We’ve added 1.1 teratonnes to the Earth

Sandra Laville article

Sandra Laville sums up (“Human-made materials now outweigh Earth’s entire biomass“), in the Guardian, some stunning analytical work done by five Israeli scientists. Earth’s biomass – all the animals and plants, the living stuff – amounts to about 1 teratonne. Inexorably but at an accelerating rate, what we’ve built and plonked on our planet, including our waste, now sits at 1.1 teratonnes. It’ll hit 3 teratonnes by 2040. As the scientists’ paper apparently points out, anyone who denies we’re in the Anthropocene, altering Earth, can leave the building.

Beyond that fact, I wonder how I should view this news. Is 1.1 teratonnes terrible or was 0.5 teratonnes? Given we’re at 1.1 teratonnes, what next? Am I more scared or angry or saddened than I was? How do I sort this news out in my mind?

Are fossil fuels evil?: Mark Jaccard

Mark Jaccard #3

Another four-minute episode re his book. My paraphrase (and here I’m not quite capturing his nuances, go watch for yourself): Unfortunately this is a myth, one that ignores the amazing benefits fossil fuels have given us, and one that makes decarbonizing even more difficult. It is true that Doctor Faustus’s day of reckoning with the devil must arrive, but Jaccard is fine with fossil fuels allied with carbon capture and storage.

Consolidating climate policy acuity

Mark Jaccard videos

Laypeople inevitably shrivel when attempting to understand climate change policy options and the politics of the whole damned thing. I mean, we’re talking about the fate of humankind on Earth, right? Across countries, factoring in a multiplicity of societal political systems, etc., etc., etc. … impossible.

Strike me lucky, during our first Melbourne lockdown in March, I read Mark Jaccard’s illuminating, wise The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress. (Here’s my naive, layperson review and, just to show how taken I was with it, how I extolled it in my 2020 Top 10 Books list.)

But Jaccard’s advice didn’t stick. Not fully, at least. So, yesterday I was delighted to see that on his blog site, Sustainability Suspicions, he is providing seven edifying four-minute videos. I’ve decided to tackle one each day of the next week. Will that help? It certainly can’t hurt…

A new perspective on winter at Poyang Lakes

Lotus pond near Poyang Lake

Nearly all of the world’s 4,000 Siberian Cranes, hanging grimly onto an Anthropocene survival ticket, escape northeastern Siberia to winter down on the huge Poyang Lakes, 700 kilometers southwest of Shanghai. Winter at Poyang Lakes is right now. When I last hypothesized a post-Covid timetable to travel and “witness” these magnificent birds, I gave up on seeing them breed in remote Russia (too onerous, plus we shouldn’t disturb them) and earmarked January 2023 or January 2024 for a China trip.

This morning, stuck inside waiting for an undoubtedly negative Coronavirus test result, I read a fascinating article (“Siberian Cranes face an uncertain winter after record floods in China“) by ICF’s head, Spike Millington. Apparently terrible floods hit the Poyang area in late summer this year (did I even hear about that?) and the usual tuber foods were awash and died. “The birds face an uncertain winter,” Millington writes. Fortunately, a local woman has spearheaded planting lotus ponds nearby. Already, 2,000 Siberian Cranes have flown in and are crammed into the ponds (I’ve used that image from the article), begging the question: will the remaining 2,000 or so be able to eat? I shudder.

More prosaically, do I need to check out water levels before I visit Poyang Lakes? Am I keen to get the “best” views, that is, when water levels are more normal? Or should I just take whatever is thrown my way? Surely the latter approach might get me thinking more widely.

A dream dashed

Eurasian Cranes migrating in Spain

Arkadiusz Broniarek posted this heartwarming photo on the page Cranes in Europe: 264 cranes in Tarifa. I think they’re Eurasian Cranes but I’m no expert and now I might never be. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I marveled: what is the point?

Who can say what kills a project? The pandemic is a factor. I won’t travel until 2022 at the earliest. Carbon footprint is another. Thinking like a future ancestor (see Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor), we should all stop flying. An even more potent factor is the climate emergency: even with a close escape from Trump 2021-2024, just look at how little is being done. Who needs my small-time witnessing stunt? But the major reason for abandoning (at least for now) my 15 Cranes project, is simple. The reactor history book, my albatross, must see me obsessed, not distracted.

The Japanese Crane

This afternoon I walked down to the library and returned, unread, The Japanese Crane: Bird of Happiness, a book I’ve had throughout lockdown but never managed to process into notes. It looks so fabulous but now … bye bye. I snapped a poor (and mirror reversed) shot of the cover before sliding it into the returns chute.

Before closing off this project, I skimmed the Japanese Crane book. One last image, a crappy photo of a double spread, a snowfield of hazy Siberian Cranes in Japan. I had planned to go see them there. No more. Nada. Done.

A project spiralling downward

Vortex

All through March to September, my project of witnessing the Cranes amidst the unfurling Anthropocene era of climate emergency stayed in stasis. I’m determined to stay on top of climate change news, which is often troubling, while radiating hope by telling the story of ancient birds that struggle onwards. All my travel plans to see Cranes were of course put on hold by Covid-19, but until this month, I could hypothesise future adventures while doing avian research in the middle of other more urgent projects.

During October the dream slumped. So wracked is the United States by the pandemic I doubt I’ll get to see the Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes of North America until 2023 at the earliest. And what chance of visiting Bhutan or South Africa, or indeed of spying Demoiselle Cranes migrate over the Himalayas? Even my Australian road trip from Darwin across to the Atherton Tablelands to marvel at Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, now tentatively set for June next year, feels a lifetime away.

And the climate news! Arctic ice is now all newly formed and thin and smaller in extent than ever. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can be seen beginning to slip, melting, into the seas. Wildfires still rage in America, with winter approaching. Our Great Barrier Reef is officially half dead. Methane burps from the ground far up north. Cyclones form and rage with alarming frequency. The Earth’s regular winds and deep currents are altering. The Amazon is heading to become a treeless savannah. Throw in Trump, Putin, Bolsanaro, and Morrison, and hope of concerted global action remains slight.

Oh, I know good news also abounds. Coal is nearly fucked (but won’t be for a couple of decades), solar rules, China says it’ll be zero by 2060, Biden promises more than any U.S. president has ever come close to promising, Europe acts, our local councils act, awareness is high, and so on and so on. I know Melbourne will come out of lockdown and Extinction Rebellion can begin anew. I know, I know, I know.

And yet…

2020s and 2030s

Fires

Will the Cranes survive? The augurs, as we head towards the end of 2020, are both encouraging (look at the work the International Crane Foundation has done over half a century!) and discouraging. I made the mistake of reading the forensic article by Seth Borenstein, “Think 2020’s disasters are wild? Experts see worse in future.” Do yourself a favor: read it and be scared, in that proper way that prepares you.

I won’t cannibalise Borenstein’s article’s wonderful quotes but let me paraphrase in a broad fashion. What will the 2020s be like? Well, 2020 is what an improbable disaster movie made in 2000 would have portrayed, and by the end of the 2020s, we’ll look back at 2020 as the good old days. What will the 2030s be like? Much worse than the 2020s.

Cranes, one of Earth’s oldest set of birds, are enormously resilient. I’m only slowly learning how differently Crane species have evolved under varied environmental constraints. But one thing is common: they need wetlands, not all wetlands but a certain subset. Over the 2020s, wetlands will increasingly dry up, even before humanity’s ever-expanding reach actually drains the wetlands. Will the extra rain/flooding predicted add wetlands? I don’t think so. All up, though the ICF hasn’t said this, I portend blow after blow for all fifteen species of Cranes. With eleven of those species at least vulnerable to extinction, my heart, right now, is heavy.

Sandhill dreams

Sandhill Cranes by Charles Larry

This Cranes project … is it a chimera? I’m quarantining in Darwin, out of Melbourne lockdown for a while, but even when we are released into the Darwin population, we’re unlikely to see any Brolgas or Sarus Cranes, simply because it’s the tail end of the dry season and they’ll be hunkered down, either in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland or the remote wilds of the Gulf of Carpentaria. And of course travel to see the other thirteen species in Africa, USA, Europe, China, Japan, Bhutan, etc. is a scary prospect with a global pandemic still raging.

So it was with an aching heart, leavened by gratitude, that I read Charles Larry’s wonderful, cogent, lyrical overview of Sandhill Cranes on the website of the Nachusa grasslands reserve in Illinois. This reserve has been honored with its first nesting pair of Sandhills, with two fledglings. I commend it to anyone drawn to connecting with our natural world.

I’ll never get to the Nachusa reserve, beautiful though it seems. My aim is to see the Sandhill (and the Whooping Crane) at the Platte River in Nebraska. Will that happen? In my quarantine compound I dream.

(Photo by the article’s author from his article.)