Archive for the ‘calamities’ Category

frontispiece.jpgI really didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that while complaining about outdoor magazines I’ve also been reading perhaps the great book about a group of men going somewhere and either nearly dying or actually dying. It’s The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was the youngest officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous trip to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913.

By “worst journey,” Cherry doesn’t even mean the journey to the pole on which Scott and four others died. That journey was in the summer. The previous winter, Cherry and two others had made a 130-mile round trip journey in total darkness to study emperor penguins incubating their eggs. They did it wearing dogskin mittens and dragging 275 pounds apiece on sleds. Their sleeping bags (reindeer hide) weighed 12 pounds when they were dry, which was never.

They drank hot water cooked over seal blubber before bed so their feet could thaw their sleeping bags enough to get into them. They welcomed the occasional blizzards, because they were warm: minus 25 F instead of minus 70. They made around two miles per day.

Anyway, knowing that you Scribble readers are industrious sorts, you may not have time to digest the entire 600 pages. But if your work week is getting you down, perhaps reading the occasional Cherry-picked passage will help you survive until Thursday. Here’s something that seems appropriate for the illustration.

I wish I could take you on to the great Ice Barrier some calm evening when the sun is just dipping in the middle of the night and show you the autumn tints on Ross Island. A last look round before turning in, a good day’s march behind, enough fine fat pemmican inside you to make you happy, the homely smell of tobacco from the tent, a pleasant sense of soft fur and the deep sleep to come. And all the softest colours God has made are in the snow…. How peaceful and dignified it all is.

Or, there’s this from a night at minus 70:

There was one halt when we just lay on our backs and gazed up into the sky, where, so the others said, there was blazing the most wonderful aurora they had ever seen…. most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green and orange…. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold.

Read along here.

Illustration: Edward Wilson, expedition head scientist and leader of the Winter Journey. Eight months later, he died in Scott’s tent on his way back from the pole.

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griffon.jpgMore than 100 griffon vultures glided into Belgium this week, some 600 miles north of their breeding grounds in Spain. Taking up residence in an old field, the pack spent the next few days glowering at assorted birders and gawkers. A few got fed up and took off for Holland. On Tuesday, some Belgian environmentalists stopped by with some pig carcasses so the griffons could fuel up for their return flight. And just like that, they left.

The interesting part about the story – above and beyond the simple thrill it must have been to watch a band of feathered Hell’s Angels drop out of the sky unannounced – is the reason being tossed around for the birds’ strange behavior. People think the vultures are starving, getting desperate, and embarking on long flights looking for food.

It’s quite possible. Ever since mad cow disease scared people in 2002, the E.U. has forbidden farmers from leaving dead cattle out on their land to rot. There seems to be little evidence that’s done anything to reduce mad cow disease, but it has made for some very hungry vultures. In addition to kick-starting this vulturine road trip (think Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider), about 100 griffons near Burgos, northern Spain, assembled themselves into a posse last month and took down a perfectly healthy cow and her calf. Yikes.

It sure sounds like a good explanation – perhaps that’s why it crops up in every one of the handful of news reports on the story. And I’m all for vulture survival. But let’s at least wave the scientific method in its general direction. Apparently the E.U. says they’ve given Spanish farmers special dispensation to leave carcasses out, but few farmers actually do. And anyway, why would vultures fly northward, farther into the E.U., to find a meal?

I know, I know, vultures can’t be expected to keep up with politics, but north puts them out of the limits of their historical range, and there probably is some reason why they weren’t in northern Europe already. For an animal that has some degree of latitudinal awareness when it chooses a place to live, it seems a strange time to begin ignoring it.

I think what’s interesting here is not whether the mad-cow carcass ban actually causes vulture rampages. It’s that the hypothesis is attractive enough that it can bypass the scientific process and crop up in the news more or less as fact. (Spiegel Online, the first link in this post, does offer the E.U.’s alternative explanation, but much lower down in the story.) News space is tight, and a couple of shorter articles mentioned only the mad-cow explanation.  Read a couple of these articles in a row, and you (think you) know all you need to know about mad cows, carcasses and vulture conservation. Sound familiar?

(It seems almost unbelievable that there are no videos yet of the birds on YouTube. Perhaps I just don’t know how to search for “Brussels vultures” in Flemish, Dutch or French. I did at least learn that a “Brussels griffon” is a kind of small yappy dog that certain people like to dress up and feature in movies.)

Image: by Rev. Francis Orphen Morris, 1891, via birdcheck

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Video Gnarliness

Santa Cruz has been humming this week under the combined magic of a big northwest and a big south swell. Some of those same northwest waves marched in on Oahu’s north shore, where the videocameras were perfectly positioned.

A big, orderly swell chugging calmly ashore can fool many an onlooker into underestimating its difficulty. This video is a good mix of rides that make it look much too easy and rides that betray a sense of the kind of trouble you can get yourself into. In between the sweet, full-rail carves that seem to have been drawn by an architect, you’ve got broken boards; people disappearing into the lip, traceable only by their board; a guy inside a tube that munches another surfer, sending one spinning around the other.

We’ve all scraped sand out of our ears after an afternoon body-flopping in front of 2-foot waves breaking in waist-deep water. These waves are eight times the size (roughly 64 times the volume), breaking in the same water depth. For scale, keep in mind those boards are at least seven feet long.

Best moment: about halfway through a boogie boarder goes for a launch off the lip and succeeds beyond his wildest dreams (that’s him above, upside down, partially obscured by the mist). Floating like Jordan, he finally lands, flat on his stomach and still headed down the line.

But beyond all this gnarliness and thrill-seeking is the real marvelousness of this video: the rolling waves that look like sculptures, the breeze delicately riffling their faces, the walls glinting in the tropical afternoon, the patient ranks of set waves closing in from outside, and the sidebar on it all, a flotilla of surfers just trying to stay out of the way of the worst of it.

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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Nicaraguan grackle stamp

Two curious episodes of mass bird deaths are bewildering authorities and the public in Austin, Texas, and in Western Australia. In Austin on Monday, about 60 dead pigeons, sparrows, and grackles (pictured) looked sufficiently creepy for police to cordon off 10 downtown blocks. The best guess for the cause of death so far is poisoning by some fool harboring a serious grudge and/or poop-splattered vehicle.

Then, the very next day came news of 4,000 birds dropping dead in and around the Western Australia town of Esperance. Circumstances seemed similar to Austin – no apparent natural cause of death and no infections – although the birds involved sound considerably cooler: yellow-throated miners and two kinds of honeyeaters.

The coincidental timing has left people wondering if some common agent is at work. Beyond the likelihood that both groups of birds were poisoned by some moronic prankster (a la the Happy Mondays in Twenty-Four Hour Party People) – the answer is probably no. Sure, the poison could occur naturally, which would let moronic pranksters off the hook (i.e., avian botulism regularly kills water birds in stagnant waters like the Salton Sea). But as a quick-thinking Australian official pointed out, Esperance’s dead birds eat mainly insects and nectar, not aquatic plants. Austin’s city birds are even less likely to sip tainted pond water.

What I like about this raging debate is how it depends on the incredible information flow at our fingertips. In what other age would someone in Santa Cruz, California, stumble across separate reports of grackles and honeyeaters going toes-up on literally opposite sides of the globe?

Our age of connectivity is especially splendid for folks who naturally find connections beguiling. The Austin American-Statesman reports people hazarding explanations ranging from fermented berries to blinding skyscraper reflections to carbon monoxide.

But that’s the small stuff. Check out the Liberty Press, which actually has an interesting interview with an Australian official but then goes straight off the deep end in the Comments section. Apparently, all it would take to pick off these birds would be

a space based satellite weapon capable of transmitting microwave power in the order of mega watts in a narrow or broad beam, and playing into the 20,000 foot thick barium loaded “air” or “aerosol bank” we now all breathe.

or maybe

the aerosol spray that is coming out of these black program jets at high altitude which everyone is calling “chem trails”. That substance is “hydrostatic”, meaning that is absorbs water. If the birds got too much of that they might have died of dehydration.

working out the first possibility, it does sound reasonable, sort of

But if we had such a weapon (and I suppose now that the air will carry power over the free electron tracks provided by all the barium, private individuals might go to work developing such weapons) I can see that they might include a method for adjusting the intensity of the power, as well as the focal point.

and as if you need any further proof

What do I know? Not much. Neither does any other American because SO MUCH MONEY IS BEING SPENT SECRETLY.

Want a prediction? I bet the regular news doesn’t carry this story to any extent, and I predict that the “cause” will never be found.

For what it’s worth, a rather less complicated solution – the poisoning angle – is outlined and some actual poisons proposed here.

P.S. Unrelated advice (imagine conspiratorial whisper if you like): for those of you who think this blog is either too pelagic or not birdy enough, check out the Web’s first blogging nuthatch here. Be sure to check out the YouTube link: a kingfisher thwacking a giant fish against a bridge while trying to figure out how to swallow it.

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How the world got wet

deep impact hits tempel 1

Those big oceans out there. Where did they come from?

This is a question that had never crossed my mind before. I mean much of the time I take the water that comes out of my tap for granted. I had certainly never wondered any farther up the supply chain than a groundwater aquifer. But recently I ran into a comet scientist and Trekkie named Karen Meech who set me straight on a few misconceptions.

It’s actually a bit of a puzzle, Meech said, because during the time that the Earth was forming, roughly 5 billion years ago, it was too hot for water to exist as a liquid. And as a gas it was unlikely to respond to Earth’s gravitational tug. Cosmologists have actually calculated the solar system’s “snow line” during its early life – apparently you had to head out to the asteroid belt before you could find any water.

So how did Earth end up with vastly more water than any other planet in the solar system? (Witness Mars’s feeble attempts to keep up.) Meech thinks most of it arrived when either asteroids or comets slammed into the planet early in its life. She and others in her field have even measured hydrogen isotope ratios in comets to see whether they match ocean water. The trouble with that approach is it’s hard to build your sample size. That’s one reason NASA sent up Deep Impact to pitch a fastball at comet Tempel 1, to read the spectral signature of the comet’s ice (watch a cartoon of it here).

Sci-fi novels aside, Meech says, water is probably a prerequisite for life – or advanced life, at least – on other planets. Liquids are great places for life, much better than solids at transporting nutrients and food yet without the unfortunate tendency to waft away that gases have. And water, thanks to those dear old hydrogen bonds, has a far greater temperature range at which it is liquid than other naturally occurring compounds.

This leads Meech to think that as long as we’re looking for life in other solar systems, we might want to look for ones with a belt of asteroids and comets, to boost the chances that that world is wet like ours. Of course, that assumes our water did come from comets or icy asteroids, and the jury is still out on that. It reconvenes at the Bioastronomy 2007 conference in July, in Puerto Rico. Mark your calendars.

(Thanks to NASA for an actual, real-life picture of Deep Impact smacking into Tempel 1. The yellow arrow is to aid the lay person in deducing the location of the strike.)

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Polarstern icebreaker

On Thanksgiving Day, 47 scientists set off on a two-month voyage to explore uncharted seas.

No ship’s hull has ever parted the waters they’re headed to. That’s because until a few years ago the 3,000-square-kilometer region was underneath the Larsen B ice shelf just east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

It may have been 2005 and Hurricane Katrina that etched climate change into public consciousness, but for many scientists the first clear casualty of global warming came in 2002 with the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf. (Watch the time-lapse satellite imagery here. A 200-m-thick chunk of ice the size of 1.4 Luxembourgs vanishes in about 90 days.)

Always on the lookout for silver linings, scientists realized that what the collapse left behind was unstudied water and uncharted seafloor. Or “unchartered” as the Cousteau Society website unfortunately wrote – please people, remember your copyeditors.

So they mounted an expedition to kick off the International Polar Year and contribute to the Census of Antarctic Marine Life. Aboard the Polarstern, a double-hulled ship that can chew through ice at temperatures of 50 below, the 47 scientists are planning 25 research projects.

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, which owns the Polarstern (and supplied the image above), is hosting live questions to researchers once they get to the scene of the collapse, next week. Track the ship’s progress on the Alfred Wegener Institute website. It has a constantly updated position map and weather reports every 3 hours (i.e., at lunchtime, it was cloudy and raining. They had seen their first icebergs at 9 in the morning.)

So jot down your Antarctic questions here…and I’ll pass them on to the bottom of the world. Till then tread lightly.

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rabbit courtesy roadsideamerica.com

The World Wildlife Fund warns that a population explosion of rabbits is threatening a remote Australian island’s seabird populations. That’s right, rabbits. We Americans think of them as cute, harmless long-eared friends that occasionally lay chocolate eggs or hybridize with antelopes. But in That Other Hemisphere, they are threatening a 4-million-strong seabird colony using little more than those sinister buck teeth.

Seal hunters introduced rabbits to Macquarie Island around 1880 (presumably because they were tired of eating seal). By 1960, scientists were calling rabbit grazing “catastrophic” in the Journal of Ecology and warning that if left unchecked, the rabbits could chew their way to major landslides. That’s because the dominant grasses had roots strong enough to collect several feet of peaty soil and hold it in place on steep slopes. Once those roots died, the scientists warned, the soil would slip.

Rabbit numbers had reached about 10,000 by the 1980s, and there was nowhere to go but up. Macquarie reached the 100,000-rabbits mark in recent years. And now, the World Wildlife Fund and Reuters report, the land has started to slip – 20 slides in the last month. Right down onto the nests of thousands of breeding albatrosses, petrels, and royal penguins, not to mention about 100,000 momma and baby seals.

The Australians are suitably concerned — one researcher has called for a $10 million rabbit-riddance campaign (large vacuum cleaner, perhaps?). But it’s interesting that even in the 1960 article, the authors noted that once the grass dies and slips begin, they will be hard to stop.

It’s a familiar arc – a population starts small on an idyllic patch of ground, uses God-given gifts (in this case, excellent nibbling skills) to get ahead, slowly goes from thriving to burgeoning, and eats up all its surroundings. At which point the island falls in on itself, chucking the rabbits into the cold Southern Ocean along with most of the other species that live alongside it. Sound like anyone you know?

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alaska with oystercatcher

The sun periodically vomits superheated plasma at us, knocking down satellites and peppering airline passengers with gamma rays they didn’t order.

On the whole, perhaps it’s better just to stay on Earth, especially since now we don’t have to worry about bird flu anymore. Or so we hear from Korea, where scientists fed kimchee to 13 flu-stricken chickens…and 11 of them got better!

Here at surf.bird.scribble, we’re not above bending a news opportunity into a four-way shout-out: For giving us solar radiation to think about, Mike Carlowicz. For supplying yet another reason to eat kimchee at breakfast, those discerning fashion geeks at Inkycircus. For checking the way I spelled kimchee, my amazing girlfriend, Mea Cook. And to take our minds off space radiation and bird flu while we enjoy our spiced cabbage, the crisp Alaskan photography of Charles Eldermire.

Thanks guys! Back soon with more news…

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ox-eye daisyThe world needs scientists to save it from awful diseases. And the scientists need science writers (and possibly Jackie Chan) to tell the world what the scientists have been up to. But what good is even the best writing about the best science if your generation is devoid of copyeditors?

It’s especially crucial as science gets more complicated and the discoveries get more and more outlandish. I mean, my attention was certainly grabbed by this headline from politics.co.uk: Wildflowers used to monitor avian flu

Wow! My mind starts whirling with the possibilities. Of course! Why didn’t I think of it sooner! There must be some sort of viral RNA binding site on the pollen of some kind of English daisy. As the flu-stricken ducks pour into Britain this fall, shedding virus left and right, the daisy-bound pollen naturally would pick up some flu RNA. Then, with regular monitoring involving pointing some kind of sophisticated molecular laser imaging device at roadside wildflowers, we could pinpoint the arrival of the dreaded virus without ever having to probe the nasal passages of a single migratory wildflow.

I mean wildfowl.


That’s right, what the Brits are really using to monitor avian flu is wildfowlers. Not insensate, technologically interrogated daisies at all, but rather large men in rubber boots who hide in marshes tooting on duck trumpets.

Once properly edited, the story makes rather more sense, although it doesn’t seem nearly so brilliant.

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