Climate Change & the Whitebark Pine Apocalypse

July 28, 2011

Today’s editorial in the NYTimes, Climate Change and the Plight of the Whitebark Pine is a fine example of how a scientific fad (call it a meme if you like) gains and keeps traction.  In this case, the fad is global warming.  The editorial describes how the whitebark pine, a crucial element of high altitude mountain ecosystems, is in danger of extinction, and what will be the serious consequences for wildlife and vegetation if that comes to pass.  The editorial clearly links the situation to global warming by way of the mountain pine beetle:

Historically, the pine’s defense against the beetle is living where conditions are too cold for it — at high altitude or at high latitudes. But as the climate warms, that defense has failed catastrophically… The tragedy is the ongoing demise of an ecosystem, one for which humans are culpable.

Looking into the scientific investigations of this issue, the link to climate change, not to mention climate change caused by human activity, is not at all clear.  A study by the Canadian government quoted in the editorial concluded:

[the threats] include an invasive, foreign fungus and the suppression of forest fires, which are important in establishing pure stands of whitebark pine. But the most important threat is the spread of the native mountain pine beetle, which tunnels into the tree and lays its eggs under the bark.

The fungus is ‘blister rust,’ introduced from Europe.  Note that climate change is not directly linked to the problem, and that the threats cited are well-known, long-standing, serious, and similar to threats faced by many ecosystems today:  exotic species; human intervention in the eco-dynamics; local pests.

A Google search for whitebark pine and climate returns a lot of hits, but most of them are from the popular, environmental press.  The logic of their statements is consistent and revealing.  Warmer winter temperatures during the last decade have supported a vigorous growth in the beetle population, and that has decimated the trees.  But what caused the warming?  And how much warmer has it been?  There is no discussion of this.  Only statements such as:

So as long as temperatures keep rising and the beetles continue to be driven to higher-elevation habitats, their assault on the trees will continue. To save the species, a massive and immediate reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary.  Source 

Certainly there were outbreaks of mountain pine beetle in Whitebark in the ’30s and ’70s, but nothing like what’s happened in the last decade. Moreover, Dr. Logan’s climate models predicted this outbreak long ago. Very simply, warmer winter temperatures and longer summers have created overwhelmingly favorable conditions for a widespread pine beetle infestation in a high alpine tree species that used to be able to rely on cold temperatures to keep beetles at bay. Source

So, what do we actually know?  We know that the whitebark pine is important for western ecosystems.  We know that the trees are dying at a great rate.  We know that they are dying because of a variety of factors, several of which have nothing to do with anthropogenic climate warming (AGW), and we know that one factor, the beetles, is extremely important and that it has been encouraged by warmer winters over the last several years.  The link to AGW is assumed, as usual.

Climates, local and global, vary.  There is no evidence that this forest catastrophe is more than a conjunction of several negative factors, several of them associated with human activity (importation of fungus, suppression of forest fires) and recent weather.  Simply because the events are consistent with the hypothesis of AGW, it is automatically assumed that the proof is given, and the press goes to work.  They are totally separate issues.

Consider the abstract to this article that is linked to this topic in many online searches (my emphasis):

Forest insects and pathogens are the most pervasive and important agents of disturbance in North American forests, affecting an area almost 50 times larger than fire and with an economic impact nearly five times as great. The same attributes that result in an insect herbivore being termed a “pest” predispose it to disruption by climate change, particularly global warming. Although many pest species have co-evolved relationships with forest hosts that may or may not be harmful over the long-term, the effects on these relationships may have disastrous consequences. We consider both the data and models necessary to evaluate the impacts of climate change, as well as the assessments that have been made to date. The results indicate that all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify as the climate warms. This reinforces the need for more detailed monitoring and evaluations as climatic events unfold. Luckily, we are well placed to make rapid progress, using software tools, databases, and the models that are already available.

The key statement has been underlined.  It is key to this abstract, and countless others like it, as well as the runaway assumptions made by popular journalism about the topic.  The statement should read this way:

The results of our examination of data and models, as well as our exploratory computer runs, indicate that if climate does warm, all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify.

The conclusion of the study is actually unremarkable and rather trivial.  If climate warms, bad things may happen.  If it’s hotter, more people will be uncomfortable, there will be more heat stroke, ecosystems will be disturbed and will change, etc. etc.  If, if, if…

Now, back to those statistics and models to figure out if the climate is actually changing as they assume it is, and to figure out why…


Then End is nigh, again.

April 10, 2011

Folks, the Apocalypse is due on May 21, 2011.  That’s the word from this inspired electrical engineer.  Read more, if you dare, right here.  The late, great scholar, Norman Cohn, had a lot of interesting things to say about the historical precedents to this.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

March 15, 2011

and Love the Bomb!  Also known as Dr. Strangelove.

That’s Hannah Dundee gazing at Fat Man, one of the A-bombs dropped on Japan.   Hannah inhabits Xenozoic Tales, comic book adventure series written and drawn by Mark Schultz, who carries on the tradition of Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), E.R. Borroughs (Tarzan) and other old-fashioned comic-pulp storytellers.  The macho hero is Jack Terenc, a shaman of sorts who tries to keep civilization in balance with nature so that The Great Cataclysm is not repeated.  Meanwhile, he and Hannah have multiple adventures in a world that mixes dinosaurs and nitro-fueled 1950s Cadillacs. 

It’s fun, and more clever than it may sound to you.  The back-cover image at top is a perfect example of the mélange of styles and influences in the artwork:  fashion photography; cheesecake; academic life studies; art deco; Hollywood movies;  Decadent/Symbolist art; adventure comics; Gothic horror… some call it kitsch.

And while we are musing over Japan, atomic desolation, meltdowns, and general human evil, you may enjoy this riff on bombs, bombing, and movies.  You can follow all the links – have fun.

Here’s the front cover:


What’s the Zabriskie Point?

June 23, 2010

Not a big fan of Antonioni’s Blow Up, so why would I watch another of his English language films?  Because occasionally I feel the urge to see those films that I always heard about as a kid, but never could see.  No DVDs, no VHS, no cable TV…  Zabriskie point is one of those, brought to my attention by a near insane friend of mine.

It begins as an almost vérité exercise in cinema, showing a raucous meeting of college radicals in 1970, planning a strike to shut down their university.  One good looking disaffected participant declares his readiness to die for the cause, of boredom, and walks out.  Later, during a riot, he draws a bead on a cop with a gun, but someone else shoots.  The kid runs, now a suspect in the murder he didn’t commit.  He steals a small airplane and flies to Death Valley where he meets up with a hippie secretary driving to her real estate developer boss’s desert mansion.  They play, they love, he returns to LA and is shot for no good reason, while she, despondent over the radio reports of his death, fantasizes the ultimate in revolutionary armageddon.

The film makes little sense, and it almost laughable in some ways.  Wikipedia reports that it is widely considered as one of the worst cinema disasters in history.  It is amazing to watch at times, however, for MA knew what he was doing with a camera!.   Let’s just say it’s one European’s love letter to the American landscape.

I enjoyed the scenes of the southern California industrial landscape and the street scenes, c. 1970.  Took me back a bit once again.

Some images from the film:

A clever sequence in which some mannequin-like suits watch rushes of some new commercials for their desert homes development featuring dressed up dummies.

Out in the dessert, at Zabriskie Point, in fact, the young couple gets to know one another.  She: “This is such a beautiful place. What do you think?”  He: “I think it’s dead.

The desert is an amazing place.  Cinematography is wonderful.  Aren’t those copulating couples hot??

An amazing house her boss has.  Why does she drive an old Buick?  Is that the good old days of consumerism?

We get to see this several times from many angles.  Must have cost a pretty penny to bring it off so well.

Dreaming?  A girl’s gotta dream!

Your whole world is going too.

Just in case you thought that didn’t include all those books you read!  Background music by Pink Floyd.

Ahhh!  Where there’s destruction, there’s hope.

The sunset, and Roy Orbison’s music heals all.

 


Repent, the end is near!

April 15, 2010

At the end of days, there will be reports of things seen in the sky!!

A major earthquake in China.  An ash-spewing volcano in Iceland interdicting European air travel…!

It just so happens that I was having breakfast with a born again Christian this morning, too.  I was at a conference for water supply engineers in Atlantic City, in the Trump Taj Mahal.  I was reading Zola’s La Terre the night before.  Could you ask for more of a contrast?

The fellow at my breakfast table spoke with a decidedly un-urban NJ accent as he was from Vineland, an agricultural region in the southern part of the state.  He pushed his sliced sausage away and remarked, “I try to stay away from pork now.  I’m born again, and they didn’t eat pork and that stuff in the Old Testament.”   No, they did not.  And this good Christian is keeping kosher.  I wasn’t eating sausage or bacon either, but only out of concern about my waistline.

He referred to the incident in Exodus, ch. 15 I think, in which Moses makes some filthy water fit to drink for the Israelites by breaking off a tree limb and casting it into the water.  “That’s the first recorded instance of water purification technology, I like to think,” he said.  I mentioned that I too had been reading The Book, and asked if this was not the incident that led to Moses being excluded from the Promised Land.  He was more informed than I, and corrected me with the citation of another passage in which Moses strikes a rock in anger to bring water to the tribes.  His anger did not please God, and he was denied passage.  “But he’s in heaven, he just didn’t make it to the Promised Land,” my companion said.  Dante felt differently, and in The Inferno, Moses is one of the righteous unbaptized consigned to Hell’s first circle.

Business travel always disconcerts me.  I stood on the sand of Atlantic City’s fabled beach, with huge, garish gambling casinos behind me.  What in the hell was I doing there?  A mind, confronted with a world, the world, not of my own making.  No sense to be made of it.  In Atlantic City, I feel like John Lennon met Zola’s La Terre in my mind: as I walk around, I can hear him singing,

And you think you’re so clever and classless and free,
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see,

Just so it’s clear, I include myself in that latter group…


Cloisters of NYC

February 20, 2010

In keeping with my plan to visit the Metropolitan Museum once a month, I spent an hour at The Cloisters today.  This is the uptown branch of the Met that houses a large collection of medieval objects in a building resembling a monastery, and with multiple courtyards and interiors of European abbeys that were transported here and reconstructed.  It sits in the midst of a park on highlands overlooking the Hudson River Palisades and northeast Manhattan, and it is the only museum in Manhattan where I can drive up and park at the front door anytime I want.  The trip from my home takes about fifteen minutes.

I like to visit museums for short periods, or exhaustion sets in.  Since I can go often, I can look at a few things each time and leave the rest for later.  Some of favorites that I viewed today:


A few of my favorite things…

January 25, 2010

See what my new reproduction of the illustrations from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible has to offer!

  • Apocalyptic rhetoric – in this case, the real deal, the Book of Revelation
  • Reptiles – here we have the Beast from the Pit looking like a Komodo Dragon
  • Architecture – John measures the heavenly temple
  • No-holds-barred satire – The lizard wears the Pope’s hat!
  • Bob Dylan? – Whoa, two witnesses with tongues of fire.  Swear that’s in one of his songs somewhere!

[Feb. 13]  Could it be that this dragon image from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili could be the source of the iconography in the image at the head of this post?  A dragon/lizard in the cathedral/temple?  How odd that would be as a source of Protestant anti-papal graphics!


Horseshoe Crabs

January 7, 2010

I like to say that human beings are hardier than cockroaches when I hear people shouting about threats to our survival, but I don’t wear a cockroach pin on my lapel – I were a trilobite.  Depending on where you get your info, these critters have evolved little in the last 225 or 450 million years.  In any event, they are clearly a stable and successful species!

Or are they?  Have they met their match?  A commenter on another blog has pointed out that they are considered endangered in the USA at least, because they are commonly used as bait.  Moreover, there is this from wiki:

Every year approximately 10% of the horseshoe crab breeding population dies when rough surf flips the creatures onto their backs, a position from which they often cannot right themselves. In response, the ERDG launched a “Just Flip ‘Em” campaign, in the hopes that beachgoers will simply turn the crabs back over.

Pretty darn pathetic, if you ask me!  How are they ever going to make it to that point, millions of years in the future, described by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine excerpt here.  (I just always assumed they were trilobites!)

Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature… Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.

‘As I stared at this sinister apparition crawling towards me, I felt a tickling on my cheek as though a fly had lighted there. I tried to brush it away with my hand, but in a moment it returned, and almost immediately came another by my ear. I struck at this, and caught something threadlike. It was drawn swiftly out of my hand. With a frightful qualm, I turned, and I saw that I had grasped the antenna of another monster crab that stood just behind me. Its evil eyes were wriggling on their stalks, its mouth was all alive with appetite, and its vast ungainly claws, smeared with an algal slime, were descending upon me. In a moment my hand was on the lever, and I had placed a month between myself and these monsters. But I was still on the same beach, and I saw them distinctly now as soon as I stopped. Dozens of them seemed to be crawling here and there, in the sombre light, among the foliated sheets of intense green.

‘I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one’s lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect. I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun—a little larger, a little duller—the same dying sea, the same chill air, and the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out among the green weed and the red rocks. And in the westward sky, I saw a curved pale line like a vast new moon.

‘So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth’s fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless.


Happy new decade!

January 1, 2010

And a reminder of the last time the numbers rolled over, when we were gripped by Y2K hysteria.  Yep, things are always going to the dogs.  As you know, the End is always nigh! And everything good is disappearing…

Along those lines, we have a pre-New Year’s lament by a less realistic writer who is convinced that, as Yogi said once, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”  Add this to the growing list of Friedman-esque, the-world-is-flat fantasies that place no longer matters, just because it matters differently than it used to.


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