Re-tracing the Fram’s 1893 polar voyage

Now here’s a research trip I’d love to join: a re-tracing of the Fram’s 1893 voyage. Wow. It’s going to happen in 2019, so there’s plenty of time for the organizers to send me an invitation.

Do you know about the Fram? I’ve been on it, and that was a highly memorable visit. Here’s a bit about the ship from the Fram Museum website:

The Fram was the first ship specially built in Norway for polar research. She was used on three important expeditions: with Fridtjof Nansen on a drift over the Arctic Ocean 1893-96, with Otto Sverdrup to the arctic archipelago west of Greenland – now the Nunavut region of Canada – 1898-1902, and with Roald Amundsen to Antarctica for his South Pole expedition 1910-12. The Fram is now housed and exhibited in the Fram Museum at Bygdøynes, Oslo. [continue]

Wikipedia has more about the Fram.

Anyway, the Guardian tells us a bit about the 1893 voyage, and notes that scientists will repeat the Fram’s crossing of polar ice cap:

In 1893 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen embarked on a mission of extraordinary boldness and ingenuity. He planned to become the first person to reach the north pole by allowing his wooden vessel, the Fram, to be engulfed by sea ice and pulled across the polar cap on an ice current.

Ultimately, Nansen ended up abandoning the Fram and skiing hundreds of miles to a British base after he realised he was not on course to hit the pole, but the ship made it across the ice cap intact and the expedition resulted in groundbreaking scientific discoveries about the Arctic and weather patterns.

Now, more than a century on, scientists are planning to retrace this epic voyage for the first time, in the most ambitious Arctic research expedition to date. [continue]

Doesn’t that sound amazing?

(Photo credit: Thanks to Ealdgyth for sharing the photo of the Fram at Wikimedia Commons.)

What about those invasive crayfish?

What if the creatures in the lake near you aren’t really supposed to be there? From Hakai Magazine, this is Amorina Kingdon’s article on invasive crayfish in Washington state: Pinch Me.

In Pine Lake, as in many waterways across the Pacific Northwest, native signal crayfish and invasive red swamp crayfish are duking it out, and the red swamps seem to be winning. (To be called “invasive” and not just non-native, a species has to cause ecological damage.) Kuehne and Chunlong are working with University of Washington freshwater ecologist Julian Olden, who has been holding the line at Pine Lake for six years. Along with the study I’m observing today, he’s distributed crayfish traps to the lake’s residents, asking them to release native signal crayfish and “dispose” of any red swamps they catch, trying to see if citizen science can beat back an invasive species and help the signals recover. That’s why Kuehne, Chunlong, and I are disappointed to see the red swamp.

But should we be? Around the world, humans have introduced different species of crayfish into each other’s territories, where they sometimes thrive, sometimes barely survive, and sometimes wipe out the native populations. A species such as the signal crayfish might be the underdog here, but a hostile invader in European waterways. When it comes to crayfish, choosing sides is never simple. Should humans try to correct the damage—or should we leave well enough alone? [continue]

Woolly mammoth on verge of resurrection

Woolly mammoth on verge of resurrection, scientists reveal. And they are apparently quite serious about this. (!) From the Guardian:

The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.

Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.” (…)

I am particulartly interested in this part of the article:

Church, a guest speaker at the meeting, said the mammoth project had two goals: securing an alternative future for the endangered Asian elephant and helping to combat global warming. Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.” [continue]

A cull to save the kelp

Ah, kelp. It’s an amazing seaweed, which is supposed to grow in profusion all over the place. (Well, I don’t know about your part of the world, but certainly in mine.) In recent years people who care about the ocean environment have been alarmed at the decrease in kelp. What is up with that? Apparently there are a number of causes, and many community groups are working to change the situation and encourage kelp growth.

If you’re not familiar with kelp (or even if you are!) you might want to see Lost Coast’s page on kelp. That has a good photo, and a lot of fascinating facts about the plant.

Now on to this article from Hakai Magazine: A cull to save the kelp.

Terry Herzik has been diving for red sea urchins in Southern California for more than 40 years. He supports his family by selling the spiny invertebrates’ gonads as the sushi delicacy uni. Yet over the past century, Southern California’s giant kelp ecosystems—the red urchin’s home turf—have been under assault. Spurred on by human-induced environmental degradation, a booming population of voracious, kelp-munching purple urchins has helped turn these once-lush forests into barren wastelands. In such a diminished habitat, the red urchins’ numbers (and their gonads) have shrunk.

So, three years ago, Herzik joined an ambitious project spearheaded by the nonprofit The Bay Foundation to restore Southern California’s kelp forests, and he’s been killing purple urchins in droves ever since.

“We go down with geology hammers and smash them,” Herzik says. Their approach isn’t particularly high tech, but it works.

To date, Herzik and the other project participants (including biologists, fishers, and community volunteers) have killed 3.3 million purple urchins, clearing 142,000 square meters of seafloor of the animals. As a result, the kelp has bounced back. [continue]

I hadn’t heard of this approach. On the west coast of Canada, we have a number of groups working to restore kelp beds. The strategies I’ve heard them talk about are things like re-seeding kelp beds, encouraging boaters to not use motors in kelpy areas (because propellors slice through kelp), and so forth. But sea urchin smashing? Who knew that would work?

Ethiopian farmers made a desert bloom again

From Grist: Ethiopian farmers made a desert bloom again.

In the steep fields of Ethiopia’s highlands, when rain falls on the parched, overworked land it runs downhill, carrying soil with it. Farmers commonly lose 130 tons of soil per hectare a year, comparable to the worst erosion documented on U.S. farms in recent history. Then, because the water has all rushed downhill, instead of seeping underground, wells go dry. Without water, crops wither, and that exposes bare soil to further erosion.

This cycle turned a watershed in Adisghe County, Ethiopia, into a near desert, prompting the government to consider moving the farmers. Instead, they decided to try to rescue the land. With the help of an international project called Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING), they began building dams, terraces, and recharge ponds. They planted trees on hilltops and planted cover crops on degraded areas. [continue]

Water meadows

Caught by the River has a lovely post on water meadows.

In his excellent book The History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which we lose our landscape: the loss of beauty, of freedom, of wildlife and vegetation, and of meaning. There’s also a fifth way in which we can lose our landscape: by forgetting.

Water meadows – true water meadows that is – were found alongside many rivers in England, but it was the chalk rivers of the South that lent their unique qualities particularly well to the creation of what has been called the pinnacle of intensive farming before the industrial revolution. In a historical context intensive is a term which, when compared to the mechanised, economically driven farming that holds sway over much of our countryside today, rather pales into insignificance. True water meadows were not just meadows alongside rivers that were flooded in times of high flows, but meadows that were purposely flooded or drowned – the men carrying out the flooding were called drowners – using an artificially dug channels. They ranged from simple gravity fed systems to a complex plexus of sluices, hatches, drains, mains, carriers and channels. The idea was not to flood the meadows with standing water which would kill the grasses, but to have a constant stream or trickle of water flowing into, across and then out of the meadow. By drowning at particular times of year, and preventing frosts, Spring growth on a water meadow occurred earlier. Livestock would benefit from the ‘early bite,’ and a harvestable hay crop also occurred earlier. [continue]

The wood wide web

From The Atlantic: The wood wide web.

In 1999, a team of scientists led by Christian Körner did what thousands of people do every Christmas: they wrapped Norway spruce trees in tubes. Except this was in March, not December. And the trees were 40-metre-tall giants in the middle of a Swiss forest, not 2-metre pipsqueaks in a living room. (The team had to use a crane). And the tubes had no lights or baubles on them. Instead, they had a series of tiny holes, which pumped out carbon dioxide.

For years, the team fumigated five of these wild spruces. They wanted to see how trees will cope with the high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we’re pumping into the atmosphere. But in the process, and almost by accident, they showed that trees of different species exchange huge amounts of carbon via an internet of fungi—a “wood-wide web” that secretly connects their roots. [continue]

How cool is that?

Genetically altering ecosystems to save them from climate change

From Nautilus: This Man Is Genetically Altering Ecosystems to Save Them from Climate Change.

On a chilly afternoon last October, at a University of Northern Arizona conference, Thomas Whitham, a plant geneticist, proposed a plan to save hundreds of species from extinction. For the last several years, Whitham said, he and his colleagues had used a series of experimental gardens to study how plants are being affected by warming temperatures—in near real-time—and how their populations might evolve due to climate change.

In these gardens, located in various ecosystems and elevations around the Southwest—from deserts to alpine forests—Whitham planted different genotypes of the same species. This enabled him to identify superior genetic lines, the genotypes that can best handle environmental stresses. The results are the culmination of a thirty-year race against climate change to create ecosystems capable of responding to a warming world.

But Whitham’s work isn’t solely focused on the future. His focus on helping critical species, and the communities they support, to survive climate change has led him to collaborate with some of the largest names in conservation—the Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service. Preliminary results from his experimental gardens, 10 in total, suggest that species have already shifted their range in response to changing temperatures. On the lower Colorado river, Whitham is applying what he’s learned to advise the Bureau of Land Management what tree species to replant after forest fires. “If they get it wrong, and plant trees that can’t handle the increasing heat,” Whitham says, “they’ll lose the whole $626 million [reforestation] project.” [continue]

I hike in the woods every day. Anybody who is trying to preserve the forest has my attention.

Starved for fire, Wisconsin’s pine barrens disappear

When humans rush to extinguish every wildfire, wildfires are not the only thing extinguished. From Science Daily: Starved for fire, Wisconsin’s pine barrens disappear.

A century spent treating wildfires as emergencies to be stamped out may have cost Central Wisconsin a natural setting that was common and thriving before the state was settled.

Pine barrens once stretched like a scarf around the state’s neck, from the northeast down across Central Wisconsin and up again northwest to Lake Superior. As recently as the 1950s, University of Wisconsin-Madison surveys conducted by botany Professor John Curtis and graduate student James Habeck described the sandy, open spaces dotted with pin oak and jack pine and dashed with the lavender of lupine and the purple of blazing star.

“We know that the pine barrens used to be common in Wisconsin before European settlement, but now only about 1 percent of the original area remains,” says Daijiang Li, a current UW-Madison botany graduate student. With botany Professor Donald Waller, Li authored a study in the journal Ecology outlining the factors driving a deep shift in the increasingly rare plant communities that once inhabited the Central Wisconsin pine barrens. [continue]

It’s illegal to throw out good food in France

It’s not often that news of a new law cheers me, but this one’s great. From Mother Jones: This Is the Unprecedented New Law France Just Passed to Eliminate Supermarket Waste.

On Thursday, France’s parliament unanimously approved a new law prohibiting large supermarkets from throwing out unsold food, instead mandating stores donate any surplus groceries to charities or for animal feed use. (…)

The new regulations will also ban the common practice of intentionally destroying unsold food by bleaching it—a process meant to prevent people from searching for food in dumpsters, which has lead to lawsuits after people became sick from eating spoiled food. [continue]

So, let’s just do this everywhere.

New study captures stunning diversity of ocean microbes

From New study captures stunning diversity of ocean microbes.

The sunlit upper layer of the world’s oceans is teeming with tiny creatures that seem to have jumped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss tale, with exquisite see-through bodies, bulging eyes and an array of glowing colors. These mysterious sea characters may form the bulk of ocean life, new data from a three-year voyage suggests. [continue].

Well. Does that make you more or less likely to swim in the sea? Anyway, you’ll want to go see the photo.

Fort Nelson First Nation uses fire to save bison, limit wildfires

Fighting fire with fire! And also saving bison. From the CBC: Fort Nelson First Nation uses fire to save bison, limit wildfires.

Using a helicopter and a machine that pumps out 100 flaming ping-pong balls every minute, a team from the Fort Nelson First Nation recently took to the air to set fire to almost 3,000 hectares of forest in the Liard River area in northeastern British Columbia.

It’s part of the First Nation’s ongoing efforts to help a threatened herd of wood bison.

“Prescribed fire is very important to keep range land open, as far as the ability to access forage and vegetation for bison,” said Sonja Leverkus, an ecologist working with the First Nation. [continue]

The job of setting large fires for the good of eveything wouldn’t suck.

Ancient skills ‘could reverse global warming’

From The Independent: Ancient skills ‘could reverse global warming’.

Ancient techniques pioneered by pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians are about to be pressed into service in Britain and Central America in the most serious commercial attempt yet to reverse global warming.

Trials are to be started in Sussex and Belize early in the new year, backed with venture capital from Silicon Valley, on techniques to take carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, where it should act as a powerful fertiliser.

The plan is to scale up rapidly into a worldwide enterprise to reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, in the atmosphere and eventually bring it back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. [continue].

The woman with a tiny carbon footprint

From The Guardian: The woman with a tiny carbon footprint.

We all know we are meant to be reducing our carbon footprint, but I suspect that many people wouldn’t be prepared to go as far as Joan Pick. She hasn’t driven a car since 1973 and has only been in a petrol-guzzling vehicle twice since then (once in the hearse at her mother’s funeral, the other time when an ambulance came to pick her up after she dislocated her shoulder). Her gas supply was cut off sometime when the last Labour government was in power, and her electricity usage is minimal. She eats only raw food and the only items she ever buys are new trainers – because she gets around by running everywhere. Pick is 67 and claims her lifestyle keeps her healthy. "I’ve been living on nothing for the past 35 years," she says.

She isn’t, you gather, an average sort of person. She is charming, in her tracksuit, ready to go out running, with her hair pulled into a baseball cap bearing the symbol of the high-IQ society, Mensa. A scientist for many years, she has a mind that darts off in different directions and it can be hard to keep track of [continue].

Tree fungus could provide green transport fuel

From The Guardian: Tree fungus could provide green transport fuel.

A tree fungus could provide green fuel that can be pumped directly into tanks, scientists say. The organism, found in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces a mixture of chemicals that is remarkably similar to diesel.

"This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist from Montana State University who led the work. “We were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons."[continue]

Up, up and away

From the New York Times: Up, Up and Away.

Shara and Scott Di Valerio wanted to build a deck for their hot tub, a place to relax in the woods on their five acres east of Seattle. But at some point, as they found themselves up in a stand of fir trees with a majestic view of Mount Rainier, their perspective shifted. What began as a 12-by-12-foot platform grew into a virtual treehouse complex: hot tub, living room (with phone, cable, Internet), writing alcove, observation platforms. Despite its inviting suspension bridge and 100-foot zipline, this is no kids’ tree fort. A typical evening among the gently swaying firs involves several grown-ups, a dip in the hot tub, Champagne and a few rounds of canasta. "It’s a way to be in nature," Shara Di Valerio said. She let out a deflating laugh and quickly added: "Although it’s a luxurious kind of nature. It isn’t camping." [continue]

Sounds good to me.

Montreal rolls out bike-sharing plan

From the Globe and Mail: Montreal rolls out bike-sharing plan.

Paris has Vélib, Barcelona has Bicing, and as of today, Montreal will start to showcase its own European-style bike-sharing program with a fetching name: Bixi.

The city better known for Grand Prix racing and automobile worship rolled out a green, two-wheeled alternative that civic officials hope will help re-brand Montreal into one of North America’s most bicycle-friendly cities.

Bixi — a contraction of bicycle and taxi — offers up a straightforward formula: Use a membership-acquired "smart" key or credit card to unlock a bike at a docking station. Ride. Return the bike to a station at any location. [continue]

Samsø, the Danish island living off-grid

From The Guardian: Isle of plenty.

Jorgen Tranberg looks a farmer to his roots: grubby blue overalls, crumpled T-shirt and crinkled, weather-beaten features. His laconic manner, blond hair and black clogs also reveal his Scandinavian origins. Jorgen farms at Norreskifte on Samso, a Danish island famed for its rich, sweet strawberries and delicately flavoured early potatoes. This place is steeped in history – the Vikings built ships and constructed canals here — while modern residents of Copenhagen own dozens of the island’s finer houses.

But Samso has recently undergone a remarkable transformation, one that has given it an unexpected global importance and international technological standing. Although members of a tightly knit, deeply conservative community, Samsingers – with Jorgen in the vanguard – have launched a renewable-energy revolution on this windswept scrap of Scandinavia. Solar, biomass, wind and wood-chip power generators have sprouted up across the island, while traditional fossil-fuel plants have been closed and dismantled. Nor was it hard to bring about these changes. ‘For me, it has been a piece of cake,’ says Jorgen. Nevertheless, the consequences have been dramatic. [continue]

Continue reading

Are towns really safer without traffic lights?

From Are towns really safer without traffic lights?.

BOHMTE, GERMANY — When Ulrike Rubcic heard that her town would take down all of its traffic lights, she rolled her eyes in disbelief.

Tucked between cornfields and cow meadows, the main street in this bucolic northern German community was also a thoroughfare with thousands of cars and trucks zooming to or from nearby Osnabruck. "Are we waiting for the first accident?" she thought then.

But this summer the town reworked its downtown thoroughfare, not only scrapping the traffic lights but also tearing down the curbs and erasing marked crosswalks. The busiest part of the main street turned into a "naked" square shared equally by bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trucks. Now, there is only one rule: Always give way to the person on the right.

Two months into the experiment, [continue]

Earthworms to aid soil clean-up

From the BBC: Earthworms to aid soil clean-up.

Scientists have discovered how metal-munching earthworms can help plants to clean up contaminated soils.

Researchers at Reading University found that subtle changes occurred in metals as worms ingested and excreted soil.

These changes make it easier for plants to take up potentially toxic metals from contaminated land.

Earthworms could be the future "21st Century eco-warriors", scientists suggested at the British Association Science Festival in Liverpool. [continue]

100 goats turned loose on a downtown L.A. plot

From the LA Times: 100 goats turned loose on a downtown L.A. plot.

The hills were alive with the sound of munching.

In fact, the only things that seemed missing Monday when a herd of goats climbed up a weed-choked lot in the Bunker Hill high-rise district were Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family singers.

Leaders of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency hired 100 goats to nibble away thick weeds on a steep slope at the corner of 4th and Hill streets, next to the Angels Flight funicular.

Agency officials said the goats were cheaper and more environmentally friendly than two-legged brush-clearers armed with gasoline-powered weed-whackers.

And they are much more fun to watch, downtown office workers and other passersby quickly decided, as the animals fanned out over the 45-degree slope and chowed down. [continue, see photo]