Thomas Moynihan on extinction

Thomas Moynihan essay on Aeon

Intellectually and emotional pursuing the future fate of fifteen bird species, a fate that must necessarily consider extinction, within the notion of the Anthropocene, a notion that encompasses human extinction, is terrifying. At its core might might be four questions. Will Cranes survive? So what? Will my grandchildren (or great grandchildren – what is the apt timeframe?) survive? So what do I do?

You think it easy to ponder extinction. Not so. Just asking those four questions clearly raises major ethical issues, for only in a perfect heaven can one guarantee everyone life forever.

Thomas Moynihan’s “The end of us,” published August 7 on Aeon, posits that only since the Enlightenment, perhaps the mid 18th century, have we humans even been able to consider species extinction (Moynihan deals with human extinction) and that this renders the extinction concept as one marking human maturity.

I was in a Nijmegen cafe, redrafting a chapter on 1950s reactors, when I turned to his well-written paper, and the leap from the former to the latter made me impatient. Surely the extinction “topic” first crescendo’d in the 60s/70s/80s, after Carson, Ehrlich, and cruise missiles? Surely any sense of philosophical “maturity” about extinction remains murky, in spite of damned fulsome knowledge, because some of us believe in obligations to future generations whilst most could not care less?

I’ve not treated Moynihan fairly, I know, but was and am asking a different extinction question to his. What that question is remains fuzzy.

(Image is from Aeon’s website article, just a screenshot)

Will my grandson snorkel the Great Barrier Reef?

Coral reefs

Back on July 27, journalist Guy Kelly’s “The biologist in a race against time to save the Great Barrier Reef” came out in the Telegraph Magazine, and I noticed it today (edited a bit) in the Good Weekend magazine of my paper back home, The Age. British (but now in Sydney) biologist Emma Camp and one of the world’s foremost climate change/coral reef experts spoke to, of all things, an explorers’ conference:

Climate change is compromising not just the Great Barrier Reef, but reefs globally. Warmer, more acidic, low-oxygen seawater is fundamentally affecting the biology of the corals, and this is compromising whether they’ll be able to exist in the future. In just three years, over a third of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost.

Camp turns out to be both pessimistic and optimistic. She is exploring the idea of grafting on coral evolved to exist in more acidic water, which sounded to me, as I read it, intriguing but most speculative. As Guy Kelly explores her scientific world, she ends up summing up:

The best case scenario in 50 years is that we have coral reefs that are still biodiverse, serving their function, and we have an even healthier marine environment than we do now, respecting biodiversity not just for its value to us as humans. The worst case scenario is that we’ve lost coral reefs as we know them. I don’t want to tell my future grandchildren that this was a privilege I had, but they won’t, and it was all because we didn’t do enough.

I reflected that my ongoing task is to clearly identify the truth about the world’s coral reefs (Guy’s article has a graphic showing the world’s eight major coral reefs, our Great Barrier Reef being the largest). I suspect the truth is more or less suppressed simply because of tourism impact. I think I’ll turn to the IPCC next.

Another heroic dispatch

Kristin Laidre photo

Our heroes: those battling inaction at home and those frenetically seeking to amass the evidence to compel action, i.e. our scientist-heroes. Check out arctic geologist Kristin Laidre on her way home from the far north:

Returned from field work in Greenland studying narwhals at 75N wearing t-shirts during a heatwave w/ glaciers calving off massive chunks, on the way home passed a wildfire burning on the coast & returning to US flew over endless melt pools. Climate change is real.

To see them fly!

Black-necked Crane flying

I wrote briefly a day or two back about a Peter Prince documentary I’d love to get about the remote-living Black-necked Crane. What I haven’t been able to get out of my mind are a few seconds from Peter’s trailer showing three Black-necked Cranes flying. See their arrow-straight streaming tails, the powerful wings, the kink in their necks… Their whiteness underneath amidst all the pure black! The trueness of their trajectories.

This silly obsessiveness – I keep replaying the trailer – is no doubt because I’ve seen few actual Cranes in the flesh, as one might say, and even fewer flying. All that, I hope, is to come. Is that what hope is, the desire to witness something just once?

This post’s blurry image is a screenshot from that blessed trailer. Go see Peter’s life-affirming website.

Breached dyke imagery

Jan Asselijn

A week ago at the Rijksmuseum, a 1651 Jan Asselijn painting gave me pause. I thought of all the shoreline residents who will inevitably persist in believing higher and higher levees will suffice for the coming sea level rises. And when those defences are swept aside…

Let’s e-attend funerals of glaciers…

Okjökull Glacier now dead

On my birthday, I checked out this NASA Earth Laboratory article. The Okjökull glacier was healthy in 1900, beginning to suffer in the late 40s, and was pronounced dead/gone/kaput in 2014. Five years ago! In three days, on the 18th, there will be a memorial atop where frozen snow used to tower. I, for one, will offer a brief heartfelt farewell. As glaciers vanish, as coral reefs die, as species go extinct, we should add our mental goodbyes. Goodbyes, after all, are goodbyes.

First glance at the Black-necked Crane

Peter Prince documentary

I already know these remote breeding cranes are best seen in Bhutan, a mysterious close kingdom. Canadian musician Peter Prince produced a relevant doco last year that I stumbled across. Just pure luck.

This blog post “Bhutan – The Kind Kingdom” showcases what Peter calls his “modest documentary.” The three-minute trailer did not seem at all modest to me. The portrayed petite Black-necked Cranes, seen in flight, with their brilliant black necks and feathers, and their red crowns, are magnificent. I swooned.

I could not find any obvious way to obtain or view the documentary but have written to Peter Prince. Here’s hoping.

Misplaced cranes?

Rijksmuseum painting

At the Rijksmuseum three days ago, before the main crush of crowd arrived, I spotted a couple of cranes in a 1680 painting, “The Floating Feather,” by Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The unmistakable spectacular Black Crowned Crane in the centre, which I’ve never seen, is found only in Africa. The other crane below and to the right of the big one seems to be a Sarus Crane (again, not yet sighted by me), which I understand is found only in Asia or northeast Australia. Why were these included? Did the artist see them live or just paint from specimens brought back from overseas? Fascinating.

How to think about extinction

IUCN Red List

At the end of May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a UN body, released a policyholder summary of its staggeringly ambitious global assessment report on the state of the world vis a vis the environment. I expected to read, and did read, about humanity’s progress down the road described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her stunning 2014 book The Sixth Extinction. Put simply, our collective responsibility for mass species extinctions accelerates. As IPBES reports, around 25% of animals and plants are “threatened,” meaning that a million species may within decades face extinction. Apparently extinction’s harvest is being reaped hundreds of times faster than in “normal” times. No surprise also that climate change is winding the whole process up.

Oh, how frail I felt when reading the summary! Too expansive, too much to handle. So I decided that one ongoing task would involve narrowing my lens down to the fifteen Crane species I’ve begun to research. What are their prospects?

IPBES says 14% of bird species are under threat of extinction. This is way better than mammals (25%) and amphibians (40%), but we expect flight-powered birds to be able to flee humans better, and in any case 14% is one in seven! On examination it turns out IPBES obtains its extinction-risk data from the “Red List” of another international body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Red List has been going for half a century and it has nine categories of extinction risk. Although coverage of some species of living things is spotty, that of birds seems complete. At the frightening tail end, some 5% of bird species are close to the edge, classified as endangered or critically endangered.

Four of the fifteen crane species are “close to the edge” on the Red List. Eleven are under threat but not so much so. Only four of the fifteen can be seen as healthy in terms of 21st Century survival.

All of which, once more, left me drained. I also felt more lost than ever. I realize classifying extinction risk is subjective. It’s also political: developers downplay any risk, environmental activists seek funding. Right now, I’m no closer to understanding how my cranes will fare over my lifetime, let alone that of my grandchildren. I sighed: more work needed!

Crane anticipation (muted)

Red-crowned Crane in flight

Towards the end of a week of redrafting in Amsterdam, I hunkered down under streaming light on a Sunday morning, across the road from the glass-windowed frontage of the city’s small ARTIS zoo. My pulse had quickened on the discovery that ARTIS houses a pair of Red-crowned Cranes. In spite of general qualms about zoos, I knew the opportunity to observe grus japonensis in the wild would need to await a couple of years, so I was keen to make the acquaintance of this significant species.

So my education began with a limited trawl of websites. I acquired a commercial photo from DepositPhoto to accompany this post, taking care not to buy a snowfields one, that being the standard Hokkaido vista of the Japanese Crane, as it is known. The International Crane Foundation site told me that grus japonensis stands about as tall (my chest height) as my country’s Brolga but is meatier, the heaviest crane according to ICF, a kilogram and a half heavier at 7.5 kgs. It is a stunningly beautiful crane: an almost crimson red patch atop the head, a silken black band under the bill down to the neck, pristine white feathers showing black underneath in flight. My image might not do the species justice but look! The wing sweep! The powerful body, the elegance of neck and head.

The Red-crowned Crane is in trouble. ICF offers a precise census for its global extent, 2,800 to 3,300 birds. Status? Endangered, which broadly means likely to go extinct within two decades (though that status was accorded in 1970, so conservation efforts have had some success). Roughly a thousand permanently reside at saturation point on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The rest migrate from dwindling breeding sites across wild east Asia to either an eastern China delta or Korea (including in the hot spot North-South DMZ).

As I worked, waiting for our zoo visit in the afternoon, how I longed to check what Peter Matthiessen wrote about these culturally resonant birds in Birds of Heaven, but, regrettably, there is no ebook version to carry when travelling. Still, this would be a special day.