Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Sanity Check On Global Warming Numbers

Friday, April 16th, 2010

As I have explained in several of my last few blogs, I have been looking more closely at the detail of the case for global warming.  I have analysed global average temperatures as provided by NASA that uses information from the Hadley Centre in the UK and several other sources, as well as looking at fact sheets from the IPCC.  My initial take on the numbers is that the media and the politicians may be overstating the historical case and that global temperature rises exist but may be lower than the PR spin.

Before I decided that that was my final conclusion, I wanted to do a sanity check of the global mean figures against some raw data for different regions around the world.  These are not intended to be definitive but rather to see whether the trend from the global mean data was matched by a variety of on-the-ground raw data from temperature stations.

The raw temperature data that I have chosen is for England, the Antarctic and Australia.  I thought that would give a pretty good cross-section of temperature profiles.  The quality of data varies for each of these, from very detailed as in England which goes back many hundreds of years and uses 3 data points across England, while for Australia and the Antarctic I had to chose a few places that I felt covered sufficient area but also had data that went back at least 100 years, which was supplemented with a few that went back 50 years.

The raw data is available from the following sources, should you wish to do it yourself.  Now it is important to state here that the answer is not intended to be complete or definitive, which they are clearly not, but rather they are utilised to show trends and whether those trends fall within the ranges anticipated from the IPCC work and the dataset that I analysed from NASA.

The data analysed from the above gave the following results:

  1. England temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +0.9oC, with minimum rise of +0.6oC and maximum rise of +1.8oC; the UK Metereologic data series can be seen in full detail at  http://hadobs.metoffice.com/hadcet/;
  2. Antarctic temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.1oC, with minimum rise of +0.4oC and maximum rise of +5.3oC;
  3. Australian temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.0oC, with minimum rise of +0.3oC and maximum rise of +2.4oC.  If you look at the Australian Detailed Meteorological Office set of detailed anomalies graph it comes with the same answer of +1.06oC and can be found at http://www.bom.gov.au/cgi-bin/climate/change/timeseries.cgi

These results indicate that across a wide range of the world the global warming temperature rises are in line with the averages I previously calculated based on the global mean temperatures.

It is interesting also to note that the figures seem higher than the averages calculated by climate scientists for their global mean averages which suggests that as I would have added extra data points and more accuracy, the mean averages would tend towards a tighter fit line about 0.5oC lower.  Also, Antarctic figures were higher than for England, which is in line with what the climate scientists say, ie that the poles will experience the changes more greatly.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The base sources I used can be found as follows:

  1. England temperatures – http://hadobs.metoffice.com/hadcet/data/download.html
  2. Antarctic temperatures – http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/met/READER/
  3. Australian temperatures –http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/

My graphs are as below:

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature differences in Antarctic

Temperature differences in Antarctic

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.”

Autumn Poems

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Perhaps Autumn is a time for poetry.  So here are a few poems that conjur up the period for me. 

I found the poem by Keats in an ancient copy of “The Golden Treasury” inscribed by my great aunt with the words “Elfie Steenberg July 1 1918″:

Ode To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run:
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With sweet kernel; to set budding more
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen Thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, – thou hast thy music too,
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Or perhaps something more modern from Ted Hughes‘ book of poems “Season Songs”:

Leaves

Who’s killed the leaves?
Me, says the apple, I’ve killed them all.
Fat as a bomb or a cannonball
I’ve killed the leaves.

Who sees them drop?
Me, says the pear, they will leave me all bare
So all the people can point and stare.
I see them drop.

Who’ll catch their blood?
Me, me, me, says the marrow, the marrow.
I’ll get so rotund that they’ll need a wheelbarrow.
I’ll catch their blood.

Who’ll make their shroud?
Me, says the swallow, there’s just time enough
Before I must pack all my spools and be off.
I’ll make their shroud.

Who’ll dig their grave?
Me, says the river, with the power of the clouds
A brown deep grave I’ll dig under my floods.
I’ll dig their grave.

Who’ll be their parson?
Me, says the Crow, for it is well-known
I study the bible right down to the bone.
I’ll be their parson.

Who’ll be chief mourner?
Me, says the wind, I will cry through the grass
The people will pale and go cold when I pass.
I’ll be chief mourner.

Who’ll carry the coffin?
Me, says the sunset, the whole world will weep
To see me lower it into the deep.
I’ll carry the coffin.

Who’ll sing a psalm?
Me, says the tractor, with mu gear grinding glottle
I’ll plough Up the stubble and sing through my throttle.
I’ll sing the psalm.

Who’ll toll the bell?
Me, says the robin, my song in October
Will tell the still gardens the leaves are over.
I’ll toll the bell.

Autumnal Leaves Falling

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Autumnal leaves are falling everywhere.  They have hung on in there for quite a while longer as we have had a short spell of decent warm weather and very little wind.  But even so, nature cannot be stopped and even the delicate finger-like leaves of our wisteria have turned yellow and will soon have all gone until spring next year.

The River Skell at Fountains Abbey

The River Skell at Fountains Abbey

It’s a time of the year that makes you feel artistic.  I think perhaps the light is softer, making the edges of objects all fuzzy, rather than the sharp precision of winter and summer.   The smells are also old, ancient, the smells of decay; another year over.

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves

I am reminded of a painting by Sir John Everett Millais that hangs in Manchester Art Gallery – “Autumn Leaves”.  John Ruskin wrote of Autumn Leaves that it was “the first instances of a perfectly painted twilight”.  I am not sure about the twilight but it does conjur up autumnal smells and sights.

In it, 4 girls stand around a pile of autumnal leaves piled up high – the 2 girls in the centre wearing deep black are Effie’s (Millais’ wife) 2 younger sisters and the others are local youngsters, Matilda Proudfoot and Isabella Nicol.  The setting is Annat Lodge in Perthshire, where the distant hills are a deep purple of twilight in the distance.

In the foreground there is a heap of papery fallen leaves, piled high having been brought there by the girls in whicker baskets.  Yellowish-green, bronze, red are the leaves, mimicked by the russet and deep purples of the younger 2 local girls as their clothes blend in with the colours of the season.  The youngest girl stares wistfully at the leaves and holds a chewed red apple in her hands.

There is a strong emotional intensity as these young girls stare out at us – it is twilight, the end of a year, yet they are just starting out.  The earth is perpetual cycle of renewal (spring) through to growth and beauty (summer) and ageing (autumn) before death (winter).  Then during winter, the earth is actively replenishing itself ready for another year of growth and death, in a perpetual cycle.

But maybe its more a time for poetry rather the visual arts; maybe poets are the more melancholic of the artists.

Recipe For Sweet Chestnuts Foraged At Fountains Abbey

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

We (that’s me and my 2 kids) have been enjoying a few walks this half term break – in the deer park at Studley Royal which is at the lower end of Fountains Abbey and at Brimham Rocks

Both are National Trust places and well worth the visit; in fact I reckon that Fountains Abbey must be one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited anywhere in the world and it’s packed full of history. 

You’ve got the beauty of a tamed natural landscape at the deer park with a small river Skell and seven picturesque little bridges (just where you could imagine trolls lurking beneath) while Fountains Abbey melds the formal landscape of early 18th century with the more natural, romantic-style landscaping around the ruined great Benedictine monastery, dating to the later half of the 18th century.  This site bridges the gap in English gardening from the formalised garden through to the more natural gardens of Capability Brown.

The leaves on the trees – chestnuts, oaks, beeches, limes – have turned to their autumnal hues – reds, yellowy-green, gold – and as they gently fall to the floor, they appear to gild the lush green grass.  

Fallow deer at Studley Roger

Fallow deer at Studley Roger

Fallow deer and red deer graze in decent sized herds throughout the deer park; we followed a small group of about 12 red deer along the higher valley banks of the Skell.  The stag had a magnificent set of antlers and would throw back his head every so often and utter their characteristic guttural bark, proclaiming his dominion over his small herd.

Along the way, we foraged amongst the leaves for sweet chestnuts.  These have a sea-urchin-like, very prickly outside, enclosing 2 or 3 little dark brown soft chestnuts.  The inside of the shells is amazingly soft to touch, just like silk.

Sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnuts

We brought our small collection of sweet chestnuts home and have roasted them quickly in the oven.  This is a really simple process, stirring up feelings of the hunter gatherer deep inside my bones:

1.  Simply make small nicks/incisions in the sweet chestnuts
2.  Place on a baking tray in an oven pre-heated to 180oC
3.  Roast for about 20 minutes or until the shell is hardened and starts splitting
4.  Leave to cool for a few minutes, peel and enjoy

Carving Your Pumpkin At Halloween

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Carving a pumpkin is really quite simple and (dare I say it) quite satisfying to do.  Here is how we do it in the Steenbergs household.

Firstly, choose a decent sized pumpkin with a good area on the face for you to do the carving.  A too small front face will be hard to carve and be fairly curved in shape.

Next, either draw a pattern onto the pumpkin using a marker pen or get a stencil and attach this to the pumpkin, using either tape or drawing pins.  You can download stencils from the web or buy them from good grocery stores – we bought a set of pumpkin carving safety knives from Booths in Ripon this year which came with some stencils.

I then usually mark around the stencil using a pin or the end of a sharp knife to mark out the pattern.

Marking out the pattern

Marking out the pattern

Put a read newspaper onto the table you are going to use as this makes tidying up much easier.  Now, using a knife cut a circle out of the top of the pumpkin and remove the top lid. 

Next, using a spoon and your hands scoop out all the seeds and the fibrous inner gunk.

Scooping out the gloop

Scooping out the gloop

Carefully and patiently cut out the pattern that you have marked out or drawn on the front of the pumpkin using safety knives if you’ve got them.  I use what looks like a slightly deadly array of pumpkin carving knives, sharp kitchen knives, metal skewers and bamboo skewers to cover all the possible bases while chopping away. 

Finished sea monster

Finished sea monster

The key thing is patience and perserverance.  Sometimes you also need to put your hand inside the pumpkin to give it further support as you are carving away as in the past we have broken off the more delicate bits of teeth or broomsticks and then have had to do emergency repair work using wooden toothpicks to put pumpkin flesh back onto the pumpkin!

As with all things in life, pratice makes perfect so every year you do it the better you will get.

Summer’s Over

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Saturday was hot, a really glorious day.  However, the swallows have gone so the blue sky felt empty without their energetic dance swooping and soaring the catch insects.  They must have left while I was in London last weekend and into last week.  Another year gone, another winter to contend with.  It’s still warm and today is bright sunshine, so I shall enjoy the last days of an Indian summer.

You can see it with the changing light.  There’s a field just over Hewick Bridge as you come into Ripon where there a rows of round straw bales all lined up neatly like soldiers to attention. 

I love the long shadows cast by these as I come in of a morning.  There is a crispness of light at this time which seems to sharpen shapes and contours.  I can now see why Monet enjoyed painting these simple shapes with seemingly endless paintings of haystacks, but it is the changing light that fascinates him.  And light has weird colours to it – purples and blues in winter, but there’s still a warm orangey glow to the shadows and light in this early autumn time.

Ignore the FSA and continue to believe in the best of organic foods

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

I have reflected further on the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) report on the nutritional and health effects of organic.  And I have 2 further thoughts, being, firstly, that the concept of the report is irrelevant, and, secondly, there is probably no practicable way of proving any difference between non-organic and organic on a purely chemical basis except for the impact of pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilisers on health. 

And finally just because government departments state that there are no differences between organic and non-organic and that chemical residues should be ignored because they are, in their experimental opinion, safe, but they have missed something or the technology for measuring differences and safe limits is still too imprecise – at an extreme end, smoking and drinking alcohol is legal but clearly unsafe while DDT and dieldrin were considered safe for many years, whereas they are now generally regarded as very unsafe. 

Or how about something more recent.  Our very own “Silent Spring” where the sound of honeybees has collapsed rather than songbirds.  Honeybee populations have collapsed across Europe and caused billions to die across the world.  The collapse in honeybee populations is linked to neonicotinoid based pesticides.  These have been banned in France for use on sunflowers and are now banned in Italy and Germany as well, while the EC has suggested tough controls.  But what does the British Government do, nothing.  In April 2009, Hillary Benn said: [there is] “no evidence the use of those pesticides caused the decline in bee numbers.”

Point 1: the FSA report is irrelevant

Let’s have a thought-based experiment.  Take 3 beef steaks: a cheap cut, a piece of beef that has been hung for 25 – 30 days, a slice of steak that has come from a rare breed of cattle that has been allowed to graze out on pasture and finally a steak from cattle that had been kept indoors with no light and fed on GM foodstuffs.  Now undertake a nutritional analysis of these based on 20 categories and compare and contrast.  At the same time, make observations on the colour and appearance, then cook in a light sunflower oil and taste, making notes of the taste differences.  I suspect that nutritionally they would be broadly similar and that there would be no statistical evidence for choosing one type of beef over the other, nor would I expect that you would find any evidence of better health properties of one form of beef over the other. 

Now take the results of each set of statistics and get hold of the raw ingredients, i.e. pure nitrogen, pure carbohydrates and pure fatty acids.  Put the relevant quantities in 4 separate bowls, mix them up and taste them.  Your taste buds are actually a much more sophisticated real-time chemical analyser than a laboratory and I doubt it would even taste of beef!

You can do the same with any type of food.  Think about vegetables – take a value potato from a grocery multiple, another from their specialist “Best of..” selection, another freshly picked from your garden and one that has been grown in a laboratory using  pure nutrients in a liquid medium.  Get the nutritional analysis and then cook them by simply boiling them in water and taste.

The point is that normal people do not make their purchasing decisions on the basis of a list of nutrients provided by a laboratory.  In fact, very few consumers actually even look at the nutritionals and ingredients on a pack, unless they are on a particular diet. 

It depends on whether food is a purely functional chemical experience or is actually a form of pleasure.  If it is purely a functional experience, then I suggest that you by the pure chemicals from a chemicals distributor, mix them up and add water – delicious?!  If there is even an iota of a sense of pleasure, then buy what your taste buds want and your ethics desire.  After all, your taste buds are probably a better judge of what a human being needs than a laboratory rat, as it is what has helped our race survive in the world.

Point 2: there is no practicable experiment to provide a reason to buy organic food over non-organic (if you exclude chemical residues!)

There is a really good diagram on page 7 entitled “Figure 1: Conceptual framework outlining factors affecting nutrient variability”.  You don’t actually need to see the diagram, save to know that the research authors have postulated 5-6 categories of factors that influence food that is produced and a further 8 factors that impact nutrient make-up of the food on your plate.

And that’s the point, it is a vastly complex area of science that may only result in marginal differences in each individual chemical.  Many of these marginal changes may be statistically possible in random variation or from changed weather patterns or different breeds of plant or animal etc etc.

It is perhaps just a glorious bureaucratic exercise in finding the wood and missing the trees and then failing to see that you have a mixed wood with flowers and insects, frogs and mice, birds and deer.

I have often pondered on whether you could ever successfully use pure science adequately to explain such complex biological systems.

Use this thought experiment.

I give you 3 cubed pieces of stone-like material, 1mm x 1mm x 1mm.  I ask you to analyse it chemically and to give me the results in 10 categories.  Now I give you another 10 pieces of the material from the same area, but this time they are in triangles of 1mm x 1mm x 1mm and 10mm deep.  Once again I ask for chemical analysis.  In fact, I will now give you 2000 bits of material 1mm x 1mm x 10cm deep and you can do any form of chemical or physical analysis of the bits of material.

Now bring back the results and give me your conclusions.

Your results will be very noble, done with lots of conviction and hard work.  They will show that you understand how to use lots of very expensive kit and do statistical analysis etc.

But what they will not be able to tell me is what it is, so I will show you.

Now stand back and look at the bigger picture and it is very big and complex.  It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as painted by Michelangelo, which has been restored a few times since he first painted it.  No experimental system would have got the big picture and it is only the big picture that matters, not the detailed minutiae of chemicals or physics.  It is the way Michelangelo put together all those differents shapes and colours onto the roof within the centre of the Roman Catholic faith in Rome that matters.

It is the same with organic food, Fairtrade products, free range products and well made food.  It’s the whole story that matters, not the individual bits.

Conclusion

The FSA’s approach is like that of the British in building the British Empire.  Divide and rule, create rules and get the conquered people to stick by them on pain of military retaliation.  Looking back on what was once regarded as right and proper, we see much to be ashamed of. 

Times change, opinions change, the world turns and moves on.  Bill Clinton and the 2 George Bushes ignored global warming as a provable phenomenon, but Barrack Obama has it at the centre of his thoughts. 

Organic farming is better for the earth, it produces better food than conventional farming and is significantly better for the planet than GM crops.  For those who believe that we are stewards of the earth rather than owners organic farming is the only possible creed.  We must persevere in our belief in organic in the face of those who would try to dissuade the rest against that viewpoint.  We must continue to have courage in our convictions and defend those views without any cowardice.

Some Good Books on the Environment

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

I have recently read Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” which is a pretty good overview of the environmental issues facing the world.  It is lucid and comes up with some sensible political strategies to managing the potential ecological issues impacting our planet.  It is a pity that while it was written in 1992, little progress has been made and a current review of the situation would be “little has changed”.

So here are the very few books that have had an impact on the way I see the planet and our impact on it:

  • Carson, R. “Silent Spring” Hamish Hamilton 1963
  • Gore, A. “Earth in the Balance” Earthscan 1992
  • Lovelock , J.E. “Gaia:  A New Look at Life on Earth” Oxford University Press 1979
  • Schumacher, E.F. “Small is Beautiful” Blond & Briggs 1973

What I am really disappointed by is that there are no good books that I have so far come across about the environmental impact mankind is having on water.  This is poor, since the amount of chemicals that we are pouring into our oceans and rivers and lakes is truly frightening.  There are books of course, but nothing that offers any profound insight into the damage we are causing, nor how we should address this major environmental issue.

A walk on the River Ure

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

 

Yesterday evening (Saturday), I went for a quick 1 hour walk by the River Ure near Boroughbridge.  It was a warm evening and the sky was blue.  The swallows were flying high in the sky and the kine were busy chomping on the grass on the river bank.  I met only a few other groups walking as I suspect the attractions of Robin Hood in the TV or a happy barbecue were more enticing than a wander by the river.  A family was having a barbecue on the lock with their lovely canal boat moored beside them.

 

As I looked around at the young cattle, the delicate greeny-white heads on the elder trees and the wheat growing like soldiers standing to attention in the fields, I had the sense of the earth sighing a delighted, gentle breath out at the end of a glorious day.  I also had the sense of a much deeper, longer breath of the earth as the planet breathed in replenishing itself after the winter. 

 

It is important to feel these longer rhythms of the earth as it moves through the seasons, breathing in and out, refreshing itself in Spring, renewing itself through the Summer, preparing itself for Winter during Autumn and then cleaning itself and using up the fruits of the Summer/ Autumn during the Winter, then starting the cycle again as the snowdrops reappear in early Spring.

 

The earth must be allowed to go through these rhythms.  It lets the earth rest, clean itself and then refresh itself before creating the bounty of the soil over the summer months.  Without these periods of rest to cleanse itself, it starts to build up toxins and the soil, water and air become enervated, losing its power to nurture life.

 

As we lose our connections to the soil, we forget these natural rhythms of the planet and force it to operate at full speed without the time to rest and recuperate.  We must simply slow down or the productivity of our planet will be eked away.