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Posts Tagged ‘climate

“Round and round they went with their snakes, snakily”*…

 

Python

 

If pythons are the snake that ate the Everglades, the apocryphal legend of their takeover begins with an appropriately cinematic opening scene. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into the state, killing 65 people and leveling thousands of homes, as well as—so the story goes—a Burmese python breeding facility.

The reality of their introduction to the area may be less exciting. “The scientific thinking, I believe, is that they were probably animals that were discarded by pet owners deep down into the Everglades,” said Steve Johnson, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.

The population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is impossible to measure with much accuracy. Since the first reported sighting of one in the wild in Florida in 1979, their numbers have exploded. Estimates from the USGS indicate there could be tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of them in South Florida. Regardless of their actual population size, their impact is clear: pythons have decimated biodiversity in the area. The hungry snakes will consume almost any animal in their path. They seize their prey using sharp, rear-facing fangs that are long enough to pierce a hunter’s arm. Then the snake coils around its victim, constricting the animal until it’s dead. Some hunters, to protect their lower legs from bites, wear camouflage-patterned snake gaiters, light armor that’s similar to shin guards worn by soccer players. But most go without, preferring intuition and quick reflexes over adding another layer of clothing to sweat through in the muggy glades.

To stem the tide of invasive species from the exotic-pet trade, the FWC holds amnesty days that allow pet owners to surrender animals to the agency without penalty. Although most pets that get released into the glades don’t survive, some outlier species like the Burmese python become established in their new ecosystems.

In this case, “established” sounds like an understatement. Pythons have taken over. Everything else has become prey. Since 2003, rabbit populations have disappeared from USGS study areas. Foxes, raccoons, possums, bobcats, and other species are all but gone. Pythons devoured the mammals and have moved on to birds, other reptiles, and possibly fish. The snakes can bring down animals as large as deer—which can either struggle and tear themselves away or become dinner—and even alligators.

Scientists have long suspected that pythons were consuming whole populations of small mammals in the Everglades and have made efforts at estimating the impacts. But exact population counts are impossible in such a vast wilderness. In a 2015 study led by Robert McCleery at the University of Florida, researchers translocated marsh rabbits into an area of the Everglades inhabited by a large number of pythons. At first the rabbits survived. Then temperatures began to rise, and with the warming weather, pythons slithered out of hiding and began to feast. In one year, they had eaten 77 percent of the rabbits…

Pythons are devouring native animal life in the unique ecosystem of South Florida. To help solve the problem, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials have turned to amateur and professional hunters to round up the reptiles in a wild competition called the Python Bowl: “The Misunderstood Python Hunters Saving the Everglades.”

* Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

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As we ruminate on reptiles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780 that a combination of thick smoke, fog, and heavy cloud cover caused so complete a darkness to fall on Eastern Canada and the New England area of the United States that candles were needed at noon.  The drear, known as “New England’s Dark Day,” did not disburse until the following evening.

Dark-Day-Full-Image source

 

Written by LW

May 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some apelike creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term ‘man’ ought to be used”*…

 

fingerbone

Homo sapiens finger bone, dating back some 86,000 years, found at a site called Al Wusta in Saudi Arabia

 

Darwin turns out to right about the difficulty of dating the emergence of man, not only for the reason he intended (that our emergence from prior species was so gradual as to be indetectable as an “event”) but also because it’s turning out to be difficult to date the earliest examples we can agree are “man” and to figure out when they reached the places they settled…

The Nefud Desert is a desolate area of orange and yellow sand dunes. It covers approximately 25,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula. But tens of thousands of years ago, this area was a lush land of lakes, with a climate that may have been kinder to human life.

On a January afternoon in 2016, an international team of archaeologists and paleontologists was studying the surface of one ancient lake bed at a site called Al Wusta in the Nefud’s landscape of sand and gravel. Their eyes were peeled for fossils, bits of stone tools, and any other signs that might remain from the region’s once-verdant past.

Suddenly, Iyad Zalmout, a paleontologist working for the Saudi Geological Survey, spotted what looked like a bone. With small picks and brushes, he and his colleagues removed the find from the ground.

We knew it [was] important,” Zalmout recalled in an email. It was the first direct evidence of any large primate or hominid life in the area. In 2018, lab tests revealed that this specimen was a finger bone from an anatomically modern human who would have lived at least 86,000 years ago.

Prior to this Al Wusta discovery, evidence in the form of stone tools had suggested some human presence in the Nefud between 55,000 and 125,000 years ago. To anthropologists, “human” and “hominin” can mean any of a number of species closely related to our own. The finger bone was the oldest Homo sapiens find in the region.

The bone’s dating contradicts a well-established narrative in the scientific community. Findings, particularly from the area of modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, known as the Levant region, have led to the understanding that H. sapiens first made their way out of Africa no earlier than 120,000 years ago, likely migrating north along the Mediterranean coast. These people settled in the Levant and their descendants—or those from a subsequent early human migration out of Africa—traveled into Europe tens of thousands of years later.

Only later, that story goes, did they journey into parts of Asia, such as Saudi Arabia. By some estimates, then, anatomically modern humans would not have been in what is now Al Wusta until about 50,000 years ago.

The fingerbone, then, adds a twist to the tale of how and when our species left the African continent and, with many starts and stops, populated much of the rest of the earth. A new crop of discoveries, particularly from Asia, suggest that modern humans first left Africa some 200,000 years ago, taking multiple different routes…

Politics, geography, and tradition have long focused archaeological attention on the evolution of Homo sapiens in Europe and Africa. Now, new research is challenging old ideas by showing that early human migrations unfolded across Asia far earlier than previously known: “Will Asia Rewrite Human History?

* Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

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As we return to roots, we might spare a thought for Jean-Léon-François Tricart; he died on this date in 2003.  A physical geographer and climatic geomorphologist known for his extensive regional studies in numerous countries of Africa.

Tricart was a pioneer in many fields of physical geography including the study of a phenomenon central to the migration of early Homo Sapiens, the major dynamic role of climate in landscape evolution.

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 4.41.59 PM source

 

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education”*…

 

pre-human

 

One of the creepier conclusions drawn by scientists studying the Anthropocene—the proposed epoch of Earth’s geologic history in which humankind’s activities dominate the globe—is how closely today’s industrially induced climate change resembles conditions seen in past periods of rapid temperature rise.

“These ‘hyperthermals,’ the thermal-maximum events of prehistory, are the genesis of this research,” says Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Whether the warming was caused by humans or by natural forces, the fingerprints—the chemical signals and tracers that give evidence of what happened then—look very similar.”

The canonical example of a hyperthermal is the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 200,000-year period that occurred some 55.5 million years ago when global average temperatures rose by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). Schmidt has pondered the PETM for his entire career, and it was on his mind one day in his office last year when the University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank paid him a visit.

Frank was there to discuss the idea of studying global warming from an “astrobiological perspective”—that is, investigating whether the rise of an alien industrial civilization on an exoplanet might necessarily trigger climate changes similar to those we see during Earth’s own Anthropocene. But almost before Frank could describe how one might search for the climatic effects of industrial “exocivilizations” on newly discovered planets, Schmidt caught him up short with a surprising question: “How do you know we’re the only time there’s been a civilization on our own planet?”

Frank considered a moment before responding with a question of his own: “Could we even tell if there had been an industrial civilization [long before this one]?”

Their subsequent attempt to address both questions has yielded a provocative paper on the possibility Earth might have spawned more than one technological society during its 4.5-billion-year history. And if indeed some such culture arose on Earth in the murky depths of geologic time, how might scientists today discern signs of that incredible development? Or, as the paper put it: “If an industrial civilization had existed on Earth many millions of years prior to our own era, what traces would it have left and would they be detectable today?”…

The entire fascinating piece at “Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?

* H. G. Wells

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As we ponder predecessors, we might recall hat it was on this date in 1974 that Nature published a paper by F. Sherwood Rowland documenting his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (like freon in aerosols and refrigeration units) contribute to ozone depletion.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

September 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Not taking risks one doesn’t understand is often the best form of risk management”*…

 

climate and risk

 

Jerry Taylor is the CEO of the Niskanen Center.  A veteran of conservative and libertarian think tanks (including the infamous ALEC) who spent much of his career working to thwart climate change mitigation moves, he has had a change of heart…

I spent the better part of my professional life (1991-2014) working at a libertarian think tank—the Cato Institute—arguing against climate action. As Cato’s director of Natural Resource Studies (and later, as a senior fellow and eventually vice president), I maintained that, while climate change was real, the impacts would likely prove rather modest and that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would greatly exceed the benefits.

I changed my mind about that, however, because (among other things) I changed my mind about risk management.

If we think about climate risks in the same fashion we think about risks in other contexts, we should most certainly hedge—and hedge aggressively—by removing fossil fuels from the economy as quickly as possible.

Let me explain…

And so he does, at “What Changed My Mind About Climate Change?

* Raghuram G. Rajan

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As we struggle to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date (as nearly as scholars can mark it), that the first long-distance electric power transmission line in the United States was completed: 14 miles between a generator at Willamette Falls and downtown Portland, Oregon.  While the distance seems trivial today, the feat was considered a major engineering accomplishment in its time.

transmission

An illustration of the Willamette power station and transmission line painted by one of its engineers

source

 

Written by LW

June 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliche before it has even been understood”*…

 

iceage

 

Once upon a time in Europe, the winters got very very cold and the summers got unbearably hot. “The spring of this year was like winter, cold and wet, the wine blossom terrible, and the harvest bad,” wrote the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger in 1570.

Initially, this seemed like a temporary problem, just one bad year. So across the continent, cultivators shrugged off their poor harvests, and vintners sold wine made of sour grapes which consumers drank angrily as they contemplated rising grain prices.

But the extreme weather continued, season after season after season, until abnormal became the new normal. As William Shakespeare put it in the 1593 play Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

In his book Nature’s Mutiny, German journalist Philipp Blom posits that Shakespeare wrote those words as a literal description of the string of difficult winters he’d just endured. This period of extreme weather, which would continue for more than 100 years, is now known as the “Little Ice Age,” and Blom argues that if we look back at its effects in Europe—where they were best documented—we’ll better understand how we got to where we are today and anticipate what’s ahead as climate change increasingly affects our lives…

Lots of cautions– with an optimistic kicker– at: “What the 17th century’s “Little Ice Age” teaches us about climate change.”

* Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

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As we bundle up, we might send absolutist birthday greetings to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; he was born on this date in 1588.  A father of political philosophy and political science, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid– all this, though Hobbes was, on rational grounds, a champion of absolutism for the sovereign.  It was that, Hobbes reasoned, or the bloody chaos of a “war of all against all.”  His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.

 source

 

“Some people call it global warming; some people call it climate change. What is the difference?”*…

 

The Battle of Terheide.

Climate change has had, and probably will have, very unequal consequences for different groups of people. We often assume that developed societies will fare better in a warmer future than the developing world. Yet the Dutch thrived in the 17th century not simply because their republic was rich, but because much of its wealth derived from activities that benefited from climate change.

Today, we can learn from the republic by strengthening social safety nets, investing in technologies that exploit or reduce climate change, and thinking proactively about how we will adapt to the planet of our future. It just so happens that much of the federal government in the United States is abandoning these policies, but there are more optimistic stories at the state and municipal levels, and there is exciting news coming out of China and India…

Compared to the climate change we’re experiencing now, the Little Ice Age — which chilled the globe from the 13th to the 19th century — was modest. “The world has already warmed more, relative to mid-20th-century temperature averages, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age,” says Dagomar Degroot, a historian at Georgetown University. “And there is much more warming to come.”

In his new book, “The Frigid Golden Age,” Degroot argues that the Little Ice Age– and more specifically, the Dutch experience of the period–  has a lot to teach present-day societies about coping with climate change.  He summarizes his findings at: “When the World Was Cold.”

* Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and political consultant

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As we beat the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955, at General Motors cars how in Detroit, that G. M. engineer William G. Cobb unveiled the “Sunmobile”– a 15-inch prototype of an electric car powered by the sun, the first working solar-powered car.

Sunmobile_detail source

 

Written by LW

August 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Men argue. Nature acts.”*…

 

Scientists have converged on climate change predictions that a growing majority of Americans accept.  Still, it can be hard to understand– at a visceral level– what a warming globe might mean.  Here’s some help: a clever tool from Greg Schivley, a civil and environmental engineering PhD. student at Carnegie Mellon University (with help from Ben Noll; inspired by Sophie Lewis).  Enter some key birth dates to project how the climate will have changed from your grandma’s birth to when your kids retire.  The chart’s temperature changes are based on NASA’s historical and projected climate scenarios.

Climate change and life events

* Voltaire

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As we sweat it out, we might send temperate birthday greetings to Sir William Napier Shaw; he was born on this date in 1854.  A meteorologist and member of the Royal Society, he developed the tephigram, a diagram of temperature changes still commonly used in weather analysis and forecasting.

 source

 

Written by LW

March 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

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