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Ecology

Pushing Daisies

In June and July, one of the large trending articles revolved around a weird botanical phenomena that occurred in the fields surrounding the abandoned Japanese nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Daisies were popping up with weird mutations all over the place — namely, strange conjoined daises that seemed to be frozen in time like a pregnancy gone awry.

The bloggers (inherent irony) and social media warriors had a field day with this information, with some writers even claiming that these flowers are the

latest in the long-list of victims, which have experienced deformation over nuclear disasters.

That was quite a bold statement, but was it justified?

I waited to write an article on this topic because I wanted all of the evidence to pile in. And my patience has been rewarded. In short, yes, there are strange mutations occurring to the plants surrounding the fields of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But no, there is nothing to worry about. If anything, the virality of this topic is harming the progress and global acceptance of nuclear energy as a proper and viable means of meeting the world’s energetic demands (but I’ll get to that later).

Debunk 1: Radiation levels

Many of the articles showcasing the damaged daisies will happen to include the amount of radiation present in those fields. The original tweet was posted by @San_Kaido, where he stated that the levels of radiation were at 0.5μSv.

Wow, that’s a lot of numbers and symbols, look at that funky letter “u”, it probably means “extreme danger”. Without any context, that’s a common assumption. But because this scientific jargon can be overwhelming to the general populous, scientists have devised an easy way to compare radiation exposure levels to something more common and tasty… a banana.

That’s right, bananas, with their particularly radioactive isotope Potassium-40, deliver ionizing radiation with each mouthful (the fruit that keeps on giving). Scientists have taken note of the average dose in the average banana, and have realized that this can be used to express how dangerous the radiation level of any object is in comparison to a banana. Using what is called the Banana Equivalent Dose (BED), we can see how many bananas it would take to reach a given level of radiation. It sounds silly, but it puts things into perspective.

So how much radiation does a regular 150g banana give off? About 0.1μSv

That is to say, you will receive an equal amount of ionizing radiation from eating 5 bananas as the daisies have received from being in those grasslands. Essentially, this amount is small and negligible. Compared to the amount in those fields, you receive 80x the amount  of radiation flying in a plane, 140x from just living in a brick house, and 14,000x with each chest CT scan — not to mention that the maximum permitted dose for radiation workers in the U.S.A. is 100,000x greater than what is experienced in the crazy daisy meadows. Further still, a reading of 0.5μSv is classified as safe for “medium to long term habitation”.

I guess the obvious (and only) reasonable lesson you can get from this information is that bananas are harmful and scary and should never be eaten.

Only an evil, oppressive, radiation filled fruit could be shaped in such a way.

Debunk 2: Radiation mutation

The next major embellishment put forth was that the leaked radiation from the power plant is what caused these horrible mutations to arise in the poor helpless daisies. I can understand the thought process: mutated flowers + leaked radiation = radiation induced mutation. But all it took was a simple Google search (seemingly as difficult as pulling teeth) to get one’s facts straight.

The name of the condition affecting those daisies is known as “fasciation”, and is characterized by the meristem (growing region of the plant) elongating perpendicularly from its original growth path (which is usually upwards), causing flattened and large flowers to manifest. This particular phenomena arises through a few reasons: from physical damage during early development, a recessive gene (one which Gregor Mendel noted in his pea study), by random genetic mutation, or most likely through a hormonal imbalance that may be induced by a bacterial infection.

This is not some novel trait that has just arisen recently, Gregor Mendel knew about fasciation during his paramount study with peas, and that was back in the 1850s. Even Googling the term gives you pages upon pages of results showing pictures of the funny flowers.

Now, could fasciation have occurred in these daisies as a result of the ionizing radiation causing a de novo (new) mutation? Of course, there is always the possibility of that being the case. However, in my eyes, the odds are stacked against this scenario. Firstly, if radiation was to blame for this, we would have seen the physical effects years ago considering that the Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011 — not just now when radiation levels are akin to one having an oral fixation for bananas. Secondly, as professor Jeffery Doyle of Cornel University states:

this is a pretty common mutation in daisies that I’ve seen sporadically in various places not associated with radioactivity.

That is to say, it would be quite the coincidence that the radiation happened to spur daisies to mutate in a way that we already know occurs, rather than in some completely new fashion.

Sounds like some mighty-strong confirmation bias to me.

So why the original hoopla regarding this story? Why did scientists have to step in and let everyone know that this isn’t a big deal? Why did media outlets publish these unresearched and sensationalized findings, facilitating this story going viral?

We can never know for certain, but it seems to me that this is classic fear mongering. That is, the deliberate act of eliciting fear about a particular topic through public media. People don’t like the terms “nuclear” or “radiation”, they sound scary and we associate bad things to them (whether it be bombs or glowing green goo). Just look at an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, the technique’s true name is NMRI. Take a guess what the “N” stands for… In the creation of the name, the “N” was left out due to the public’s fear of all things “nuclear”.

This is neither green nor glowing… what a disappointment.

The Fukushima disaster was one of the worst PR stints for nuclear power since the Chernobyl incident nearly a quarter century ago. Demonstrations reaching the hundreds of thousands were seen throughout Europe and in Japan. The German government even went so far as to permanently shut down 7 of their 17 operating nuclear reactors just 3 days after the Fukushima incident.

However, even after taking into account all the nuclear disasters to have occurred, only 31 people have ever died from nuclear contamination (all from Chernobyl, there have been 0 radiation related deaths from the Fukushima incident). And this number includes both short and long term mortality. Of course, there have been detrimental effects to the environment from these disasters — don’t think that I am trying to downplay that. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how many of the problems the media put forth are blown out of proportion (if even real) and are used to contrive fear.

Contrary to being a mass of glowing green evil, nuclear material is some of the most energy dense substances that we know of and can harness (comparison chart), and is the most plausible way for humans to sustain our quality of life from an energetic standpoint.

We are an energy hungry society, and unfortunately, renewable sources do not provide enough output to keep us satiated (that includes you, too, Tesla). Unless we are willing to take a step backwards in the progression of energy yield (which I severely doubt humans are), we will have to combine renewable methods with some other source to meet our demands — and this will likely be nuclear.

Oh, and in case you were unsure, the materials used to create atomic bombs are of different composition than the materials used in a nuclear reactor. A nuclear plant will never go “boom”.

So there will be no superpowers (unfortunately), no third arms, no laser vision, and likely no weird abnormalities. Nuclear energy is an amazing method of acquiring energy and bringing life to the objects that we use daily. The risks have always been minimal, but the accidents have always been sensationalized. The daisy malfunction fiasco was just one example of how fear mongering is used to bring about irrational phobias of the unknown. The best thing you can do to prevent the spread is simply spend 5 minutes on Google.

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Plant


Image sources

  1. Ask the ISU Experts. http://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2006/jun/070701.htm
  2. Photos: “Mutant Daisies” Found In Fukushima “Safe Zone” | Natural Society. http://naturalsociety.com/photos-mutant-daisies-found-in-fukushima-safe-zone/
  3. Ask me about my banana | Did Someone Say Science? http://www.jaydelovell.com/ask-me-about-my-banana/
  4. A billet of highly enriched uranium that was recovered from scrap processed at the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HEUraniumC.jpg
  5. Nine Mile Point 2 nuclear power plant back online. http://www.power-eng.com/articles/2014/03/nine-mile-point-2-nuclear-power-plant-back-online.html

 

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Free Willy

What is the purpose of a zoo? What do we gain by keeping these establishments open? For the majority of us, if we have the urge to visit a killer whale or see a cheetah, we go visit them in a marine park or zoo. We don’t have the luxury of experiencing them in their natural habitat, and instead are left to watch them in a simulated environment. The benefit of this scenario is that we can revisit the park every day of the week and continually see our favourite animals. However, our ability to experience wild animals in this form is a part of the underlying ethical dilemma that we face in regards to animal captivity. A topic filled with naïvety, good intentions, and death; and is a topic that is without an easy solution to its many problems.

everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect.

In January of 2013, Blackfish premiered and brought animal rights issues to the forefront of popular discourse. The documentary’s aggressive and energetic message was the catalyst for exposing horrifying details about the conditions we keep performance animals in, and brought to light whether keeping animals in captivity is ethical at all.

Personally, I feel like the living conditions at zoos are something that most people just don’t like to think about too deeply, it’s rather convenient to stay steeped in ignorance. We’re content with going to see the lions and look at their pretty manes, but we don’t really want to dwell on the fact that we’re keeping a species that has an effective range of 260sq km in enclosures as small as 2000sq ft (the minimum size allowed for an indoor enclosure). We exhibit this cognitive dissonance often with uneasy topics, much like how we don’t really bring up that Canada and the U.S. aren’t a part of the Kyoto Protocol or that Beck is a Scientologist.

And the reason why we’re so quick to “forget” this unsettling information (aside from blatant ignorance) is for the look on our child’s face when they see their first elephant up-close; for the scared, yet fascinated, expression of our friends when they realize that only a thin sheet of glass separates them from a hungry polar bear; and for the family members that hinge on our every word when we tell them the amazing physiological adaptations behind many of our favourite animals while they see them in person. I have experienced this first-hand — I’ve had the luxury of spending hours in large aquariums giving in-depth tours to my family and friends, watching as their eyes light up when I explain to them the process that allows sea-stars to move their arms. This is why the answer to animal captivity is a difficult one. The ability to inspire and invoke awe in young children (and even adults) is an invaluable tool in developing future conservation biologists and researchers.

Or, at least, this was my opinion before doing my own research. Up until the point when I decided to write this article, I (like many others) simply assumed that zoos and marine parks promoted a positive learning experience to children and taught them valuable lessons about conservation and nature. However, a study published in 2014 in the journal Conservation Biology shows that zoos have the potential to promote a negative understanding of animal-habitat interactions, stating:

The headline finding in this study is that 34% of pupils in the study on education officer-led visits showed positive change, while 16% of unguided pupils showed negative change.

The article has written that statement in a positive voice, but what it really should be stating is that 66% of all children (ages 7-15) that visited the park gained absolutely nothing worthwhile from their stay. The article then went on to state that an average of 13.5% of participants (both guided and unguided) left the zoo exhibiting a negative change in their understanding of animal-habitat interactions and conservation possibilities. This study reveals that the target demographic for the educational programs at zoos are receiving mediocre education at best, and misinformation at worst. Reading this leaves me asking: “Why even go?” In a study published in the UK by the independent research group ADAS, concerns were brought up regarding the effectiveness of the educational programs put forth by zoos, stating:

Concerns remain, however, with regard to the lack of available evidence about the effectiveness of these projects.

In an article published by National Geographic, an interview with former zoo director, David Hancocks, showed that he will often point to studies showing that:

visitors leave zoos feeling uninspired and uneducated. Rather than walking out determined to help save wildlife, they go away disenchanted. He wonders if this indifference is due in part to outdated animal enclosures, inadequate space, and the poor quality of 'natural' habitat exhibits, such as a reliance on artificial-looking synthetic rocks.

I was quite surprised upon reading these studies — I had always believed that zoos and marine parks were necessary to instil a positive understanding of nature in children; these studies seem to throw counter-evidence in the face of that claim. However, after some reflection, this data seemed to make sense (I swear it’s not confirmation bias). I have personally never visited a zoo, and have went to large aquariums only after I was certain that biology was my calling. So what brought me to animals? Documentaries. Emotionally charged, beautifully produced, masterfully narrated (by Attenborough and no one else) films that evoke grandeur and wonder are what brought me to the natural sciences; and there is evidence to show that films are what drive nature-based education. A study conducted to determine the effectiveness of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity found that:

the use of documentaries significantly influenced students’ attitudes and beliefs about insects as compared to students in the control group(5)

People who watch documentaries on nature leave the film with more compassion, more questions, and a greater understanding of how we fit into the world — and the benefits of documentaries when used as a learning tool has been detailed countless times. Documentaries work because we see animals in their environment interacting with other animals of the same and different species — it acts as a proper representative of their lives.

So now we’re left with wondering what to do with our zoos and marine parks. I had originally planned to write this article to uncover the merits of these enclosures — but in the above paragraphs I detailed (and personally realized) how everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect. So really, is there any reason to keep them around?

If zoos and aquariums simply improve the quality of education offered at their establishments, such that children actually benefit from visiting, that would be a step in the proper direction and gives us a reason to keep these facilities around. However, studies direct us against this decision, and in my ideal scenario the only animals that would be held in zoos would be endangered species. Before you jump down my throat, hear me out. I don’t suggest that all the individuals of a given endangered species are held captive (a harsh, but true, word) — rather, just enough to begin a captive breeding program as a means of increasing population numbers before releasing the animals back into the wild. Captive breeding programs don’t always work, but they are the best hope for many species that may be unable to recover their numbers in the wild — and numerous success stories dictate that captive breeding is a viable option. Captive breeding is generally considered a “last-resort” in the efforts to save a species from extinction;   nonetheless, zoos can be repurposed to solely aid in these efforts (of course, this is all wishful thinking). Not only would the conservation efforts be welcomed, but tourists would benefit from being able to visit rare charismatic megafauna that would otherwise be near impossible to catch a glimpse of.

With the release of Blackfish, the zoo and marine park industry took a massive blow to their funding and attendance. After over a year of declining tourist numbers, stock values dropping huge percentages, and revenue falling well below projected values, SeaWorld finally:

acknowledged for the first time the negative publicity may have had a hit and may have been why the attendance has been flat for now and the past quarters.

The future of these establishments isn’t certain, but it definitely doesn’t look promising. As much as it pains me to say (because I really do love the ability to see my favourite animals at a moment’s notice), I don’t feel as though there is enough merit to warrant the proliferation of zoos and marine parks. The cramped (understatement) conditions and lack of tangible educational benefits lend credence to the statement that these are organizations that do very little to contribute to those who they hold captive. Unless we can find a way to increase educational standards or repurpose them, zoos and aquariums are better left as abandoned shells of their former glory.

Taken from the Smithsonian Museum Website

Captive breeding of cheetahs has shown promising results.


References

  1. African Lions, African Lion Pictures, African Lion Facts, African Cats – National Geographic. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/african-lion/
  2. Colahan, H., D. Zoo, C. Asa, C. Azzarello-Dole, B. Zoo, S. Boutelle, M. Briggs, A. APCRO, K. Cox, L. Kellerman, and others. Lion (Panthera leo) Care Manual
  3. Jensen, E. 2014. Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo. Conservation Biology 28:1004–1011
  4. ADAS UK Ltd. 2010. Review of Zoos’ Conservation and Education Contribution
  5. Critics Question Zoos’ Commitment to Conservation. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/11/1113_031113_zoorole_2.html
  6. Barbas, T. A., S. Paraskevopoulos, and A. G. Stamou. 2009. The effect of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity: a case study. Learning, Media and Technology 34:61–69
  7. Brain Games Versus Nature Documentaries. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130410-brain-games-neuroscience-culture-science/
  8. Borness, C., J. Proudfoot, J. Crawford, and M. Valenzuela. 2013. Putting Brain Training to the Test in the Workplace: A Randomized, Blinded, Multisite, Active-Controlled Trial
  9. Bertschinger, H., D. Meltzer, and A. Van Dyk. 2008. Captive Breeding of Cheetahs in South Africa – 30 Years of Data from the de Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre. Reproduction in Domestic Animals 43:66–73
  10. Keeley, T., J. K. O’Brien, B. G. Fanson, K. Masters, and P. D. McGreevy. 2012. The reproductive cycle of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) and factors associated with reproductive success in captivity. General and Comparative Endocrinology 176:182–191
  11. Condor Program Monthly Status Report 2014-10-31.pdf
  12. The Loneliest Animals ~ Captive Breeding Success Stories | Nature | PBS
  13. EQUITY ALERT: The Rosen Law Firm Files Securities Class Action Against SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. — SEAS – MarketWatch

Image sources

  1. Pittman, R. 2006. From source: Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
  2. Panoramio – Photo of Lion Cage at Wichita Zoo – Lions and children. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/47958869
  3. Wolf, Z. 2006. Rhincodon typus ♂. Georgia Aquarium
  4. Breeding Cheetahs. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/breeding-cheetahs-20876365/

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The Coniferous Truth

We live in a society where we have access to unprecedented levels of information available at speeds that we cannot fathom. We are able to connect with people from around the world and unite against causes that both parties mutually deem unwanted. However, a problem arises when the common cause for disdain is a complicated topic. Oversimplification of the topic will occur in an attempt to recruit more followers to the mission. And these non-experts will, through good intentions, put forth a solution to an extremely intricate problem without taking into consideration all of the moving parts.

Climate change is such a topic. One that is a real threat to our planet, one that has widespread media and viral attention, one that is extremely complex, and one that has solutions brought forth by many activist groups that can potentially do more harm than good.

the absorptive effects of dark spruce needles overshadows any cooling effect that snow contributes.

Just by stating the phrase “global warming”, one begins to conjure up ideas and words that they associate with the topic. Ask any person what they know about global warming, and a likely response will include the words “greenhouse gases”. To most people, “greenhouse gas” (although the term encompasses many gases) is synonymous with carbon dioxide: CO2. And thanks to high school biology, we know that plants are these cool organisms that take in the CO2 that humans and machines spew out, and exhale pure oxygen for our benefit — cooling the atmosphere in the process and saving Earth (I may be skipping a few premises). It is no surprise that so many environmentalists and global warming activists are for the proliferation of tree planting and forestation in the effort to promote the picturesque, fairytale, ending to global warming with one easy fix(1)(2)(3).

However, unbeknownst to many of these independent groups is that forests have a tendency to increase global temperatures depending on their location. This occurs through the process of albedo: how much light is reflected by an object in relation to how much light the object is struck with. Light coloured objects tend to reflect solar radiation much better than darker objects, which absorb it. All objects have some level of reflectivity, and trees are of no exception. It turns out that the dark leaves and needles of the trees in boreal forests have a high amount of absorption. Boreal forests comprise the largest of Earth’s biomes, taking up more landmass than Australia, India, and Argentina combined(4)(5), and their floral biodiversity is low — generally comprised of mainly spruce and pine (all dark coloured trees).

Much like how you always regret wearing black on a hot summer’s day, the dark trees of the northern latitudes absorb and retain upwards of 92% of the sunlight they’re struck with(6). This ultimately has a net warming effect on their environment, offsetting their overall carbon intake.

Fresh snow, with its pure white colour, reflects upwards of 90% of the sunlight it encounters(7) and is commonly found on the ground of many boreal forest environments. So you would think that the effect of the trees and snow would cancel each other out, leaving us with no net change in temperature. However, because snow is localized to the ground, beneath the trees, the absorptive effects of dark spruce needles overshadows any cooling effect that snow contributes. In a seminar headed by a global change and plant biologist at the University of Western Ontario, we were informed that:

these dark trees cause a runaway positive cycle to occur where the land would warm up and melt the snow, pines trees would grow and continue to warm the land as they absorb more solar radiation, and this process continues in an endless warming cycle.

I understand if you don’t believe me. I’m pretty much putting forth the idea that trees are capable of heating up our atmosphere. But there’s more you should know. A team of scientists became aware of the potential warming effects of albedo in forests and decided to run a model forecasting what would happen to Earth if all trees were completely removed (a prospect not even the most money hungry logging CEOs could dream of). A correct, and relatively obvious, prediction would be that CO2 levels would skyrocket as a result of removing a massive carbon sink from the planet. However, what few would guess is that the earth experiences a net cooling effect of 0.3 degrees Celsius (8). Now, the actual amount by which the earth cooled when the model was run is minuscule — but the actual quantitative amount is not what matters. Rather, it’s the idea that removing all of Earth’s trees (organisms commonly thought to be one of the solutions to global warming) had the opposite effect on climate change than we believed they would — it’s a paradigm shifting revelation in the sense that it completely turns what we once thought about a subject on its head.

However, not all forests have this net warming effect on the globe, and where the trees are located seems to be the determining factor. For instance, in the moist and humid jungles of tropical rain forests, evapotranspiration creates low-lying dense cloud-cover that has a high albedo. These clouds reflect much of the incoming solar radiation and aid in producing a net cooling effect on Earth; they are vitally important to counteracting the warming of our atmosphere (9). Though, as we move away from the tropics and into temperate regions, the albedo effect of trees equally offsets the amount of carbon sequestration. And as we move into boreal biomes, the low albedo forests completely overshadow all carbon capturing and provide a net warming effect, proliferating global warming(10).

At the beginning of this post, I alluded to how people and companies, all with good intentions, try to aid in the fight against climate change but ultimately end up doing more harm than good. Many companies are looking to cash in on the “ecofriendly” bandwagon and will proudly champion that they will be planting a tree for every product purchase(1)(11). The problem lies in where these trees are being planted. Most websites have no idea that the most beneficial location to plant a tree for the purpose of global warming reduction is to place it in a tropical region — for planting trees in temperate or boreal regions will, at best, have zero benefit to overall cooling.

In the above paragraph, I made the distinction that the most beneficial place to plant a tree for the purpose of global warming reduction is in the tropics. I put in this disclaimer because I want to air out that I am not advocating that we deforest our boreal biomes and localize afforesting efforts only in the tropics. I am stating, however, that if your intention is to prevent climate change, then planting your tree in the tropics will have the greatest positive impact — and thankfully, many corporations are getting the idea(12)(13). There are a myriad of other reasons to plant trees in the higher latitudes (land slide prevention, beautification, animal habitat extension), but global warming prevention should not be one of them.

Our ability to connect and corroborate with like-minds across the globe is invaluable in our efforts to change the world. However, when we enter into a subject with complete ignorance, we often undermine the true complexity of the problem at hand. Our downfall is a failure to research extensively. Learning how albedo affects global warming was an eye-opener, even for a biology graduate, like myself — and it is important to use this information as a means of letting people know that there are unconventional answers to problems once seen as insurmountable, and that quick-fix problems are vastly more complicated than a simple blog post will have you believe.

 SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA


References

  1. Help Reduce Global Warming: Plant a Tree | Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/blog/help-reduce-global-warming-plant-tree
  2. A New Leaf on Life. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/07/AR2008050701046.html?hpid=smartliving
  3. The Benefits. http://www.jointreeforall.org/benefits/
  4. Canadian Boreal Forests. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/canadian_boreal_forests.cfm
  5. Russia’s Boreal Forests — WWF (pdf)
  6. Betts, A. K., and J. H. Ball. 1997. Albedo over the boreal forest. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 102:28901–28909
  7. Markvart, T., and L. Castañer, editors. 2003. Practical handbook of photovoltaics: fundamentals and applications. Elsevier Advanced Technology, New York
  8. Bala, G., K. Caldeira, M. Wickett, T. J. Phillips, D. B. Lobell, C. Delire, and A. Mirin. 2007. Combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:6550–6555
  9. Bonan, G. B. 2008. Forests and Climate Change: Forcings, Feedbacks, and the Climate Benefits of Forests. Science 320:1444–1449
  10. Betts, R. A. 2000. Offset of the potential carbon sink from boreal forestation by decreases in surface albedo. Nature 408:187–190
  11. World Impact – Tree Map | tentree. http://www.tentree.com/ca/treecode/map/
  12. Trees for the Future » What We Do.
  13. Buy a tee we plant a tree. http://www.metowestyle.com/category-s/254.htm

Image sources

  1. What Is the Boreal Forest? Why Is Its Future Key to Us All? | Boreal Forest Facts
  2. Ford, C. 2013. “Cloud Forest”, Mexico, Oaxaca, Sierra Juárez Mountains
  3. peupleloup,  http://www flickr com/people/10601432@N08. 2008. English: Taiga in Quebec

 

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Triumph in the Congo!

Triumph? I know — triumph in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is seldom issued. After all, we’re talking about a country that has been colonized numerous times, had various natural resources exploited, held under the rule of a brutal totalitarian leader, and scourged by civil war; a country that currently ranks 2nd last of all countries on the Human Development Index, and is so renowned for corruption that locals gave it a new name making it akin to some transmissible disease: “Zaire sickness”. But yes, even with that track record holding the country back, environmental protection in the DRC has taken a large and much needed step forward; and this has conservationists rejoicing the world over.

All this international hoopla came about with the recent development that the London based oil company SOCO will be demobilizing all efforts to find and extract oil from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Virunga National Park.

And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.

In 2010, word got out that the large oil corporation was searching for oil in a region that they have no business looking in. Virunga National Park is located along the eastern border of the DRC and is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity. This park is home to some of the last remaining, critically-endangered, mountain gorillas on Earth, as well as being the home for forest elephants and the endangered and oddly painted okapi.

This is an okapi. Looks similar to a zebra, but has closer relation to giraffes.

When SOCO originally stationed themselves in the DRC, the country’s President green-lighted the operation to begin exploring for oil reserves in a region that included sections of the national park. If that wasn’t already cause for concern, alarms blew when it was revealed that over 80% of the land within Virunga was viable for oil concessions(1). SOCO soon released an impact assessment detailing the amount of direct and indirect damage that would occur as a result of drilling within Virunga’s confines. The World Wildlife Fund summarized the assessment stating:

oil exploration could cause pollution, damage habitats and bring poaching to this fragile ecosystem. It could also harm residents’ health and damage the natural resources upon which 50,000 people depend(2).

To many, unless quick protest occurred this spelled the demise of Africa’s oldest national park.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what was going through the minds of the oil execs at SOCO when they published their damage assessment and still felt that continuing their oil exploitation operation with the knowledge that it will cause irreparable damage to a vulnerable ecosystem was a fantastic idea. Oh wait, yes I do: “$$$$$$$”.

It seemed as though money was also on the mind of DRC president, Joseph Kabila. He green-lighted the exploration by SOCO, and he was the only one truly able to prevent soil from being broken. Despite the protests of the countrymen, environmentalists, and organizations, the power of veto rested in the hands of the leader. In order to swing his vote, an ultimatum needed to be brought forth.

In 2014, the documentary Virunga was released. Ironically, the original motive of the production team was to illustrate the progress made by the national park, but this quickly shifted when the crew stumbled upon the corruption taking place within its confines. The film captures the shady business practices of the oil conglomerate, including numerous bribes and forced entry into the national park at gun-point. This film’s release signalled change, and was instrumental in the efforts towards the removal of SOCO from Virunga.

Virunga mountain gorillas

However, as stated earlier, a strong ultimatum was needed in order to sway the president’s vote. This came in the form of the World Heritage Status that Virunga holds dearly. Being a World Heritage site brings international fame to a region, increasing tourism, funding, and, of course, money. However, ever since 1994, Virunga has been on the list of current World Heritage Sites that have the potential to be delisted(3). If SOCO was allowed to drill within the boundaries of the park, it was near certain that Virunga would be stripped of its World Heritage status. And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.

Just three months after the release of Virunga and after many years of tough lobbying by WWF, SOCO signed a joint declaration with WWF stating:

The company commits not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status(4).

Now, as I said earlier, this is a great triumph for the DRC, WWF, and environmentalists (and of course the animals). But we’re not out just yet. Note in the above statement the phrase “not incompatible with its World Heritage status”. Once you get past the awkward double-negative, you realize this just means that once the DRC government finds a way to preserve Virunga’s heritage status they will allow SOCO to drill for oil.

Think I’m just fear mongering? This very situation has already occurred in the neighbouring country of Tanzania inside the Selous Game Reserve. Toronto based company, Uranium One, found uranium deposits within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, and in order to safely mine the lands while retaining the park’s heritage status, the World Heritage Committee agreed to change the boundaries of the park such that the mining operation would occur outside of Selous’ borders(5). In an interview I conducted with a game warden at the Selous Game Reserve, I was told:

Selous’ world heritage status was going to be terminated, so they changed the boundaries of the park to preserve it. However, there is no fence surrounding Selous and the animals and plants are easily exposed to the toxic waste released from the uranium mining

The silver lining is that Selous Game Reserve is over 44,000km2 (larger than the Netherlands), and this mining operation will have relatively smaller impact on the overall biodiversity of the park. Comparatively, Virunga is only 7,800km2, and with 80% of the park containing oil reserves, any disturbance would lead to imminent ecosystem collapse.

This was a step in the right direction for the DRC — a great triumph for environmentalists everywhere. However, I hope this progress is permanent and the Congolese government doesn’t suggest enacting the same boundary changes seen in Selous. WWF released a study in 2013 that suggested Virunga National Park is capable of generating over $1.1 billion per year with sustainable growth and tourism, and provide upward of 45,000 jobs in the process(6). Hopefully this one success leads to a string of many more and Virunga can return to its status as one of the premier national parks in Africa.


References

  1. SAVE VIRUNGA. http://savevirunga.com/
  2. WWF Complaint Alleges Oil Company Violates Environmental and Human Rights Provisions | Press Releases | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/wwf-complaint-alleges-oil-company-violates-environmental-and-human-rights-provisions
  3. Virunga National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/63
  4. Joint Statement by SOCO International plc (“SOCO”) and WWF. http://www.socointernational.com/joint-statement
  5. Wippel, G. Press Release Re: World Heritage Comittee Decision on Selous Game Reserve Boundary Changes. http://www.uranium-network.org/index.php/africalink/tanzania/253-press-release-re-world-heritage-comittee-decision-on-selous-game-reserve-boundary-changes
  6. The Economic Value of Virunga National Park | Publications | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/the-economic-value-of-virunga-national-park

Image Sources

  1. World Heritage Committee requests cancelation of Virunga oil permits. http://wwf.panda.org/who_we_are/wwf_offices/france/?209082/World-Heritage-Committee-requests-cancelation-of-Virunga-oil-permits
  2. About the Okapi | FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education
  3. Willink, C. T. 2011. English: Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DR Congo
  4. Marfinan. 2013. English: The Virunga mountain peaks taken from the vicinity of Kisoro, Uganda. From left to right, Muhabura, Gahinga, Karisimbi, Sabyinyo, Mikeno.

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Antarctica

Antarctica: Stop Coming Here!

As I sat with my dinner in my lap (because who needs tables?), I browsed YouTube for a video I hadn’t seen before to enjoy with my meal. I came across a news story detailed by John Oliver who spoke about a developing problem in Antarctica: increasing tourist numbers are threatening the biodiversity of the frozen continent. The information was sound, and the threat is real — but John’s solution (although humorous) was to stop going to Antarctica all together. He even went so far as to suggest that if you really need to feel the blistering cold on your face, that you go to Alaska and lie to your friends that you visited Antarctica.

I didn’t really buy it though. I completely agree that tourism can be a threat towards biodiversity, but I don’t believe that the best way to circumvent this problem is to completely cease all travel to the bottom of the world.

As travellers, we wish to experience foreign and pristine environments so that we can learn about them, so that we can understand them, and so that we can care and potentially conserve them. The irony is that, in doing so, we risk damaging what we originally went to protect.

This will be a common theme of many of my blogs: the fine line that humans must tread to ensure worldwide exposure to a problem without further contributing to the problem itself.

Back on track. So, we’re harming Antarctica. Now, that may not be big news (and maybe even a little cliché) if you like to stay updated with environmental issues. However, what is novel is the means by which this harm originated. And no, it’s not global warming this time. It turns out that more and more people are visiting Antarctica each year, and the increasing number of tourists are affecting the continent’s overall biodiversity (I’ll get to the how in a moment).

Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature...

To most people, the frozen landscape is likely the last location on anyone’s “must travel to” list. However, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, over 37,000 people travelled there in 2014(1). And I can understand their curiosity. Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature; it has been described as the “last of the wild”(2) and is an ideal destination for those looking to view unmatched landscapes and learn about the intricacies of the ecosystems that Antarctica contains.

However, the majority of Antarctica’s visitors make the pilgrimage to a small portion of the land-mass. Tourists (as opposed to researchers) localize themselves to the non-ice-covered regions of the continent — which is only about 1-2% of it’s land. The majority of the plants and animals that call Antarctica home reside in this 2%, and I’m sure you can now see where the problem lies.

In an interview with ABC news, Dr. Martin Riddle of the Australian Antarctic Devision stated:

“Even walking on Antarctic moss beds would leave footprints that would last for decades, if not centuries(3)”

I personally couldn’t conjure up with a better metaphor for human impact even if I tried — I mean,  humans are literally (and as an extension, metaphorically) leaving century lasting footprints on the plants. Aside from the blatant physical impact of human encroachment, tourists also inadvertently harm Antarctica’s biodiversity by accidentally ferrying over alien species to the white desert. A study published in Conservation Biology identified that non-native bluegrass has colonized in regions of high human traffic and is outcompeting the only two flowering plants in Antarctica (Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort)(4). If the non-native bluegrass ends up as the dominant flora of Antarctica, the animals that depend on the endemic flowers may be unable to feed and starve, and this would ultimately throw the food web into complete disarray.

This brings us back to my earlier sentiments. If we close our doors to all forms of tourism to Antarctica, what do we gain? We potentially stop alien species from taking over a foreign land and disrupting the ecosystem, and we potentially prevent littering and human displacement. These are all problems that we need to mitigate. However, looking only at what we gain is half of the story and rather naive — because in preventing Antarctic tourism we prevent actual interaction with the continent. And it is this interaction that facilitates a yearning to understand and conserve. For all we know, we may be preventing the development of future Antarctic conservationists by shutting our doors to the public.

Or, at least, that was my viewpoint before I found some rather alarming information about vacationing to Antarctica and the people that take them. I found that it can cost upwards of $20,000 to make the trek. This immediately rules out a large demographic of travellers — as only the most affluent of adventurers will be able to afford such an expensive ticket. This then led me to believe that the motives of some of these travellers weren’t as virtuous as I originally thought. It turns out that many people lie about their intentions when planning a trip to Antarctica. That is, some travellers stated that their motive for visitation was for scientific, environmental management, or educational purposes — yet upon landing, these patrons made no such effort towards their “primary goal”, some even performed scientific research in areas designated for conservation — demonstrating a blatant disregard for the ecosystem they stand for. In a study published in Environmental Science & Policy, scientists noted that:

“Clearly, substantial amounts of scientific research are undertaken in areas designated for conservation, which may not be in the best interest of the environmental values under protection.”(5)

I’m all for the proliferation of tourism when it promotes education and conservation. But after learning that Antarctica’s primary visitors are affluent travellers who lie about their motives, I can’t help but get a sour taste in my mouth.

Maybe John Oliver was right, they should just go to Alaska. I mean, who would know the difference?

This is a photo of Glacier Bay in Alaska. Couldn’t tell, could you?

 

 

 


References

Original story idea: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Don’t Visit Antarctica (HBO). 2014.

  1. Tourism Statistics – IAATO. http://iaato.org/tourism-statistics
  1. Sanderson, E.W. et al. (2002) The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild The human footprint is a global map of human influence on the land surface, which suggests that human beings are stewards of nature, whether we like it or not. BioScience 52, 891–904
  1. Hunt, L., and S. Ikin. 2014, June 18. Antarctica under threat from human visitors: scientist. Text. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-18/antarctic-tourism-threat-to-the-pristine-wilderness-scientist/5533252
  1. Molina-Montenegro, M.A. et al. (2012) Occurrence of the Non-Native Annual Bluegrass on the Antarctic Mainland and Its Negative Effects on Native Plants. Conservation Biology 26, 717–723
  1. Hughes, K.A. et al. (2013) Area protection in Antarctica: How can conservation and scientific research goals be managed compatibly? Environmental Science & Policy 31, 120–132

Image sources

  1. Fiske, M. and Said, 2013 at 1:08 Pm Antarctica. , Matt’s Ceramic Action.
  1. Emperor penguin. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2015).  http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Emperor_penguin&oldid=646190913
  1. Margerie Glacier Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska – Human and Natural. http://humanandnatural.com/img-margerie-glacier—glacier-bay-national-park,-alaska-6998.htm.

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The Darién Gap: It’s all on foot from here

Ever since the “Age of Discovery” began in the 15th century, humans have made a point of exploring uncharted regions of the globe. After over 500 years of tropical disease filled travel and the advent of “Google Earth”, it would seem as though the Earth has been spoken for. Each corner has been checked, each cave has been mapped, and each mountain has been summited.

But what if I told you that there are still a few hidden gems stashed around our planet; that there exist locations only spoken of in legend and rumour. Would you believe me? Would you dare travel to them? Brave the travellers’ diarrhea and typhoid in the name of idiocy curiosity?

The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers.

The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers. This pristine swath of dense jungle requires an equally dense mind to believe that traversing it without extensive research and planning is feasible. The Darién Gap separates the North American and South American legs of the Pan-American highway, a nearly contiguous route that will take you from Prudhoe, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. The route is unbroken for ~30,000km, except at the border between Panama and Colombia for a 160km stretch: the Darién Gap.

The extreme remoteness, isolation, and harsh conditions are the perfect cocktail for any borderline insane explorer. Although crossing on foot would seem like the easiest method of transportation, there have been numerous (attempted) vehicle crossings taking upwards of 740 days to make the journey through the jungle.

Since this region is the only overland obstacle separating the two continents, there is constant discussion regarding cutting down a small section of the Darién jungle and creating a highway — completing the Pan-American and finally linking North and South America. Many believe that “The highway … will facilitate trade of petroleum, cotton, clothes, iron, steel and other goods between Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela”, as stated by Juan Castañega, director of the Latin American desk of Colombia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry(1).

However, little pavement has been laid as of yet. Environmentalists and indigenous populations are opposed to the destruction of the jungle for various reasons, not least of which are the loss of ethnic traditions and lowering biodiversity. Oddly enough, the Darién Gap even has the medicinal benefit of preventing numerous diseases from border hopping and making residence in North America inside a body near you(2)(3).

I’m with the environmentalists on this issue, I believe this region should remain entirely pristine. Many years prior, a road extending to Yaviza (the southern end of the Pan-American highway in North America) was created. Environmentalists were worried that extensive deforestation would follow as a result of this new road into the jungle. Their apprehension was warranted. Within decades, logging and agriculture extended from the highway like the roots of a tree and pierced over 10km deep into the Darién.

This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”

However, keeping the Darién Gap untouched has significance beyond deforestation. This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”. It represents unknown and danger; a place removed from commercialization and corruption. That being said, this place is far from paradise. Darién is home to dangerous animals and is a common drug smuggling route by narcotraffickers looking to avoid detection by taking advantage of the lush jungle. Oh, and did I mention rebels? Ya, there are rebels in the Darién as well. They are known as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo) and are a guerrilla group in Colombia that fund their operations through kidnappings, drug production and distribution, and illegal mining.

Abandoned Train

In a sense, the Darién Gap brings about the idea of El Dorado — this mythical region of Earth, forgotten by civilization, skipped over by industrialization, spoken of in legend and hearsay, and full of riches. As if this region wasn’t surreal enough, there is a literal gold mine deep within the jungle — a true El Dorado. Mined by the Spanish, Anglos, and French hundreds of years ago, each settlement left when they realized that accessing and transporting the gold was not feasible. The gold mine has since been overgrown with vegetation after disuse and remains in the heart of the Darién Gap in the Cana region — a legend in its own right.

Whether this region evokes fear, awe, wonder, or mystery is purely subjective (it conjures up all four for me). Maybe this article gave your more than enough reason to never scribble it’s name on your bucket list (or maybe you’re like me and it was every reason to include it). But it goes without saying that the Darién Gap is a place that humanity seems to have forgotten, a place that through its lack of civilization and structure, and its abundance of biodiversity and lore, simultaneously represents nothing and yet everything. It is a place I hope to experience, and I wish to write another article about this location after having been swallowed by its depths.


References

  1. MM November 1995. at http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/issues/1995/11/mm1195_07.html
  1. Eschwefe, H. (n.d.). Transportation: Construction Progress and Problems of the Darién Gap Highway. United States General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/PSAD-77-154
  1. Embassy, U. S. 2013, March 21. Press Releases 2011. http://panama.usembassy.gov/pr031511.html.

 

Image sources

  1. Sutherland, B. 2009. Rainforest canopy in Manuas, Brazil.
  2. Abandoned Gold Mine Locomotive, Darien Gap, Panama. http://imgur.com/r/AbandonedPorn/QihZz

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