Knowledge disparities

Map of Eastern Migratory Whooping Cranes

I’ve just returned from my first genuine expedition to track down and witness Cranes, an exhilarating five days in western Victoria. Here roam the Brolgas, more specifically the southern population. This population is classified as Vulnerable. My desk research had made it clear that we don’t know how many southern Brolgas there are, with estimates ranging from 500 to 1,000. My trip brought home to me that we don’t really know where they are at any one moment.

Contrast that with the map above (from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website), which shows that America’s Whooping Cranes, even more precarious with a classification of Endangered, are tracked minutely. The table reveals that there are, to a great deal of precision, 826 Whooping Cranes. Moreover, the map shows that the Eastern Migratory subsection of those 826, exactly 85 birds, is tracked (via various means) almost exactly. The map gives the locations, logged in the last two months, of about 80 birds (I manually counted them).

What a difference in exactitude and, therefore, in human focus on one species versus another! My mind whirls with the implications.

This is what extinction looks like

Siberian Crane Omid

The Siberian Crane is the most precarious of the fifteen global species of Cranes, with under 4,000 left in the Anthropocene Era. And we’re talking of the eastern population that breeds way up in eastern Siberia and winters in China. The Siberian Crane’s western population breeds in west Siberia and one branch of it used to over-winter in Iran. Well, guess how many of them are left. Here’s one of the saddest articles I’ve ever read, “Last Siberian Crane appears in Azerbaijan” in the magazine Bird Guides:

The last remaining Siberian Crane from the western population has been seen in Azerbaijan for the first time in a decade. The male crane, which is fondly known as Omid – Persian for ‘Hope’ – has returned to spend each winter alone at Fereydoon Kenar, in northern Iran, since February 2009, when the last surviving female died during a winter storm.

Birders are now following Omid on his journey but the magazine notes that this is, of course, “an irreversible path to oblivion.” I attempt to picture oblivion. How to do that?

The air of my great grandchildren

Sasha Cohen book

Sasha Sagan, the daughter of the brilliant scientist Carl Sagan (he died in 1996), relates in “For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals and Reflections for Finding Wonder” that her father used to tell her ” that air particles stay in our atmosphere for such a long time that we breathe the same air as the people who lived thousands of years ago.” That sense of continuity of generations, the binding straight line, is what drives me to pursue the survival prospects of Cranes and to join Extinction Rebellion. As Sasha Sagan puts it: ” The air you’re breathing right now, this second, involuntarily, automatically, it’s not just the old air of Jesus and Muhammad and Cleopatra, but also the new air of future generations.”

What will tip?

Tipping points

One of the more stunning visuals from Carbon Brief, backed by fine research, covers what might be future tipping points. Any individual will come to their own conclusions but my state of knowledge at present suggests that of the nine postulated tipping points, I’ve more or less come to terms with four of them: permafrost loss (I’ve seen the photos), Greenland ice sheet disintegration (read Jon Gertner’s book!), West Antarctic ice sheet disintegration, and coral reef die-off (I’ve heard Charlie Veron). Five of them – the Amazon rainforest dieback, the boreal forest shift, the Atlantic MOC breakdown, and possible shifts in West African monsoons and Indian monsoons – remain a mystery to me. I’d better hunker down and find out.

The divine grace of a Wayne Suffield photograph

Brolga by Wayne Suffield

Amongst bird photographers in the state of Victoria, Australia, Ararat-based Wayne Suffield shines out. So many enthusiasts with cameras or smartphones take bird shots these days! Amongst them is a category at the apex, folks who end up commissioned by National Geographic and making a decent living out of their craft. I don’t know if Wayne earns money from his devotion to photography but amongst the community of birders in a very large and active Facebook group, Victorian Birders, his creative works are of luminous quality. If you’re after beauty in nature, check out his photographs, including joining Victorian Birders.

Amongst Wayne’s regular “subjects” are some Brolgas in his local area. I have an impression, probably incorrect, that it’s the same returning pair (as usual, I have more research to do). I’d written a few times to Wayne about my fascination with the fifteen Crane species, our own Brolga being a logical investigative target, and a number of months back I asked him if I could pay closer attention to any of his photographs, including featuring one in this fledgling blog. Wayne graciously granted me permission to take on board one of his photographs and what you see featured today (I haven’t resized his photograph at all but have added my own background to image size requirements) is one stunning work of art.

This glorious image has been at hand for a long time but only today, buried in my cafe amidst redrafting work, did I step aside to examine it with full attention. What did I find? Wayne has caught a mighty Brolga striding effortlessly, huge wings fanned up, every white-grey feather seemingly visible, into flight mode. That outstretched neck, the sinuous horizontal line between tail and fearsome bill, its red neck brace, the ancient eye … it takes my breath away. Thank you so much, Wayne.

Credit: Wayne Suffield. On the runway at Warrayatkin Swamp. July 30, 2019. At Greenhill Lake Reserve Camping Area. Find Wayne on various sites, the easiest method perhaps being to search for @wayne.suffield on Facebook.

Mann sanity on RCP8.5 & what’s needed

Michael Mann analysis

I took a rather shallow look at the heavily nuanced “what about RCP8.5” debate a couple of days ago, based on a Chris Mooney article. Not until I read a wonderfully coherent analysis from Michael Mann on his website did it become clear why I felt dissatisfied. Attacks on RCP8.5 aren’t just attacks on a particular scenario. They open a window for politicking, for cavilling from the required urgency.

As Mann puts it, this latest kinda-optimistic burst “doesn’t account for non-linearities and, most importantly of all, doesn’t include so-called ‘carbon cycle feedbacks’, that is to say, the feedback mechanism by which global warming can actually release more CO2 (or e.g. methane), adding further to the warming. Indeed, this deficiency applies to all studies that are based on specifying CO2 concentrations rather than emissions, and it applies to the current commentary by Hausfather & Peters.”

Putting it more bluntly:

There is some good news here. The numbers show that escalating efforts around the world to decarbonize our economy are starting to pay dividends. We’re starting to bend that emissions curve downward. But we need to reduce emissions by a factor of two over the next decade and bring them down to zero in a matter of a few decades if we are to avert catastrophic climate change impacts. We have to get off fossil fuels far more quickly than we’re on track to do under current policies. This latest commentary doesn’t change that at all.

Anthropocene amplification

Amplification

Chris Mooney of the Washington Post is one of our wisest journalists. A terrific tweet thread yesterday contrasts recent news and opinions from opposite ends of the pessimism spectrum. On the one hand, one of the most worrying scenarios in the recent IPCC work, known as RCP8.5, might be too pessimistic. The endless stream of ideological and scientific positioning around RCP8.5 can be boring but it’s also important, so this debate makes for fascinating purview. Against what might be labelled “good news” (it isn’t really, just one scenario that needs tweaking for future projections), scientists have dug over half a kilometer through one of Antarctica’s biggest glaciers and found that the glacier might be melting from underneath.

Quite how the ice up north and south responds to Earth’s increasing temperatures is of crucial importance to predicting the future. We know how worrying the concept of amplification is. For example, we can see that a degree of warming has burnt huge swathes of Australia to the ground, releasing even more carbon, amplifying the temperature hikes even more. If ice melting (be it on sea or on glaciers or on rock) amplifies warming or further melting, we could be in trouble.

In other words, as Mooney points out: “So in sum: The plausibility of RCP8.5 as an energy scenario for this century has been seriously challenged. But the potential severity of climate change really has not.”

International

Crane

Another arrow-swift para of prose from “This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook,” this time from Gail Bradbrook, one of the Extinction Rebellion founders:

Our challenge now is to look beyond our island nation and see with fresh eyes the rest of our family, spread across the world. To open our hearts. When we are able to fully feel the losses among us, then we will be able to do what these times truly require from us. All the children are our children. We can protect those closest to us only when we remember our love for those furthest away. This is an international rebellion, aligned with all peoples living with struggles to protect life on Earth. This is sacred

Remember, the job of Extinction Rebellion is to get global emissions to zero by 2025. That includes the emissions of China, Russia, and Turkmenistan. International is the only way forward, utopian though it may sound.

Friday existential blues (Davos?)

Greta Thunberg at Davos

Observing the sly deflections of world leaders and Australia’s leaders (both political parties), and in particular the orchestrated muck campaigns against those urging for climate action (let’s start with the obvious: close coal plants and dig it up no more) that must occur, today I got the blues. You know the blues, don’t you? Of course there are many kinds of downers one can sink into, but these blues are the unwanted existential anxieties one imagined one had built a carapace against. A sudden loss of heart.

So I sought heart by watching Greta Thunberg’s 4:44 Davos speech. Her concluding words? “Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.” I do, I do, I do.

Odd bedfellows

Boots and plants

Staring down at my hiking boots. Thoughts whirling, always unsure of myself these days. In “This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook,” Rowan Williams, ex-archbishop of Canterbury, writes:

Change the narrative, and who knows what is possible? Accept the diseased imagination of the culture we have created and the death count begins now. Anger, love and joy may sound like odd bedfellows, but these are the seeds of a future that will offer life – not success, but life.

Those odd-bedfellow emotions seem to reside in me. Permanently. Conjoined.