Colder and cloudier summers in the Pacific Northwest?

August 4, 2011 at 8:30 am | In green, nature | 5 Comments

I came here for the weather. Seriously. East Coast winters (cold) and East Coast summers (Triple-H: hot hazy humid) drove me bonkers.

But global warming is making me feel a bit like Rick in Casablanca: misinformed.

Misinformed – you know, that great line where Louis asks Rick why he came to Casablanca, to which Rick replies, “for the waters.” When reminded that Casablanca is in the desert, Rick deadpans, “I was misinformed.” See the clip here:

Well, it seems global warming is going to teach all of us a lesson or two about being misinformed.

While we’re not getting that much hotter (at least not in my lifetime, it seems), extreme heat inland will cause a curious weather pattern over the ocean in our immediate vicinity: one of increased clouds and cold during our spring and summer months.

In other words, if you thought this year’s spring and summer (for the most part) have been cold and depressing, you’re absolutely right! They have.

And climatologists and weathermen have predicted it for years.

Earlier this week, KPLU, the NPR affiliate radio station in Seattle, ran this report: Seattle spring was the coldest, one of the cloudiest on record.

Listen here

Or read an extract:

Scientists have confirmed what many suspected about this year’s weather. It was the coldest spring on record for Washington and one of the cloudiest.

The average temperature for April, May and June was lower than any year since 1900, say University of Washington scientists. And the days were more cloudy than all but one year since those records began 60 years ago.

One of the weather scientists quoted is Cliff Mass, who adds, “the hotter it gets inland, the more we seem to get the sort of pattern that brings cooler air from the ocean into western Washington.” This is obviously exactly what we’re getting in British Columbia, and it seems to be happening to some extent further south as far as Northern California, too.

But get this: Cliff Mass was already telling us about this five years ago, when our spring and summers were still pretty sweet to gloat about to our Eastern brethren. Mass called it in a 2006 Seattle Times article: An even grayer Seattle from global warming?

For those harboring the guilty hope that global warming will transform Seattle into a sun lovers’ paradise on par with the Côte d’Azur, meteorologist Cliff Mass has some bad news: It might actually get cloudier.

Mass and his colleagues at the University of Washington recently completed the most detailed computer simulation ever conducted of the region’s future weather. Among the surprises was a big boost in cloud cover in March, April and May.

“The spring is going to be gunkier — if you believe this — under global warming,” he said.

Gunkier? Ohhh-kaaayyy… That’s a good way to describe it, I suppose.

What a gunkier "spring" looked like in Victoria British Columbia


In the article, Mass also predicts more heat spikes and problems relating to the water supplies (say what?, in Cascadia, land of rain and ice-pack? …Oh, wait… Ice-melt… Ice melts away…).

In other words, global warming is actually global weirding.

Overall, I’d say this part of the globe is not a bad place to be if you don’t want to die of heat in the summer. But the gloomy and cold spring (and summer up until just a week ago) wasn’t a lot of fun, either.

My money is on keeping an eye on Mass’s work, at any rate (I really like how he thinks in other areas, too). He’s taking climate modeling seriously, and clearly getting things right, as his 2006 predictions would indicate. The key is in the details, taking local terrain into account, as the Seattle Times article explained:

Earlier forecasts relied primarily on global climate models, which give a planetary view of the way temperatures will rise as global warming continues. But those models lack any detail about the mountains and inland waters that play such an important role in local weather.

So, using a global model as a starting point, Mass fine-tuned those projections with a high-resolution regional model that can distinguish topographical features down to a scale of a few miles.

“If you’re going to play the game around here, you’ve got to have the resolution to see local terrain,” he said.

Even with the university’s enormous data-processing capacity, it took two months of continuous computer runs to simulate each decade into the future. The researchers also factored in things such as changes in soil temperature, which can affect weather.

Fascinating article, props to the Seattle Times for having published it and keeping it available online.

Meanwhile, I find myself humming a line from an old Frank Sinatra song, The Lady is a Tramp: “…she’s broke but it’s ok …hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp …that’s why the lady is a tramp…”

We can sing that up here, too.

Ecothinking and Marx

June 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm | In canada, green, guerilla_politics, nature, politics, scandal, social_critique | Comments Off on Ecothinking and Marx

There’s a great video available on YouTube right now, A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never. Based on a 5/23 Washington Post op-ed by Bill McKibben of (and narrated and illustrated by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia), it sarcastically tells us that “It is vitally important not to make connections.”

Of course the intent is the opposite: McKibben does want us to make connections. These days, however, we’re often so bedazzled by spectacle (including disaster footage) as to feel powerless about the point of information that connects to anything else.

But if not connect now, when?

In the video we see extreme weather events, including recent tornadoes in the Midwest; wildfires in Texas and droughts in New Mexico; flooding in Mississippi, and record rainfall elsewhere. “Do not wonder if they’re somehow connected,” the narrator warns. Do not wonder…. because it’s imperative to have a passive populace, of course – one that’s transfixed by looking instead “at the news anchorman standing in his waders in the rising rivers as the water approaches his chest,” or similar “oh-wow”-human-interest angles.

It’s far too hard to look at facts, or to ask whether government policies (such as allowing more coal mining or exploiting Alberta’s tarsands) even begin to make sense when it comes to global welfare…

So how about some facts for the next time you get up off the couch and head to the fridge? According to The rising cost of food – get the data (published on June 7, 2011), global food prices this year are still 37% higher than they were last year. And there’s no relief in sight as “high and volatile food prices are also likely to prevail for the rest of the year, and into 2012.”

What’s driving this rise, which has propelled the food price index from 92 in January 2001 to 232.4 in May 2011? Theories abound, including ones around weather (too much and/or too little rain fall); a growing population (including a demand for meat in China); concentration of corporate control; and the use of food for biofuel.

But maybe the following angle, alluded to in The Guardian, reveals an aspect that vitally deserves to be connected to other facts and insights: As the article notes, there is a

massive influx of big investors into deregulated commodities markets – searching for a “safe bet” after the dotcom bubble burst – who speculate on the future price of food. On Sunday, a UN conference on trade and development said it may be necessary for governments to intervene with regulation to rein in rising food prices. The FAO adds that more must be done to improve transparency in global food markets. (source)

Ok, let’s take that “dot” and connect it to another approach, courtesy of Bob Burnett’s recent article, Roll Over, Karl Marx (June 10, 2011). When you start to think about climate change and weather disasters in conjunction with environmental despoliation and rising food prices, and plug some of that into a political analysis, you have to get politicized …which is probably very dangerous to our ruling class.

Ruling class? Why, what’s this? Class warfare?

Well, yes, it’s shaping up that way, isn’t it? Except, of course, for the lethargy of the key players…

Burnett summarizes Marx and marxist thought in broad strokes, from the Industrial Age to the later 20th century, when income inequality (Johnson Administration) lessened …before picking up again. By 2007, income inequality had reached a historic high. What’s up with that?

In the meantime, our more recent Great Recession has hugely exacerbated that imbalance while it’s also busily eviscerating the middle class – which of course leads to more polarization. Yet the populace remains docile, even in the face of environmental despoliation (which is causing disasters world-wide) and significant rises in the cost of living, particularly food prices.

Burnett addresses several factors Marx (who expected that any class under such pressure would revolt) could not have foreseen: multinational corporations; a corporate-controlled mainstream media that owns the airwaves and your eyeballs; a PR campaign that remade our perception of corporate strategy (convincing us that trickle-down economics actually work, for example), or that “markets are inherently self correcting and there is no need for government regulation.” Burnett notes, the “consequences were devastating to workers, the environment, and the American economy,” particularly as jobs went overseas while wages stagnated. Union power / collective bargaining rights were undermined or destroyed, and – most significantly – instead of being perturbed by this loss of real power, people became distracted with questions about fundamentalist religion and issues like abortion – both of which “ divert attention from poor wages and living conditions.”

It doesn’t help that the Democratic Party is (as Burnett puts it) “capitalism lite,” leaving the non-capitalist crowd without a champion in the political arena.

And yet we wonder why Obama has been so wishy-washy on the environment. Why we continue to rape the earth – frack it for all it’s worth, for example.

But of course, “It is vitally important not to make connections.”

You should not wonder

You should instead continue to be distracted by “human interest” stories and ridiculous debates about religion and abortion and other matters that keep people on a slow boil, instead of directing them to fix real problems.

Above all, remember how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fuel companies…

Relevant images (links included)


Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article




Despoliation of the environment, high finance, mountain top removal

December 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm | In green, land_use, nature, politics, resources, scandal | Comments Off on Despoliation of the environment, high finance, mountain top removal

Two articles that need your attention: one, in the Wall Street Journal, Trader Holds $3 Billion of Copper in London, which describes how some trader is sitting on 80-90% of circa 50% of the world’s exchange-registered copper stockpile, squirreled away in a London warehouse. We don’t think a lot about where those metals come from.

Which brings me to the second article, in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Obama-Effekt erreicht Bergbau und Banken. The article looks at the involvement of Swiss banks in financing companies like Massey Energy – companies engaged in environmental despoliation of a scale that’s hard to imagine. It’s called “mountain top removal”…



Watch iLoveMountains‘ video, above. Check out their website.

This is where (and how) we get our resources.

There’s got to be a better way.

Below, image of a landscape wrecked by copper mining, via Wall Street Journal article:

On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

August 7, 2010 at 11:49 pm | In cities, FOCUS_Magazine, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, nature, victoria | Comments Off on On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

Since I’m fuming in a conversation over on Facebook about the City of Victoria’s Department of Engineering (which seems to me benighted), I was reminded of my 2007 article, Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street (the link goes to the Scribd version).

Not to sound too much like I’m tooting my own horn, but that was such a good article, and such a great idea – and it was instantly shot down in a committee meeting of council without so much as a second thought by then-Director of Engineering Peter Sparanese, who told Councilor Pamela Madoff that the scheme floated by me in the above-linked article would be too expensive: as far as anyone could tell, he quoted a $12million price tag seemingly on the spot – amazing, how quickly that particular variation of a Class-C estimate materialized…

In the Director of Engineering’s mind, it was seemingly more expedient to build yet another paved road, …and that’s exactly what happened. And how did the Director get his way? By conjuring a figure that was 3 times more expensive ($12million) than what his conventional fix would cost ($4million). No one ever questioned him on how he came up with his numbers, and from what I’ve seen he has been given free rein ever since: “…Coun. Helen Hughes pointed out the last time the council looked at the project [to fix the View and Vancouver Street intersection] the cost was estimated at $1.55 million, less than half the $4,080,000 of the latest estimate.” (source) and let’s not forget how mercurial the Department of Engineering’s financial estimates regarding the Johnson Street Bridge refurbishment and/or replacement have been…

That this city has no imagination is something I’ve suspected ever since, and my suspicions have been proven again and again in every twist and turn regarding the Johnson Street Bridge fracas – where the only imagination shown is in quoting increasingly bizarre budgets for either option.

For the record, here’s my August 2007 article in full:

“Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street”

We know that regular exposure to nature is good for us, and yet we perfect designs that keep nature out, sometimes even erase our awareness of it. Protected from nature, we control and limit our exposure – we stay warm in winter, cool in summer, which affords us greater productivity and increases our comfort. Like most people, I’m happy to enjoy central heating and storm windows. But an over-armored life isn’t ideal, either. Think of dinosaurs or giant turtles next time your car has you imprisoned in a traffic jam or your office window won’t open because that would disturb the air-conditioning.

Today’s eco-conscious designers point out that excessive barriers to nature produce lowered quality of life as well as boring, mediocre built environments. But designing with nature, they argue, contributes to health, creates excitement, and even fosters love. Love of nature, termed biophilia by E.O. Wilson, refers to a deep-rooted need “to experience natural habitats and species.” Wilson’s colleague Stephen Kellert writes of biophilic design: a conscious bent to design access to nature into what we build in cities. It’s a mandate that can shape buildings, parks, …and streets.

Earlier this spring, the City asked for the public’s input at several Parks Masterplan workshops. Planners wanted to know how we use parks, and where we might create new ones. During one workshop, there was an electric moment when a participant suggested turning part of View Street into a linear park. She noted that traffic volume on Fort and Yates (both one-way arterials) is heavy, while it’s relatively light on View. While still allowing cars, the city could nonetheless create a linear park – which would function as a badly needed beautification project, too – and, she added, let’s incorporate exercise stations for seniors.

View crosses Vancouver Street, already blessed with an unparalleled canopy bestowed by majestic chestnut trees whose massive trunks suggest outdoor sculpture. Under the trees, wide grassy boulevards suggest to the many pedestrian commuters that here, indeed, is an urban park – or should be. The intersection of View and Vancouver is sinking, however, and presents a major engineering conundrum. But this problem could become an opportunity.

As we know from Jennifer Sutherst’s research (“Lost Streams of Victoria,” map, 2003), that intersection is built on what was a wetland fed by seasonal streams and rainwater run-off. The wetland in turn fed a stream that coursed along Pandora (accounting for Pandora’s odd bend, between Douglas and Government): the stream marked the boundary between Chinatown and “white” Victoria. It was treated badly even in the 19th-century (apparently turned into an open sewer), was soon contained, put underground, paved over. Its remnants still drain into the Inner Harbour.

Sutherst’s map shows the wetland directly at View and Vancouver. Today, its asphalted surface is impermeable, while drainage codes mandate that run-off from roads and neighbouring buildings diverts to storm sewers, versus flowing back into the marsh. Consequently, the now-hidden wetland is drying up, and as it dries, its layers of peat shrink and compress, causing the roadbed to sinks. To “fix” that problem, we’ve in-filled additional layers of asphalt, making the surface even heavier – and contributing to increased compression of the underlying stratum.

It’s in many ways a classic vicious circle, and a lesson in living peaceably with micro-ecosystems. In effect, by building yet another protective barrier between nature (the wetland) and us, we have also paralyzed the wetland’s hydrological functioning. If the land were a body, what would the wetland be? Perhaps kidneys, absorbing fluid, treating it, discharging it. By putting impermeable asphalt over that natural organ, we’ve desiccated it, and now it’ll cost a pretty penny in engineering surgery.

Since we have to throw money at it anyway, what if we did something truly innovative to that diseased organ? What if we practiced biophilic design to restore its ecological function – and gained a unique urban focal point in what could be a fabulous linear park project? Imagine, for example, an intersection with a permeable steel-grid “road-bed” suspended slightly over a daylighted wetland, the latter slowly restored to full hydrologic function. In the restoration field, daylighting typically refers to excavating and restoring a stream channel from an underground culvert, covering, or pipe. In the case of the View/Vancouver wetland, it would more appropriately refer to removing an impermeable surface, and planting appropriate vegetation that allows the wetland to resume its normal function as a water filter. Restored urban ecology also provides both an educational tool for stewardship and an aesthetic community amenity.

The art-technology-engineering challenge lies in marrying restoration with normal urban functioning: traffic (automotive and pedestrian) has to flow. But consider the value that could accrue for Victoria with a project like this. If Dockside Green, locally the symbolic heart for sustainable development, attracts worldwide attention, perhaps a brilliantly restored kidney could turn a few heads, too.

Serendipitous visual learning: forests and trees

July 21, 2010 at 11:03 pm | In education, nature, resources | Comments Off on Serendipitous visual learning: forests and trees

Amazing things crop up on the internet, sometimes found serendipitously – with nary a memory of how they were stumbled in the first place.

For example, I came across a useful page from British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests and Range, specifically the Forest Practices Branch: check out the Visual Landscape Design – Interactive Multimedia Training Access Page, where (if you give them your name, real or not) you will gain access to 22 online mini-lessons on visual design. It’s an excellent tutorial on how to design forest harvesting practices that leave the landscape looking good, rather than bad.

IOW, it’s about how to cut trees without making the landscape look like a cat’s breakfast. And while some tree-preservationists might blanch at the suggestion of making clear-cuts look pretty, it’s a heck of a better strategy than leaving them ugly. (That said, I’m not endorsing destructive clear-cutting, and I want to see old-growth forests protected absolutely, but this government-produced tutorial is gold – and its lessons are transferable to many design questions.)

Here’s what you get on the Visual Landscape Design – Interactive Multimedia Training Access Page. The following lessons (each just a couple of minutes long) make up the “interactive multimedia” section:

Section 1 Introduction
1.01 Landscape Design and Why it is important

Section 2 Design Concepts and Principles
2.01 Basic Elements
2.02 Variable Elements
2.03 Organizing Principles
2.04 Spatial Cues
2.05 Challenge Questions

Section 3 Landscape Character Analysis
3.01 Landform Analysis
3.01b Marvinas Bay Landform Analysis
3.02 Feature Analysis
3.02b Midway Feature Analysis

Section 4 Design Applications
4.01 Design of Harvest Units
4.01b Nootka Island Harvest Unit
4.02 Design of Edges
4.03 Silvicultural Systems
4.04 Complete Pattern of Shapes
4.05 Challenge Questions
4.06 Design of Foreground Areas
4.07 Special Design Considerations
4.08a Visual Rehabilitation Harvesting
4.08b Visual Rehabilitation Reclamation
4.09 Challenge Questions

Section 5 Integrated Visual Design
5.01 Integrated Visual Design
Closing Remarks

In addition, the page lets you access a PDF library for downloading; it includes the following titles:

Visual Landscape Design Training Manual (170 pages)
Bear Lake Integrated Visual Design Plan (42 pages)
Economic Benefits of Managing Forestry and Tourism at Nimmo Bay (A Public Perception Study and Economic Analysis) (67 pages)
Visually Effective Greenup in British Columbia (A Public Perception Study) (61 pages)
Clearcutting and Visual Quality (A Public Perception Study) (37 pages)
Visual Impacts of Partial Cutting (Summary Report) (62 pages)
Predicting the Visual Impacts of Retention Cutting (3 pages)

Some of the documents are dated (mid- to late-90s). Since I haven’t read them, I can’t guarantee that they’re untainted by industry bull and/or greenwash, but I appreciate that the docs are available: they provide insight into how Forestry is being handled in BC. As for the design tutorial: it’s definitely worth studying – I’m viewing the 3rd Section now, and what it has to teach looks very transferable.

Public spaces in lush lands

April 24, 2010 at 11:45 pm | In cities, land_use, nature, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

I live in a ridiculously lush part of the world, and I’m not talking about the Canadian propensity to drink alcoholic beverages. In Victoria BC, on southern Vancouver Island, it’s green year ’round. By February, people are mowing their lawns. By mid-summer, the climate turns nearly Mediterranean (after a winter and long spring of cool, wet weather), and then it gets very dry.

Around here, tucked between the Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Straits, however, we never get that still heat I associate with true Mediterranean weather. There’s always wind, unceasing wind. In late winter (around February, early March), the blossoms are blown off the trees and it looks like a pink blizzard. The rest of Canada has actual snow, we have petals.

Here’s a photo of Rockland Ave., heading east. I took this photo recently (April), the flowering trees are a later variety:


The strips of grass on the right are part of the city-owned boulevard. Note how green they are, as if they’re chemically treated and watered. They’re not. By summer they’ll be dormant, but right now they’re furiously green.

The hedges and shrubs bordering the private front yards on the left are bursting with new growth. Everywhere, new blossoms shoot forth, adding hues of purple, blue, pink, white.

What you’re seeing is just a slightly ramped-up version of what happens nearly year-round. Since it’s spring, nature is right now in hyper-mode, but aside from a summer dormancy of grass and other highly water-dependent plants, it’s just green green green green all year round.

There are plenty of neighborhoods in Victoria where the sidewalks look like this, and what “this” looks like is for all the world what many other places would call public green space. It’s certainly public (a boulevard), and it’s certainly green – both from the city-owned side (which includes grass and majestic trees) and the private border on the sidewalk’s other side.

Because we have so much of it (except maybe right downtown,  which has far fewer trees and plantings), I’m often horrified when new developments are required to include huge setbacks or large swathes of green (meaning: boring lawn and the ubiquitous rhododendrons).

If, on the other hand, you live in a place like the following (below), it probably makes sense to demand more open green space:


That’s a street in Brookline, Massachusetts (where I used to live) – a typical street, a jumble of different building types, not pretty, no sign of obvious thought given to how the buildings might fit together to create some kind of street wall (unlike other streets in Brookline or Boston, streets that are considered pretty). With the addition of that open lot and its dilapidated fence, you really can see how an urban area can convey 100% suckyness, and why people might live there just long enough to save enough money for a house in the suburbs.

This street is crying out for some kind of beautification through plantings – maybe a tiny, jewel-like pocket park? It’s also in need of overall repair: public street furniture, something pleasant to look at, perhaps an indication of a retail or commercial spot (cafe?), either there or very close by. This street needs something to tie it together, and a dose of nature would be a great start.

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, we’ve got nature coming out of our ears, yet new downtown developments are supposed to have lots of green-space, not to mention bigger sidewalks. Bigger sidewalks would be great, except the city comes along and puts grass along one side. Guess what happens during our soggy winters? The “grass” gets trampled and soon turns to shabby mud.


There are better ways to include nature, and better ways to create an urban street wall. But including some street furniture and a place for bike lock-ups is a start.

What I don’t understand, however, is a call for more open green space in our downtown. We need smart additions of greenery (not boulevard lawns that get trampled to mud in winter), and we need surprising, delightful pocket parks… that sort of thing. But not more of what anyone can find by taking a walk in the core neighborhoods.

Here’s an example of greenery that works downtown: clipped hornbeams, in planters whose edges act as bench seating, placed along the street like sentries:


Here, along Government Street in Victoria’s downtown, nature acts in concert with the buildings to create a street wall, in this case one that forms the outside wall (to the road), buffering the pedestrians on the sidewalk between trees and buildings.

Nature downtown should be different from what you find in the neighborhoods. Putting lawns of any sort (even small patches) downtown is idiotic. Without strong verticals, lawns and garden shrubs just bleed out from the center, destroying the necessary structure that a real street needs to have.

Figuring out religion in God’s Brain: great interview with Lionel Tiger

April 7, 2010 at 8:38 pm | In health, ideas, nature | Comments Off on Figuring out religion in God’s Brain: great interview with Lionel Tiger

One of the commenters on Maclean’s Interview with Lionel Tiger writes, “Gosh this is depressing. Believers, the delusional mob will continue to infect all cultures.”

I’m not so sure.

Seems to me that Lionel Tiger is on to something with his analysis of the religious impulse – or God’s Brain, as his book (with Michael McGuire) describes it. Tiger is an anthropologist (and prolific author), McGuire is a neuroscientist (who figured out the role of serotonin in the brain); together, they’ve come up with a theory of religion that makes sense to me (a full on skeptic and basic atheist).

Maclean’s interview with Lionel Tiger covers all the key questions to give the reader a good overview of what to expect from the book (which I haven’t read, but wouldn’t mind putting on my reading list).

One question in particular struck me, as I’ve been turned off by the religious undertone of some environmentalisms. The interviewer asks (on page 2), “Despite increasing secularization, especially in the West, most people have not become flat-out rationalists. Do you think that for many environmentalism is a religion?”

To which Tiger answers: “That’s absolutely right, and that’s interesting because it is finally the fruit of pantheism, a very, very old religious idea. For many people, not using more than four sheets of toilet paper is an act of moral purification.” [emphasis added]

To my mind, there’s a link in Tiger’s remark about the allowable number of toilet paper sheets to OCD and other neuroses that compel people to act in certain ways: something about the behavior soothes the brain. Unfortunately, that same impulse creates anxiety in mine, which is why some meetings with those who wish to save the earth make me want to run screaming from the room. I just don’t get it when it gets all …um, oceanic and communitarian.

That said, it’s not the case that hard-core atheism is much better, and Tiger’s work has stepped on toes in that camp, too. With regard to hard-core, sometimes you have to wonder if being benighted is like a two-sided coin. That is, one side is as dark as the other, and reduction to “black and white” just leaves everyone clueless.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?
A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this. (source)

The underlying fact of life is death, and that healthy people normally do not want to die. Heck, most of us have a hard enough time with growing old, since aging turns into a series of announcements about the final curtain call.

In more recent years, we’ve soothed ourselves with the idea that there are other planets out there and that we’re not alone. Now it turns out that the Earth may indeed be, if not unique, at least nearly unique in the sense that there’s nothing else quite like it within a gazillion light years around us. What a scary thought – and what a waste if we trash this planet.

Then we all die!

Oops, that was the original scary part – except now, it’s not just as an individual, or a clan, or even a species, …but cosmic. Like, totally cosmic.

No wonder religion is on the rise, even as we learn more and more that traditional religions are not to be trusted.

Tiger and McGuire offer a scientific and anthropological explanation that finally makes sense of the religious impulse, without flattening either those who believe in religion or those of us who question it. The drive to religion is powered by our basic dislike of death – death creates stress and anxiety for our brain, religion soothes it. Given the potential we have today for collective death (in war, in environmental disaster) – and therefore our potential for collective religious silliness – maybe God’s Brain can help us move toward more rational solutions. Failing that, we can just keep praying.

Keep flying…

September 22, 2007 at 10:17 pm | In authenticity, just_so, nature | 2 Comments

It’s busy around here, which is why posting to the blog is sparse (to put it kindly).

But the other day — really in passing, the way a bird might fly past the window, and the window is your life as you’re standing there and living it, except I was moving and the window was holding still, so I’m kinda wondering about what my life is up to if it’s not the window, and …oh, well never mind! — anyway, the other day I heard about a bird called the godwit (what’s in a name, you ask? …sometimes everything, perhaps?), a female godwit named (as it were) E7, which was electronically tagged and proven to have flown from New Zealand to Alaska, where it almost certainly hatched out some young during its 5 week “lay-over,” after which it took wing and flew non-stop, from Alaska, all the way back to New Zealand.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this just floors me. Brings me right down to earth. Clips my wings, in a manner of speaking.

We’re talking about a bird — read: relatively tiny creature — capable on its return trip of flying 11,500 km …non-stop. As in: without a single touch-down anywhere, without stopping for food or water, without skipping a single (wing)beat… For eight days straight. For eight days, this bird didn’t stop. It puts a whole new spin on the old “she eats like a bird” comment…

Here are quotes from a couple of articles on E7’s migration:

“The Bar-tailed Godwit is one example among hundreds of migratory bird species which undertake awe-inspiring journeys every year,” said Dr Vicky Jones, BirdLife’s Global Flyways Officer. “Migrant birds rely on chains of traditional stop-over sites at which they can re-fuel and rest before embarking on the next leg of their journey.”

What’s interesting is that this particular godwit didn’t use any stop-overs, so perhaps this one is an exceptional athlete. Whatever, it underscores the need for countries to cooperate, to make sure that stop-over sites are available and not degraded beyond use. Whether non-stop or with lay-overs, migration is amazing.

On the way from New Zealand to Alaska to breed, E7 did use a lay-over, but not on the return from Alaska to New Zealand:

Ecologist Phil Battley, of Massey University, told the New Zealand Herald the bird, known only as E7, first flew 10,200 km to the Yalu Jiang Nature reserve in China’s Yellow Sea where she spent five weeks refuelling before flying another 7,300 km to breeding grounds in Alaska.

He said she spent two months at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where she was almost certainly breeding, leaving about mid-July before going to mudflats on the edge of the Yukon Delta where she refuelled again, ‘getting nice and fat’ until the end of August.

Battley said her southward flight from Alaska to New Zealand was thought to be the longest non-stop migration of any bird.

‘She had the option to fly down to the Alaskan peninsula and take off from about 500 km further south but she didn’t do that,’ he said. ‘This indicates the long journey is not such a problem to her.’

E7 did all this without eating or drinking anything during the actual migration:

“We were pretty impressed when she did 10,200km on the way north,” says Massey University ecologist Phil Battley. “And the fact that she can now do 11,500km… it’s just so far up from what we used to believe 10 years ago when we were thinking a five or 6,000km flight was extremely long. Here we’ve doubled it,” adds the New Zealand coordinator of what is an international study.

For researchers, tracking the second leg of E7’s journey was a bonus – her implanted satellite tag kept working well past its expected cut-off date.

“If you’re trying to confirm how far birds fly and whether they are making stop-offs, it’s only now with the technology being small enough, you can do this remotely. Otherwise we’d still be using educated guess work,” Dr Battley says.

And that means the researchers now know that the godwits really are the champions of avian migration. Unlike seabirds, which feed and rest on their long journeys or swifts which feed in flight, the godwits make their long journeys without feeding or drinking.

It’s still a real mystery how E7’s young — and the young of all the other godwits who came to breed in Alaska this past summer — will manage to find their way to New Zealand once they’ve matured. Yes, like salmon, these comparatively tiny beings have to cross incredible distances to fulfil biological destiny, as it were, and like salmon, they do it without “parental” or “adult” supervision or guidance. So what is it that shows them the way? Electro-magnetic fields in the earth? Navigation by astral maps? Some homing signal you or I can’t hear, but they can?

This New Zealand newspaper editorial asks the question, too, and sums up by concluding that maybe the tiny godwit — by not yet revealing all its secrets — can take our hubris down a notch, too:

The study of that admirable bird is essential. First, because it is endangered. Over millennia the rich mudflats of predator-free New Zealand has offered an abundant sanctuary. Human habitation, with its cats, dogs and stoats, has taken its toll. We need to understand the bird to ensure it survives.

Second, if we unravel the secret that not only sends and guides the godwit back and forth but also sustains it on its epic flight, it may be to our own benefit: We may have much more to learn from the birds than flight technology.

And last, the study of the godwit gives wing to the imagination. The contemplation of the unknown or unknowable (part of us may wish the bird’s magic is never revealed) is a necessary antidote to earthbound life. That we are able to be confounded, humbled and inspired by a tiny bird that can do so much that we can’t, is worth appreciating for itself.

It’s kind of interesting to think that getting shifted from the centre of things by a small critter (a bird), we deconstruct hubris and reconstruct imagination. Just a bit, just enough for a slight leap into some perfectly working creature’s flightpath…

PS: On a related note, an article by the always terrific Jonah Lehrer, Eggheads: How bird brains are shaking up science, in the Boston Globe.

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