Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Springtime Reaches Aldborough

Sunday, April 10th, 2016
Dere Street, now Boroughbridge Road, With A Really Wide Verge

Boroughbridge Road Near Marton-cum-Grafton

10th April: today was the first day that really felt like spring in Aldborough – bright blue sky, no wind and a little warmth that seems to have enlivened everyone.

When I went out for my Sunday cycle and run, there were definitely more people out compared to the much poorer showing for most of the winter months.  Fellow cyclists, walkers, runners and cars – even about thirty cars squashed in the lane between Upper and Lower Dunsforth from the Yorkshire Searchers, a metal detecting club.

Birds seen: black birds, crows, dunnocks, linnets, magpie, sparrows (we’ve several living in our roof), woodpigeon, wrens  and the canary-yellow of a yellowhammer; no birds of prey, but have seen recently: kestrels, a red kite and a barn owl that tracked down the road by the hedgerow until it spotted and swooped onto a mouse or shrew, then flew off.  Sometimes, there are buzzards and a sparrowhawk.  Later, Sophie and I walked in the sunshine on the levées by the Ure, carpeted in golden flowers of lesser celandine and dandelion, and watched sand martins pirouetting in the sky above the river-bank by Ellenthorpe Hall.

Flood Defences By Ellenthorpe Hall

Celandine Flowers By River Ure By Aldborough

Spring must be here, finally; next, there will be swallows, but not yet.

Everywhere, you see rabbits nibbling at the grass verges or darting across country lanes.  A few weeks ago, a roe deer scampered out from copse between the A1M and the old Great North Road (now the A168), and sometimes there’s a flash of russet as a weasel scampers from one side of the road to the other.

With the lack of wind and because it was early, the soundscape was wonderful – the birdsong joyous along the hedgerows – with only the faintest hint of cars passing.  Even the long train of Yorkshire Searchers were quiet as they were stationery at the time.  A natural chorus of: chit-it chit-it, klep-toowit, oow-oooh, tiddle-iddle-lu-wi, trrrrrrrr, and who cooks for-you ohA lapwing heard, not seen, on Lower Dunsforth Common.

At the end of the day, May Day dancers practising on the Green.

Update on 17th April: I saw a couple of pioneer swallows whilst out cycling today.  The rest should come in the next few weeks.

How Do Global Warming, Greenhouse Gases And The Earth’s Orbit All Link Together?

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I’ve written a number of blogs now where I try to get to grips with some of the numbers underlying global warming.  So far, I agree that the historic figures do demonstrate global warming over the last 100+ years within a relatively wide band of possible growth rates, and that the evidence shows that the levels of carbon dioxide have increased since about 1950.  Furthermore, the science behind the link between carbon dioxide, methane and the greenhouse effect (and so global warming) is simple science that has been known for many years; in fact, global warming/the greenhouse effect is science that enables life on earth as without it our planet would have an inhospitable temperature closer to -18oC, i.e. it heats up the earth by about 33oC already to 15oC.

What interests me next is how have temperatures and greenhouse gases moved in the past? I will try and analyse this by looking at some neat science that analyses climate data over a longer period.  This will get to the nub of the issue, i.e. what is driving global warming, plus may answer my two current quandaries: (i) why isn’t global warming being driven exponentially by the very obvious and definite growth in CO2 per the Mauna Loa graphs? (ii) why do the predictive models of climate scientists suggest that we should be preparing for increases of 2 – 4oC for the next 100 years, while history shows global warming is more like 1oC over the last 100 or so years?

To work this out, some scientists look at what happened at the end of earlier ice ages as this hints at the mechanics of atmospheric and other climatic changes.  There are several pieces of research that suggest how temperature and greenhouse gases interact – one strand looks at climate data in stalagmites in caves in China and the other is a series of classic pieces of climate change science around ice core data from the Antarctic.  I’ll deal with the Antarctic first.

The first one is pretty neat.  It is based on the fact that when snow falls it traps air in small bubbles within its structure.  Then as more snow falls the next year, this new layer not only brings its own store of information about air quality, snowfall, temperature and levels of greenhouse gases, but it permanently seals off the information stored in the previous year’s snowfall.  Over time, we get left with an annual layering of data that goes back for ages and ages in the Antarctic, as well as in the Arctic especially on Greenland.  Scientists have now dug vertical small circular shafts into the ice and then, after chopping up these ice cores, have analysed the information from them – there’s a video on Youtube that shows you what the scientists do.  Data collated from other similar projects basically corroborates information found in this much earlier paper, which was published back in 1999 by Petit et al (detailed reference at end).

In essence, Petit et al were able to drill down 3,130m, covering 420,000 years and providing a climate record through four climate cycles.  They found that temperatures are constantly changing, but always within given maximum and minimum levels.  They found that when concentrations of greenhouse gases (specifically CO2 and CH4) in the atmosphere went up, global temperatures, also, went up and vice versa.  They concluded “[f]inally, CO2 and CH4 concentrations are strongly correlated with Antarctic temperatures; this is because, overall, our results support the idea that greenhouse gases have contributed significantly to glacial-interglacial change.  This correlation, together with the uniquely elevated concentrations of these gases today, is of relevance with respect to the continuing debate on the future of earth’s climate.” (Petit et al, 1999).

However, they also stated earlier that “[t]hese results suggest that the same sequence of climate forcing operated during each termination [of a glacial period]: orbital forcing (with a possible contribution of local insolation changes) followed by two strong amplifiers, greenhouse gases acting first, then deglaciation and ice-albedo feedback.” (Petit et al, 1999).  This suggests to me that greenhouse gases, the melting of the ice caps and the positive feedback caused by white ice turning to dark seas usually act as amplifiers of changes in temperatures caused by other factors such as changes in solar energy caused by changes to the earth’s orbit, which gets me back to one of my original quandaries – what is driving climate change and so what happens when you have the amplifiers without necessarily the increased temperatures resulting from either a more active sun or a change in the earth’s orbit?

The next paper I read was in New Scientist only a couple of weeks ago and is also pretty cool.  This work is trying to understand the end of glacial periods by analysing stalagmites in caves in China and interlink this with known changes in the shape of the earth’s orbit – now how amazing is that?  Since then, I have been reading the original scientific papers, hence the time delay in writing this blog.

Firstly, we need to start with the concept of Milankovitch’s theories on the earth’s orbits.  Milutin Milankovitch undertook detailed calculations on the earth’s three main orbital cycles.  So, for example, every 41,000 years the tilt of the earth’s axis increases and decreases, making summers hotter and colder respectively.  It’s summer temperatures that are important as this is what drives the potential for ice packs to melt over time, rather than winter temperatures which just create more ice.  So from 2.5 million years ago to about 1 million years ago the ice ages occurred based on these cycles.  However, around 1 million years ago to the end of the last ice age, glacial periods started occurring every 100,000ish years.  This links in potentially with another orbital cycle of 95,000 – 125,000 years, but here the science is less strong and debate still rages as to what is actually happenning. 

Liu et al have measured oxygen-18 in stalagmites in several caves in China.  Water containing oxygen-18 is heavier than normal oxygen-16 and so condenses more easily, so heavy monsoonal air loses much of its oxygen-18 as it moves inland and each year a record is left on the stalagmites.  As each glacial period ends, the summer monsoons became much weaker than normally and so the oxygen-18 levels in stalagmites increased.  Their evidence showed that monsoons failed in the last four glacial terminations, or as they write “[t]his climate pattern, broadly resembling other cave records from China, appears to correlate with multi-decadal to millennial changes in Greenland temperature and the general pattern of the wind-borne calcium ion record in the ice.”  In fact, work on a stalagmite from the Dongge Cave in China agrees exactly (within error) with the Vostok ice core records of Petit et al, showing methane rise in the atmosphere at 129,000BP.

Further work has shown that CO2 and CH4 levels increase at the same time as the ice packs at the poles decrease, suggesting that the reduction in ice is actually causing the rise in CO2 and CH4.  It is suggested that as the tilt of the earth’s axis changes this increases the temperature of the earth and the ice sheet over North America flows into the Antarctic, which interferes with and then stops the circulation of water around the oceans, which normally keeps the southern hemisphere warmer and the northern cooler (the so-called Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation).  As the southern seas warm up, CO2 is released into the atmosphere as CO2 is less soluble in warm water than cold and so further increasing the impact of the higher temperatures from the sun.  In effect, over the last 400,000 years, whenever the tilt of the earth’s axis reached a maximum, the intensity of sunshine increased (based on insolation in July at 60o north), CO2 levels increased to a maximum, relative sea levels also increased to maxima, all correlating with the strength of the Asian monsoon.

All of this comes from ice core data, analysis of stalagmites and other stores of climate data like coral reefs.  That in itself is amazing.  Then there is agreement in climate records going back many hundreds of thousands of years that correlate with each other across the world and using different techniques and types of ancient, geological record.

Finally, I would like briefly mention another set of amazing work by Zachos et al in the US which tries to get to grips with temperature and atmospheric gases in deeper time in the order of millions of years ago.  They have analysed various types of proxy data in deep sea cores of rocks to determine temperature and carbon in earth’s history and have tried to relate this to events in the geology of the earth and evolution, so developing a framework for the development of the earth’s climate over a much longer timescale.  What I like about these pieces of research is not just how clever they are, but also because Bjørn Lomborg uses them in a section trying to refute the science within climate change work in his book “Cool it – the skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming” – he has a tendency to misquote, or at least to quote out of context, as well as jumble up numbers and data to make his own points, which are often at odds with what the original scientists actually have stated.  Just like Nigel Lawson, Bjørn Lomborg has authority when it comes to economic and political discussions around climate change, but they sometimes get it wrong when they try and refute the science; most of their errors stem from two simple problems: (i) they don’t understand the scientific process; and (ii) they mistake/confuse weather for climate.  I will try and get back to Lomborg’s book “Cool It” some time and show how he shoots himself in the foot at times by blatantly altering the available research to suit his arguments.

The research by Zachos et al shows that carbon and temperature are correlated at least to about 34 million years ago at the edge of the Eocene and Oligocene Ages, which is when the Antarctic Ice-sheets became fairly permanent, and that there is correlation with the orbit of the earth around the sun even if the impact is sometimes relatively weak over millions of years.  Prior to then, getting clarity in the temperature and carbon dioxide levels gets ever harder and we find that the linkage between carbon levels and temperature is much less clear and even perhaps non-existent, however later research by Zachos et al indicates that this lack of correlation may not be as extreme as some researchers have indicated and is perhaps simply a result of lack of experimental data.  The other interesting occurrence is that whenever there has been a sudden change in temperature this has also been accompanied by a similarly sudden change in carbon; these occurred at 23, 34 and 55 million years ago.  Later research at the 34 million years ago tipping point suggests that carbon dioxide is a key factor in climate transition; Pagani et al (2005) showed that “[i]n detail, a trend toward lower CO2 concentrations during the middle to late Eocene, reaching levels at the E[ocene]/O[ligocene] boundary that could have triggered the rapid expansion of ice on east Antarctica; and work by Pearson et al (2009) indicates that there was a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide at 34 million years ago that triggered climate transition to an ice-house world and “[t]his study reaffirms the links between cryosphere development and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the largest and most important climatic tipping point of the last 65 million years.”

However, when you look at research into climate over such a long time period, you realise pretty quickly that long term climate progression is the sum of many different processes and that it is far more complex than any of the commentators and scientists would have everyone believe, plus that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

In overview, we know that the earth’s general temperature, hence climate, has gone up and down over time dependent on the earth’s tilt and orbital shape, i.e. effectively how close the earth gets to the sun during its orbit and so how much solar energy gets to the earth.  These changes in temperatures are then further affected by the earth’s environment, especially the levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the ice sheets and the ice-albedo effect.  In addition, climate gets impacted by a whole raft of other factors ranging from geological through to biological, which is a point that I will get back to in a later blog.

The science, therefore, does show that the basic greenhouse effect has impacted climate in the earth’s past and present and so will affect it in the future, but that it is not the only factor that impacts climate nor perhaps the most important climate factor over longer time periods.  Furthermore, while the research does indicate that sudden changes in carbon dioxide often occur with quick moves in climate, it doesn’t explain the consequences of these amplification or forcing impacts on our future climate, so that’s my next journey and is where I will need to start investigating the computer models devised by climate scientists to predict the climate in the future.

Before I go there, however, I would like to round off this section of my journey around global warming /climate change with a look at some of the other indicators of current global warming, such as sea levels and sea acidity just to round off the historical and current status of climate indicators.

References

Battersby, S. (2010) Meltdown: Why ice ages don’t last forever, New Scientist, issue 2761, 24 May 2010, Available on the Internet at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20627610.900-meltdown-why-ice-ages-dont-last-forever.html (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Kelly, M. J., Edwards, R.L., Cheng, H., Yuan, D., Cai, Y., Zhang, M., Lin, Y., An, Z. (2005) High resolution characterization of the Asian Monsoon between 146,000 and 99,000 B.P. from Dongge Cave, China and global correlation of events surrounding Termination II, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 236 (2006), 20 -38, Available from the Internet at http://www.sciencedirect.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6V6R-4JX38YR-1-R&_cdi=5821&_user=126980&_pii=S0031018206001301&_orig=search&_coverDate=06%2F23%2F2006&_sk=997639998&view=c&wchp=dGLzVlb-zSkzV&md5=a8ffdf76ab6ec0bde843ad331aeaa780&ie=/sdarticle.pdf (Accessed 2 June 2010)

Liu, D., Wang, Y., Cheng, H., Edwards, R.L., Kong, X., Wang, X., Hardt, B., Wu, J., Chen, S., Jiang, X., He, Y., Dong, J., Zhao, K. (2010) Sun-millennial variability of Asian monsoon intensity during the early MIS 3 and its analogue to the ice age terminations, Quaternary Science Reviews 29 2010, 1107 – 1115, Available on the Internet at http://www.sciencedirect.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6VBC-4YHSCPG-1-B&_cdi=5923&_user=126980&_pii=S0277379110000107&_orig=search&_coverDate=05%2F31%2F2010&_sk=999709990&view=c&wchp=dGLzVlz-zSkWb&md5=2e3a05cdb40b477b6a09872b4120f444&ie=/sdarticle.pdf (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Pagani, M., Zachos, J.C., Freeman, K.H., Tipple, B., Boahty, S. (2005) Marked Decline in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations During the Paleogene, Science 309, 600,  22 July 2005, Available on the Internet from www.sciencemag.org (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Pearson, P.N., Foster, G.L., Wade, B.S. (2009) Atmospheric carbon dioxide through the Eocene-Ologocene climate transition, Nature 461, 1110- 1114, 22 October 2009 Available on the Internet from www.nature.com (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Petit, J.R., Jouzel, J., Raynaud, D., Barkov, N.I., Barnola, J-M., Basile, I., Bender, M., Chappellaz, J., Davis, M., Delaygue, G., Delmotte, M., Kotlyakov, V.M., Legrand, M., Lipenkov, V.Y., Lorius, C., Pepin, L., Ritz, C., Saltzman, E., Stievenard, M. (1999) Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica, Nature, Vol 399, 3 June 1999, Available on the Internet from http://www.daycreek.com/dc/images/1999.pdf (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., Billups, K. (2001) Trends, Rhythms, and Aberrations in Global Climate 65 Ma to Present, Science 292, 686, 27 April 2001, Available on the Internet from www.sciencemag.org (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Ripon Water Walks – Along The Ure

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I mentioned in my first blog about walks in Ripon in North Yorkshire that I did not believe that Ripon had only been settled as a monastery in 650AD.  I believe this basic historical fact about Ripon’s history even less now after walking along the River Ure.  Firstly, wherever you walk along the Ure and also nearly everywhere you are in the Dallamires area south of the River Skell, you are watched over by the brooding presence of Ripon Cathedral.  It seems to be watching you, eyeing you up and saying: what are you doing, where are you going and are you sure you should really be doing that because I am watching you?  Secondly, Hewick Bridge by one of the markers that indicate the edge of the sanctuary of Ripon was an important bridge in the Roman times connecting a settlement near the bridge/river with Isurium Brigantium, the major Roman town that is now the ancient village of Aldborough.  There is no physical evidence just the circumstantial thoughts of someone who has walked the land and feels that this was just too good a location to ignore.

On Saturday 23rd May, which was a warm and sunny evening after a scorching day, I parked my car on Magdalen’s Road and started my walk along the footpath over North Bridge Green.  North Bridge Green is a floodplain for the River Ure that stretches from the north side of North Bridge and follows the south side of the River Ure as it arcs round from the Bridge to where it meets with the River Skell by Fisher Green.  It is public land that floods regularly and is a green swathe of grass, however it would be great if more trees were planted, which would allow the ground to hold more water when the river is in spate and would also give more woodland for local biodiversity to thrive.

It’s a gentle 30 minute walk along the edge of the river, which languidly flows towards the Skell.  The water had a peaty brown hue to it and looked temptingly cool on an evening like it was.  There are shingle beeches every so often that you can wander down to and watch the river flow past, look for fish, watch the ducks swimming and the insects swarming on the water.  There were some teenagers enjoying skimming stones across the water, but most were enjoying the delights of “Over the Rainbow – The Final”  or some other TV delight.

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Around half way around, the land rises to a small height where you can look across to Ripon Cathedral as it keeps an eye on you, before you slide back down to river height.  As you get closer to the meeting of the Rivers Ure and Skell, there’s an old bench hidden beneath bushes and covered in nettles, where once there must have been a lovely river view – a romantic sign of decay – while a newer bench by the meeting of the rivers has no seat and just the concrete base – a sign simply of neglect.  Once again, you can turnaround and see Ripon Cathedral checking up on you…

View Back To Ripon Cathedral

View From Skell To Ripon Cathedral

At  Fisher Green, we cross over the stepping stones across the River Skell and then follow the footpath along the south side past Yorkshire Water’s wastewater treatment plant coming out on a field called The Green, which is opposite Ripon Race Course.  It flooded here last December after a snow melt in the Yorkshire Dales and covered over the road, and the field itself floods at least once every winter.

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

At Hewick Bridge, you need to be careful as you cross the bridge as it’s busy and there’s no footpath.  Just over Hewick Bridge, there’s a footpath and a sanctuary marker that marks the start of a walk called the Sanctuary Walk, where you can walk around the ancient limits of one league from the monastery.  We just use the part that goes along the northern banks of the River Ure.  A few yards in from the start there is a concrete section that goes into the river and comes out the other side – I always thought this was a car park but apparently this is where tanks used to cross over the river.

This section of the walk to Sharrow and back to North Bridge takes another hour, bringing the total walk time to a good 2 hours.  This section is a decent walk in the countryside, save for the sound of cars constantly moving.  Soon you blot these out and can hear only the sounds of the birds with their evening chorus – swallows, thrush, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons, the high pitched chirrup chirrup of house martins and then the loud honking of a couple of geese as they flew overhead like 2 bombers.  The trees and flowers alongside the river were in full bloom – hawthorn, chestnut, white butterbur, nettles, wild garlic, bluebells and then you had the white parachute seed heads of the the Old Man’s Clock’s and downy female catkins on some small shrubby willow bushes (I think it’s a type of Osier Willow or Salix viminalis as the leaves are definitely spear shaped, but I am not convinced about this), as well as a patch of forget-me-nots in the middle of nowhere as if someone had just dropped a pack of seeds as they wandered idly by.

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

As I got to the point that the Rivers Ure and Skell meet, I walked through nettles and elder, climbed over an ineffectual fence and clambered down the riverbank and stood over the river on the trunk of an elder tree and took a picture of the confluence.  It was probably not worth the effort as it was decidely undramatic, but it was something I had been keen to do, and it satisfied a curiosity.  I still need to find the meeting places of the Ure with the Ouse Beck and also Kex Beck with the River Laver, having found the meeting between the Rivers Skell and Laver earlier.

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Near here it is worth looking east towards the Blackamoor Pub and looking over the perfectly landscaped farmland and the patches of Van Goghian yellow of rapeseed flowers, then to the north a derelict farmhouse that I will explore another day.

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Two-thirds of the way along, you follow a pathway off the river bank and upwards onto Bell Bank, which is a National Trust owned wood that’s about 30 metres above the Ure.  It’s a steep slope upwards covered in trees clinging to the riverbank, so there’s an out-of-place sign warning those who enter the wood that they do so at their own risk – what of: witches or the gruffalo or that I might not notice the steep slope down to the river.  The wood was shaded and dappled with the setting sun and with patches of bluebells here and there, adding a colour contrast to the greens and browns of the woodland.

As you come out of the wood, you get a good glimpse of Ripon Cathedral staring at you, then you are down and nearly out at Sharrow.  As you follow the path along, you go under the Duchess of Kent Bridge, then out and over North Bridge.  Cross over to the opposite side of the bridge and look over the floodplain at one of Ripon’s curiosities – a white wigwam, why?  And you’re back at Magdalen’s Road.

White Teepee Near North Bridge In Ripon

White Teepee By North Bridge In Ripon In Yorkshire

Thinking about it, do you know what I hardly have seen when I do these short potters – people fishing.  Only once have I seen someone and that was in the centre of Ripon, but few people seem to be sitting on the bank, idling their time away trying to catch brown trout or whatever is in the river.  I know there are fishers out there, but where are they hiding?

PS: I must get a filter for my camera as I regularly get the blue sky whiting out in the photos I am taking.

Two Thoughts On Nature After A Walk In North Yorkshire

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

I walked along the River Ure last night.  It was sunny and warm, albeit with a slightly brisk wind towards the south east.  I was amazed that no-one else was out walking along the embankments – there are about 5,000 locally – but I guess that the draw of “Over The Rainbow” on the box was too interesting for nature.

What struck me was two things – firstly, the birds were so busy and noisy; and secondly, the colours. 

As for the birds, there’s a song thrush nesting in the chimney of our neighbour and she sings away early in the morning and in the evening, jamming away with a free flowing tune.  Blackbirds could be seen scruffling around in the leaves and debris below trees and in the hedgerows.  Ducks were busy on the water and several drakes were fighting while flying vertically up from the river, while house martins were flying in flocks of 5 or 6 in strict formation like Red Arrows planes (on reflection, I wonder whether they were sand martins).  Peewits landed in a newly sown field and start poking their black beaks into the soil, hunting for food.

Then there were the colours of the birds, as well as the bright blue sky.  Also, the colours of the plants – to a background of a wide variety of verdant greens, there were the white blossoms of cherry trees, apple trees and horse chestnut trees (I looked at the horse chestnut flowers and they had streaks of pink coursing through the petals), with the bright yellows of rape, brooms and dandelions.  I stooped to pick a seed head from a dandelion and blew 10 times to set all the seeds floating into the wind to start new generations of dandelions – this was done near to where the Battle of Boroughbridge was fought many, many years ago.

It made me think of two things. 

Firstly, how amazing nature is.  It just gets on with life and has worked out such an intricate way of enabling genetic material to pass from generation to generation, ranging from the clever floating seed heads of dandelions to the complex fighting of the drakes, and the beautiful temptations of the horse chestnut flowers luring in the busy bees to pollinate them.  Science is amazing and genes will continue to be transferred by a full range of complex mechanisms whatever we humans get up to.  I am in awe of nature, constantly amazed by its secrets; it has excited me since I was a small kid and it still fascinates me, as well as making me smile.

Secondly, I thought about dinosaurs.  I realised my views of dinosaurs were defined by big fossils in the Science Museum and films like Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Walking With Dinosaurs.  They have made me think of big animals, slow animals, a mute colourless world, deep throated calls and slow lumbering beasts.  But I reckon that’s all wrong – a paradigm shifted.  I reckon that the world of the dinosaurs was bright and colourful, full of high pitched chattering, buzzing insects and busy small animals scurrying around and living their lives.  I know that scientists have started imagining dinosaurs with feathers and colour, but I think that’s not going far enough.  The problem is that the big animals are the ones that leave a trail through geological time in the form of fossils, while the small bugs that dominate our world then and now leave no trail across the aeons.  There are next to no records of bacteria, viruses, moulds or other monocellular creatures and few records of insects and other bugs.

We have that problem even now, in that we see the world from a big mammalian perspective, whereas we don’t rule this world – it’s a world of bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, spiders, plants and birds, as well as the bigger animals like mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  I realise that deep down I must actually miss the world of microbiology that I studied at Edinburgh University, of those weird bacteria and viruses that transfer their genes horizontally and vertically.  I really am just a science geek that went out into the real world, escaping the lab.

However, we would do well to remember that we are but curiosities to the rest of earth’s life – largely irrelevant.

Update:  I did the walk again today, but back to front and without the sun in my eyes, and they are definitely sand martins as I could see them flying in and out of their burrows in the riverbank opposite the Ings.

Pale Blue Dot

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Sometimes you read something that says things so much more clearly and beautifully than one could ever hope to do oneself.  And I have recently read one of those – it comes from Richard Dawkins‘ brilliant anthology of science writing called “The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing” and it’s a passage by Carl Sagan called “Pale Blue Dot” from “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space”. 

For me, it sums up so much better than I can ever explain why I think that we should all come from the stewardship angle regarding our relationship with the earth and nature rather than to exploit it for the here and now.  It comes from a deeply-held philosophy that stems from earth as my home and everyone else’s home, as well as the home of all creatures and plants and microbes past, present and future.  We are but briefly passing through for the tinest fraction of time and we must be careful of our impact as the world is a unique, beautiful and very blue place in a universe full of cold, dark, black and dead nothingness.

“Look again at that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all its vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

In awe at nature

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

 

We spent this weekend en famille in the Brecon Beacons near Talgarth, celebrating a 50th birthday party.  While walking around the woods, I came to a pond.  It’s a quite large pond with little vegetation around it, but covered in pondweed.  All the bug life was relishing the glorious sunny weather; there were damselflies and other dragonfly-types, but it was underwater that was the most exciting. 

 

There were tadpoles galore (last year we must have visited here earlier in the year around Easter as there was frogspawn then), but what made me really smile were an adult newt and a smaller baby newt, or eft.  Looking online, I think they were Palmate Newts.  I don’t think I’ve seen a newt for nearly 30 years since I lived at a house called The Quarry in Stocksfield, Northumberland.  This house had been purchased by my grandfather, who had hewn a series of ponds out of sandstone using brute force and a pickaxe filled from a majestic small waterfall.  It was idyllic for a young boy like me and full of waterlife, including frogs, toads and newts. 

 

Also, there were funny looking elongated beasts that I correctly guessed were the nymphs of the damselflies; these are predators but I don’t know if they would be eating the smaller tadpoles.  There was also a pair of mating Great Diving Beetles, loads of Backswimmers and a few fish.  The Great Diving Beetles would definitely feast on the tadpoles.

 

As I walked further around the boggy woodlands (a swampy meadow is called a wern in Welsh, although wern can also mean alder grove), I stopped in the dappled sunlight from the trees, leaning on my quarterstaff.  Wherever we go with a wood, I end out playing Robin Hood games with my son, and I am always Little John, hence the quarterstaff, which I simply make from any long piece of straight wood that’s lying around on the ground.  After the game, it simply goes back into the wood.

 

While listening to the song of the birds, including the call of a nearby cuckoo and the screech of birds as a barn owl flew into the woods, and the constant background hum of the insects, I was struck by how beautifully interconnected were each and every bit of the local nature.  Each little niche, however poorly resourced it may seem, has an occupant busying away to extract the most energy from the nutrients available in that niche.  It’s so skilfully efficient with nothing going to waste; energy is such a precious natural resource in nature with only plants capable of creating natural energy in a way that other beings are able to utilise.  We could learn a lot about waste (or not wasting things) from the clever antics of all the different bugs.

 

And this all goes on, day in day out, with no input or interference from us, mankind.  But we’re so much an important part of this vast jigsaw puzzle and we must remember our place within it.  It is only when we believe that we are no longer a part of the puzzle that we start creating problems, interfering almost always for the worse.

 

I always have this profound feeling of the wonder of nature at spring time as the earth seems to renew itself after the long winter, as the buds come out on the trees without any help from man.  We must rediscover this wonder; we must rediscover that sense of awe in newts, in the development of damselflies from nymphs through to fully grown adults.

 

We read books like “The Hungry Caterpillar” to children, but it is the children who understand that story not us adults; the process of growing from funny caterpillar through to ugly chrysalis and then that amazingly beautiful caterpillar is just wonderful, and that’s the point.  We should just open our eyes and respect the whole wonder of our earth.