is beginning to appear.

Floods tend to be treated by the media as isolated — and dramatic — news stories. Throughout the year, some part of the world is likely to be passing through its rainy season. So flood stories are not hard to find.

Recent headlines from around the world:
: Eight people die in heavy Zambian floods due to poor drainage
Afghanistan: Afghan floods, avalanches kill 20
São Paulo: Living with the floods
Cumbria, Ireland: The extreme floods in Cumbria
Madeira, Portugal: Madeira floods kill 42, divers hunt for missing


Typhoon Ondoy; CC/Flickr image by IRRI Images

Treehugger recently posted this slide show on the destructive power of floods. The media coverage of the “Snowpocalypse” on the East Coast may transform into news of floods. And, alas, flood stories will become part of the saga in post-quake Haiti, especially when hurricane season arrives.

“Natural” disasters

Floods undoubtedly unleash tremendous pain and suffering around the world, wreaking havoc on the assumed stability of human social and economic affairs. What makes a flood a “natural disaster” — and a headline — is the presence of humans. The combination of human population growth, the expansion of settlements along rivers and coastlines, and increasing threats from climate destabilization will certainly mean more floods:

Droughts and floods account for more than half of the world’s total deaths from disasters, according to the United Nations. But unlike many other catastrophes, most water crises are man-made. Nature may bring the occasional monsoon downpour or dry spell, but environmentalists agree that global warming, dams, deforestation and slash-and-burn farming exponentially exacerbate these seasonal weather patterns.

Sea-level rise, storm surge, and extreme weather events will all contribute to coastal and riverine flooding. In many parts of the world, sewage, toxic runoff, and water-borne disease, like cholera, extend the impact of floods. Inevitably, the most vulnerable communities bear the burden of these disasters. In the U.S., of course, the disproportionate burden of Hurricane Katrina on the poorest residents of New Orleans remains the most visible example.

A flood, in a way, poses a variation on the old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Is it a media story? Flood and flooding are often used interchangeably. Perhaps there’s a distinction between a “flood” and “flooding.” A “flood” represents a condition or an event. “Flooding” is both a local phenomenon and a process, part of the temporal ebb and flow of ecosystems, the timeless hydrological cycles under which landscapes and other species have evolved.

Channeling the river

Since the late 1800s, the Mississippi River Commission has focused on improving navigation and flood control on the lower Mississippi. In 1928, the MRC launched the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, one of the world’s most extensive engineering projects, led by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In order to maintain “order,” much of the Upper and Lower Mississippi River has been dramatically channeled with levees and reservoirs and locks, in the process destroying wetlands and altering the flow of water and sediment. The Mississippi River Delta is in terrible shape. In the state of Missouri, the river now has less than one-fifth of the original wetlands. According to Ana Barros, a civil and environmental engineer at Penn State,

A channel has no capacity to adapt to variable conditions. Tamed, constricted, “It can’t evolve to prepare itself for the next event. This river has nowhere to go.”

For Barros, part of understanding the river is learning to respect it: recognizing that ultimately it will not be controlled. “We must learn to work with the river instead of against it.” This means recognizing the river as a complex, self-regulating system, and seeking to restore as much of its integrity as possible. At the same time, she says, “We have to anticipate the worst, and design systems that work well in failure.”

River restoration is a critical and growing field. Reconnecting the river and floodplains will help to reduce flooding. Even the Corps has begun to integrate conservation biology principles. But the field also needs more coordination and will have to evolve as our understanding of climate change and river ecosystems deepens.

Learning to work with the natural systems will also inevitably force significant tradeoffs. Along the Mississippi, agriculture and urban centers have expanded in conjunction with the channelization of the river. Reintegration of natural buffer areas will place constraints on the location of development along the river. Commercial traffic on inland waterways will also have to adapt. But this is a long-term process of necessary rethinking and restoration.

Ultimately, this restoration involves shifting the focus from “floods” to “flooding.” As Ana Barros suggests, we will have to learn to respect the river. We can also reacquaint ourselves with and embrace the pattern of the river:

Rivers pulse in reflection of the seasons. When there is snowmelt and during rainy seasons, the total volume of water in the river increases.  As water in the river channel rises, islands and riverbanks that are usually exposed are submerged. Increased levels of water scour the land it flows over and increases the amount of sediment carried with the current.  The process is reversed in the dry season. Land that was submerged is exposed, less water and slower current allow particles to settle out of the water and be deposited on the riverbed itself. Year after year this cycle is repeated.

Thanks to @River_Restore, @NEMWIUpperMiss, @DDimick, @troutheadwaters