Life Support

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

“It was not insects that drew Lister to the Luquillo rainforest for the first time in the mid-1970s. “I was interested in competition among the anoles lizards,” he said. “They’re the most diverse group of vertebrates in the world and even by that time had become a paradigm for ecology and evolutionary studies.”

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“The forest immediately captivated Lister, a lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in the US. “It was and still is the most beautiful forest I have ever been in. It’s almost enchanted. There’s the lush verdant forest and cascading waterfalls, and along the roadsides there are carpets of multicoloured flowers. It’s a phantasmagoric landscape.”

“It was important to measure insect numbers, as these are the lizards’ main food, but at the time he thought nothing more of it. Returning to the national park decades later, however, the difference was startling.

“One of the things I noticed in the forest was a lack of butterflies,” he said. “They used to be all along the roadside, especially after the rain stopped, hundreds upon hundreds of them. But we couldn’t see one butterfly.”

“Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

“As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.”

Text: Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’, The Guardian.

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“Everywhere was beauty…”

“We were determined to hike as much of the park as possible despite the rising temperatures. In a flat, sandy area surrounded by tall trees, we began to unload our gear. Sweat poured down our faces and backs as we pitched our tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, which stuck to our skin in the heat. A hundred meters from camp, we found a water pump and used it to fill our glass bottles. By mid-afternoon, we had set out on a steep 1.5-mile trail to Beech Cliff, an edifice that looms over Echo Lake. The sun singed our skin, but ferns and birches and pines danced in a light breeze all around us. Everywhere was beauty.

“As we climbed, I listened for the birds. I knew from our guidebooks that many of Maine’s forest birds stop singing in late summer, but this was a peak migration period for shorebirds, and Acadia—a slip of land surrounded by ocean—falls directly in their path. The books brimmed with photos of gulls and loons filling the sky and dotting the shoreline. But on the trail, I heard nothing. I squinted toward Somes Sound in the distance, hoping to see the gulls as tiny white specks in the fjard, but saw only water.

“Where were the birds? The rodents? Even the bugs? As a child, I was terrified by loud noises. But here, with two hands on a boulder and my feet sinking into hot, dark peat, it was the profound silence that filled me with dread…

[…]

“An hour into the hike, the trail grew more vertical and less distinct from the rest of the forest floor. Vines and thick roots crossed the path, making it difficult to find our footing. The air was dense with heat; I could feel it pulsing in rhythm with my heart.

“At the trail’s halfway point, we paused to catch our breaths and drink from our water bottles. The trees were still quiet—so quiet that we could hear human voices traveling up the cliff from the lake below. Then, suddenly, a bird call. A single gull appeared overhead, its belly a white flame against the blue sky. It circled above as if watching us, before disappearing from view. We waited for others to follow, but none came. Instead, more silence; more stillness. There would be no “snowstorm” of gulls that day…”

Text: Amy Brady, Encountering Beauty and the Effects of Climate Change in Acadia National Park, Catapult.

Pic: Max Ernst, page from “Oedipus (Oedipe), Volume IV,” from A Week of Kindness or the Seven Capital Elements (“Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept éléments capitaux,” 1933–34)

A True Alliance of Man and Nature

“A huge manmade mountain measuring 420 meters long, 270 meters wide, 38 meters high and elliptical in shape was planted with eleven thousand trees by eleven thousand people from all over the world at the Pinziö gravel pits near Ylöjärvi, Finland, as part of a massive earthwork and land reclamation project by environmental artist Agnes Denes. The project was officially announced by the Finnish government at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on Earth Environment Day, June 5, 1992, as Finland’s contribution to help alleviate the world’s ecological stress. Sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program and the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, Tree Mountain is protected land to be maintained for four centuries, eventually creating a virgin forest. The trees are planted in an intricate mathematical pattern derived from a combination of the golden section and the pineapple/sunflower system designed by the artist. Even though infinitely more complex, it is reminiscent of ancient earth patterns.

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“Tree Mountain is the largest monument on earth that is international in scope, unparalleled in duration, and not dedicated to the human ego, but to benefit future generations with a meaningful legacy. People who planted the trees received certificates acknowledging them as custodians of the trees. The certificate is an inheritable document valid for twenty or more generations in the future – the first such document involving the future in human history. The project is innovative nationally and worldwide—the first such document in human history. This is the very first time in Finland and among the first ones in the world when an artist restores environmental damage with ecological art planned for this and future generations.

“Tree Mountain, conceived in 1982, affirms humanity’s commitment to the future well being of ecological, social and cultural life on the planet. It is designed to unite the human intellect with the majesty of nature. Tree Mountain was dedicated in June, 1996 by the President of Finland, other heads of state, and people from everywhere.”

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“The development of Tree Mountain took 14 years from the original design concept in 1982, to its commissioning by the Finnish government at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992— to its completion in 1996 in middle Finland. A mountain needed to be built to design specifications, which by itself took over four years and was the restitution work of a mine that had destroyed the land through resource extraction. The process of bioremediation restores the land from resource extraction use to one in harmony with nature, in this case, the creation of a virgin forest. The planting of trees holds the land from erosion, enhances oxygen production and provides home for wildlife. This takes time and it is one of the reasons why Tree Mountain must remain undisturbed for centuries. The certificate the planters received are numbered and reach 400 years into the future as it takes that long for the ecosystem to establish itself. It is an inheritable document that connects the eleven thousand planters and their descendents reaching into millions, connected by their trees. This family is the original green generation, the term that became so popular recently in people’s terminology. This family from around the world are proud custodians of the trees that bear their names and grow through the centuries to a lush manmade virgin forest. Tree Mountain is a collaborative work, from its intricate landscaping and forestry to the funding and contractual agreements for its strange, unheard-of land-use of four centuries. The collaboration expands as eleven thousand people come together to plant the trees that bear their names and remain their property through succeeding generations. The trees can change ownership—people can leave their tree to their heirs, or transfer it by other means, even be buried under it—but Tree Mountain itself can never be owned or sold, nor can the trees be moved from the forest. The trees are made by nature, the mathematical positioning created by the human intellect to form a true alliance of man and nature.”

Text & Pics: Agnes Denes Studio

Surface Trawls

“Publication of the garbage patch study coincided with a new report from Britain, Foresight Future of the Sea, that found plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050 unless a “major response” is mounted to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. The report declared plastic pollution to be one of the main environmental threats to the seas, along with sea-level rise and warming oceans.

“The study included two aerial surveys in October of 2016 that took 7,000 images, and 652 ocean surface trawls conducted in July, August, and September of 2015 by 18 vessels.

“The surface trawls also filled in the rest of the story.

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“Fifty plastic items collected had a readable production date: One from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s, and one from 2010. Researchers also found 386 objects with recognizable words or sentences in nine different languages.

“The writing on a third of the objects was Japanese and another third was Chinese. The country of production was readable on 41 objects, showing they were manufactured in 12 different nations.

“The study also concluded that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” Others are not as confident that the conclusion indicates a dramatic change in distribution of marine debris. Much of the world’s marine debris is believed to lie in the coastal regions, not in the middle of oceans.

“Leonard says he was impressed with the scope of the study. “It’s strong science,” he says. “But at the same time, in this field, the harder we look, the more plastic we find.”

Text: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is, National Geographic

No known historical precedent

It’s an event researchers say has “no known historical precedent” and it is still unfolding.

In the six years since a massive tsunami struck Japan, at least 289 species of animals have travelled to the US on huge rafts of pollution.

Thousands of non-native marine crustaceans, fish, molluscs and anemones continue to land on the US west coast on rafts of plastic, fibreglass and other debris that was washed out to sea in 2011.

According to a paper describing the phenomenon, published today in the journal Science, as many as 65 per cent of the species are not native to US waters.

Study co-author Professor Jim Carlton from Williams College in Massachusetts fears if any are able to colonise, there could be devastating consequences.

“The immediate concerns are the potential economic and environmental impacts of any given invasion, like the North Pacific sea star in Australia,” he said.

Objects ranging from barges and fishing vessels to plastic bags and buoys were washed out to sea in a “massive debris field” during the 2011 tsunami.

This deluge of flotsam was then sucked into the Pacific trash vortex — a gyre of circulating marine rubbish that brushes the coast of Japan and circulates clockwise around the North Pacific Ocean.

Each spring, as offshore currents pushing off the US coast ease, “spring pulses” of trash wash ashore on the west coast.

The scientists say it is unclear yet whether any animals arriving on the rafts have been able to successfully colonise.

“We are in the establishment window. The lag time between their arriving and becoming established and detected can be a while,” Professor Carlton said.

The paper’s authors make the case that massive coastal development and climate change are converging to completely reshape the way species are dispersed around the globe.

“If we advance the climate change models that argue that hurricanes and typhoons and other storms will be increasing in frequency and size, then we enter an era in the 21st century where larger and more frequent storms are for the first time interfacing with the densest populations and infrastructure that we’ve ever had on [our] coastlines,” Professor Carlton said.

Professor Steven Chown from Monash University says the research will, “change our view of the world”.

“Their research is amazing in actually documenting this pulse event, and then demonstrating that we might have to expect more such large-scale events given the huge increase in infrastructure globally along with, of course, increasingly extreme weather events,” he said.

Text: Nick Kalvert, Tsunami ‘mega-rafts’ of debris ship hundreds of animal species from Japan to US, ABC News

Cartesian Rigour

“…In order to feed, maintain and entertain ever-growing cities, the countryside is becoming a colossal back-of-house, organised with relentless Cartesian rigour. That system, not always pleasant, is proliferating on an unprecedented scale. The resulting transformation is radical and ubiquitous, and manifests itself in different ways around the world.

“In America, for example, a zone runs through the middle of the country where satellite information has a direct impact on agriculture. Deep knowledge of every square inch of the earth is transmitted to the laptop of the farmer. The laptop is the new ground. From the laptop, the farmer feeds the data to a robotised tractor. Each season, an armada of sophisticated harvesters so big and expensive that they need to be shared and work 24 hours a day, operates almost like a military campaign, moving slowly from south to north as the temperature increases to create a linear tabula rasa, dividing America in two halves.

“Russia offers a different example. With the embrace of the market economy, only a fraction of Aeroflot’s once-extensive network of air routes remains. Cities that were once connected are now condemned to return to the 19th century and have to find new purposes. The results surprised. Sometimes it has led to an increased sense of serenity: making the best of an involuntary off-grid condition, a proliferation of museums, where every provincial knick-knack is valued. Superimposed on all this is the impact of global warming: melting permafrost in the north, destroying structures and infrastructure, with new territories becoming suitable for agriculture and shifting a large area of farming to the north.

“Other examples of the countryside’s transformation range from the opportunities in Germany to channel refugees to revive moribund, half-abandoned regions to the impact of Chinese railways that transform the heart of Africa. Then there are the sweeping effects of grand political redesign, not just under dictators such as Stalin and Mao but also under the European Union’s common agricultural policy. In short, for better or worse (often both) the countryside has been completely involved in modernisation, on a global scale.”

Text: Rem Koolhaas, The Future is in the Countryside. The New Statesman.

Pic: Disney Epcot Center, concept art.

Creatures, human or otherwise

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“Craters are not just vestiges of war. They are geographic testaments to the anthropogenic force of bombs. Research shows that when a bomb bursts, it alters long-term soil formation, vegetation growth, and hydrology. It also affects how people use the land in the future. It’s a phenomenon so disruptive that it has given rise to a new field of science with an evocative name: bombturbation.

“Simply put, bombturbation is the cratering of a land surface and “mixing the soil with an explosive device,” says Joseph P. Hupy, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the father of the field. The device can be an aerial bomb, a propelled explosive, or an “in situ” bomb such as a landmine.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons: surface vegetation and organic matter over topsoil, subsoil, parent material (partly weathered rock), and bedrock. A bomb blast shatters those horizons. It releases forceful energy that creates a supersonic shock wave, penetrating soil and rock, setting sediment in motion, and ejecting materials at high speed. A crater forms — its shape and dimensions dependent on the type and strength of the explosion, and the ground where it occurs. Explosions at or below the surface typically result in craters surrounded by a rim of ejected debris. Bedrock is often exposed in the bottom.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons. A bomb blast shatters those horizons.

“Each crater is unique, and its future depends on its environment. Over time, leaves and forest litter accumulate in the crater (if they are there), and water percolates through (or not). Organic matter seeps into the underlying bedrock, and microbes flourish (or not). Regardless of local conditions, the crater fosters a new soil environment that would not have evolved otherwise. Different plants take root. Runoff patterns shift. Creatures — human or otherwise — adapt to that new landscape in different ways. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s changed — and that’s critical.”

Text: Karen J. Coates, Bombscapes: Of War and Earth, Undark