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Science

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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Dino Might

With the recent release of Jurassic World and its record shattering box office numbers, dinosaurs are once again on the mind of the public. It’s easy to see why — dinosaurs represent an alien world that has actually existed. That’s what makes these creatures so cool and fascinating: we know that towering beasts with teeth longer than rulers actually walked the Earth at one point, and this allows us to anchor our thoughts in reality — but because we do not live alongside them, our imaginations are still able to run free when we picture amazing dinosaur battles and landscapes in our mind.

I figured that since dinosaurs are in the public eye once again, it would be a good opportunity to talk about, and hopefully put to rest, some of the more controversial and ongoing topics regarding the “terrible lizards”.

birds: the result of millions of years of evolution selecting for lighter dinosaurs that could better avoid prey, resulting in the most advance theropods to ever walk on Earth.

For starters, I may as well point out that although the word “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard”, it really is a misnomer. The whole “terrible” part is subjective, but the “lizard” portion to the name is completely misleading. I can tell you with some conviction that dinosaurs aren’t lizards — but trying to rank dinosaurs any further has been quite a mess for the last couple of decades. Scientists and taxonomists are working hard to place dinosaurs, crocodiles, and birds in their proper categories, but new research is always cropping up and causing the labourers to second guess their work. I’ve rewritten this section numerous times trying to make sure that I got the taxonomy correct, and sieving through a convoluted mess of information was one of the best headache providers I’ve encountered. But, without further ado, I give you a likely, most correct definition, for now, of what a dinosaur is (anticlimactic, I know).

Dinosaurs are considered diapsids, which means that they have specific holes on each side of their skull, and these are visible to us when we see them in museums. Diapsids are considered reptiles, just like crocodiles are. Thus, dinosaurs are reptiles — however, they don’t share in many of the same stereotypical traits that we normally associate to reptiles. That is, dinosaurs didn’t have sprawling limbs, nor were they cold blooded (they fell somewhere in-between warm and cold: called mesotherms). Birds are also diapsids, and are considered reptiles just like dinosaurs are; they, too, share in few of the characteristics we normally associate to the scaly reptiles. There, that wasn’t so bad.

Sue, the largest and oldest T. rex found. Note the characteristic diapsid holes in her skull.

With classification jargon out of the way, it’s time to tackle the sexiest of all dinosaur arguments: do they have feathers? And the answer is a resounding “yes”… sometimes.

There are five major groups of dinosaurs (I lied, more classification jargon coming): the sauropods, which contain the giant long necked dinosaurs like Brachiosaurus; the large grazers known as the ornithopods, which the crested Parasaurolophus is a part of; we have the group that the famous Tyrannosaurus belongs to, the theropods; there were the shield bearing thyreophorans that claim Stegosaurus; and the extremely difficult to pronounce marginocephalians, of which Triceratops belong to.

Only one of these groups has strong evidence for adorning feathers, and, thankfully, its the easiest group to pronounce, the theropods. Although there have been feather-like structures found in the other main groups of dinosaurs, only the species belonging to theropods have been shown to harbour the flight-feathers that we see in modern birds. These specific animals belong to what are known as the maniraptors, and contain all the raptors, therizinosaurs, and aves. That’s right, birds are dinosaurs — not merely descendants of them — actual dinosaurs. It makes geese seem all the more scary when they chase you down a hill (first hand experience) knowing that they have a thirst for blood in their genes…

This is NOT how Triceratops looked. They did not have feathers. If an article depicts this animal in this way, run…

So now that we know that most theropods had feathers (whether T. rex had them or not is up for debate), and some even had flight-capable feathers — a good question to ask is: why? What was the purpose of these animals having feathers in the first place?

Let’s look to modern birds for help. When I picture feathers, the first images that comes into my mind are long and beautifully coloured plumages — and one modern bird stands out among the rest in regards to opulence: peafowl, specifically peacocks. The general scientific consensus is that the iridescent plumage of peacocks evolved through sexual selection — though the exact reason why is still up for debate. Maybe having such colourful feathers is an honest indicator of one’s health and means that you are extremely fit; perhaps peahens associate the blue eyespots of tail feathers to their favourite food source, blueberries; or maybe peahens just originally liked males that looked like they ran through a Crayola factory and decided to mate with them. Either way, the trait for wild feathers stuck and took off.

Bringing this back 100 million years, scientists believe that dinosaurs originally used feathers for much of the same reason — to get laid. Dinosaur feathers were likely innocuous traits that had no real “primary function” at the time, and, instead, were used more as a visual signal to other dinosaurs around them. However, all evolution needs is a trait to be selected upon, and once feathered-dinosaurs existed, the original trait had the possibility to attain many uses down the road.

It’s important to point out, though, that evolution has no foresight. It doesn’t see a primitive trait and think “oh cool, I can make these animals fly now” — evolution just occurs through the non-random selection of random mutations, that’s it.

Archaeopteryx, a bird-like dinosaur. Note the long visible feather impressions.

Archaeopteryx, a bird-like dinosaur. Note the long visible feather impressions.

So, what was the next big step for feathered dinosaurs? Well, earlier I talked about how it was the theropod dinosaurs who had the feathers, and if you are a dino-buff, you know that raptors are theropods. Our most fantastical depictions of raptors have them jumping on large prey and slashing at them with their huge claws — and this is where we think the feathers came into play. You’ll notice that raptors were bipedal, this would make it difficult to maintain one’s balance while they slashed at the prey the stood atop — akin to you standing on a moving horse. Scientist have put forth evidence that raptors used their feathered arms for stability while holding on and attacking prey with their feet: using flapping motions to stay vertical. This idea is pivotal in the development of feathers and the origins of the flapping motion, and this brings us to our final point of discussion: how the development of flight occurred and how we got to birds.

There are a handful of hypotheses stated as to how flight fully developed. One such idea is the cursorial, or “ground up”, model. This idea puts forth the notion that birds started out on the ground and used flapping as a means of stability. However, it is an extension of this cursorial model that really has me interested. It’s called the wing-assisted incline running theory — and posits that light flapping enabled dinosaurs (and modern birds) to run up extremely steep inclines as a method of escaping predators, climbing, or hunting.

We don’t even need to travel back 100 million years to see this in action. Modern birds, as they develop from chick to adult, actively exhibit each stage of flight evolution detailed by the cursorial and the wing-assisted incline running theory as they transition towards fully flighted adults. In watching the development of a hatchling to an adult, we’re pretty much looking at hundreds of millions of years of flight evolution sped up to a few months’ time.

Standing over 6ft tall, this cassowary would totally love to go raptor on you. Just look at those soulless eyes…

The way I see it, theropod dinosaurs originally had feathers as a means of display for mating purposes. As sexual selection takes hold, feather adornment increases in its outlandishness, leading to the development of long feathers on the forearms of certain dinosaurs. Raptors then co-opted this physical adaptation to aid them in hunting and maintaining their balance by flapping their arms for stability. This was then taken a step further as dinosaurs used this flapping technique to run up steep inclines. Eventually, this led to the development of flight after thousands of successive generations of lighter dinosaurs being able to run up steeper and steeper inclines — until the ones who could generate lift began to survive the most.

And this brings us to birds: the result of millions of years of evolution selecting for lighter dinosaurs that could better avoid prey, resulting in the most advance theropods to ever walk on Earth.

Oh, and I feel like I should mention, much like my prior article regarding bringing back ancient species from the Pleistocene epoch, we’re trying to do the same with dinosaurs, too. Only, instead of using frozen animals, we’re genetically retrofitting modern birds. It may not be that long until we have a real Jurassic Park of our own — but this is a topic for another article.

So, the next time you come across a shady looking bird, just remember that it likely has millions of years of flesh eating terror imprinted in its genome and would likely jump at the chance to attack you. At least, that’s how I rationalize the thought process of menacing Canada Geese.


Image sources:

  1. Deinonychus antirrhopus. http://carlo-arellano.deviantart.com/art/Deinonychus-antirrhopus-414245032
  2. America, C. M. from C., United States of. 2012. English: Sue, the most complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen ever found
  3. Dinosaurs Feathers | TP Dinosaur. http://tpdinosaurs.hol.es/dinosaurs/dinosaurs-feathers.html
  4. Jebulon. 2009. English: A Peafowl flaring his feathers
  5. Raab, H. 2009. English: Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)
  6. Quartl. 2009. English: Single-wattled Cassowary(Casuarius unappendiculatus) in the Walsrode Bird Park, Germany
  7. Durbed. 2012. English: A scale chart of dromaeosaurids including Microraptor, Dromaeosaurus, Austroraptor, Velociraptor, Utahraptor, and Deinonychus (left to right)

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The Hygiene Hypothesis

This article is 100% shellfish free.

Allergies and autoimmune diseases: the tragic, internal conflict of man versus self. Allergies are the result of a hypersensitive immune system attacking a benign outside stimuli, and autoimmune diseases are when that stimulus is of one’s own body. Either way, there is one common factor linking both conditions: the immune system. Why, exactly, is our body acting rashly and lashing out against itself with, at times, fatal flare-ups? The mechanisms that cause the irrational responses are known; however, the reason as to why these mechanisms occur in the first place are still up for debate. An interesting idea is called the hygiene hypothesis, and it puts forth the idea that our obsession with cleanliness could be our downfall.

I’m sure you’ve heard the older generation talk about how, back in their day, kids used to roll around in the mud and get dirty and how everyone is too clean these days. Normally I just smile and nod during these conversations at family gatherings, but there is actually some merit to their points. The hygiene hypothesis posits that our need to be “clean and sterile” is what is leading towards the appearance of allergies and autoimmune diseases in children.

Going through the elementary school system, I vividly remember teachers lecturing us on how we were unable to bring peanut-based products to school any longer for fear that we may cause a fatal anaphylactic reaction in one of the kids of the class. My 10 year old self was pissed, I love peanut-butter. But that little incident would stick with me and make me forever curious about allergies.

Interesting side note: anyone notice how you just don’t meet people with allergies anymore as you age? I know there are tons of children with shellfish/peanut allergies, but what about the adults? Where did they go?

Soil transmitted helminths prevalence. Areas in white are least-to-no-concern.

Soil transmitted helminth prevalence. Areas in white are least-to-no-concern.

 

The hygiene hypothesis is a recent idea, and this makes sense considering that hygienic standards in large cities have only improved in the last few decades (mind you, the rise has been drastic). So, let’s pull up some interesting correlations that give evidence to this hypothesis. Developed  and industrialized countries have worked tirelessly in effort to completely eradicate all parasitic infections from within their borders. This is good (understatement), as there are numerous parasites that would be more than happy to call your intestines home and cause extremely painful and fatal infections. As industrialization proliferates, urbanization takes hold and moves rural families to urban city centres, and this removes childhood exposure to infectious organisms. However, this progress is tainted with the knowledge that over 1 in 5 children in these industrialized countries have an allergenic disease, and epidemiological maps display the information that:

The geographical distribution of allergic and autoimmune diseases is a mirror image of the geographical distribution of various infectious diseases, including HAV, gastrointestinal infections and parasitic infections

That is to say, wherever we have an absence of parasitic infections, we tend to have a prevalence of allergic and autoimmune diseases. This image illustrates the stark contrast in location the of Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) outbreaks and the prevalence of various parasitic infections. Note how North America, western and northern Europe, and Australia (all nations considered “industrialized”) have high incidences of T1D (greater than 8/100,000 per year — and upwards of 36/100,000) while nations generally considered “developing” all have low T1D incidences as well as high parasite infection rates.

img-hygiene-hypothesis

Another image showing the location of (non-specific) autoimmune disorders relative to parasitic infections

Okay, the discrepancy is very blatant — but maybe you’re not convinced yet. Perhaps you think that it’s unfair to compare countries separated by their industrialization level, and that there are likely genetic factors involved in autoimmune disease susceptibility. And to that, I give you the following example.

The first instance of noting the discrepancy in allergies and infections came about with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Dr. Erika von Mutius, an allergy specialist, decided to study the children that were once separated by the wall within the now consolidated country. Of the two halves, East Germany was heavily polluted and far less developed than its counterpart — and as such, Dr. von Mutius hypothesized that the children of the East would exhibit a higher incidence of asthma. She was taken aback when she observed the exact opposite — the children of the more developed West were the ones with significantly higher asthma rates (5.9% versus 3.9%) despite cleaner air and better hygienic standards. Hay fever levels also followed this pattern, and to a more severe extent (8.6% versus 2.7%).

These results are remarkable because the study removes the idea that there are significant genetic differences predisposing the children to allergies. Since the studied individuals were all of German descent and all from the very same country, the only major variable was exposure to infectious agents and overall cleanliness — meaning that environmental exposure was the major determinant of overall health.

A doctor treating a parasitic infection in Ethiopia

These results were replicated in 1973. Dr. Eric Ottesen, an allergy and parasite specialist, travelled to the island of Mauke and treated the locals for a tiny roundworm with the antibiotic diethylcarbamazine. He returned to the island 19 years later to find the wonderful result that the proportion of infected individuals dropped from 35% to 16%. However, in contrast to the decreasing trend of parasite infection was a startling increase in allergies and autoimmune diseases. Less than 3% of the islanders had allergies during Dr. Ottesen’s first visit, but this number rose to 15% by 1992. Hay fever, asthma, and eczema were now commonplace on the remote island; and worst of all, a new problem arose that no one on the island had experienced before: a dangerous allergy to the staple food-item, octopus.

So why is this all happening? What is the reason why autoimmune diseases and allergies are popping up when we remove parasites from one’s body?

It all has to do with how our immune system functions. We have two major pathways in what we call adaptive immunity (the part of the immune system that learns and remembers, and is in contrast to the innate immune system) — the Th1 and Th2 paths. To make it easier to understand, we can relate the two pathways of our adaptive immune system to the logging industry, with one being akin to clear cutting (Th1) and the other to selective logging (Th2).

When we suffer from an allergy, the Th2 pathway is what is to blame. It has become hypersensitive and begins attacking benign outside stimuli, like pollen. Many autoimmune diseases are the result of an overactive Th1 pathway (and at times even an overactive Th2 side, as well) and its hypersensitivity results in the unwarranted attack of one’s own body.

As you can imagine, when we are infected with a parasite, our bodies prepare an immune response. The Th1 pathway is the first to be activated, which is usually shut down by the parasite resulting in the Th2 side taking over. Either way, both sides of our adaptive immune system are functional at some point during the infection.

However, when we remove chance exposure to parasites from the environment, scientists believe (and data corroborates) that we develop an immature adaptive immune system that is willing to attack anything that it comes into contact with, regardless of the actual threat level of that stimulus. This then leads to children and adults developing allergies to nuts, shellfish, and strawberries — and to people essentially becoming “allergic” to their own body. Without a real threat to defend against, our body ends up picking fights with things that it has no business attacking, ultimately hurting itself in the process. And as seen with the natives of Mauke, the development of these conditions can arise decades into life as long as the parasites are removed from their body and the environment.

So, what am I getting at? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I guess an easy answer would be “don’t be so clean”, or “go swallow some Schistosome eggs if you want to keep eating peanut-butter” — but is that really the proper stance to take? I doubt it. Instead, I propose that we continue to eradicate tropical diseases from the world, seeing as they are a major source of morbidity and mortality; however, I also suggest that we use parasites to our benefit as a means of combatting horrible autoimmune diseases.

Researchers have known about the strange immune-response-interplay between parasite presence and the absence of allergies for years, and are using the tiny worms to our advantage in order treat many allergenic diseases through a process called helminthic therapy. Crohn’s disease, colitis, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and T1D are all autoimmune diseases that can be treated with exposure to various intestinal worms. So although we are actively looking to rid our bodies of these ugly parasites, it seems as though our relationship with them will not be ending any time soon.

Trichuris: a parasite that is being investigated for its therapeutic properties


References

I’m trying out a new reference style. Instead of having a super long list at the end of each document and little parenthesized numbers within the body, I’ll be hyper-linking my sources within the text body. Just click on the yellow words to go to that given source. I may keep it, I may not — we’ll see.


Image sources

  1. University, D. W., Illinois State. 2009. English: Electron micrograph of an adult male Schistosoma parasite worm. The bar (bottom left) represents a magnification of 500 μm
  2. WHO | Epidemiology. http://www.who.int/intestinal_worms/epidemiology/en/
  3. Hygiene Hypothesis for TSO. http://www.fortressbiotech.com/research-development/hygiene-hypothesis.cfm
  4. Italy, U. A. A. from V. 2010. Nursing student Mahammed-Ziad Ahmed administers de-worming medication, Shinile Woreda, Ethiopia, Oct. 19, 2010
  5. Bremser, D. for J. G. 1831. English: Trichocephalus dispar = Trichuris trichiura

 

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A Big Fracking Problem

There’s a high energy craze sweeping the nation. Long shafts are penetrating deep into dark crevices with explosive results, and concerned mothers everywhere are making sure their children stay indoors and as far away from it as possible. The new fad is called fracking, and unfortunately, this isn’t some questionable sex position out of a Cosmo magazine. Rather, it’s a method for extracting natural gas from the earth’s crust, and we’re now realizing how dangerous this mining practice is to our health.

Hydraulic fracturing combines two existing mining techniques: vertical and horizontal mining. A well will be drilled up-to 4km into the earth’s surface, and once proper depth is reached, horizontal drilling will commence (perpendicular to the vertical shaft). Along the horizontal path of the well, highly pressurized “fracking fluid” (a mixture of majority water, sand, and chemical additives) is ejected into shale deposits. This disturbance frees up natural gas trapped within the shale, which then flows to the surface to be extracted, processed, and sold(1).

With enormous shale gas reserves found under the crust of numerous countries, fracking is seen as a viable proxy for oil reserves, and is being used as an energetic buffer as we move towards renewable energy sources. Along with the hope of satiating our energetic demands, fracking is furiously stimulating the economy. Reported in an IHS Global Insight document, the jobs produced by shale gas, in 2015, should total over 800,000, and contribute over $100 billion in economic output (and this is just in the USA alone). The report further states that direct and indirect jobs created as a result of fracking will likely exceed 1.6 million by 2035 (this, too, only represents America’s development)(2)(3).

Canada looks to reap huge profits from the fracking boom. Solely under the surface of British Columbia, natural gas reserves are estimated to be in upwards of 2,933 trillion cubic feet(4). If a number that large is difficult to wrap your head around, it’s about the same volume of fluid that could be contained in 33 billion olympic swimming pools. And if that still doesn’t make comprehension any easier, then that means you’re beginning to understand just how large the quantity of natural gas located under Canada is. According to the Minister of Natural Gas Development, Rich Coleman, this quantity of natural gas is enough to support development and export operations for over 150 years; and this should hopefully be enough time for society to develop a viable means of sustaining our energetic demands with renewable energy(5)(6). The benefits of fracking extend nationwide, where opening natural gas mines have the potential to save the maritime provinces from their lacklustre economy(7). It seems as though no matter where you place a fracking well, quantifiably large sums of money are extracted along with natural gas.

Protesters against hydraulic fracturing

With all of these fantastical fiscal prospects, it truly pains me to report that fracking’s positive financial output is more than offset by its negative environmental, geological, and medical effects. For years, only speculation and personal anecdotes have surfaced regarding the detrimental impacts that fracking produced — however, scientists have listened to the public outcry, the data is finally in, and the outlook for fracking is rather bleak.

Earlier in this post I detailed the basic overview of how natural gas is extracted during a fracking operation — and if you were particularly keen or skeptical, you may have already formulated some questions regarding the environmental impact of this whole enterprise. Namely, what happens to all of this water being used? Although the chemical additives in fracking fluid amount to only 0.5% of its total composition — the compounds found within are rather alarming (at any concentration). Until recently, it was extremely difficult to get a hold of the makeup of any given mining company’s fracking fluid because the composition was protected as a “trade secret”(8)(9)(10)(11). This led to only speculation regarding the potentially hazardous components of the fracking slurry. It’s easy to understand why these mining companies are trying to keep everything so hush-hush, because when a profile of fracking fluid is leaked the the public, we get alarming studies which show us that:

More than 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40–50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations.(12)

In that same year, the United States House of Representatives released a study showing that a large quantity of the 652 different chemicals used in fracking fluid (with adverse effects detailed above) are known carcinogens, stating:

The oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens...(13)

You’ll notice that the above quotes use the terms “could affect” or “possible” quite liberally. So in efforts to dispel any potential skeptics regarding the dangers of fracking fluid, I took the liberty to conduct my own research and uncover many known human carcinogens found within the slurry. After a light skimming of the literature, I came across formaldehyde, sulphuric acid, benzene, and ethylene oxide (just to name a few)(13)(14). These chemical compounds stick out because they are characterized under Group 1 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer — this means that there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that these chemicals are carcinogenic to humans(15). That is to say, these chemicals transcend potentially causing cancer — we know that they do cause cancer. I found the presence of these chemicals after a quick browse, spending hours sieving through hydraulic fracking documents would likely uncover numerous other proven carcinogens present within the mixture.

Dirty water created as a result of fracking

Now, the content of fracking fluid is not a problem — or rather, it wouldn’t be a problem if seepage, leakage, and contamination were a non-issue. But, being the keen reader that I know you are, I’m sure you’ve already made the correct assumption that fracking wells have the tendency to leak from time to time.

Studies show that residences closer to fracking wells have significantly more methane gas (along with numerous other gases that act as a signature of the local well) present in their tap water — with upwards of 6x more methane (an extremely flammable and asphyxiant gas) present in the “potable” water of close houses relative to houses farther away(16). Aside from studies, there are numerous videos online demonstrating homeowners turning on a tap, holding a lit match to it, and having a fireball ignite before the camera exhibiting the flammable nature of the methane gas present in their water supply(17)(18)(19).

News is now surfacing of shady mining protocols being enforced by large companies (though, I guess that’s not really surprising news…). In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity received a copy of a letter sent to the EPA by the California State Water Resources Board. In a press release, the Center for Biological Diversity revealed extremely unsettling findings from this letter:

The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants. The documents also reveal that Central Valley Water Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitrates — contaminants sometimes found in oil industry wastewater — in water-supply wells near these waste-disposal operations(20).

Let’s go over that quote: Nine of the eleven decommissioned fracking wells were illegally disposing of contaminated fluid into aquifers protected by the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA). And in these aquifers, arsenic, a Group 1 carcinogen, was found in concentrations 4 times higher than the EPA’s standard for drinking water — and nitrates, toxic to humans and marine life, were found in concentrations between 5 and 13 times what is deemed safe by the EPA(21)(22)(23).

So how are fracking companies able to get away with these ridiculous transgressions, especially when the nearby aquifers are protected under the SWDA? Well, it conveniently turns out that, in what’s known as the Halliburton Loophole, hydraulic fracturing is completely exempt from all regulations set forth by the SWDA after congress amended the act in 2005 — and thus, any sludge that happens to manifest itself in underground water supplies is seen as an unfortunate occurrence and mere collateral damage(24).

Along with contaminating water supplies, hydraulic fracturing operations seem to have the strange tendency to increase seismicity around their wells and natural gas deposits. That’s right, the fracturing of shale rock formations deep in the earth’s surface is causing earthquakes in towns and cities across North America. Ever since fracking-well erections began to take off in the 90s, claims of earthquake activity has circulated, but no substantial evidence was ever put forth. However, on Thursday, April 23 2015, a news report was released by the United States government confirming that recent earthquakes, in regions that have historically low seismicity, have been the result of increased hydraulic fracturing operations(25). One state listed in the news conference stands out among the others: Oklahoma. This link shows the increase in natural gas extracted from shale since 2007 — note the 8-fold increase along that timeline(26). Compare that to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website which illustrates the massive rise in earthquakes and how it is proportional to the amount of fracking wells developed in the state(27). Now, of course, this is purely correlational — however, recent publications are putting forth evidence that fracking is causing these earthquakes rather than being a mere coincidence(28)(29).

So what’s the next step? Well, I’m not naïve enough to say that all of our energetic demands are able to come from renewable sources (at this present time in history, at least) — but I am wise enough to understand that many of our current methods of sequestering natural gas are resulting in more damage than benefit. We are an energy-addicted society, and it seems as though our energy consumption patterns won’t be changing any time soon. I certainly believe that fracking has the potential to quell many of our energetic concerns, but just not in its current form.

Natural gas-well ablaze


References

  1. Introduction – What is hydraulic fracturing? http://www.what-is-fracking.com/what-is-hydraulic-fracturing/
  2. America, T. B. D. The Benefits of Shale Gas Far Outweigh the Negatives of Fracking. http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/The-Benefits-Of-Shale-Gas-Far-Outweigh-The-Negatives-Of-Fracking.html
  3. http://www.ncsl.org/documents/energy/Hassenboehler_PPT.pdf
  4. The Ultimate Potential for Unconventional Petroleum from the Montney Formation in British Columbia and Alberta. https://www.bcogc.ca/ultimate-potential-unconventional-petroleum-montney-formation-british-columbia-and-alberta
  5. http://www.facultyassociation.ubc.ca/docs/Divestment-Forum_Perspective-Against-%28for-distribution%29.pdf
  6. B.C.’s natural gas reserves double previous estimates – British Columbia – CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/b-c-s-natural-gas-reserves-double-previous-estimates-1.2417050
  7. How Canada’s poor provinces can be rescued with fracking | Financial Post. http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/how-canadas-poor-provinces-can-be-rescued-with-fracking
  8. Fracking chemicals to stay “trade secrets.” http://rt.com/usa/fracking-wioming-judge-secret-010/
  9. Uneven State Rules And Trade Secrets Fuel Fracking Debate | March 16, 2015 Issue – Vol. 93 Issue 11 | Chemical & Engineering News. http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i11/Uneven-State-Rules-Trade-Secrets.html
  10. North Carolina Senate outlaws disclosure of fracking fluid secrets. 2014, May 22. Reuters.
  11. NWT fracking water license allows for company to keep “trade secrets.”
  12. Colborn, T., C. Kwiatkowski, K. Schultz, and M. Bachran. 2011. Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal 17:1039–1056
  13. Waxman, H. A., E. J. Markey, and D. DeGette. 2011. Chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff
  14. What Chemicals Are Used | FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry. https://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used
  15. IARC Monographs- Classifications. http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/
  16. Jackson, R. B., A. Vengosh, T. H. Darrah, N. R. Warner, A. Down, R. J. Poreda, S. G. Osborn, K. Zhao, and J. D. Karr. 2013. Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:11250–11255
  17. Light Your Water On Fire from Gas Drilling, Fracking. 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LBjSXWQRV8
  18. Do Not Drink This Water! 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ApZkNsXfJE
  19. Tap of Fire: Fracking in Texas risks gas in drinking water. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1A3x7AyIVo
  20. Documents Reveal Billions of Gallons of Oil Industry Wastewater Illegally Injected Into Central California Aquifers. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2014/fracking-10-06-2014.html
  21. www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/california_fracking/pdfs/UIC_WaterWell_Results_8-7-14.xlsx
  22. US EPA, O. Arsenic Rule. http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/arsenic/regulations.cfm
  23. US EPA, O. Basic Information about Nitrate in Drinking Water. http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/nitrate.cfm
  24. US EPA, O. Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing Under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Policies & Guidance. http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/wells_hydroreg.cfm
  25. Francisco, H. S. in S. US government says drilling causes earthquakes – what took them so long? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/24/earthquakes-fracking-drilling-us-geological-survey
  26. Oklahoma Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals from Shale Gas (Million Cubic Feet). http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/ngm_epg0_fgs_sok_mmcfm.htm
  27. Record Number of Oklahoma Tremors Raises Possibility of Damaging Earthquakes. http://earthquake.usgs.gov/contactus/golden/newsrelease_05022014.php
  28. Angeles, A. P. in L. Oil and gas drilling triggers man-made earthquakes in eight states, USGS finds. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/23/oil-gas-drilling-triggers-man-made-earthquakes-usgs
  29. Scientists Say Oil Industry Likely Caused Largest Oklahoma Earthquake. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/03/130329-wastewater-injection-likely-caused-quake/

Image sources

  1. Fracking. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sfupamr/14601885300/
  2. Activists protest fracking outside Gov. Cuomo’s office, New York. https://www.flickr.com/photos/credofracking/8071486738/
  3. Ban Fracking and shale gas in Europe before it is too late! https://www.flickr.com/photos/greensefa/8002422441/
  4. Instagram, J. B. F. T. T. Much Of North Dakota’s Natural Gas Is Going Up In Flames. http://www.npr.org/2014/01/30/265396179/much-of-north-dakota-s-natural-gas-is-going-up-in-flames

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The Lost World

Bringing an organism back from the dead is a quirky topic that unites both science fiction lovers and conservation biologists. It’s a safe assumption that you, my faithful readers, have watched, or at least know the premise of Jurassic Park. The concept of bringing back animals that once roamed the earth millions of years ago captured the imagination of everyone who watched it. Ever since that movie came out, society has patiently waited for our own T. rex petting zoo — but scientists have continually disappointed us (I don’t know what the delay is, it seemed pretty easy in the movie). However, with the discovery of an extremely well preserved woolly mammoth carcass in the Siberian tundra, the concept of bringing animals back from the dead has been given new life. And with the possibility of reemergence, conservation biologists are looking to the past as a means of saving the forests of North America from a surprising pest.

It turns out that a particular species of ruminant has ballooned in population numbers, and the overabundance of this even-toed ungulate has detrimental consequences to crops and the sustainability of North American ecosystems on whole. If you couldn’t sieve through the science jargon, I’m talking about Bambi. That’s right, the cute white-tailed animal of Disney is throwing our ecosystems out of whack, and may even lead to a mass extinction event in the future.

White-tailed deer are native to North America, and as such, enjoy eating native flora. However, since their populations are so large, herds of deer completely decimate grasslands and forests of their native plants, allowing non-native invasive species to enter and set up camp(1)(2). This is where the problem lies, and humans share part of the blame for this potential catastrophe.

At multiple times over the Pleistocene epoch (as far back as 640,000 years ago, and as recent as 13,000) mass extinctions took place wiping out 71% of large mammalian species in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Environmentalist Tim Flannery stated in his book, The Eternal Frontier :

ever since the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, the continent has had a seriously unbalanced fauna(3).

The exact reason for this extinction event is not certain, however an emerging idea is the second-order predation hypothesis. In summary, it states that humans over-hunted predators (not herbivores), and this led to the overabundance of herbivore species that were now free to reproduce unchecked. As prey populations increased, their habitats were unable to support their increasing numbers as the herbivores incessantly browsed and grazed, this lead to mass death of the large mammals at every trophic level. This hypothesis has support from mathematical models that corroborate its validity(4)(5).

We notice some troubling similarities to the past in comparison to our current position. Human hunting of top-level predators that are perceived as threats cause their species numbers to drop, and the wolves and cougars that are untouched by humans live in fragmented forest habitats preventing them from suppressing herbivore populations(6), this then leads to the rampant overpopulation of deer and the destruction of native flora by this overabundance. This is an eerily similar situation to the one we got ourselves into tens of thousands of years ago.

So what are our solutions? Well, you may think that we can simply increase hunting efforts in order to cull the ruminant population. However, hunting isn’t the answer(7), and based on our track record for completely decimating populations when hunting/fishing is unregulated (collapse of cod fisheries ring any bells?), we would likely create an equally horrible situation where we end up with too few deer with little hope of recovering their numbers(8).

Scientists propose a different — and so much cooler — method of keeping deer populations regulated, our forests full of native plant life, and increasing biodiversity in the process. The plan is called Pleistocene rewilding, and it involves bringing the modern analogues of species that roamed the earth thousands of years ago back into their former habitat. And aside from filling the various ecological niches that were left vacant after the most recent extinction event(9), we would be able to have top predators introduced to help suppress our current deer problem.

So now we have our pick of the litter. There exist numerous ecological equivalents to the top predators of the past, and you may be surprised to learn what species used to roam the, not so ancient, lands of North America. We had a massive cat known as the America Lion, weighing up to 740lb and over 4ft tall at the shoulder(10) — its African cousin would make a perfect fit. An American Cheetah roamed the New World; related closer to pumas than cheetahs, it developed cheetah-like characteristics through convergent evolution(11). Scientists believe the existence of this cheetah helps explain why pronghorns are capable of running at nearly 90km/h — since this speed easily surpasses that of both wolves and cougars(12). Once again, the extant African species would be used to fill this ecological niche.

However, you may notice a problem with the animals I proposed to fill their ancient ecological roles above: they live in hot, arid savannahs — and Canada can get pretty chilly. This little problem puts a damper on which apex predators we can bring over to help control pest population. Though, there is one animal that thrives in winter environments, and it just happens to be the largest predatory cat available — the Siberian tiger. This massive beast already feeds on the various species of deer present in the northeastern forests of Asia, and its introduction into North America would aid in our current efforts to raise its poor population numbers. The Siberian tiger would fill the ecological role that was occupied by the American lion and Smilodon: the sabre-toothed cat.

Tiger walking in the snow

Great, it seems like we have a solution to a problem that would likely spell the demise of our North American ecosystems. Now we just need some public acceptance and we can fly these tigers over within the week… This is likely the largest hurdle to overcome. The knowledge that we would have numerous 600lb tigers roaming our forests would cause utter chaos among the general populous. Large-scale opposition was seen regarding the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park (and would most certainly be present with tiger introduction). Ranchers completely opposed the idea, citing that wolves destroy livestock and are considered a plague on their way of life(13). However, the benefits of wolf reintroduction are staggering and have rectified the problem of elk overpopulation within Yellowstone, facilitating an increase in native floral biodiversity(14). While wolf reintroduction would take far longer in areas outside of national parks(6), and waiting for wolf population numbers to increase naturally could take decades — tiger introduction would be immediate and would confer numerous benefits (in ecosystem stability and by increasing tiger populations). But of course, this is wishful thinking and, as I’ve stated before, answers to difficult problems are never simple.

Earlier I spoke about Jurassic Park and alluded to the possibility of bringing back once extinct animals. This fantastical idea has reemerged in public discourse with a recent Vice news report detailing the finding of a woolly mammoth carcass in Siberia that has enough viable tissue to potentially clone the species(15)(16). This would enable us to enact Pleistocene rewilding using the actual animals from that time period. However, there are ethical dilemmas that arise with this sort of topic — I believe Dr. Ian Malcolm said it best:

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. — Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park

That is, who is truly benefiting from reviving extinct animals? Is it the species that potentially gets another shot at evolutionary success? Or would humanity use this scientific triumph as a conduit for financial gain? Being engrossed in science all my life, I am unconditionally in favour for the progression of knowledge — and I feel like trying to bring back an extinct species to determine if the feat is possible is acceptable and noble. However, it’s what we do with the knowledge that “un-extinction” is possible that I am worried about. Like any science/animal lover, I would be ecstatic at the potential to have an island theme-park full of sabre-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and dinosaurs. But if we don’t plan on creating a self-sustaining population of mammoth, the only animals that would be benefitting would be the humans.

In an earlier article, I detailed how the ignorant will, with good intentions, put forth easy solutions to problems completely out of their scope. Although I would like to say that the answer to deer overpopulation is as simple as airdropping some big cats into the Great White North, I understand that I’m oversimplifying things: public displeasure/fear would prevent swift approval, not to mention the potential that using tigers as a means of biological pest control could backfire and throw the food-web into disarray, as has happened numerous times in the recent past(17)(18). However, lowering the ruminant population is vitally necessary for the stability and sustainability of North American ecosystems, and predation seems to be the most viable option for realizing this solution. That is, until we can bring back Deinonychus and Smilodon (in self-sustaining populations), tigers will be our best bet. And I’m personally thrilled at the idea of being able to travel 5 hours north to see one of my favourite animals roaming free and in good numbers. Just don’t forget to bring your bear tiger spray.


References

  1. Eschtruth, A. K., and J. J. Battles. 2009. Acceleration of Exotic Plant Invasion in a Forested Ecosystem by a Generalist Herbivore. Conservation Biology 23:388–399
  2. Deer proliferation disrupts a forest’s natural growth. http://mediarelations.cornell.edu/2014/03/07/deer-proliferation-disrupts-a-forests-natural-growth/
  3. Flannery, T. 2002. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. Grove Press
  4. Barton, C. M. 2004. The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Human Biogeography. University of Arizona Press
  5. Whitney-Smith, E. 2004. Clovis and Extinctions–Overkill, Second Order Predation, Environmental Degradation in a Non-equilibrium Ecosystem
  6. Mushegian, A. 2008. REWILDING NORTH AMERICA. Harvard Science Review
  7. Lin, D. 2013. Hunting Isn’t the Answer to Animal “Pests.” Time
  8. Frank, K. T., B. Petrie, J. S. Choi, and W. C. Leggett. 2005. Trophic cascades in a formerly cod-dominated ecosystem. Science (New York, N.Y.) 308:1621–1623
  9. Janzen, D. H., and P. S. Martin. 1982. Neotropical anachronisms: the fruits the gomphotheres ate. Science (New York, N.Y.) 215:19–27
  10. Christiansen, P., and J. M. Harris. 2009. Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:934–945
  11. Barnett, R., I. Barnes, M. J. Phillips, L. D. Martin, C. R. Harington, J. A. Leonard, and A. Cooper. 2005. Evolution of the extinct Sabretooths and the American cheetah-like cat. Current biology: CB 15:R589–590
  12. Byers, J. A. 1997. American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations and the Ghosts of Predators Past. University of Chicago Press
  13. Our National Parks » Reintroduction of wolves brings controversy. http://www.ournationalparks.us/park_issues/reintroduction_of_wolves_brings_controversy/
  14. Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines. http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=15-P13-00012&segmentID=5
  15. The Mission to Clone the Woolly Mammoth. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-mission-to-resurrect-the-woolly-mammoth
  16. Cloning a Mammoth is Only the Start. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/cloning-a-mammoth-is-only-the-start
  17. Biocontrol backfires again. http://www3.scienceblog.com/community/older/2002/C/20025043.html
  18. Wright, M. G., M. P. Hoffmann, T. P. Kuhar, J. Gardner, and S. A. Pitcher. 2005. Evaluating risks of biological control introductions: A probabilistic risk-assessment approach. Biological Control 35:338–347

Image sources

  1. Puffin, F. 2011. In the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada). The display is from 1979, and the fur is musk ox hair
  2. Overgrazing by deer is changing the face of U.S. forests | EarthSky.org. http://earthsky.org/earth/overgrazing-by-deer-is-changing-the-face-of-u-s-forests
  3. Jaguar, T. T. 2012. Tiger walking in the snow
  4. Antón, M. 2004. Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain (2004) National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.:  National Geographic ISBN 9780792271345, ISBN 9780792269977

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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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Charles Darwin

The Golden Age of Scientific Denial

I certainly didn’t think that I would ever have to write a blog about this topic, but the cover story of the March issue of National Geographic told me otherwise. The War on Science is real, and scientific illiteracy may have a greater impact on society now than ever before.

That’s right, we’re talking about those who deny that humans ever landed on the moon, those who hold strong in their conviction that evolution never happened (or my favourite: that it’s just a “theory”), those who are vehemently afraid of genetically modified foods, those who believe in the psuedoscience of astrology, and those who choose not to vaccinate their children in fear that they will somehow develop autism.

I guess living in Toronto and attending the University of Western Ontario has spoiled me — I rarely come across a person that doesn’t subscribe to the theory of evolution. So that’s why it was such a shock when I learned that in a representative survey conducted by the National Science Foundation:

…48% of respondents said they thought it was true that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,”(1)

You read that correctly — less than half of all Americans accept evolution as the mechanism by which humans came to be on this planet. This result is also strikingly similar to the proportion (44%) of people who pick blue as their favourite colour(2). Coincidence?

When I saw this number I originally gave the respondents the benefit of the doubt: “Maybe they were never introduced to the theory of evolution, so it’s natural that they wouldn’t accept it.” But then the National Science Foundation released this stat as a follow up:

but 72% gave this response when the same statement was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution.”(1)

I’ll tell you why this discrepancy is unsettling. This jump in acceptance illustrates that there are people who remotely understand what the theory of evolution claims and what the “evolutionists” state to the public, but still choose to not accept it. That is, only when “according to the theory of evolution” prefaces the original question do respondents answer correctly — exposing their blatant disregard for mountains of scientific evidence and research. I would have much preferred that both questions had similar proportions of correct responses. At least then we would have been faced with the much simpler task of introducing the ignorant to the concept of descent with modification, rather than our current situation where we stand against the large camp of people who willingly brush the evidence under the rug.

Creation Museum

Vegetarian T. Rex coexisting with a human at the Creation Museum

Don’t for a second think that the people of the United States of America are the only ones who score poorly on these tests. Us Canadians fared slightly better than our southern cousins, but it is extremely disturbing to find out that 13% of Canadians do not know that the earth orbits around the sun(3). These are people that maintain a worldview consistent with the scientific community of over 500 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if these same individuals spent their free time trying to turn lead into gold.

On a less extreme and more comical side are the astrologists. And in a rudimentary effort to disprove astrology, I’d like you all to read the following passage regarding the Libra (born between September 23 to October 22):

When it comes to professionalism and traditional values, Libra wins hands-down. This practical sign loves to tackle life in the most conventional of ways, leaving no stone unturned. Considered the most serious-minded of the signs, the Libra possesses an independence that allows for considerable progress both personally and on the job.

If you know a Libra, this describes them perfectly. The problem is that this passage was originally written for a Capricorn (December 22 to January 19). Don’t believe me? Follow my citations(4). Now, astrologers don’t pose a literal threat to science, but do so in a metaphorical sense. Astrologers aren’t rioting, book burning, or jailing — but their beliefs do undermine scientific discovery and remove personal responsibility by putting one’s fate into the hands of astronomical alignment.

Syringe

Pointy syringe photos are used by anti-vaxxers to instill fear and pain

Arguably the most damaging scientific denial that takes place today is through the anti-vaccination movement (known as anti-vaxxers). They hold the conviction (based on a retracted study published in 1998 that I refuse to cite in an effort to get this notion out of popular discourse) that vaccines are in some way linked to the development of autism in children, and new statements even claim that vaccines are physically harmful to children in general. They completely ignore the data showing that vaccinations eradicated smallpox(5), nearly all incidences of polio(6), have reduced bacterial meningitis infections by 99%(7), and prevent 14 million infections annually(8). However, like cancer, the anti-vaxx campaign spread and metastasized with the aid of celebrity endorsements and spokespersons — and its damaging effects are now beginning to be realized.

Measles, a disease once declared “eliminated” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention(9) has now reemerged as an impending threat as more parents deny their children life saving vaccinations(10). In an effort to reason with the unreasonable, a website was created that aimed to quantify the amount of humans that have been diagnosed and died from a preventable disease as a result of the anti-vaxxer movement(11). Drastic? Yes. But it is unfortunately necessary as this body count will only increase as the anti-vaccination movement continues to spread.

Scientific literacy has created such a dichotomy in society that stating your subscription is no longer a testament to how you reason as a person; rather, it is a statement regarding what camp you belong to, what groups you’re apart of, what table you can sit at during lunch, and what school of fish you swim with(12).

As scientifically literate individuals, our triumph has the ability to be our downfall. The strict adherence to the scientific method is what has, and will continue to, allow us to achieve monumental successes in science. However, it is this constant second guessing, revision, and skepticism that allows for the scientifically illiterate to make headway. In his book, Mortals and Others, philosopher Bertrand Russell states:

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.(13)

Despite this, I do not blame the scientific method — doing so would be ridiculous. The scientific method has facilitated innumerable discoveries and paradigm shifting realizations. Science has taken many blows in the past — it has been jailed, excommunicated, executed, and set ablaze. Yet after each disaster the pillars of discovery were rebuilt stronger than before. The amazing thing about science is that even if you deny it, it’s still true. The only way to remove the blemish on people’s minds is to calmly educate and continue to push forward with research. If two people yell, neither is heard — and it is our camp’s duty to remain calm.

Flat Earth


References

Original story idea: The Age of Disbelief, written by Joel Achenbach, photography by Richard Barnes

  1. S&E Indicators 2014 – Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding – Highlights – US National Science Foundation (NSF) . http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/index.cfm/chapter-7/c7h.htm
  2. List of USA Survey Results. http://awp.diaart.org/km/usa/survey.html
  3. Council of Canadian Academies | CCA | Science Culture: Where Canada Stands. http://www.scienceadvice.ca/en/assessments/completed/science-culture.aspx
  4. Capricorn Profile by Horoscope.com | Get your Free Capricorn Profile. http://my.horoscope.com/astrology/horoscope-sign-profile-capricorn.html
  5. Fenner, F. 1988. Smallpox and its eradication. World Health Organization, Geneva
  6. Sutter, R. W., and C. Maher. 2006. Mass vaccination campaigns for polio eradication: an essential strategy for success. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology 304:195–220
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002. Progress toward elimination of Haemophilus influenzae type b invasive disease among infants and children–United States, 1998-2000. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report 51:234–237
  8. Park, A. 2008, June 2. How Safe Are Vaccines? Time.
  9. Orenstein, W. A., and M. J. Papania. 2004. Defining and Assessing Measles Elimination Goals. Journal of Infectious Diseases 189:S23–S26
  10. Measles — United States, January 1–May 23, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6322a4.htm?s_cid=mm6322a4_w
  11. Anti-Vaccine Body Count. http://www.antivaccinebodycount.com/Anti-Vaccine_Body_Count/Home.html
  12. The Age of Disbelief. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/barnes-photography
  13. Russell, B. 1998. Mortals and Others Volume II: American Essays, 1931-1935. Psychology Press

Image sources

  1. Darwin, L. 1874. Photograph of Charles Darwin taken around 1874 by Leonard Darwin
  2. Anthony5429. 2007. This is a photo I took on 2 June, 2007 at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, United States
  3. Kübelbeck, A. 2007. Insulin type syringe ready for injection. Patients view
  4. Ferguson, O. 1893. A “flat-Earth” map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893

 

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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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