Postscript On Leaky

Over the decades, Leakey inspired countless scientists and activists through his books and talks. Photograph by William Campbell / Getty

We do not normally link to obituaries, but since I felt compelled to recently, this one seems a must also. Nearly two years ago we linked to a profile of Richard Leakey and the author of that profile has written a moving postscript:

On the night of January 2nd, I got a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, had been her mentor—a mercurial, controversial advocate for African wildlife, whose tumultuous career was central to Kenya’s history in the past half century. Continue reading

Species Discoveries Of 2021

Eurythenes atacamensis, a giant new crustacean endemic to the Peru-Chile ocean trench, identified by scientists in 2021. Photograph: Weston et al 2021

The work of species discovery continues, even as extinction continues unabated:

‘Hell herons’, metallic beetles, tiny shrimp – scientists have been busy describing unusual creatures despite Covid restrictions

Two newly described species of spinosaur dinosaurs discovered on the Isle of Wight, named ‘hell heron’ and ‘riverbank hunter’. Photograph: Anthony Hutchings

Six new dinosaurs, an Indian beetle named after Larry the cat, and dozens of crustaceans critical to the planet’s carbon cycle were among 552 new species identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum this year.

In 2021, researchers described previously unknown species across the tree of life, from a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs – nicknamed the “riverbank hunter” and “hell heron” – to five new snakes that include the Joseph’s racer, which was identified with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Continue reading

Bottled Green Revolution?

Not  sure whether this changes anything we read about yesterday, but at least for some it could be interesting to read about how this 80-Year-Old Man Hasn’t Watered This Sealed Bottle Garden Since 1972 And It’s Still Alive:

In a beautiful example of a closed but functional ecosystem, David Latimer has grown a garden sealed inside a giant glass bottle that he has only opened once since he started it almost 60 years ago.
Latimer planted the terrarium garden on Easter Sunday in 1960. He placed some compost and a quarter pint of water into a 10-gallon glass carboy and inserted a spiderwort sprout, which is not typically an indoor plant, using wires. Continue reading

A Second Green Revolution?

It is often said that the world now needs a Second Green Revolution. Illustration by Derrick Schultz

Elizabeth Kolbert continues exploring the potential costs and benefits of mankind’s attempted mastery over nature:

Creating a Better Leaf

Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?

This story begins about two billion years ago, when the world, if not young, exactly, was a lot more impressionable. The planet spun faster, so the sun rose every twenty-one hours. The earliest continents were forming—Arctica, for instance, which persists as bits and pieces of Siberia. Most of the globe was given over to oceans, and the oceans teemed with microbes. Continue reading

Global North, Global South & Responsibilities

Photo: Hannah Whitaker; Prop Styling: Marina Bevilacqua.

David Wallace-Wells has done it again. Devastated me with considerations I should have had on my own, but had not. And he makes it so vivid that once you see his point you cannot stop seeing it. Having lived in the Global South for a majority of my adult years, but having been born into and lived in the Global North for the first half of my life, this story resonates with me in ways I cannot quite describe. But the quote from Proverbs in yesterday’s post seems even more intensely relevant:

Climate Reparations

A trillion tons of carbon hangs in the air, put there by the world’s rich, an existential threat to its poor. Can we remove it?

I. What Is Owed

Brazil, 2019. Photo: Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos

The math is as simple as the moral claim. We know how much carbon has been emitted and by which countries, which means we know who is most responsible and who will suffer most and that they are not the same. We know that the burden imposed on the world’s poorest by its richest is gruesome, that it is growing, and that it represents a climate apartheid demanding reparation — or should know it. We know we can remove some of that carbon from the atmosphere and undo at least some of the damage. We know the cost of doing so using tools we have today. And we know that unless we use them, the problem will never go away. Continue reading

ICARDA, CGIAR & Future Food

Thanks to Helen Sullivan, as usual, for excellent reporting and clear implications:

A Syrian Seed Bank’s Fight to Survive

Scientists have raced to safeguard a newly precious resource: plants that can thrive in a changing climate.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as icarda, is housed in a cluster of small buildings on a dusty property in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Its facilities, surrounded by fields of experimental grain, include a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank—a storage facility in which tens of thousands of seeds have been carefully saved and catalogued.

When I first visited, on an autumn afternoon in 2019, staff members in the main building were counting, weighing, and sliding seeds into small packets. Continue reading

50 Years Of Climate Science

(Zeb Andrews / Getty)

Robinson Meyer’s newsletter this week offers The Key Insight That Defined 50 Years of Climate Science:

Look out the nearest window and imagine, if you can, an invisible column of air. It sits directly on the tufts of grass, penetrates clear through any clouds or birds above, and ends only at the black pitch of space. Now envision a puff of heat rising through this column, passing through all the layers of the atmosphere on its journey. What happens as it rises? Where does it go? The answer to that simple question is surprisingly, even ominously important for the climate. But for nearly a century, the world’s best scientists struggled to resolve it. Continue reading

Sometimes, The Sky Really Is Falling

The meteorite that crashed into Ruth Hamilton’s bedroom in Golden, British Columbia. Ruth Hamilton

Natural wonders have been a mainstay of our work on this platform since we started. We have tried diligently to mix those wonders with appropriate warnings about how nature’s wonders can also be transformed into danger, without being too Henny Penny about it. But when we read stories like this one, we can mix our wonder at the universe with our concern about what the sky might do next:

Meteorite Crashes Through Ceiling and Lands on Woman’s Bed

After a fireball streaked through the Canadian sky, Ruth Hamilton, of British Columbia, found a 2.8-pound rock the size of a large man’s fist near her pillow.

The meteorite in Ms. Hamilton’s bed and the hole in the ceiling caused by it. Ruth Hamilton

Ruth Hamilton was fast asleep in her home in British Columbia when she awoke to the sound of her dog barking, followed by “an explosion.” She jumped up and turned on the light, only to see a hole in the ceiling. Her clock said 11:35 p.m.

At first, Ms. Hamilton, 66, thought that a tree had fallen on her house. But, no, all the trees were there. She called 911 and, while on the phone with an operator, noticed a large charcoal gray object between her two floral pillows.

“Oh, my gosh,” she recalled telling the operator, “there’s a rock in my bed.”

A meteorite, she later learned. Continue reading

Barefoot In The Park A Long, Long Time Ago

The Economist brought this to our attention with a brief mention that An old lake bed reveals evidence of America’s first inhabitants – They walked there at least 23,000 years ago. We followed that up with a search on the topic that led to this further detail in the Cornell Chronicle:

David Bustos/Provided. Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands.

Earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas found

Provided. Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas and offer insight into life over 23,000 years ago.

The footprints were formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake that now forms part of Alkali Flat, a large playa at White Sands. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey dated these tracks using radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint horizons. The dates range in age and confirm human presence over at least two millennia with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago, Continue reading

How To Define Species

During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies. Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Protecting species from extinction has been a running theme in our pages over the years. Underlying these many stories was an assumption, at least on our part, that defining boundaries between species is settled science. We will no longer take that for granted:

Where Do Species Come From?

By studying crows, a German biologist has helped to solve a centuries-old mystery.

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs. Continue reading

Barred Owls & Other Bird Cam Wonders

If you enjoy this few minutes of video above, click the link below to see all the variety of bird cams that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has on tap:

2021 Barred Owl Season Highlights | Cornell Lab | Wild Birds Unlimited

184K subscribers
As winter fades each year, cam viewers anticipate the return of the Barred Owls to their springtime residence in Zionsville, Indiana. Activity at the nest box in late February signaled the owls’ preparations for the new breeding season. It wasn’t long before the female laid two pearly white eggs in the nest box in early March. Continue reading

Balancing Power On Climate

The main way to counter the malign power of vested interest is to meet organized money with organized people. Photograph by Nicole Neri / Bloomberg / Getty

For the entire run of his newsletter McKibben made this point over and over again, and now one final time from his unique platform at the New Yorker:

The Answer to Climate Change Is Organizing

Dealing with global warming is always going to be about the balance of power.

Amore personal note than usual this week, because this will be the last of these Climate Crisis columns I’ll write (though it’s not the end of my work for the magazine). I’m incredibly grateful to The New Yorker for letting me do them—and especially thankful for Virginia Cannon, who has edited them each week with grace and aplomb. Our run has overlapped almost perfectly with the course of the pandemic, and for me it’s been the perfect moment to sit back and appreciate and highlight the work of so many across the wide universe of activists, scientists, economists, and politicians who are taking on the deepest problem that humans have ever wandered into. I can’t overstate the comfort of that universe: it didn’t exist thirty-two years ago, when I started writing about climate change; its slow but inexorable rise has given me not just welcome company but real hope. I’ve particularly enjoyed “passing the mic” to many members of that gathering throng. Continue reading

The Largest Forest In The World

Virgin Komi Forest in the northern Ural Mountains in the Komi Republic, Russia. MARKUS MAUTHE / GREENPEACE

We have not posted many times on the vastness of Russia, and its various natural resources, but they are worthy of more attention. Thanks to Yale e360:

Will Russia’s Forests Be an Asset or an Obstacle in Climate Fight?

New research indicating Russia’s vast forests store more carbon than previously estimated would seem like good news. But scientists are concerned Russia will count this carbon uptake as an offset in its climate commitments, which would allow its emissions to continue unchecked. Continue reading

Really, Australia?

The Unesco world heritage committee’s decision on the Great Barrier Reef’s ‘in danger’ status is currently scheduled for 23 July. Photograph: James Cook University/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been a couple months since we asked anyone the fundamental question. Ok, we acknowledge our not being qualified to make the scientific judgement on whether the Great Barrier Reef is in sufficient danger to be listed as such, officially. But UNESCO has the qualified scientists, so let them do their job without undue influence. It sure seems likely to help the entire world to see how fossil-fueled climate change is impacting such natural wonders. It would raise consciousness in a way that might even be good for Australia–whose government obviously thinks otherwise. Hopefully UNESCO will stick to its principles and resist this lobbying. When oil-based economies come to lend a hand, watch out for conflict of interest:

‘Fossil fuel friends’: Saudi Arabia and Bahrain back Australia’s lobbying on Great Barrier Reef

Exclusive: oil rich nations back push against Unesco recommendation to have reef placed on world heritage ‘in danger’ list Continue reading

The Gulf Stream’s Weakening Arm

Again, exceptional infographics tell an important environmental story–it is worth opening if only for the quality of the interactive illustrations:

In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers

The warming atmosphere is causing an arm of the powerful Gulf Stream to weaken, some scientists fear.

By MOISES VELASQUEZ-MANOFF
and JEREMY WHITE

IT’S ONE OF THE MIGHTIEST RIVERS you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swaths of the world might look quite different. Continue reading

One Of The Most Mind-blowing Discoveries In The History Of 20th- And 21st-Century Ornithology

Whimbrel returning to Deveaux Bank for their night roost. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

We have not featured Deborah Cramer in our pages previously, but this seems like a fine time to start. She is a visiting scholar at M.I.T.’s Environmental Solutions Initiative and the author of the book to the right.  Accompanied by excellent photographs from Damon Winter as well as exceptionally lucid infographics, her interactive essay in the New York Times is a forceful plea for conservation of a sensitive bird habitat:

An Oystercatcher on the bank. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Leave This Wondrous Island to the Birds

An ever-changing spit of sand on the Carolina coast is a haven for multitudes of shorebirds. But nature and humans threaten it.

ABOUT 20 MILES south of Charleston, S.C., at the mouth of the North Edisto River, a small, horseshoe-shaped sandbar rises above the water. The claim of land is tenuous on Deveaux Bank, about a half-mile offshore. At high tide, it’s three-quarters submerged. Deveaux’s sand is continually shifting as swirling currents build it up and wash it away. In some years, the island disappears altogether. Continue reading

Botanical Migration

Ponderosa pine, now widely distributed in North America, were exceedingly rare during the last ice age. WOLFGANG KAEHLER / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Zach St. George for this:

As Climate Warms, a Rearrangement of World’s Plant Life Looms

Previous periods of rapid warming millions of years ago drastically altered plants and forests on Earth. Now, scientists see the beginnings of a more sudden, disruptive rearrangement of the world’s flora — a trend that will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions are not reined in. Continue reading

Do You Believe Coffee Has Health Benefits?

Short answer: yes. Explanations and caveats follow.

Coffee cherries that I harvested in January on the onetime coffee farm that we are rehabilitating. I am biased enough to enjoy the process of picking coffee, washing it and preparing it for planting.

I believe coffee has health benefits. Do I have them memorized? No. Do I fully understand the ones I can recall? No. But even with changing scientific findings over the years (e.g. findings from decades ago about coffee’s negative health effects were confounded by the fact that smoking and drinking coffee were highly correlated in study participants) I am inclined to listen to and trust findings from credentialed scientists.

A friend sent me the above video a couple of days ago, asking if I believe the contents. I just watched it. In six minutes a medical expert delivers more scientific findings than I could possibly digest. Upon first listening I am inclined to believe that coffee is better for me, in ways I had not been aware of, than I had previously considered.

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During the early days of the pandemic, staying in isolation, I experimented with hot-brewed and cold-brewed coffee trying to come up with a new way to enjoy it that would also boost my immune system

That said, I am also willing to believe that for every finding of the health benefits, there could be findings of health penalties that I simply have not come across. Or maybe I have willfully avoided coming across them.

I am inclined to bias on this topic for at least two reasons. First, because I enjoy drinking coffee as much or more than the average person. Stated less politely, I might be a coffee junkie. And related to that, maybe because of that, my primary entrepreneurial activity now is selling coffee. I try to keep my enthusiasm in check, and rarely reference the health benefits of coffee unless I feel I truly understand the scientific findings.

Gracia Lam

Just after watching the video my friend sent, I came across this, so will make a rare exception and recommend both these summaries of information about coffee’s health benefits. Jane Brody, the Personal Health columnist for the New York Times since 1976, recently reviewed decades of scientific findings, including plenty of overlap with the medical expert in the video above, and with this quick read you can judge for yourself:

Americans sure love their coffee. Even last spring when the pandemic shut down New York, nearly every neighborhood shop that sold takeout coffee managed to stay open, and I was amazed at how many people ventured forth to start their stay-at-home days with a favorite store-made brew. Continue reading

Seed-Saving & Science

The experiment is a multicentury attempt to figure out how long seeds can lie dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate. Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Cara Giaimo has a talent linking science and history, and this article demonstrates it as well as any we have linked to from her. Saving seeds is favorite topic in our pages, so this is in good company:

One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt

Every 20 years under the cover of darkness, scientists dig up seeds that were stashed 142 years ago beneath a college campus. Continue reading