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.”

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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.

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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

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/service/global/extremes/201313.gif

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?

Guest Voices : US Botanic Gardens

Today’s guest post, the first of 2014, comes from Dr. Beth Burrous who is one of the Earth Matters partners at the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC. The US Botanic Garden currently has African plants that you can see up close, plants that have become especially important to our daily lives and show how much earth really does matter!

African Plants in Everyday Life

We frequently reap the benefits of African food and medicinal plants, a topic I explore when conducting tours at the U.S. Botanic Garden.  A few of the many beneficial African plants are highlighted here.  Come to the U.S. Botanic Garden to take a look.

Chocolate – Equatorial Africa supplies about 75% of the world’s cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate. While the chocolate plant (Theobroma cacao) is native to South America, it grows well in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.  Beans are harvested from cocoa pods .  After fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding, the beans are made into edible chocolate products.  Nearly all cocoa is grown on small (5-10 acre) family farms.  Preliminary studies suggest that eating dark chocolate (the darker the better) may promote cardiovascular health.

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Roasted cacao beans                                   Cacao bean pods

Vanilla – Vanilla “beans” are the fermented and dried fruit of the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia). The beans are used for cooking and to make “vanilla extract.”  While the vanilla orchid is native to Central America, about 65% of the world’s vanilla beans are grown on the island of Madagascar.

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Vanilla bean

Coffee – Historians believe that the coffee plant (Coffea arabica, robusta) is native to Ethiopia.  Nowadays, ripe coffee plant berries (“cherries”) are aged, dried and roasted to make coffee “beans” for brewing coffee. But long before the invention of a brewed coffee beverage, people used the caffeine-containing coffee “cherries” as medicine. Islamic medical texts from the year 1000 C.E. prescribe coffee cherries as a stimulant and digestive aid.  Preliminary studies suggest that consuming moderate amounts of coffee (about 3-5 cups per day) may prevent certain types of cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes and prolong longevity.

Image  Coffee cherries public

Roasted coffee beans                                                  Coffee cherries

Periwinkle (“Vinca”)Catharanthus roseus is a popular landscape plant native to Madagascar. It is also the source of cancer-fighting medicines.  The drug vinblastine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, various lymphomas, breast cancer and testicular cancer.  The drug vincristine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, neuroblastoma and a rare childhood muscular tumor.  Manufacturers use about five tons of periwinkle plant material to make one ounce of drug.

Periwinkle public

Periwinkle

Foxglove – This common garden plant (Digitalis purpurea ) is native to Northwestern Africa.  It is the source of the heart medicine digoxin (digitalis), used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat.

Digitalis public

Digitalis

Deadly NightshadeAtropa belladonna is native to Northern Africa.  “Belladonna” is derived from Italian and means beautiful woman because long ago, the plant was used in eye drops to dilate the pupils.  While all parts of the plant are highly poisonous, several medicines are extracted from this plant and close relatives.  Atropine is used to resuscitate patients with extremely low heart rate, and U.S. troops carry atropine-loaded syringes to treat nerve gas poisoning.  Scopolamine is used in trans-dermal patches to treat motion sickness, and may be useful in treating severe depression.

A Belladonna public

 

Belladonna

Earth Matters Around the Web : The Geography of Nelson Mandela

The Earth Matter’s exhibition consists of five sections that take a symbolic journey through the world as interpreted by African artists. The fourth section in the show is titled “Strategies of the Surface”, which includes works focusing on the landscape and authored by artists from Jacobus Pierneef to Otobong Nkanga and IngridMwangiRobertHutter. Using these two works as examples, the latter work is an apartheid era landscape painting that, many contend, paints a colonial picture of South Africa, devoid of the indigenous inhabitants that challenged colonial claims to the land. The work by Nkanga describes geography from the detached, inhumane point of view of military strategy, conflict, and claim. The work by IngridMwangiRobertHutter focuses on land, belonging, and borders.

In these many interpretations, the emphasis is on the relationship between the land and people, race, and culture. With the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is a an apt opportunity to remind the world that much of the late freedom fighter’s work was about a similar geography, the landscape of people. This landscape is something that Mandela changed greatly, erasing the imaginary lines that separated and imprisoned people. Today, while disparate communities still exist, gone are the so called “homelands” which divided South Africa according to the edicts of racial segregation. Indeed, Mandela’s impact on South Africa’s geography is one of his greatest legacies.

Humans, however, are not the only species affected by geography. In a recent article by National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns, for example, the author tells about his meeting with Mandela and the Peace Park project in Africa. Peace Parks are transnational reserve areas that allow wildlife to move freely across the continent. As Johns notes, the idea of Peace Parks—reserves that transcend political borders, enabling animals and people to move freely across a single ecological unit—resonated with Mandela. This article, which also sheds light on Mandela’s love of nature and his yearning for it during his imprisonment, captures a nuance of Mandela and his legacy that might be overlooked in many of the popular articles that have flooded the internet. The article can be found at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131205-mandela-south-africa-apartheid-appreciation/ and more information on the Peace Parks project can be found at http://www.peaceparks.org/.

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Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, 1886–1957, South Africa

South West African Mountains, 1944, Oil on canvas

Private collection, courtesy of Bonhams

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Otobong Nkanga, b. 1974, Nigeria

Limits of Mapping, 2010, Wood, acrylic paint, metal

Untitled-1static drift-germany

IngridMwangiRobertHutter, b. 1975, Kenya

Static Drift, 2001, Chromogenic prints on aluminum

Collection of Heather and Tony Podesta, Falls Church, Virginia

Guest Voices: Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter

Today’s guest post comes from a pair of artists known collectively as Mwangi Hutter, who were featured in the Earth Matter’s exhibition. True to form and to this pair’s sensitive and poignant work, today’s post is a poem, or, more correctly, a poetic reflection on our relationship to planet Earth.

The sound of the world

Mwangi Hutter

The sound of the world has changed

it surrounds us with its deafening call

defeat

to repeat

to change

to blame

there is nothing I can do but listen

and watch while my tears blur the painful images

while I shake my head in disbelief

knowing I must believe.

if I don’t, who will listen to the screams to make them go away?

who will take them, engulf them, transform them

what can I do? I swallow the images that burn my memory.

I am dazed. I cannot allow

I allow it to happen

I am part of it

I don’t want to have any, any part in it

resignation marks my face, repulsion, sadness

and again disbelief

and again the questions arise

what can I do

do I do

do I do enough?

there is never enough done

until it stops

until the images fade to leave light

until

hurt is blinding me

making me numb

I need not judge nor care nor wonder

it is as it is

‘violence is a part of human nature’

I want no part of that part

I have to decide. Am I here to be within myself

or do I want to stand beside me and let them beat

kill the mother

whip the child

teach him to hold a gun

gun them down

download their useless

leech the bleeding earth

run from

hide through

never feel resposible

blame

justify

repeat

defeat humanity.

I will need to scream

to turn the inner scream outwards

to aim it

to kill the killers killing

but softly and strongly

need to believe that

if we don’t, I don’t know what will happen.

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Dandora Pool
video, 2012
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The View
video, 2012
 fdfd
Single Entities
video installation, 2013

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