Saturday, 29 February 2020

No Flies on These?

Scientists in Ghent are experimenting with the larvae of Soldier flies to make a 'butter' that can be added to cakes, biscuits and other foods  (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/28/larva-fat-sustainable-alternative-butter-cakes). You simply soak the maggots in water and use a blender to extract the fat. The thinking is the these larvae are much more efficient in their food processing and land use than dairy cattle (plus they neither produce methane to intensify global warming nor unwanted calves). These are all important points but will they manage to overcome the yuk factor? 

Seeing the Changes 1380

They are a bit bedraggled, but the Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) are coming into flower in Bynea.

Seeing Reds

Scientists have reportedly found sufficient genetic diversity in Chinese and Himalayan Red pandas for them to be regarded as separate species (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51632790). This is likely to have a profound effect on the conservation of these animals (the 'species' is not as numerous as was thought and the pressures on the populations may well be different). Although the Chinese Red panda is well represented in China, animals with similar genes are also found in Myanmar and parts of Tibet whereas the Himalayan version is found in Northern India, Butan and Nepal.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Herring Gulls Return the Compliment

Nico Tinbergen and his colleagues did lots of studies on the Herring gull, especially in relation to the concept of the sign stimulus. A researcher from Exeter University has recently shown that Herring gulls now study humans with a view to locating food items (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/26/gulls-observe-humans-to-home-in-on-tasty-scraps-study-finds). They reportedly are more likely to take items that humans have pretended to eat.

River Flood Plains Make a Comeback?

The flood plains of UK rivers, including the Thames, were there for a reason (to take away excess waters when flooding events occurred) but, over the centuries, we have straightened the rivers and built houses and palaces  on these over-flow areas. There is now a project to 're-wild' the Thames flood plain (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/27/rewilding-project-aims-give-thames-flood-plain-back), a move that appears timely given the increased rate of flooding and the predicted further rises in sea levels. But, as is pointed out by the leaders of the Thames project, there is an urgent need to educate the general public about the reasons why this is desirable and why simple flood defences are not a long-term solution in many places.

Preventing the Extinction of the Concrete Dinosaurs?

The Victorian concrete dinosaurs (devised in former times for educational reasons) of Crystal Palace park are reportedly cracking up (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/feb/28/crystal-palaces-lifesize-dinosaurs-added-to-heritage-at-risk-register ) and have been placed on the heritage at risk register. The reasons for the damage are unclear but might be related to earth movements or changes in the water-table. 
I must admit to a liking for these, not always totally realistic, constructions but do wish that more attention (and money?) would be directed to actual endangered organisms. 

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Which Trees?

As I have already suggested, if you intend to plant trees as one means of countering climate change and improving biodiversity, it is essential to decide what species of tree to plant and where to put them. An outgoing head of UK forestry has now amplified this message (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/26/firs-fair-uk-must-embrace-conifers-in-climate-fight-says-forestry-chief). He claims that, in terms of removing carbon dioxide from the air, some despised alien conifers are actually superior to broad-leaved trees favoured by some conservationists (and they can be planted at higher densities). He also suggests, not unreasonably, that it would be better to plant mixtures of tree species to reduce the possibility of diseases sweeping through the new woodland areas (monocultures are very prone to disease).

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Reaping More Than You Sow?

China has belatedly closed down more than 19,000 wildlife farms that, until recently, were being strongly encouraged as a fast way for rural communities to become richer (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/25/coronavirus-closures-reveal-vast-scale-of-chinas-secretive-wildlife-farm-industry). The farmed animals were designed to produce animals for consumption or for generating material for traditional medicine. The trouble is that some experts now feel that the recent coronavirus outbreak is linked to this activity. In deed, one of the animals that people were being encouraged to breed on these farms is the Civet cat that has been linked to the not wholly dissimilar Mers viral outbreak.

Who Would Have Guessed That Poverty Can Reduce Your Lifespan?

Although there are some diseases associated with over-consumption (and wealth), it hardly surprises that relative poverty has now been claimed to account for the differences in lifespan in people living in different parts of the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/24/austerity-blamed-for-life-expectancy-stalling-for-first-time-in-century). Poverty clearly alters access to and success in education (and  will consequently influence the jobs we do). It also has major effects on the quality of the housing in which we live, the food that is eaten (especially if it comes from foodbanks) and general lifestyle (not many poor people pay a gym subscription). It just seems that people have been worried about making the link in case it generates a media backlash. It's now a bit difficult to ignore as life expectancy is actually declining for some groups (e.g. poorer women in the NE) after years of improvement.

Added Hazard For Couch Potatoes

In addition to the lack of exercise and likely weight gain, occupants of UK and US sofas are reportedly exposed to banned flame retardants, such as deca bromodiphenyl ether (deca BDE), which is very mutagenic i.e. cancer-causing (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/26/toxic-sofa-eu-red-tape-flame-retardants). Although deca BDE was banned in Europe in 2019, the breast-milk of women in these 2 countries contains record levels of this dangerous chemical. Rather than finding other means of reducing the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattress's, it seems likely that, in this country, in spite of the Environmental Audit Committee's concerns, deca BDE will simply be replaced by other potentially dangerous flame retardants.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Giving Back by Not Taking

The waters around the Isle of Arran were denuded of life following a decision, in 1984, to allow bottom trawlers and dredgers to operate near the shore. Subsequent public pressure resulted in a No Take Zone being created in this area in 2008 and the result has, reportedly, been a transformative increase in biodiversity and rocketing populations of fish and molluscs (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/25/how-no-take-zones-revived-one-devastated-scottish-fishery-isle-of-arran). This just shows what can be done by a relatively simple decision to have a properly protected marine area. It is even likely to benefit fisheries outside the area.

Love Nature Lost?



There is an interesting account of how just walking in natural locations, starting with visits to Walthamstow Marsh Nature Reserve, helped with both mental health  and addiction issues (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/feb/25/ecological-grief-i-mourn-the-loss-of-nature-it-saved-me-from-addiction#img-1). The benefits to that individual appeared transformative (and hardly unique). The 'rider' to the account is much less positive as she rightly notes that much of the natural world/ park land in the UK is disappearing and/or being degraded. This suggests that it will be much more difficult in the future to extract benefit by communing with nature.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Seeing the Changes 1379

Ramping fumitory (Fumaria capreolata) blooming early in Bynea.

Nevermind the Welfare- Feel the Price!

The new Environmental Secretary for the UK has reportedly refused to rule out the possibility of allowing (unlike the EU) the import of chlorine washed chicken and hormone-augmented beef into the country as part of a trade deal with the USA (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/23/george-eustice-refuses-to-guarantee-ban-on-chlorinated-chicken). One of his lines of logic is, that washing with chlorine is 'old-fashioned', and  more US chicken producers are now cleaning carcases with lactate. Does he not understand that washing with any antibacterial agent is an attempt to compensate for the poorer housing and husbandry systems that are allowable in North America? This hardly fits with the claim that we are aiming for the best food safety and animal welfare standards.

Sand-blasted Canaries?

News that the Canary Islands are currently experiencing sand storms redirected from the Sahara is not exactly a unique event but it does appear rather more extreme than is usual (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/24/british-tourists-stranded-in-canary-islands-after-saharan-sandstorm-blows-in). It's impossible to establish a link on the basis of one event but this could be yet another piece of evidence for climate change. It's a bit sad, if you go away on holiday to escape the rain only to get sand storms instead.

What Don't They Get?

It seems pretty weird but reportedly it is planed to build more than 11,400 new homes on flood plains in England (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/23/more-than-11000-homes-to-be-built-on-land-at-high-risk-of-flooding). These have a very high risk of flooding (with a lowered ability to be insurance) and are generally within or close to areas already suffering from repeated flooding. I know that people want homes but preferably not underwater!

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Out of the Box?

The coronavirus outbreak that appears to have initially started in China has now been found to be infecting numerous people (and in some cases killing a percentage) in other parts of the world' notably in Iran, Italy and South Korea. Authorities are suggesting that we may have reached a 'tipping point' when a pandemic cannot be easily avoided (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/23/world-is-approaching-coronavirus-tipping-point-experts-say). The numbers of people involved combined with our highly-dispersive travel habits on boats, trains and planes make it very difficult to confine this virus that may be passed in the air we breathe. In this respect, it is showing similar characteristics to the annual outbreaks of influenza which always tend to go worldwide.

Insects and Humans at Mutual Risk?

Experts have claimed that, if the insect losses continue, things will become very difficult for humans (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/20/fates-humans-insects-intertwined-scientists-population-collapse). They suggest that, although it is often unclear what precisely is going wrong for each of the declining 6-legged species, there are some obvious things that can be done.  We could greatly increase the sizes of reserves (with a reduced focus on bird and mammal species); reduce the spraying of harmful chemicals; cut our lawns less frequently and leave dead wood in our gardens. Insects are a very necessary part of terrestrial ecosystems.

Seeing the Changes 1378





More spring-like activity around Bynea. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) was coming into leaf in places. Goat willow (Salix capra) was showing its catkins and the first of the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) was in flower. The marble galls of Andricus kollari were very prominent on Oak.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

March of the Bots

A study from Brown University, in the USA, suggests that, on an average day, around 25% of the thousands of tweets concerning the climate crisis are generated by bots (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/21/climate-tweets-twitter-bots-analysis). Bots (web robot software applications) basically run automated tasks over the internet at a much higher rate than humans could manage. The vast majority of presumably bot-generated tweets support the climate change denial agenda. Given that Twitter allows any content (true or otherwise) about the climate crisis, this means that the denial message is much more prominent and dispersed on the internet than it has any right to be. It would be very interesting to know who pays for these bots. The likelihood must be that, at least in some cases, they are people who would lose money if responses to the climate crisis were taken seriously.

Convert Your Buildings Into Mangrove Equivalents?

Two Yale workers have devised 'artificial mangroves' by studying the tree's ability to survive in salty water (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/21/device-inspired-mangroves-help-clear-flood-water). The trees essentially draw up water from their roots partially via a 'pull mechanism' as water is evaporated from their leaves (as do other plants) but they have cell membranes that prevent the uncontrolled passage of salts and have waxy materials in the cells providing more protection. In this way, they effectively desalinate the water in which they are rooted. The Yale group employed a polymer membrane to remove salts (equivalent to the root); a microporous silica filter (the stem) and hydrogel-filled membranes or aluminium oxide with tiny pores (to act like leaves). Although they conclude that it would be impractical to scale up their method for actual desalination, they argue that it could be incorporated into buildings to help deal with salty flood water. The water would evaporate from the walls and roofs, with the added bonus of cooling the building.

Seeing the Changes 1377



More flowers out in Bynea with Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris); Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and Dandelion (Taraxacum vulgare) all blooming.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Extreme or Just Inconvenient?

To many people, it seems distinctly odd that environmentalists and animal welfare supporters, are being reported to the UK government's Prevent programme (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/21/prevent-environment-animal-activists-referred-extremism). Such people may well be tempted to become involved in demonstrations and news-attracting events but they should hardly be regarded as being in the same league as others who might become motivated to destroy buildings and kill people (even there, there is a feeling in some circles, that the programme unfairly stereotypes certain groups and isn't entirely positive in terms of societal cohesion). Perhaps Prevent has shown mission creep to become concerned with controlling inconvenient (as well as dangerous) activities? It would consequently be interesting to know if the economists of JP Morgan (a major fossil fuel financier) are likely to be referred to the programme for admitting (in a leaked report) that climate change carries real risks for the survival of the human species(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/21/jp-morgan-economists-warn-climate-crisis-threat-human-race). It might be bad for business?

High Mountain Wolf

The Himalayan or Tibetan wolf appears to be on the verge of being recognised as a distinct species (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/21/himalayan-wolf-lopes-recognition-species-oxygen-protection). It may look superficially like a Grey wolf, but these canids show physiological adaptations, enabling them to operate at altitudes where oxygen is in short supply. That could make them sufficiently different to be accorded separate status.

Virtual Pain

I was intrigued by the National Geographic's issue devoted to pain (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2020/01/scientists-are-unraveling-the-mysteries-of-pain-feature/). Particularly of interest to me were the sections on the application of Virtual Reality to reduce the sensation of pain. Programmes showing swimming jellyfish seemed particularly efficacious.

Steak vs The Amazon Rainforest

The world's largest beef producer, JBS of Brazil, has reportedly admitted that it cannot currently fulfil its long-standing undertaking to ensure that none of its product is from people who have illegally destroyed areas of the Amazon forest in order to breed cattle (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/20/meat-company-faces-heat-over-cattle-laundering-in-amazon-supply-chain). This lack of traceability throws into doubt any claims that the company makes about the sustainability of its meats.

AI vs Antibiotic Resistance

A team at MIT have reported success in using machine learning (AI) to screen a variety of pharmaceutical molecules for their potential to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria (https://www.theguardian.com/society/antibiotics). Antibiotic resistance occurs following the overuse of antibiotics (in medical treatment and in farming, where it is used as a growth enhancer for meat production). Basically, the bacteria that better survive the application are the ones (with their resistant characteristics, of which there are a variety) going on to generate the new populations of bugs (it's pure Darwinian selection). These antibiotic resistant bacteria are particularly found in hospitals, nurseries and gyms and authorities have worried that their spread will return us to a pre-antibiotic era (with increasing death rates and enormous financial losses). The new method, basically fed into the programmes the characteristics of existing molecules (from drug trials or natural products) that might counter antibiotic resistance. In an initial trial, a failed drug for treating diabetes was found to be a likely candidate. In studies, this drug, now called Halicin (after the computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), was found to be highly effective in treating a number of difficult antibiotic resistant conditions. Further trials are reportedly throwing up other candidate drugs much more quickly and cheaply than could be done by traditional means.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

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 beaches in New Zealand (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/18/hundreds-of-thousands-of-mussels-cooked-to-death-on-new-zealand-beach-in-heatwave).A similar event happened in California in 2019. It appears that this will happen more commonly with climate change.

Wind of Change (For Bees)?

A study has suggested that, not only are bees becoming less numerous, but their foraging efficiency is being impaired by the higher wind speeds associated with climate change (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/18/bees-may-struggle-in-winds-caused-by-global-warming-study-finds). This will, of course, further reduce their essential pollinating activity.

Oh Lardy!

A study has shown that even reasonably seemingly healthy folk show subtly impaired brain function (they score less well on memory tests) after only a week on a typical 'western' high fat/ high sugar diet (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/19/researchers-find-a-western-style-diet-can-impair-brain-function). Even worse, the food makes them crave more of the same, increasing the probability of over-eating. Looks like a recipe for disaster!

EU Green Deal?

There is a somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the EU's 1 trillion euro Green Deal as it seems more likely to further enrich 'trainers' rather than reskill Polish miners for actual new jobs in a green economy (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/19/european-green-deal-polish-miners). In essence, it might well have the same effect that the Common Agricultural Programme had for small, poor, subsistence farmers (i.e. giving them hope but actually benefitting rich conglomerates and land speculators to a much greater degree). The view seems to be that this is 'greenwashing' on a mega scale. Certainly, there seems to be too much faith in traditional company activities.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Ashes to Ashes: Compost to Compost?


Dr Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, at a recent American Advancement of Science meeting, has advocated composting of human remains (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/16/human-composting-could-be-the-future-of-deathcare). It is already legal in the US state of Washington and appears to be a greener way of deathcare than burial or cremation. I have always thought that we are but mobile compost.

Heaven and Hell (on Earth)

Christina Figueres has written a book 'This is the decade and we are the generation' in which she outlines the most optimistic (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/15/best-case-scenario-2050-climate-crisis-future-we-choose-christiana-figueres-tom-rivett-carnac) and most pessimistic (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/15/worst-case-scenario-2050-climate-crisis-future-we-choose-christiana-figueres-tom-rivett-carnac) outcomes for the year 2050. In the former, greenhouse gases have been rigorously controlled and the increase in global temperature limited to the Paris-agreed 1.5 degrees C. In the latter, the climate altering gases (and particulates) have continued to rise unchecked and the global temperature is more than 3 degrees C higher and rising. It's pretty clear which is the preferable scenario but very unclear which will actually prevail.

Waste Not: Want Not?

Thurrock Thameside Nature Park is a clear illustration of just how nature, given the chance, can recover (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/15/what-lies-beneath-the-nature-park-covering-up-a-dirty-secret-aoe). The scrub land reserve was once one of Europe's largest landfill sites, serving the London area. It is now home to adders, Carder bees, cuckoos and Water voles. All these (along with many other animals and plants) thrive with reportedly little evidence of its former function.

Dodgy Readings of Emotions?

With more companies and agencies using AI facial recognition systems to screen potential candidates for positions, to carry out border checks etc, perhaps now is the time the re-ask the fundamental question 'Are human emotional expressions truly universal?' The answer appears to be that it is more subtle than that and cultural differences are clearly evident (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/16/ai-systems-claiming-to-read-emotions-pose-discrimination-risks). The degree of commonality between the 'body language' of different cultures has always appeared to be more associated with the ease of producing particular responses (e.g. waving) rather than being something that is genetically encoded. So, although it may be very tempting to save time by using one of the available commercial packages, there are dangers that this will prove discriminatory for some groups and misleading/dangerous in other respects.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

EU Meat Treat


People have questioned the EU directing around 60m euros (of their 200m euros per annum Food promotions budget) in each of the last 3 years to meat marketing campaigns. These are aimed at halting a decline in meat consumption, as more (especially younger) folk are turning to veganism (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/14/eu-spending-tens-of-millions-of-euros-a-year-to-promote-meat-eating). The 20 plus campaigns attempt to counter the health concerns associated with excessive meat consumption and to banish the 'fake news' of animal welfare issues (more evident in the US but certainly not absent in Europe). Given that the livestock sector reportedly generates nearly 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, this is not helpful in terms of countering climate change.

They Say

The advice is that, if you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. There is a rather pessimistic account of perceived 'greenwashing' by the oil and gas giant BP (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/14/oil-execs-environmentalists-bp-change-oil-climate). The claim of their new executive is that the company 'gets' the climate change fears and will move to a net zero carbon footprint by 2050. Much of the pessimism is generated by the emphasis on the word 'net', the proposed timescale and the fact that there appears to be no sign of the company stopping digging (drilling for oil and gas).

Friday, 14 February 2020

They're Not in Love

An article on the dangers of losing pollinators uses the headline "Bees and flowers have had the world's longest love affair" (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/14/bees-flowers-danger-pollinate-human-foodstuffs-farming). I realise that this is only a figure of speech that was probably triggered by the date (St Valentine's Day) but it's not remotely a love affair between the insect and the plant. We tend to think of the bees exploiting the flowers by gathering their nectar and pollen. More accurately, however, the flowers exploit the bees, in a 'gig economy' by providing a minimalistic reward (a bit of weak sugar solution) in exchange for facilitating sex for the plants.

Seeing the Changes 1376


Ivy leafed toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) blooms in Loughor.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Splatometer Says Gone

Two 'splatometer' studies (where insects killed by collisions with cars are counted) are emphasizing the truth of the insect Armageddon (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/12/car-splatometer-tests-reveal-huge-decline-number-insects). One study in rural Denmark, showed an 80% decline in insect numbers between 1997 and 2017 (with dramatic effects on the numbers of insectivorous birds). Another in Kent recorded 50% fewer insects on the splatometer in 2019 than were found in 2004. The results suggest that the declines in numbers of these important pollinators are at disturbingly high levels. 

The North Sea Lake?

A paper by workers at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research has suggested that enclosing the North Sea by 2 giant dams is a technically feasible and affordable means of protecting millions of people from the rise in sea levels that would follow unrestrained climate change (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/12/giant-dams-could-protect-millions-from-rising-north-sea). It would require one dam of 475 km between Scotland and Norway and another of 160 km between SW England and France, at a current total current cost of 750 bn euros. The process would, of course, convert the North Sea into a giant lake with major changes in its ecology (even with giant pumps to expel much of the water from rivers flowing into the area). There would be major changes to North Sea fishing and marine transport systems. It is pretty obvious that there would be major arguments between the countries involved (and others who would benefit) about where the dams were sited and the sizes of the required financial contributions. I suspect that this debate would be more fraught post-Brexit. Strangely enough, some scientists have suggested that the North Sea was once a naturally-dammed, giant lake that was fuelled by melt water at the end of the last glacial period and the bursting of that dam created the channel between England and France.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

'Teenage' Angst in Cows?

A Canadian study has suggested that dairy cows, like humans, go through mood changes as they go into puberty (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/12/moo-swings-cows-go-through-disruptive-puberty-too-study). Some of the animals become more shy whereas others show increased  inquisitiveness. This is hardly unexpected, as there are major hormonal changes and changed behavioural imperatives at this time in both these mammalian species.

From Milano to Malaysia?

Greenpeace have accused Italy of moving masses of plastic waste to 'illegal' factories in Malaysia where the material is either burned or buried in landfill (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/10/italy-told-to-stop-using-malaysia-as-plastics-dumping-ground-greenpeace-landfill). They have suggested that this practise (probably also involving other countries) is simply dumping their environmental responsibilities in an era when selling plastic waste for recycling has become more difficult.

Resistence is Futile?

Complain about the cost-effectiveness? Complain about the substantial environmental damage? It all appears to no avail when the UK government is intent on selling an optimistic forecast of improved (for some) travel and rocketing economic prospects for 'deprived'/ potentially 'powerhouse' areas (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/11/boris-johnson-bets-on-hs2-to-deliver-new-spine-of-uk-transport). It is certainly easier to sell the 'positive' story (especially with media help) than to point to the losses (especially when you can trash an ancient woodland in preference to taking part of a nearby golf course). You can promise a few electric buses and even throw in a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/11/hopes-rise-bridge-linking-scotland-northern-ireland ), perhaps assuming that Scottish independence will not result in one end being in the EU?

Seeing the Changes 1375

Buds of the Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) are being tempted out in Loughor.

Where's the Beef?

  Industry 'experts' are claiming that the 'use-by dates' on red meat should be extended ( https://www.theguardian.com/world...