Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading Signs--or Not

A species in transition ... hiring "forest people" for an ecotourism experiment ... the Ogallala aquifer running out of water: These are stories that appeared in the news in September. They are accounts from different parts of the world, seemingly unrelated, and yet are connected in important ways.

They are stories that have a lot to do with our ability to think critically as well as our willingness to conceive of something else. These are also tales about making choices--or not making them.

Paleontologists in Ethiopia believe they may have discovered a 3.3 million-year-old fossil of a child, estimated to be about 3 years old when she died. The child is a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species.

What is of possible major significance is that the scientists think that this child represents a "species in transition." The lower limbs are similar to early humans, but the upper limbs are more like a gorilla. Iron Age religious tales seem to pale in comparison when we consider the marvelous possibility of where we humans may have evolved. The scientists named the fossil Selam. The word means "peace" in the Amharic language.

Now try to imagine--not the beginning of the Neolithic Era--some 10,000 years ago, but the origins of our species Homo sapien, 100,000 years ago--200,000 years ago? And now go back one million years, two million years....

Attempts at ecotourism in third world countries have often been controversial. Who actually benefits? Do the flora and fauna thrive? Does the fact that rich first-world residents paying a lot of money to visit the "natural" world actually benefit indigenous people and the wildlife, and not just some corrupt elite running the country?

In one of the poorest parts of the world in central Africa, where life expectancy does not reach 40, three countries, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Congo Republic are establishing one gigantic national preserve larger than the state of Rhode Island. The World Wildlife Fund is guiding its development. The local Bayaka Pygmies have been hired as trackers and guides. The goal is sustainable development that can benefit the people that live in the area over a long period of time, as well as protect rare and endangered species like the western lowland gorilla. Now go back one million years, two million years...

The natural Ogallala aquifer in Western Kansas is getting low on water. This is part of the United States called the "Wheat Belt," in a country that has been the breadbasket of the world. But energy is getting more and more expensive, and so is water.

Wheat was the crop that was planted, in the perfect location, when the homesteaders first arrived in the 1860s. It thrived in the hot central plains on little water. But over the past twenty or thirty years farmers have moved to corn and soybeans, used primarily for such things as animal feed and high fructose syrups. There was money to be made; unfortunately, corn and soybeans need twice the amount of water as wheat--but the Japanese and others developed a taste for American beef.

What choices will ultimately be made? At what point will the choices be limited? How well will we conceive of something else? Imagine a dry aquifer in Western Kansas. What was it like one million years ago, two million years....

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yedoma is Here

Have you heard of yedoma? Outside of those folks that study ice cores and worry about melting permafrost (the fragile layer of frozen soil found in arctic and some subarctic regions) on this planet, most of us would likely have no reason to know anything about it. It is, however, a subject we may want to acquire some basic knowledge about.

In the course of coming up with some ideas for a piece I have to submit in a couple of weeks to the Kansas City Star, I read a couple of articles regarding a study published in the journal Nature, and a European-sponsored project regarding Antarctic "ice coring."

It seems that scientists have been able to get sample ice cores that go back some 800,000 years. Air bubbles trapped within these "cores" can tell scientists the amount of greenhouse gas concentrations over nearly a million-year period. The long and short of it is that carbon dioxide levels are a good deal higher than at any time in 800,000 years.

Possibly even more worrisome is that the increasing melting of the permafrost, especially in Siberia, an area covering some 10 million square kilometers, is not only releasing more CO2 but also Methane. Methane is an especially nasty "greenhouse gas." While methane disperses faster than carbon dioxide, some 10 years versus 100 years for CO2, it is about 23 times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2.

Methane is being released from the permafrost much, much faster than expected. Greenhouse gases and rising temperatures are connected and self-perpetuating: more greenhouse gases mean more melting, leading to increasing amounts of green house gases, and so forth.

Yedoma is a type of permafrost located primarily in parts of Siberia, and mostly lies under lakes. What is of interest here is that the melting permafrost releases methane, whereas under dry permafrost carbon dioxide is released.

In the United States, within two months, Americans will again have another opportunity to break out of their own carefully constructed insane asylum. We will have a chance to change the makeup of the U.S. Congress. Global warming is happening now, and we Americans have another possibility of demonstrating we're not a country of total ignoramuses.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Cows, Corn, and Melting Ice

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture claim that the world's grain harvest, for a second year in a row, will not be able to meet worldwide consumption needs.

Professor John Holden, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said recently that climate change is happening a lot faster than predicted. So what, if anything, might this all mean?

The short answer is we don't know for certain. The longer-term answer is we don't know ... for certain. But only fools would act as though nothing has changed or that some very bad things are unlikely to occur. In conclusion, a great many fools inhabit the planet and a great many governments are run by fools.

The remarkable increase in world grain and food production that has occurred over the past 40 or 50 years has begun to slow down. For one, there are more mouths to feed. In 1950 the world's population was less than 3 billion people. Today we have more than twice that number. More people have meant less farmland under cultivation because the land is being used for human habitation.

Perhaps the vegetarians have had it right all along. It seems that as the standard-of-living has risen in many countries, meat consumption has increased. A lot of those slaughtered animals are fed grain. Perhaps a third of the world's grain harvest goes directly to feeding the animals we eat.

A relatively new problem has arisen in our attempt to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The primary reason for the interest in the need to reduce global warming gases as well as the distinct possibility that "black gold" could be a lot less plentiful and cheap. Biofuels is one of the many alternatives.

The potential problem, however, is that a biofuel, like ethanol--sometimes made from corn--and plentiful in the United States, will not be exported to feed primarily poor people overseas, but will be used instead to fuel our vehicles. In a country like the U.S. where there is no genuine energy-conservation-environmental policy, the consequences could be disastrous for grain supplies worldwide.

The potential monster in the room is of course climate change. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods, and desertification could cause global disruptions on a scale we humans can barely envision.

Increasing fuel efficiency standard and establishing authentic conservation policies in the developed world are important. Spending time and money to help people in the developing world grow food in ways that do not harm the environment are worth the effort. But until we believe collectively that a disaster may be inching toward us, and the developed countries find leaders that can both think and imagine, our choices will "drip" away every day.