Friday, 31 January 2020

'Affordable' Housing in National Parks?

It has been argued that more affordable (which often means 'cheap') homes need to be built in National Parks in the UK to avoid young people and workers in those parks being priced out of the market (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/29/more-affordable-housing-should-be-built-in-national-parks). It is clearly the case that many of the parks attract people who can pay for expensive second homes (in some cases rarely used) and that house builders sometimes sit on building land to maximise their profits. I do fear, however, that the construction of 'affordable' homes might change the nature of the parks themselves (it's not much of a park, if it's built on). It would also be difficult to control the resale of such properties (they might well become second homes?). I appreciate that many people like to own their house but would it not be a better to encourage the parks authorities to build housing, with the very highest environmental specifications, for rental to young folk or their own workers? This would solve the problem of enabling people to remain in the area whilst also controlling the problems of resale and environmental issues.

Out of Africa (and Back?)

It was believed that only Homo sapiens from Asian and European stock carried Neanderthal genes, as a result of the former leaving Africa and interbreeding with Neanderthals they encountered in 'new' continents they arrived in. A recent study, from Princeton University in the USA, appears to show, however, that Africans do carry Neanderthal genes, albeit at a smaller percentage than Europeans (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/30/neanderthal-genes-found-for-first-time-in-african-populations).The researchers point out that, although it has been thought for many years that our species originated in Africa, before migrating out, there have been relatively few detailed studies on the genes of human populations on that continent. The results strongly suggest that some individuals who migrated out and interbred with Neanderthals, had progeny who migrated back to Africa (carrying some Neanderthal genes with them). It remains to be determined whether some of the more ancient African lineages, such as the bushmen, have Neanderthal genes

EU or Non-EU?

I try to avoid politics wherever possible (it's hardly based on Science and I don't really understand it) but there is an interesting study from the Dutch on the impact of EU environmental laws. They basically did a study where they attempted to contrast what would have happened to their country's environment with and without the EU regulations on environmental standards (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/30/pollutionwatch-where-would-we-be-without-eu-environmental-laws). In essence, without the agreed legislation, they believe that levels of particulates in the air of their cities would now be similar to those in China and India with a resulting reduction in life expectancy. There would also have been more damage from acid rain as well as dirtier water courses and beaches. Of course, without the EU, The Netherlands might well have strengthened its environmental protections over this period but a) it's easier to do when it's agreed conjointly and b) acid rain, 'greenhouse gases', particulates and pesticides are no respecters of borders.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Watering Down the Advice?

I have often suspected that the current obsession with the dangers of dehydration in everyday life in the UK is overplayed. It is frequently claimed that, without 8 large glasses of water per day, your vigour, skin and eye brightness will all suffer. People are also told that they should rehydrate before they feel thirsty. I have frequently been surprised that students going into a 45 minute lecture, apparently feel they will not survive the session without taking (a frequently expensive) bottle of water in with them. It now appears that many of my suspicions are realistic (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/27/the-truth-about-hydration-should-you-drink-eight-glasses-of-water-a-day). There appears to be little real evidence that not fully topping up with water has any negative effects on vitality and the appearance of your skin and eyes . In sport, a 1% loss of body fluids has been shown to have little impact on performance. Most people can effectively regulate their body fluids by drinking when they feel thirsty (the exceptions may include the very young and the very old where things can be a bit more 'fuzzy') as this achieves a good balance (excess water is removed by the kidneys). There is also evidence that drinking too much water can kill if it seriously disturbs electrolyte balance.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Seeing the Changes 1371


Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria) was in flower in Loughor.

I am not a Plant!

There has been a flood of stories about a new enthusiasm for a whole range of exotic fungi for food preparation in the UK driven by a desire to develop 'plant-based foods' as alternatives to meat and seafood (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/25/vegan-veganism-exotic-mushrooms-shiitake-meat-substitute). I know it will be seen as hair-splitting but fungi are an entirely separate Kingdom of life from the plants. It would be more accurate to describe the new foods as being 'non-animal based'. If we are going to eat another Kingdom, we might as well be Biologically accurate.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Deep Exploitation

The rush to exploit the seabed is causing real concern as nations vie to extract metals from the deeps, increase the areas occupied by fish farms, build new offshore wind-farms and lay down cables (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/25/race-for-seabed-threat-to-oceans). Somewhat counter-intuitively, one impetus for the first of these activities is a desire to be 'greener' as solar and wind power technologies require rare metals. Fish farms also occupy large areas and may introduce disease into wild fish stocks. The wind farms and communication cables also change the nature of the seabed and their populations. 

Friday, 24 January 2020

Lucid Thinking?

Workers in Italy have established that the heat of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in AD79 turned the brain of one young male victim (possibly a caretaker) in Herculaneum into glass (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/22/mount-vesuvius-eruption-victim-brain-glass). This is most unusual as brain tissue is rarely preserved (except as a soapy gloop) but the black shards from the skull were shown to have proteins that are only found in neural material.

Bushmeat?

The human cost of the bushfires still ranging in Australia has been immense but it has also recently been estimated that roughly (very?) a billion animals have died in these conflagrations (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/video/2020/jan/22/why-it-could-take-a-century-for-australias-animals-to-recover-from-the-bushfires-video-explainer). It has been speculated that some unique mammals may take a century to recover their populations. This is making, of course, the very big assumption that they will have a century without widespread bushfires to recover in. That seems inherently unlikely.

Going Viral

The outbreak of coronavirus infections in the Central Hubei region of China appears to be having a massive local impact with a lockdown having been imposed in the city of Wuhan where many cases have been recorded (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/24/coronavirus-chinese-hospitals-in-chaos-as-lockdown-spreads-to-affect-25m-people). The virus, like many infections, (also including bacteria, especially antibiotic resistant strains) appears to be linked to the production, transport and consumption of food substances (if people live and work in close proximity to animals, it makes facilitating the infective agent's jump between species so much easier). Of course, the problem is not limited to China as rapid global transport is clearly already moving the virus around the world (a fact exacerbated by the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations). UK universities (including my own) are already warning that the Chinese students that they teach might well be delayed by travel restrictions and checks. The race is on to development an effective vaccine as antibiotics don't work on viruses but this might well take 6 months.

Dethroning


Surveys have shown that the numbers of the impressively migratory (Canada to Mexico) Monarch butterfly in the coastal region of California have declined from 4.5 million in the 1980s to around 29k in current times (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/22/monarch-butterfly-population-decline-california-coast). This means that their numbers have declined to less than 1% of their earlier total in only 40 years. Most of the decline has been linked to habitat loss but climate change might well play a role.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

It's Raining Reptiles


Yet another indication of climate change are the reports of chilled iguanas falling from the trees of Southern Florida (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/22/iguanas-cold-florida-freeze). It makes a change from raining 'cats and dogs'!

Planting the Idea of Food


There is no doubt that it makes more sense, environmentally, to make an increased proportion of our diet plant- based (each stage in the flow of energy in food systems, results in a loss due to the generation of heat). Having said all that, it is clear that food producers are always attempting to give us a reason to eat their products. So I can't help but agree with some of Joanna Blythman's comments on Veganuary (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/22/veganuary-animal-foods-plant-vegan). It is certainly not the case that plant foods are uniformly good (monocultures and residue pesticides can be problems) and all animal foods bad (grazers are needed in many cases to maintain grassland habitats). Like Blythman, I do worry that in the rush to produce vegan burgers, sausage rolls and steak bakes, the consumer is often unaware of the nature of the ingredients going into their generation. It sometimes looks more like chemistry than healthy food production,

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

A Bigger Slice

It has been reported that humans, in spite of concerns about climate change and species loss, are now annually consuming more than 100bn tonnes of the Earth's materials (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/22/worlds-consumption-of-materials-hits-record-100bn-tonnes-a-year). This record total includes hydrocarbons, metals, wood and building materials. Somewhat counterintuitively, given the messages we receive, the proportion that is recycled is falling.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Seeing the Changes 1370


Both male and female flowers out on the Hazel (Corylus avelana) of Penclacwydd.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Do Humans Really 'Risk Living in an Empty World'?

A UN spokeswoman on biodiversity has claimed that humans, by continuing to cause mass extinctions (just like a giant meteor hit), 'risk living in an empty world' (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/20/humans-risk-living-in-an-empty-world-warns-un-biodiversity-chief-aoe). Most of her points are made very effectively (that there is too much talking about the issue but much less doing) but I worry about this headline. Even with our technologies, it may not be possible for humans to avoid driving themselves to extinction by wrecking the systems that maintain complex life. There is a danger that microbes will re-inherit a much-changed planet. 

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Going to Pot to Fight the Superbugs

Yet another medical use for a cannabis extract (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jan/19/cannabis-compound-could-be-weapon-in-fight-against-superbugs). Studies have reportedly shown that cannabigerol, a non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, is very effective in killing the most common of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). MRSA is common (and difficult to eradicate) in hospitals and gyms where it causes difficult-to-treat infections. This could be really important as traditional antibiotics are becoming less and less effective.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Bringing Down the Giants

Giant redwood or Sequoia are supposed to live for thousands of years in the parks around the Sierra Nevada on the west coast of the USA but, recently, a number have been dying prematurely (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/18/this-is-not-how-sequoias-die-its-supposed-to-stand-for-another-500-years-aoe). It appears that this might be related to climate change (reducing water provision and increasing fire damage), which makes the trees less resistant to boring beetles that infest their tissues. Under more normal conditions, the trees are resistant to these pests.

Seeing the Changes 1369

In spite of night frost in Loughor, Marigold was in flower.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Oiling the Wheels?

Palm oil is an ingredient that is almost ubiquitous in foods and many house-hold products. The problem is that it is produced in many parts of the world by programmes of deforestation to accommodate the Palm oil plantations. Many of the western companies that use palm oil have realised that this is not a good look (especially as it endangers photogenic animals like the Orang-utan) and they have undertaken to reduce (or even phase out) their impact on deforestation. A recent report suggests, however, that very few of the food companies who publicly trumpet their undertaking have achieved much in relation to their avowed aims (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/17/biggest-food-brands-failing-goals-to-banish-palm-oil-deforestation). They talk the talk without walking the walk.

Could You Be Reported For Reading This Blog?

It is definitely concerning that a police counter-terrorism briefing document directed to medical staff and teachers in the UK reportedly includes non-violent organisations such as Extinction Rebellion; Greenpeace; Sea Shepherd and Stop the Badger Cull  along with traditional extremist right-wing neo-nazi and  jihadist groups (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/17/greenpeace-included-with-neo-nazis-on-uk-counter-terror-list). It seems to me that the definition of 'terrorism' has been stretched, in this case, to include any activity that might interfere with commercial activity or the status quo. Given the fact that a substantial proportion of  the population have genuine and legitimate  concerns about the direction (or lack of direction?) of environmental policy in this country, the document appears to block their right to peacefully demonstrate. Perhaps the 'banana republic' is already here?

Frog March

Scientists in the USA have reportedly designed 'living robots' from frog stem cells (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/13/scientists-use-stem-cells-from-frogs-to-build-first-living-robots ). The tiny 'organisms' are made from combinations of passive skin cells and contractile heart cells  and can be designed, using algorithms, to move on 'legs' in a particular direction or to have a collecting pouch. The hope is that they can be utilised for a variety of tasks such as collecting microplastic particles in the oceans or clearing plaque from the coronary arteries (which increases the chance of a heart attack). There would, presumably, have to be detailed trials before they were let loose on the world?

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Let the Train Provide the Strain?

A report confirms that HS2 (the provision of a fast line to connect train services in London to Northern English cities) will, not only cost a good deal more than was initially planned, but will have a major detrimental impact on the environment (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/15/hs2-will-destroy-or-damage-hundreds-of-uk-wildlife-sites-report). It will reportedly destroy many wildlife sites with experts simply not accepting that 'remedial' plans (e.g. replacing a cut down tree with one elsewhere) actually achieve anything that is meaningful. There is no doubt that taking a train is better than flying but there must be ways of achieving necessary travel in a better way.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Cold Wash?


Apparently, a 25 degree Centigrade clothes wash is the best for the environment as it can clean garments but minimises the release of microplastics (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/shortcuts/2020/jan/15/25c-wash-is-greenest-can-it-really-clean-filthy-clothes). The difficulty appears to be getting the detergent manufacturers to get their products working efficiently at lower temperatures.

Seeing the Changes 1368


Possible indicators of climate change are the flowering of Primrose (Primula vulgaris) and cultivated Daffodils around Loughor.

Beardie!

Researchers from Durham university, although they found in earlier studies that beards could signal dependability to women, now report that some females fear facial hair (https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jan/15/scientists-cite-parasite-factor-in-beard-attractiveness-debate). Although in modern times male grooming can be generally thorough, women who have a stronger response to ectoparasites (fleas and lice) show an aversion to beards. The authors speculate that this is a carry over from earlier times when there would be a greater fear of transmitted disease.

Bread and Circuses?



It seems that the convenience and economics of people has (at least temporarily?) defeated concerns  over climate change, as news that the UK government is to consider dropping the surcharge on short-haul flights has steadied financial pressures on Flybe (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/14/flybe-saved-after-successful-last-ditch-talks ). I suspect that it will become harder and harder to defend judgements making that call (especially when it's a minority of folk who take repeated flights).

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

A Shorter Hop to Climate Change?

An interesting conundrum appears to be taking place in the UK. The new government promised that they would ensure better connectivity of the regions (e.g. Cornwall, The North-east and Northern Ireland) with major cities such as London to spread economic development. It now appears that our  largest short-haul plane company, Flybe, is in financial difficulties and they have pleaded to have a 'tax holiday' on their payments of duty (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/14/flybe-saved-after-successful-last-ditch-talks). The duty (aircraft fuel is not taxed in the same way as that for cars) was intended to generate money to off-set the very substantial greenhouse gases used by this mode of transport. Although it might well be possible to limit any such relief to short-haul flights wholly within the UK, the mechanism would also currently have to be offered to other carriers. Fail to give the 'holiday' and connectivity (and jobs) are likely to suffer. Give the holiday and climate change might well be further accelerated and the UK's already wobbly 'green' credentials take a hit.

Friday, 10 January 2020

The Green, Green Grass of the Himalayas


Satellite imaging is revealing a substantial spread of grasses and shrubs up the flanks of the Himalayan mountains (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/10/grass-growing-around-mount-everest-as-global-heating-intensifies ). This is clearly related to climate change and may not sound too big a deal but the mountains are the source of the 10 biggest rivers that provide the people of Asia with most of their water (the rate of melting of the glaciers has doubled in the last 20 years). The increased vegetation near the mountain peaks (the so-called subnival region where snow is only present for part of the year) may well increase the probability of flooding events in those regions.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Squids In?

Scientists have reportedly (and with great difficulty) got cuttlefish to wear 3D-glasses in a mini aquatic cinema, showing shrimp movies, in an attempt to determine how they judge distance to make a strike with their tentacles (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/08/scientists-play-shrimp-films-to-cuttlefish-in-3d-vision-study). The starting point seemed to be that it couldn't be as simple as the stereopsis technique (relying on the slightly different images from the left and right eyes) used by humans and other mammals. The study appears to show that they do use stereopsis but that the information is processed rather differently in the mollusc's brain.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The End of Farming and Trawling?

George Monbiot has written an interesting article (and has a due TV programme) extolling a the virtues of a company, Solar Foods, in Helsinki who are in the later stages of developing a process powering microbes in tanks with hydrogen (obtained from water) to rapidly produce a whole range of viable nutrition agents (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/08/lab-grown-food-destroy-farming-save-planet). He suggests that, with safe-guards (such as making the technology freely available), this might well result in a total replacement of agriculture and 'farming of the sea' seen as major contributors to climate change, habitat loss and species extinction. The point is made that the best sites for these food-generating tanks might well be deserts and this would facilitate a re-wilding of the very substantial (and water-hungry) areas currently occupied by farming (as well as removing incentives to destroy forests). I am not so sure. In the case of the hydrocarbon industries, money and political pressure have been successfully used to largely prevent any reductions in their usage. Powerful farming and fisheries companies, as well as agrichemical industries, might well do the same for their products (often using employment as an argument?). It is also the case that getting the right nutrition is a very minor consideration in the eating habitats of most humans. The effects of status are evident in the demands of newly enriched folk for more animal protein. People still have 'magic' beliefs in the powers of rhinoceros horn and tiger bone that are unlikely to be replicated in a bacteria-generated facsimile even if it was chemically identical. Farming and fishing are also romanticised as 'traditional' (and with numerous votes) and should, in many people's eyes, be protected. There is also clearly an element of theatre in cooking, as is seen in a plethora of popular cookery programmes. Bacteria-derived foods may well prove helpful in feeding the planet but I am not sure it will "save our bacon".

Monday, 6 January 2020

Carbon Foot-prints Vary Greatly in Size

It is obvious that the contributions of different groups of people to the release of greenhouse gases varies considerably but the calculation by Oxfam and people in the UK take on average only 2 weeks to reach the annual levels of Africans in Rwanda is very striking (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/05/britain-annual-carbon-emissions-overtake-africa-two-weeks-oxfam). I suspect that this may be an under-estimate that is bound to get worse if commercial space flights take off. 

Reinserting Insects?

A collection of scientists have claimed that the brewing 'insect apocalypse' can be reversed if we now make dramatic, urgent changes in the ways that humans act in agriculture and other ways (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/06/urgent-new-roadmap-to-recovery-could-reverse-insect-apocalypse-aoe). They argue that we must first identify which species are the most important herbivores, detritivores, parasitoids, pollinators and food species for maintaining a healthy and diverse ecology (this, of course, will vary from area to area and people might well feel differently about some species e.g. the wasp and the mosquito). They then suggest that we must rapidly curtail the use of insecticides, as well as reducing habitat fragmentation and the introductions of alien species. I personally feel that this collective action is even less likely than coordinated efforts to limit  climate change. Hoping that I am wrong.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Russians Spectulate on the 'Advantages' of Climate Change

It is  somewhat worrying that, although apparently not recognising that climate change is exacerbated by human activity (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/05/russia-announces-plan-to-use-the-advantages-of-climate-change), the government of that countrysees some advantages in global warming (such as reduced energy needs, increased areas for viable agriculture and improved navigation of the Arctic). They reportedly do recognise that some challenges and dangers will be generated by the process but the ambivalence does not bode well for joint action.

Seeing the Changes 1367

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) brightly in flower in Penclacwydd.

Friday, 3 January 2020

World-wide Plastic Pollution Seems Likely to Increase

In spite of the increased UK enthusiasm for limiting the pollution caused by plastics of the world's seas and beaches, the prospects for a cleaner environment appear extremely poor (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/02/year-plastic-pollution-clean-beaches-seas). In many parts of the world, there appears to be little that people can do to recycle these hardy and ubiquitous materials. It is also pointed out that the US boom of fracking has made ethylene much more easily available (and this is a building block for many plastics). In deed, it is predicted that plastics production will increase at least into the 2030s.

Science and the Rhythm Method

Laura Spinney has written an interesting article, roughly comparing Science to the rhythm method of contraception (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/26/science-advances-genetics-ai-attacks-politics). She reiterates that science (observation, deduction, making testable predictions, doing balanced tests [often with results requiring modification or rejection of the original deduction] and replication by others) is a methodology that has yielded extraordinary advances in many areas when 'rigorously applied' but which can also be misused, ignored or attacked by interest groups. Spinney points to advances in the last decade in physics (confirmation of the existence of long-predicted particles); astronomy (proliferation of exoplanets); genetics (determining more about the origins, development and early migrations of our species) and artificial intelligence (with its potential applications for good). She also lists some of the mistreatment of science by racists, technologists failing to abide by agreed ethical constraints and vested interests. There is, however, a major difference between science and the rhythm method as the former gives benefits when applied appropriately whereas the latter routinely fails when not followed rigorously. I still think that one of the biggest areas of concern, however, is the failure of many companies and governments to fully respond to the issues surrounding climate change and losses of biodiversity. I suspect I am not alone. 

Musseling Out

A low tide and unusually hot conditions have reportedly resulted in whole beds of mussels being cooked to death in their shells on beache...