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Jungle Tag

The Coniferous Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA


References

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

Image sources

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

 

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Triumph in the Congo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virunga mountain gorillas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

Image Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned Train

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

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


References

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

 

Image sources

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

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