Earth Matters Around the Web : The Winter Olympics

Ladies and Gentleman, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have officially begun!

Of course, the olympics in Sochi have not started without a bit of scandal. For weeks, even months, we have been hearing mostly about the anti-gay stance of the Russian leadership and for days we have been hearing comic-horror stories about the accommodations in Sochi, as well as nightmare tales of cyber-insecurity. I am a little surprised, however, that it was only today that I heard about the environmental damage that the Sochi olympics have been born out of. According to an article published just three days ago on, of all places, Yahoo’s sports page, the filling in of valuable marshlands, destruction and obstruction of other habitats, deforestation, and rampant unregulated dumping have done considerable damage in the less visible parts of Sochi, those parts being where much wildlife and many humans live. Another article sums it up more bluntly, stating in its opening line that “The enormous infrastructure upgrade for the Winter Games has had a major impact on the environment. Some say the region may never recover from the damage that has been done.”


A view of Olympic Park in December. Dump sites for construction debris litter hills in and around Sochi, Russia. Other such damage has been well documented. Mikhail Mordasov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Taken from the New York Times

To tell you the truth, I live in Eastern Europe for seven years and the rag tag, unregulated, almost maniacal construction effort that was undertaken to prepare Russia for the olympics does not surprise me, personally, but as long as this construction must have been going on, I am surprised that I cannot find articles on the environmental impacts that are more than a couple weeks old.  Then again, with recent reports of the arrests of several ecologists, for such offenses as swearing in public, perhaps it is not strange that we have hard so little so late.

Clearly, Russia has done much to construct and safeguard an image of itself as eco-friendly. And Image is everything, I suppose, especially since one of the criterion for choosing the location of the olympics is “the cit(y) needs to maintain a highly positive media exposure to carry the games.” Another criterion is described as “the tangible effects of hosting the Olympic games may not prove beneficial if the bid committees do not exercise proper judgment in developing the city to host the Olympics.” But in these respects, Russia does not carry the sole blame. Surely, plans and strategies for developing the cities that host the games are reviewed by the committees that make the final decision. Everybody involved has an image to protect, and hopefully, as the environmental damage in Sochi is assessed, the organizers of the olympics will take more caution in the future to ensure that the winter olympics are healthy and sustainable.

Earth Matters Around the Web : Brand New Lists for a Brand New Year


Although the new year recently passed, it was not so long ago that assessments of 2013 will stop rolling in anytime soon. This is especially true where science is concerned since the results take time to assemble and analyze. Consequently, one of the lists just recently released is a government list of extreme weather events for 2013, which came with a well illustrated map.Image

Chances are, that even without this summative list, that most readers heard of an extreme weather event in the news or experienced it themselves because these events occurred around the world: Drought in the American West, the typhoon in the Philippines, extreme heat in Australia, extreme cold in the U.K., heavy rains in China and Russia, and the shrinking of arctic glaciers.

In another but by no means unrelated article, a separate report predicts that extreme El Nino events are expected to double from once every 20 years to once every 10 years. Now, of course weather predictions are never fully accurate and are most of the time concerned with expectations and tendencies rather than predictions. But the research in this case seems extensive, with 20 separate climate models utilized in the findings and producing, we must assume, fairly consistent results.

What is the main culprit of these weather anomalies? Well, both much of the scientific community and the political left are inclined to say that global warming is responsible for the extreme fluctuations in weather that we have ben observing. Yet, because weather is not an exact science, proving these links hasn’t been easy, and that is one reason what we are left with so many skeptics. In the case of the El Nino effects, however, good evidence is arising for the connection between it and global warming. As the article explains in common language, the El Nino effects are produced when  “a pool of warm water that normally resides in the western Pacific expands to the eastern equatorial Pacific, bringing with it increased atmospheric convection and rainfall.” The reason that these effects do not frequently occur is because barriers of cold water generally keeps the expansion in check. Logically, then, it follows that as water temperatures rise and these barriers of cold water disappear, that the El Nino effects are likely to increase in frequency – which is about as simply as I have ever heard it explained.

As 2014 has now gotten well underway, I expect that we will continue to see anomalies in the weather such as these. And at the very least, I hope that more clear and convincing evidence such as this will turn the skeptics in the world around and harness their “renewable energy” for the effective action needed to combat climate change.

Earth Matters Around the Web : The Polar Vortex?

polar-vortex          images

Happy New Years everyone! And a cold new year it has been. In the United States, temperatures around the nation plummeted to extreme lows as Arctic air was caught in cycle that caught our country off guard. As with most extreme weather phenomena, there are two ways that most Americans look at them. On the one hand, extreme weather phenomena and their increasing occurrence are, if not directly linked to man-made climate change, in keeping with scientific predictions of what the symptoms of climate change will be. However, climate change is still a flashpoint, divisive issue. For every person who views the extreme weather event known as the polar vortex as a potential symptom of climate change, there is some preposterous claim, here are the top two:

1)   The cold weather disproves that global “warming” is a real phenomenon.

2)   The “polar vortex” is a hoax perpetrated by leftist media to promote the climate change agenda.

Obviously, as a blogger for Earth Matters, I am not of the opinion that the polar vortex was a leftist hoax or that it disproves climate change. But let me back that up with a brief critique. First, the term “global warming” has been passed over to the term “climate change” because the weather phenomena that global warming are linked to are incredibly complex. Second, if we choose to use “global warming”, as many of its critics do, we have to consider that the term “global” does not refer exclusively to the United States. As pointed out in a recent article on Slate, temperature around the world reached record highs in 2013.

As we enter 2014, it is unlikely that climate change phenomenon or the debate around it will cease. But as you begin the new year, please ask yourself one question when you consider all the things we all do that contribute to so-called “global warming”… is it a risk you are willing to take?

Earth Matters Around the Web: Climate Change

About 30 headlines down on my Yahoo News page, after updates on movie premiers and election updates, was an article on climate change released just an hour before writing this post. The article was entitled Greenhouse gas volumes reached new high in 2012: WMO, and as the headline reveals, the World Meteorological Organization has analyzed data showing that greenhouse gases, despite conservation efforts, reached a record high last year.

According to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, a non-binding environmental treaty, many nations from around the world agreed to limit climate change to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to the new data released by WMO, our gas emissions, by 2020, will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than that is thought needed to stay under the 2 degree mark. Instead, some predictions have us reaching the 2 degree mark by mid-century.

What is the significance of the 2 degree mark?

The 2 degree temperature increase set as a maximum by the Copenhagen Accord is not a safety zone. By many accounts, reaching the 2 degree mark will spell long-term environmental disaster. However, many scientists argue that even temperature increases of 1 or 1.5 degrees will wreak global havoc.  The significance then is that with such a small margin for error and a growing awareness of carbon emissions and global warming, humanity is still failing to neutralize the single most important global threat of our age.

Reading this unfortunate news, I am reminded of the work Coldfire/Kilimanjaro by South African artist Georgia Papageorge, a work featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Coldfire/Kilimanjaro is a work that is comprised of decades of observation of the Kilimanjaro glacier, which Papageorge has watched as it has steadily receded. According to Papageorge, one of the biggest local factors in the irreversible melting of the glacier is the felling and burning of trees in the regional and illegal charcoal trade. However, there is no doubt in our minds that carbon emissions and climate change is a global problem and that local factors and local impacts, as significant as they may be, are only indicative of the global scale of this seemingly irreversible problem. Image

Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro Souther Glaciers, 2010

Mixed Media, 238cm x 148 cm


Guest Voices: Charles Okereke

Today’s guest post comes to us from photographer Charles Okereke. Based in Nigeria, Okereke’s world Once in a Blue World was featured in the Earth Matters exhibition. Charles was also feature earlier on our blog -

Now Okereke comes to us with his own words and meditations on his powerful and personal, world-conscious photographs. Be sure to visit Okereke’s blog for more works of art and news about this renowned photographer at

Earth, a Dying World?  


Charles Okereke


The Earth was made as a dwelling place for all creatures, which also includes man.

Of all the creatures dwelling therein, Man is the destroyer when he was otherwise crowned with sovereignty. This arrogant attitude indicates an excess of self-worth, and has made man a plunderer rather than a nurturer.

Human beings are the only creatures that have set rules apart for themselves and refuse to conform to laws that guide creation’s movement and sustenance. Man is similarly the only creature that is out of tune with the eco-system and plagued with a one-sided narrow intellectual outlook.

What is sensed and termed as catastrophes globally today are but a retroactive consequence of a misalignment of the forces of nature – mankind so to speak, has dug its own grave, like dying Worlds.

Hdramhindra Blasted-2010 copy

Hdramhindra Blasted (2010)

This period of recompense will be felt globally in every facet of human endeavor, not only environmentally or climatically. But it will likewise reflect in socio-political affairs, which can already be surmised in the upheavals that are perennial occurrences today.


Man has been living in an exclusively selfish mentality, devoid of the understanding of the powers which he uses daily, ignoring nature’s principles and adjusting thereby. Economic affairs are collapsing; nations are in conflict, and there is uprising everywhere.

Dis-integration-2010 copy

Dis-integration Cameo (2010)


These are visible reverse processes, as the system has to automatically be put back into orderliness by eliminating the inferior and the destructive, be they man or animals, worlds and planets, landscapes and mountains, rivers and oceans, man against man, nations against nations, economic shifts and the rest of them – all these are manifestations of the activities of the Lords of the elements, which man sees as warfare in nature, and perceives one-sidedly as cruel in their manifestations and activities.


Collapse of Andromeda Emperial (2011)

Even in routine designs, we know there is a designer with a purpose who strives to make his designs adaptable and useful to the original intention for its creation; how much more for an automatic pulsating life form like the Earth with her inherent regulatory system. Mankind can only learn by compulsion and   experiences in the coming years to adapt naturally.

My concern comes from the simple understanding that we are all connected and a part of the ecosystem, and by my sense of duty to maintain a healthy and natural world.

Saturn Anchored-2010 copy

Saturn Anchored (2010)


The work of the photographer of this generation becomes increasingly perilous as understanding narrows. As an artist, I use photography as a tool to highlight this observation and neglect, a state of inertia among the people and to bring about an awakening to consciousness, and of the need to be more proactive on issues that concern us as human beings.

Vasitha-2010 copy

Vasitha (2010)

My work speaks metaphorically, as I tend to perceive the images in a sort of tragic-comic innuendo, which if deduced based on surface perception will not reveal much, unless penetrated. I work as an artist not in a stark documentation of the assaulted environment, but from deductions which expose and interpret without being overly offensive or derogatory in presentation. I work to instigate a re-examining of hitherto traditional precepts which do not further, but hinder our species’ progress towards a healthy maturity.

Likewise, the Planetarium subseries, from my Unseen World series uses common objects littering my local environment to illustrate planets in stages of birth, development and disintegration – effects of the activities of the creatures dwelling therein. This places a grim picture before the people of earth illustrating the urgent need to care for Mother Earth and, perhaps, in this process, provide hope for a rebirth and rejuvenation.


Count Down Versuvus (2011)

The fight for a readjustment to the natural order is a constant shift in the consciousness of mankind, as this period is declared a compelling time for obedience, and can never relent to the wills of men, but of a final culmination of purification, which will not cease until there is a change. More is yet to come that will silence man, until he learns the true principles of adaptation.


Rebirth of Orpheus (2010)

In my immediate environment, I act more in the sense of an activist for a cause. My pronouncements and photography has marked me out as a crusader of sorts. But these are issues of intolerance which affect all regions, although it could be more heightened and perceived in some areas.

Paradise Utopia-2011 copy

Paradise Utopia (2011)


Hence I stand on my duty post armed with the potentials to perceive, deduce and freeze the moments through imagery.

By Charles Okereke, 2013


Guest Voices: Scott Wing on The Anthropocene

Today’s guest post is written by  Scott Wing , a research scientist and curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.  In this post Wing reflects on Anthropocene, or Age of Humans, as a new way of thinking about our human interaction with the earth.

 I’m amazed to find myself, a paleontologist who studies fossilized plants, writing a guest blog for Earth Matters. What does a fossil hunter know about the goals of this exhibit: to help us understand the meaning of earth, the metaphorical associations of earth and art, or how art might help us change environments in a positive way? You readers will judge how appropriate this blog entry might be.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

What I can claim, as a paleontologist, is that I am professionally required to take the long view. Among my friends and co-workers it is common to talk about VERY long periods of time – 4.6 billion years since the formation of the earth, 3.5 billion years since the origin of life, 540 million years since the rapid evolution of the types of multicellular animals that live in the world today, 250 million years since the greatest known mass extinction, 66 million years since an asteroid snuffed the dinosaurs.  Who but a geologist or paleontologist would refer to 10,000 years as “a short period” and not even smile when they said it?

Ever since the fields of geology and paleontology were first developed in the 18th century this idea that the earth is very old, almost unimaginably old, has been a handicap to popular acceptance. The Great Pyramid was built about 60 human lifetimes ago, the first members of our species appeared about 25 times longer ago than the Great Pyramid was built, the last dinosaur lived about 660 times longer ago than the earliest human, and the time since the last dinosaur is only about 1.5% of the earth history. The barrier to acceptance isn’t just that these are big numbers. I think people have resisted the idea of an old earth in part because it makes their own lives seem so short. Scientific understanding of the origin of the earth and the life on it is a bit like Copernicus’s realization that the earth is not the center of the universe. This understanding removes us from the center, from the beginning, and can make us feel insignificant. It is the underlying theme of many key scientific advances of the last 300 years that we have no privileged position in space or time. 

For the most part my paleontological predecessors and I have happily chipped away at rocks and fossils without thinking very much about the existential meaning of the history of life.  The earth is not ABOUT us. We are in no way the point of evolution. We paleontologists just like the detective game of figuring out life’s plot. While playing our detective game we have figured out some amazing things.  Carbon moves between the air, the oceans, and the solid earth, and in doing so it has powerful effects on the climate. Climate and environments have changed many times in the past, with profound effects on life.  Living organisms themselves have changed the composition of the atmosphere over many millions of years. Evolution produces vast numbers of species; rare and catastrophic events wipe out large proportions of this diversity. In the vastness of time really big changes happen on this earth.

In recent decades, though, we scientists have begun to realize that our perspective is attaining a new relevance.  Our species is changing the earth at a scale that is like the geological processes we have studied in the earth’s past. We have altered the composition and temperature of the atmosphere, the pH of the oceans, and the rate at which the soil beneath our feet erodes to the sea. Man-made compounds, many of them toxic, are now globally distributed in air, land, and water. We have even manufactured our own bodies. You may not realize that much of the protein in your body is built from nitrogen atoms that were originally extracted from the air in an industrial process to make fertilizer for the crops you eat. The changes we are causing in the carbon cycle, in climate, in erosion, and many other aspects of the environment, are huge. They are like the geological changes geologists and paleontologists see over epochs and eons in the past, except they are happening in mere centuries. This is the first time in hundreds of years that our scientific understanding of the earth is making our actions seem more important, perhaps even unprecedented in the 4.6 billion year history of the earth.

Our planetary effects, and our knowledge of them, put us in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans. Some think the term is hyperbole, some hubris, but I think it is remarkably apt. We really have become a force of geological scale, and perhaps even more important, the changes we are causing are far longer lived than almost anyone appreciates. The carbon dioxide generated during the early Industrial Revolution still warms the earth, and even if we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, high levels of the gas, and the higher temperatures and sea levels it causes, would persist for tens of thousands of years. That’s a timespan even a paleontologist can respect. We are causing extinctions at a high rate, and the re-diversification of life following these extinctions will likely require millions of years. Further, with >7 billion people on the earth, there is more change to come.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

The Anthropocene is a new period in the history of the earth because of the rate of change, but also because we are the agents of change, and we have some awareness of what we are doing. The Anthropocene should provide a new way of thinking about how we interact with the earth. The environmental and conservation debates of the last 4 or 5 decades have settled, I fear, into an unproductive thesis and antithesis. Passionate pleas to “save the Earth” have sometimes been phrased with a lot of idealism and a tinge of moralism – they imply that our goal should be to return the earth to some stable state free of human influence, and that opposing this goal is bad. The antithesis has been to deny that we are changing the global environment with unprecedented speed and in ways that will make life much more difficult for people. These endpoints are conceptually simple but they both deny reality. We can’t return the earth to some “natural” state – it has always changed, and we humans have long since changed it irrevocably. On the other hand, we would be stupid to ignore the dire problems we are creating, problems that will make our descendants less happy, healthy and wealthy if we don’t address them. I hope the Anthropocene perspective can provide a kind of radical synthesis of these opposed viewpoints. Problems of environmental change and degradation are serious and will occupy our descendants forever. We have to start serious planning for what we want the earth of the future to look like.

The basic challenge of the Anthropocene is to develop societies that are global gardeners and engineers. Our choice is this: we can alter the earth inadvertently and ignorantly, or we can recognize that natural systems place limits on the magnitude and rate at which we can modify the environment and still enjoy its products. We now know enough about how the earth works that we should acknowledge our social and economic systems are part of a larger ecological system. That larger system ultimately places limits on the rate at which we can consume resources and churn out waste products.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Finally, as a scientist, I think it is important to mention the role of art in the Anthropocene.  We scientists are in the business of figuring out how things work, how the earth system functions.  In the apt metaphor of Penn State professor Richard Alley, we are trying to read the “operator’s manual” for the earth.  If the Anthropocene perspective is correct, though, then we humans are now a big part of the earth system. That means that an important chapter in the operator’s manual is the one titled “How Humans Feel about the Earth.” Art, of course, is and always has been, in the business of interpreting, illustrating and shaping how humans think and feel about the earth. Helping people see and understand change in their own lives and in the world around them is more important in the Anthropocene than ever before. That’s why Earth Matters.

Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Oasis_de_Tergit_(10)A water well in the Adrar region of Mauritania – photo via Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that issues of water will be defining in the near future. In the face of climate change and growing demands on limited resources, how can we be responsible and still support economic growth? Rapidly growing African countries are often leading these discussions, as was seen this week in news stories from around the internet:

  • In opening remarks at this week’s thematic debate on Sustainable Development and Climate Change: Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus, U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic called for thoughtful responses to the worldwide paramount charges of sustainable growth with equitable economic development.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo is moving forward with plans for the construction of the Grand Inga on the Congo River, which would, when completed, be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. The plant is expected to provide a massive source of renewable energy for the growing country and much of the rest of southern Africa.
  • Women in Mauritania, with the help of the Mauritanian Red Crescent Society and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), have responded to drought conditions by working to promote and nurture more drought-resistant crops and work toward nationwide food security.

Learn more about the U.N.’s recent calls for environmental sustainability coupled with worldwide economic development in the wake of Rio+20, the conference that sparked this week’s thematic debate on Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus.

Earth Matters Around the Web

ImageA grey whale surfaces in its more typical habitat in the Pacific – photo via Wikimedia Commons

All sorts of creatures made headlines this week – as pests, as environmental portents, and even as protein:

  • Billions of locusts have descended on Madagascar, prompting the need for swift action for the island’s agriculture and a discussion about how to be better prepared in the future. Learn more – and watch the amazing video – here.
  • A grey whale sparked surprise and excitement when spotted off the coast of Namibia, the first one ever recorded south the equator. But is the sighting evidence of the much-hunted whale’s resurgence, or a result of climate change in our oceans?
  • A report released this week by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization had some unusual advice: Eat more bugs. The findings suggest that numerous, adaptable, and surprisingly nutrient-filled insects could help solve food insecurity. Learn more in the report below and here – along with some tasty suggestions!