Saturday, June 30, 2012

Points to Ponder

If you care too much about what other people think, you will always be their prisoner.

Apologizing doesn't always mean that you're wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value the relationship more than you value your ego.

Ever wonder about those people who spend $2.00 on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backwards.

Quotable Quotes

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.

- Joanna Macy

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: It is founded on our
thoughts and is made up of our thoughts.

- the Dhammapada

Education is an admirable thing, but
it is well to remember from time to time
that nothing worth knowing can be taught.

- Oscar Wilde

Friday, June 29, 2012

Norman - Eco-Warrior Extraordinaire

Not since Morris, the 9Lives cat, has there been another star with such charisma, determination of purpose and box office appeal. Norman, eco-warrior, is such a star.

Actually, Norman is the new spokescat promoting Loblaw's new sustainability program. By the end of 2013, the supermarket giant promises to sell only sustainable seafood in all their stores. In the meantime, Norman has a cause, a message and a video. Keep reading to discover the changes he has made in his life; and, then, check out his video at the bottom of the blog.

Norman the 'eco-warrior' cat may be the most environmentally-friendly cat to ever grace YouTube. He may even be more environmentally conscious than most humans.

While pondering what he could do to help the environment, Norman starts looking around the house for simple changes he can make.

Norman researches renewable energy like wind and solar.

His commitment to the environment makes him take a strict approach to energy conservation.

He even makes the switch to reusable bags. And we all know how much cats love paper and plastic bags.

Norman upcycles discarded items into cat toys, and institutes a trash sorting and recycling program in his home, among other green steps.

ALL photos are screen captures from the following video courtesy: WWF Canada.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Now They Want To Grow Leather in a Lab

Photo courtesy: Flickr/ravensong75/CC BY 2.0

Last month it was disclosed that PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s foundation would be funding Missouri-based startup Modern Meadow’s efforts to produce in-vitro meat and leather. I have done several blogs on growing meat in the lab. (everything you never wanted to know about soggy pork and the very exciting news that it will be available to consumers soon.

Meat grown in a lab may be one of the creepier sci-fi themes about to come to life. Although the environmental advantages are undeniable, it’s just too conceptually revolting – reanimating (in a way) something dead that mimics something once alive? And to eat, no less? Even if I wasn't already vegetarian, this would be enough to convert me.

But what about growing leather in the lab? From wax cloth to Naugahyde to pleather to leatherette, we’ve been making ersatz leather textiles for ages. Engineering actual tissue looks to be the next oddly logical step; real(ish) leather without harm to animals and less environmental impact during the tanning process. Why not just skip making leather at all. Nowadays, there are so many other upholstering/clothing etc. options I doubt that leather would be missed by anyone other than those with misguided values - snobs, if you will.

Modern Meadow cofounder and CEO, Andras Forgacs, spoke to Txchnologist, about what’s on the agenda for the company. First off, the laboratory leather – which will use a similar process as in-vitro meat, but will need less regulatory approval and has less of a PR problem. Forgacs says, “Our emphasis first is not on meat, it’s on leather. The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce.” He also notes that, “There’s much less controversy around using leather that doesn’t involve killing animals.”

Most simply described, the process begins with harvesting livestock cells and multiplying them in a bioreactor before purifying and fusing them together, possibly using 3-D bioprinting. The cells will then be allowed to mature to stimulate collagen production. (For a more detailed description, see here.)

Forgacs says that a full-scale leather facility could be pumping out hides in a mere five years. They will also be working on growing in-vitro meat, but they expect that the regulatory approval hoops could keep Modern Meadow flesh out of the meat market until 2022 or so. I would rather that meat grown in a laboratory never see the light of a refrigerated meat counter.

So what do you think? Cool or creepy?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Footprint of God - Proof That Giants Once Roamed The Planet?

A little known granite marking located in the Eastern Transvaal, South Africa, could provide evidence that giants once roamed the Earth.

Referred to as the “footprint of God” by locals, it is about 1.2 m or 4 ft long.

In the video above by South African author and explorer Michael Tellinger, we get a clear look at the alleged giant’s footprint in an outcrop of the Mpuluzi batholith, which has been dated to around 3.1 billion years old.

Austrian artifacts researcher Klaus Dona has visited the site with Tellinger and estimates in the video below that such a giant would have been between 7 m (22'11.5") and 7.5 m (24'7") tall, which is comparable to giant bones he has studied that were discovered in 1964 in a valley in the south of Ecuador. A previous blog talks about the bones of giants being found in a cave in Nevada, USA.

Dona does express some skepticism about the shape of the print as the point where the ball of the foot near the big toe meets the instep seems rather narrow compared with a normal human footprint.

Tellinger describes the rock as “phenocrystic” or coarse porphyritic granite that went through several cooling stages, producing large and small granules. He points out that both the print and its surroundings have experienced similar amounts of weathering, making it extremely unlikely that it was carved.

The rock is in a vertical position, and Tellinger says this is due to plate tectonics having pushed it up. Such rock is thought to form when magma cools inside the Earth’s crust, casting doubt that a footprint could have been made while the granite was cooling. However, the shape of the rock around what look like toe markings does suggest that a giant foot could have pulled up the material like soft mud.

Tellinger believes the possibility that the rock was naturally eroded into this shape is highly unlikely, and cites mathematician Pieter Wagener from the University of Port Elizabeth as saying, “There is a higher probability of little green men arriving from space and licking it out with their tongues, than it being created by natural erosion.”

Both Tellinger and Dona call for closer scientific examination of the marking to clarify its origin.

Readers: Is anyone ready to venture a guess as to what they think may have caused this footprint? Is it a real footprint or the work of prehistoric jokester? Were there Sasquatches back then as well? The Bible quotes fallen angels producing children with human women that were giants in size - the Nephilim. Could they be the makers of this print?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Expedition Ready to Find Lake Ellsworth - Antarctica's Underground Lake

The Union Jack flies over a field camp at Lake Ellsworth. In the background are the Ellsworth Mountains, the highest range in Antarctica. Photo courtesy: Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh

Could Nessie have a cold-blooded cousin that may have survived the millenia locked in a previously undiscovered, untouched underground lake in Antarctica? Is there any life at all in a frozen, underground lake? Time and science will tell.

After 16 years of meticulous planning, a team of British scientists is finally ready to journey to a remote, windswept plain in Antarctica, where they will drill deep into the ice to take the first-ever samples from a lake cut off from the sunlit world for up to 1 million years.

Their target, Lake Ellsworth, may house tiny organisms utterly new to science, and may proffer the first solid clues regarding the age of the massive ice sheet that covers it.

The lake is 7 mi long, 1 mi wide and about 500' deep (12 km by 3 km by 150 m). It lies in the middle of West Antarctica, hidden beneath nearly 2 mi (3 km) of ice, and scientists plan to use a specially built hot water drill to reach its fresh waters.

A team of a dozen researchers and engineers will assemble at a remote field camp in late November, and drilling is slated to begin in December, said Martin Siegert, the lead investigator for the project and a glaciologist at the University of Bristol.

The massive undertaking is aimed at one simple goal: to fetch 24 small titanium canisters of lake water — just 3.3 ounces (100 milliliters) each — along with sediment from the lake bottom, all scooped up with sterile equipment that will keep both samples and the lake environment utterly pristine.

It will take three straight days of drilling to reach the surface of Lake Ellsworth. Once the lake is breached, Siegert said, the scientists will have about 24 hours to retrieve all the samples before the borehole freezes over again.

However, if the work isn't completed in 24 hours, the team has enough fuel to melt through the ice a second time, which would buy them more time. "Some snags will happen, so you have to build in redundancy," Siegert told OurAmazingPlanet.

The scientists will be able to watch the action live as it unfolds beneath them. The team has affixed tiny, high-definition video cameras to the probe and the sediment corer, along with bright lights to illuminate the darkness. One camera looks up toward the surface, and one looks down.

"We're really looking forward to getting images back," Siegert said.

Although the canisters of lake water won't be opened until they are returned to clean rooms back in England for analysis, the world won't have to wait to learn what life forms — if any — lurk in Lake Ellsworth.

As the water is sucked into the titanium canisters, it will be pushed through a filter — a mesh so fine that, if any microbes are indeed living in the frigid, pitch-dark lake, some will end up caught on the filter.

"So when the probe comes to the surface, we won't be able to analyze the water, but we will be able to analyze the filter immediately," Siegert said. "We will look at it under a microscope within a few hours. So the question, 'Is there life in the lake?,' we will have an answer very quickly."

Yet that is not the only question scientists are seeking to answer. Scientists are hoping that the layers of sediment plucked from the bottom of Lake Ellsworth will offer clues to the true age of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

"We don't know. It could be 100,000 to 1 million years old," Siegert said. "We think it's at risk of change, but what we need is to understand how likely that is, and gain an appreciation of when the ice sheet last decayed because of environmental conditions," he said.

If all goes according to plan, scientists could have samples of the ancient lake in hand by Dec. 18, 2012.

It's likely the British will be the first of three groups currently seeking to sample a long-buried Antarctic lake.

Earlier this year, after more than a decade of drilling, a Russian team in East Antarctica finally breached Lake Vostok, the largest hidden lake on the continent.

The approach of the brutal winter season, along with the nature of the drill equipment, prevented the Russian team from bringing back samples; however, many scientists question the integrity of any water retrieved from Lake Vostok. The Russian team has used kerosene and other materials to keep the borehole open, and there are fears of sample contamination.

In early 2013, an American team is planning to drill to hidden lakes in West Antarctica.

Siegert said his team is finally feeling relaxed after years of furious work, and said he can't speculate what they'll find in Lake Ellsworth.

"Honestly, we just don't know until we do it," he said. "That's one of the wonderful things about this project. We're very excited about doing our work."

Monday, June 25, 2012

New Species of Monkey Discovered in Democratic Republic of Congo

A new species of monkey (Cercopithecus lomamiensis), known locally as the lesula. Photo courtesy: Hart JA, Detwiler KM, Gilbert CC/PA

A new species of monkey has been identified in Africa, only the second time such a discovery has been made on the continent in 28 years.

The identification of the monkey in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is significant, as identification of mammals new to science is rare.

Lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) has a naked face and a mane of long blond hairs, and is described by the researchers who identified it as shy and quiet. It lives on the ground and in trees in a 6,500 square mile habitat of the lowland rainforests in the centre of the DRC between the middle Lomami (the inspiration for its name) and the upper Tshuapa Rivers. Its diet is mostly fruit and vegetation.

John and Terese Hart of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History first saw the species in 2007 at the home of a primary school director, who was keeping a young female in the town of Opala. Later that year, the team found the species – which is similar in appearance to the owl-faced monkey (Cercopithecus hamlyni) but with different colouring – in the wild. Genetic tests later verified it was a new species.

"This was a totally unexpected find, and we knew we had something unusual and possibly unknown when we first saw the animal. But it was not until we had the genetic and morphological analyses of our collaborating team that we knew we really had a new species," said the Harts, who are also conservation biologists at the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project.

The monkey lives mostly in small groups of one to five, and only one animal was seen on its own during eight encounters. In what they describe as an "exceptional" sighting, the researchers observed an apparent attack on one of the monkeys by a crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus), which killed the female monkey.

There are already fears for the newly discovered species' fate despite its home in a relatively remote and underpopulated region, as it is hunted for bushmeat. The director who owned the captive monkey said he had acquired it after a family member had killed its mother in the forest. The researchers have provisionally categorised it as already vulnerable under the authoritative IUCN red list of threatened species.

"The challenge now is to make the lesula an iconic species that carries the message for conservation for all of Congo's endangered fauna," said John Hart. "Species with small ranges like the lesula can move from vulnerable to seriously endangered over the course of just a few years."

The last monkey to be discovered in Africa was the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) in Tanzania in 2003, nearly two decades after the last find, the sun-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus solatus) in Gabon, in 1984.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Northwest Passage Now Navigable Thanks to Global Warming

The Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy: NASA

After centuries of sailing across virtually every corner of the world's oceans, it might seem there are no 'firsts' remaining for any ambitious skipper hoping to find a place along with Marco Polo and Magellan in the nautical history books. But, among other things, global warming is changing all that.

Shortly after the discovery of the New World, European explorers sought long and hard for an easy way to usurp those inconveniently placed land masses impeding an easy voyage to the riches of Asia. Unfortunately, they soon learned that the most promising route, between the northern coast of North America and the Arctic -- known as the Northwest Passage -- was impassable due to icy conditions. Thanks to recent melting patterns, however, that's no longer the case.

Photo courtesy: © Belzebub II

This summer, the Belzebub II, a sailboat helmed by a three-man crew, became the first to navigate through the Northwest Passage, from Sweden to the western shore of Alaska -- made possible due to the region's now scarcer ice coverage, the result of global warming.

The crew detailed their journey on their blog, found here.

Unlike some other history-making sailors, the crew of Belzebub II isn't in it for glory -- they simply hope to point out that, even though those early cartographers' maps still look correct on the surface, today the face of our planet is actually not the same.

"By sailing this newly-opened route we hope that our expedition will play a small part in bringing further attention to climate change and contributing to a larger shift in attitudes. The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate and is clear proof of our disharmony with the planet," write the crew. "Our approach to sail across a historical stretch of water that has traditionally been frozen is meant to be a clear visual example of the extent of declining polar ice."

As far as global warming goes, we may have passed the tipping point or the point of no return as it is more commonly called.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Male Killer Whales are Real Mama's Boys

Looking closely you will see the baby whale at the end, it's mother in the middle; and, there's an escort whale (male) in the front just out of sight. Photo courtesy: Dave Lonsdale/CC BY 2.0

It seems that humans are not the only ones that have that most unique of all children - the mama's boy. There is always the male children that would rather remain with his mother than forge his own destiny. And the human mothers usually encourage this type of behaviour.

Apparently, so do killer whale mothers. Scientists have always wondered why female killer whales have the longest menopause of any non-human species. Now they think they know.

If his mother dies, a male whale is 14 times more likely to die within the year.

The research team, from the Universities of Exeter and York (UK), the Center for Whale Research (USA) and Pacific Biological Station (Canada) studied killer whales in the North Pacific ocean over a period of 36 years.

Menopause seems difficult to explain in evolutionary terms: how does surviving well past the age in which reproduction is possible contribute to the survival of a species? Attempts to answer the question have lead to the so-called "Grandmother hypothesis" which surmises that Grandma's contributions to the core family unit help the survival chances of the third generation.

In the case of whales, the mothers themselves remain dedicated to their offspring a lifetime long -- until well after their sons are mature whales in their own rights. According to Dr Dan Franks, a Biologist at the University of York:
Our analysis shows that male killer whales are pretty much mommy's boys and struggle to survive without their mother's help. The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal.
The press release explains the unique social groups of killer whales: "Sons and daughters (stay) with their mothers in a single group throughout their lives. With this close association, older mothers have the opportunity to increase the transmission of their genes by helping their adult offspring survive and reproduce. When sons mate, their offspring are cared for by females in another group, whereas when daughters reproduce the offspring stay in the group, which increases local competition for resources within the group."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guerilla Gardening - the Natural Way

Photo courtesy:

When planting trees, think to the future. The tree that lives outside my condo's livingroom window is the inspiration for this blog. I have enjoyed that tree for 17 years; watching it grow from a sapling to a majestic maple, enjoying the privacy it affords my living room window, listening to the soothing sounds it creates when it rains or a breeze is blowing, watching the birds it shelters in its leaves and loving the sound of their short, I just love that tree.

When the tree was planted, it was placed an inch or so below grass level with a small amount of dirt around the trunk left bare. That helps a lot. However, that was the extent of it. Now, like many other places, our weather patterns have changed over the past two decades; and, we are having an uncharacteristic drought. My tree is showing the effects. For the first time in 17 years, I can see the leaves wilting on the tree for lack of water; and, it upset me.

I assume the end to the drought is nowhere in sight because the City is putting out requests for volunteers; and, instructions on how to water the city trees that line the streets. They are requesting that everyone water the tree(s) outside their property. I live on the 4th floor and have no access to a hose of any kind.

So...tonight, myself, my dog, and several full large soda bottles went outside to water my tree. Zoe (my dog) and I were out there for about 15 mins. as we let the water absorb into the soil slowly between waterings. We waited until dark so the sun wouldn't burn off any of the surface water. I think a couple nights of this should put the moisture back in those leaves.

OK, OK, I get NO points for style as I sat there on my walker, in the dark, patiently watering the tree; but, you do what you gotta do for friends.

How to Make a PVC Watering Tube

Make Tubes and Prepare the Site

1 Cut four 18-inch sections from the 10-foot, perforated PVC pipe. Discard the belled end. File or otherwise smooth the edges of the ends.

2 Glue caps on one end of each section. Wrap the sections with screening to keep gravel and dirt from entering the holes. Overlap the wrap by 3 inches and secure with zip ties.

3 Test your tree site soil for drainage, as good drainage is essential for new trees. Water your chosen spot well the day before planting.

4 Dig a hole twice as deep as your root ball and three times as wide. Mix 1 part compost to 1 part dug soil. Fill the bottom half of the hole with soil mix and firm it in.

Plant Your Tree and Install Tubes

5 Remove your tree from its nursery container by cutting away the container. For ball-and-burlap plants remove the burlap wrapping. Bare root trees will not have coverings. Prune off broken roots, but do not prune back top growth.

6 Place your tree in the hole, making sure the top of the root ball is just above ground level. Spread matted or circling roots. Install the PVC tubes at four equally-spaced points around the hole against the edges. Make sure the top 4 inches of the tubes are above ground level.

7 Add soil backfill halfway up the hole, firm it in and water to remove air pockets.

8 Build a 4-inch high berm (soil wall) around the filled hole with compost, and a 2 inch high inner berm 2 inches out from the tree trunk. Add a 2-inch layer of mulch between the berms.

9 Water your tree immediately by slowly filling the berm and tubes. Use the remaining four caps to cover the tubes when filled.

10 Fill the berm twice to make sure the ground has absorbed enough water. Surface watering is necessary to promote active root growth. Continue regular watering once a week throughout the growing season.

During times of drought, the tubes can be uncovered and water added slowly to the tubes allowing the first 1.5' or so to receive the benefit of a good watering. Fill the tubes, wait for them to empty, fill tubes again, etc. until the trees have received a good watering. Cap tubes to keep dirt or other things out when finished.

Tips & Warnings

Watering tubes can be used to apply liquid fertilizer. Always mix according to manufacturer directions to avoid burning roots.

Installing several watering tubes at the drip line of larger trees may help deliver more water to roots during drought conditions.

Checking the soil around your new tree with a soil probe or moisture meter after watering will help you determine if your watering is effective.

Do not sink watering tubes right by the trunk, as this can promote disease and damage roots.

Extra tubes may need to be installed for supplemental watering as trees grow since it's most effective to irrigate from the dripline to 3 feet beyond.

Do not water trees lightly or just the same amount as lawns; trees have different water requirements. In order to survive, trees need to have huge root systems that extend many feet into the ground. If they are constantly lightly watered, the root system will not develop the depth it requires because the roots will stay on the surface where the water is. Trees need to receive deep waterings that will encourage the root system to grow properly.

Taking this precaution now will allow you to enjoy your tree(s) for a lifetime without wasting any water to do so.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Donkeys Become Transportation for School Children

Photo courtesy: David Agren/CC BY 2.0

It's fair to say that donkeys aren't usually recognized for their intelligence or eagerness to learn. I don't know how that image first attached itself to the donkey; but, they have been saddled with this misconception for centuries.

While donkeys have a notorious reputation for stubbornness, this has been attributed to a much stronger sense of "self preservation" than exhibited by horses. It is more likely based on a stronger prey instinct and a weaker connection with man. This results in it being considerably more difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it perceives to be dangerous for whatever reason than it is a horse. However, as with any animal, once a person has earned their confidence, they can be willing and companionable partners and very dependable in work.

In fact, man and donkey have been working hand in hoof for many centuries. A working relationship has existed for at least 5000 years. There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals.

On the island of Hydra, because cars are outlawed, donkeys and mules form virtually the sole method of heavy goods transport. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

Although formal studies of their behaviour and cognition are rather limited, donkeys also appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn.

Thanks to some creative thinking, there is now a helpful fleet of them serving as school-transports in Mexico.

For many kids in rural parts of Manuel Doblado, a town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, just arriving to class was once the most challenging part of their day, leaving little energy left for learning. Since students from the region's remotest corners often face long treks along steep trails and dangerous passes, some days conditions made going to school too hazardous to attempt.

But where no school bus will venture, some animals are right at home.

So, with that in mind, local administrators conceived of a sustainable solution: donkeys as buses. Backed by the support of the community, the school district recently enlisted a fleet of 26 donkeys to help make getting an education that much easier for the furthest-traveling schoolchildren.

For 9-year-old Mariana, a student at the elementary school in Manuel Doblado, her new donkey chauffeur has made daily life more about learning and less about braving the exhausting commute.

"With the donkey, things are only going well," she tells Milenio (Webpage in Spanish, translation may be needed). "I used to only go to school when there was no rain. I prefer taking the donkey because it needs no gas or anything, and it never breaks down. Also, I get less tired."

In fact, thanks to their new sustainable transportation system, students in the ruralist areas have been able to reduce the time it takes to get to school by half, freeing their time and minds for more important things -- like learning. And there's certainly nothing asinine about that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sharks Learn Skills From Each Other

Lemon sharks cruising the Bahamas. Photo courtesy: Gary Rinaldi/CC BY-SA 2.0

Well, once again science has proved something many of us knew all along...sharks learn behaviours from other sharks. And they can learn from experience as well.

A bit of jaunt off the intended path; but, another story that proves that sharks can reason. Florence, a nurse shark was hooked once (for captivity unfortunately); but, she still remembers that fish was used to disguise the hook which eventually led to her capture. Florence is now the world's first vegetarian shark.

However, scientists have now decided that, for whatever reason, now is the time to break this "startling" news. BBC News is highlighting the sharks' ability to learn new skills.

Scientists from the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas have discovered that lemon sharks engage in "social learning" — the first time that such ability has been observed in cartilaginous fish.

In experiments untrained lemon sharks completed tasks more quickly working with trained lemon sharks, suggesting that the untrained sharks "are able to pick up social cues from each other."

Because of the type of experiment done, the scientists say they don't know the actual social learning process going on, but it's "quite obvious" that this is what's happening. Lemon sharks learn from other lemon sharks.

Personally, I'm thinking that the fact they can be trained by humans show that lemon sharks are capable of learning from any species in any situation. After all, I'm not thinking they run into a lot of people down where they usually hang out. It makes sense to me that left in their natural habitat they would learn from both their surroundings and other lemon sharks.

Beyond the research itself the thing that strikes me in all this is how it just takes one more brick from the human-created wall that separates humans from other animal species. Differences certainly exist but none of them support the notion that humans are unique in the ways we have historically fashioned for ourselves. Perhaps it's time we assume that other animals are essentially like ourselves until proven different, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mysterious Changes in Oceanic Salinity Spurs a NASA Expedition

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel Knorr docked before its scheduled departure on Sept. 6 to study salinity in the mid-Atlantic ocean. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

Over the past 50 years, the salty parts of the oceans have become saltier and the fresh regions have become fresher, and the degree of change is greater than scientists can explain.

Researchers are heading out into one particularly salty ocean region, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, in hopes of better understanding what drives variation in salinity in the upper ocean.

Ultimately, they hope, research like this will offer insight on the dynamics behind the dramatic changes in the ocean's salt content.

Many oceanographers have a hunch about what is going on; and, are not afraid to say so. The answer is climate change; and, Ray Schmitt, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told journalists this during a news conference Wednesday (Sept. 5).

"Climate is changing all the time, and some of that change is due to natural variation," Schmitt said. "The 50-year trend we are talking about, most of us believe is really due to the general trend of global warming."

This matters because the ocean is at the heart of the planet's water cycle: 86 percent of global evaporation and 78 percent of global precipitation occur over the ocean, according to NASA, the lead entity behind the project, called Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS).

Over the ocean, more evaporation as compared to precipitation translates into saltier water. Meanwhile, in regions where precipitation is favored, water is fresher.

By tracking ocean salinity, researchers can better understand the global water cycle. Global warming is expected to intensify it, but current computer models do not predict the amount of change seen over the last 50 years, Schmitt said.

Aside from an increase in evaporation caused by warming, such factors as winds can also contribute to changes in salinity.

"We have a lot of questions about the basic physics we hope to resolve with this cruise," Schmitt said.

In addition to instruments attached to the research vessel itself, scientists plan to deploy a variety of drifting, remotely operated and moored sensors. European researchers are also visiting the site and collecting data.

Salinity data is also expected to come from the satellite-borne instrument, called Aquarius, launched about a year ago, as well as the global network of Argo floats, which measure temperature and salinity.

The research vessel Knorr departed Woods Hole, Mass., for the mid-Atlantic Thursday (Sept. 6). The researchers will spend about three weeks deploying their instruments, leaving some behind for when they return. Due to hurricanes Leslie and Michael, the vessel's captain decided to travel quickly to the east and then south to miss the worst of the weather on their way to the study site.

The mid-Atlantic isn't the only area where researchers hope to study ocean salinity in detail.

"SPURS is named because spurs come in pairs," said Eric Lindstrom, a physical oceanography program scientist at NASA headquarters, explaining that researchers hope to do something similar in a low-salinity region, such as the Bay of Bengal or an area south of Hawaii.

While researchers think global climate change may be behind the changes in ocean salinity, changes like these are expected to have their own implications for climate. This is because ocean salinity also affects ocean circulation, and as a result, ocean temperatures, which have implications for weather.

Here's how it works: Compared with fresh water, salty water is heavier, and so more prone to sinking. Temperature has a similar effect, with warmth causing water to rise. Differences in salinity and temperature drive a slow-moving conveyor belt of ocean currents that encircles the planet. The Gulf Stream, which carries warm water across the Atlantic to Europe, is part of this conveyor belt.

It may work out that higher salinity in some regions counterbalances fresher water in others, Schmitt said: "It is a delicate balance and what we think now is it is not too likely the conveyor belt is going to shut down anytime soon."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Solar Oven Converts Salt Water into Fresh Water

Solar oven being tended by owner. Photo courtesy: © Gabriele Diamanti

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have several hobby horses that I like to trot out on a regular basis. One of those issues that is near and dear to my heart is the accessibility of fresh water to all who live on this planet. I am delighted to say that another small step in bringing affordable, clean drinking water to all peoples has been taken. Read on.

As a graduate student, Italian designer Gabrielle Diamanti's travels exposed him to the global water crisis and the issue became a fascination for him. Fortunately he's been able to use his skills as a designer to create something that could make a big difference for those with little access to clean water. The Eliodomestico is an open source design for what is essentially a solar still, but with thoughtful details to make it even more functional and easy to use for those in coastal areas where salt water is abundant, but fresh water isn't.

Technology doesn't always have to be complicated, sometimes the simplest materials and concepts are the best. The Eliodomestico works like an upside-down coffee percolator to desalinate salt water. The ceramic oven has three main pieces. The top black container is where the salt water is poured. As the sun heats the salt water and creates steam, the pressure that builds pushes the steam through a pipe in the middle section. The steam condenses against the lid of the basin at the bottom and then drips into the basin, where it is collected.

The oven can make about five liters of fresh water a day. The UN refugee agency states that refugees need a minimum of 7 litres per person per day, just to survive. In the arid regions where many of the displaced are forced to seek shelter, they need more. And to ensure minimum standards of health and sanitation, they need 20 litres of water per person each day.

The design can be built for about $50 and although Diamanti used terracotta for his prototypes, local craftsmen can use whatever materials are most abundant where they live. The basin is also designed to be comfortably carried on the head, which is common in sub-Saharan Africa and other places around the world.

Solar still technology is old and not uncommon to find in developing nations, but it's often on a much larger scale, like at hospitals or water desalination plants that serve entire communities. Diamanti wanted to create this open source project so that individual families could have access to the same desalination process in a simple-to-use format.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leading British Academic Calls For Accelerated Research into a Worldwide Nuclear Power Station

Professor Peter Wadhams pointed to evidence that Arctic sea ice cover had reached record low this summer. Photo courtesy: Christopher Debicki/Getty Images

A leading British academic has called for accelerated research into futuristic geo-engineering and a worldwide nuclear power station "binge" to avoid runaway global warming. appears we haven't learned much since I was one of the protesters at the Peace Arch (USA/Canada border) so very many years ago trying to tell the world that the bomb was a mistake.

Of course, we were very young; very naive; most of us had long hair; and, we weren't taken very seriously. Today, I am not so young; not so naive; I'm regrowing my hair; and, I still believe nuclear power is wrong. I don't think we'll get away as easily as we have in the past. Two words: Hiroshima, Nagasaki. This time, it is my belief that any further nuclear accidents will leave a shadow greater than the initial mushroom cloud and/or escaping radiation.

Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, said both potential solutions had inherent dangers but were now vital as time was running out.

"It is very, very depressing that politicians and the public are attuned to the threat of climate change even less than they were 20 years ago when Margaret Thatcher sounded the alarm. CO2 levels are rising at a faster than exponential rate, and yet politicians only want to take utterly trivial steps such as banning plastic bags and building a few windfarms," he said.

"I am very suspicious of using technology to solve problems created by technology, given that we have messed up so much in the past but having done almost nothing for two decades we need to adopt more desperate measures such as considering geo-engineering techniques as well as conducting a major nuclear programme."

Geo-engineering techniques such as whitening clouds by adding fine sprays of water vapour, or adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere have been ridiculed in some quarters but welcomed elsewhere. Wadhams proposes the use of thorium-fuelled reactors, being tested in India, which are said to be safer because they do not result in a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium, experts say. Also, under certain circumstances, the waste from thorium reactors is less dangerous and remains radioactive for hundreds rather than thousands of years.

Wadhams, who is also head of the polar ocean physics group at Cambridge and has just returned from a field trip to Greenland, was reacting to evidence that Arctic sea ice cover had reached a record low this summer.

This latest rate of loss is 50% higher than most scenarios outlined by other polar scientists and coincide with alarming new reports about a "vast reservoir" of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, that could be released in Antarctica if the ice melts equally quickly there. Greenpeace said last night that it agreed with the academic's concerns but not with his solutions.

"Professor Wadhams is right that we're in a big hole and the recent record sea ice low in the Arctic is a clear warning that we need to act. But it would be cheaper, safer and easier to stop digging and drilling for more fossil fuels," said Ben Ayliffe, the group's senior polar campaigner.

"We already have the technologies, from ultra-efficient vehicles to state-of-the-art clean energy generation, to make the deep cuts in greenhouse gases that are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, we're still lacking the political and business will to implement them," he added.

Wadhams, who has done pioneering work on polar ice thinning using British naval submarines from 1976 onwards, said these latest satellite findings confirmed his own dire predictions.

And they feed into the alarming scenarios that the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been warning about.

"What we are now seeing is a fast collapse of the sea ice that means we could see a complete loss during the summer by 2015 - rather than the 20 to 30 years talked about by the UK Meteorological Office. This would speed up ocean warming and Greenland ice cap melt and increase global ocean levels considerably as well as warming the seabed and releasing more methane."

Asked whether the latest evidence made a ban on drilling for carbon-releasing oil and gas necessary as Greenpeace has contended, Wadhams said "philosophically" such exploration made little sense. "We have been conducting a global experiment with the burning of fossil fuels and the results are already disastrous and this would accelerate them," he argued saying that there were also practical worries because of the enormous difficulty of dealing with any spillage or a blowout under moving ice where oil would get trapped inside the ice in a kind of inaccessible "oil sandwich'.

But he said at least that companies such as Shell had shown some responsibility by carefully planning its expected exploration in the Chukotka Sea off Alaska and had shown a willingness to use ready-made containment domes that could cap off a well if anything went wrong. He was more fearful about drilling methods in the Russian Arctic where environmental concerns were lower down the agenda.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pet Fish That Glow Under Black Light

Electric Green Tetras - a genetically-modified Blackskirt Tetra. Photo courtesy:

Who wouldn’t want a glow-in-the-dark pet fish? That’s exactly what Yorktown Technologies thought when they brought a genetically-modified pet fish called the GloFish to market in 2003.

The fluorescent fish, a modified version of the zebra fish, was undoubtedly popular, and as a result, this February Yorktown introduced the Electric Green Tetra fish, an altered version of the blackskirt Tetra fish. It’s a small freshwater fish that with the help of glowing coral genetic material, turns neon in black light, according to The Washington Post.

But environmentalists fear that these two fish (the GloFish [zebra fish] and the Electric Green Tetra [blackskirt tetras]) are actually much different than they seem because the Electric Green Tetra can survive in US waterways, particularly those in South Florida, while the GloFish (zebra fish) can only survive in southern Asia waters.

A Blackskirt tetra as they occur in nature. Photo courtesy:

“My worry is that they’ll be such a novelty that they will be imported back to [South America] and kids will let them go and they’ll start interbreeding with fish whose genomes are very similar,’’ said Barry Chernoff, a freshwater fish biologist and chair of the environmental studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn on The Washington Post. “We would see the spreading of the fluorescent coral gene in the native fish.’’

Once people tire of their pets, many decide to set them free, which creates a huge problem in the wild, like in the case of the Burmese python in the South Florida. Yorktown’s CEO claims that the fish in question isn’t aggressive and rather vulnerable, so it’s not likely to become an invasive species. But researchers aren’t so sure.

“The neotropical region contains the most diverse freshwater fish fauna and complex freshwater ecosystem in the world, with some 6,025 fish species so far recognized,’’ Gordon McGregor Reid, chair of the Wetlands International Freshwater Fish Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “We meddle with this at our peril.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Genetically-Modified Rice Tested on Chinese Children

Chinese farmers work at hybrid rice planting field on June 20, 2006 in Changsha city, Hunan Province. Headlines in the Chinese media have been screaming about an American university conducting experiments on Chinese children using genetically modified rice. Photo courtesy: Guang Niu/Getty Images

Genetically-modified foods are extremely high on my list of things I love to hate. I am one of those aging hippies that never quite made the transition to a technological lifestyle. I still believe that the best food for me is fresh from the garden or orchard full of natural goodness and bursting with the stored energy of the sun. Just the way God intended it to be.

I also like to get dirt under my nails and in my cuticles from tending my balcony garden. At least, I know what I'm eating when I eat a tomato or berry fresh from my balcony. My response to genetically-modified foods is "If it's so beneficial for us consumers, why is genetically-modified food not labelled as such." Are they afraid consumers won't buy the GMO produce? There is no way I would GM produce if it were labelled as such.

It’s not often that news about a scientific study is the top item on China’s main search engine. But for the last few days, headlines in the Chinese media have been screaming about an American university conducting experiments on Chinese children using genetically-modified rice.

Genetically-engineered foods are generally viewed with suspicion in China (as they should be everywhere), and the idea that government officials would allow foreigners — and Americans at that — to experiment on Chinese children would be very bad PR for communist officials.

The controversy came to light after Greenpeace posted on its blog a strongly-worded attack on the project, describing it as turning children into “guinea pigs.” And rightfully so. There is never a reason (altruistic or otherwise) that justifies experimentation on children.

These experiments should not have happened and I have to wonder why the question wasn't asked why the testing was being done on Chinese children and not American children or both. That alone should have been a dead giveaway that something was not right. The product tested was Golden Rice.

The experiments were part of an unbelievable decade-long project involving a variety of international organizations to see whether the genetically-modified rice would provide more vitamin A to children.

But they are both scientifically controversial and in China politically dangerous.

Perhaps sensing the explosive nature of the story, the Hengyang City administration in south-central China’s Hunan Province, where the experiments took place, responded immediately, denying that genetically-modified rice was used in the study.

On Sept. 5, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a central state agency, also refuted the claim that genetically-modified rice was used. Such a common and wearisome tactic - when caught, deny, deny, deny.

They made another statement later the same day saying that Shi-an Yin, a China-based researcher, was involved in the project, but said he did not know whether Golden Rice was used in the study.

This assertion conflicts with the language in the clinical trial registration and in the study itself, which refers explicitly to Golden Rice, which is genetically-modified.

The rice was given to 24 children aged 6 to 8 at an elementary school in Hengyang from July 2008 to January 2009. The results of the study were published on Aug. 1, this year, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN).

The AJCN study says that ethical review took place in both the United States and at the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in China. “Both parents and pupils consented to participate in the study,” it said.

Each child was given a 60-gram (2.1 ounce) serving of Golden Rice each day at lunch for 21 days, with the conclusion that Golden Rice is “as effective as pure beta-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children.”

Critics like Dave R. Schubert, an expert in cellular neurobiology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in California, say feeding genetically-modified rice to children is unwise.

“We do not know if this product of genetic engineering can harm people, there has been no work to test its potential toxicity,” he wrote via email.

He indicates that it is possible that retinoids, which can be “exceptionally toxic” molecules, could be produced by the rice. “Since there has been no animal or human safety testing of the Golden Rice, I believe that it was exceptionally foolish to feed this Golden Rice to children,” he wrote.

The experiment was conducted in China, he surmised, “most likely because they could not pass the review process required for doing this type of clinical trial in the U.S.”

Children may be especially sensitive to potential health risks involved in GM rice. A report by the London-based Royal Society said that 6 to 8 percent of children have had food allergies, and an unknown allergen in GM food would pose the highest risk to children.

Dr. Guangwen Tang at Tufts University in Boston, the principal author of the study, and her co-author Gerard E. Dallal, also at Tufts, did not respond to emails or voice mail messages requesting comment.

Jennifer Kritz, a spokesperson at the University, forwarded a statement saying the university was “deeply concerned” about the matter.

“The purpose of the 2008 China trial was to test Golden Rice as part of the solution to a very serious health problem in developing countries — blindness of a quarter of a million children, and the deaths of half of them, caused by vitamin A deficiency.”

The statement did not provide further particulars on the research. It indicated that a “thorough review” was underway and that “it would be inappropriate to speculate further on the matter at this time.”

Chinese media and netizens were incensed primarily at Chinese officials for allowing the research to take place, and then denying that it had.

The Jinghua Times on Sept. 3 said, “The United States already admitted to using Hunan children for the experiment, but the Hunan government only said, ‘We have no direct association.’ If both are telling the truth, the only plausible explanation is that the experiment was carried out by an intermediary association.”

Commentators on the Chinese Greenpeace website (site is written in Chinese - translation may be needed) said they thought the regime was trying to cover up the matter. “I feel that the experiment was conducted in secret. Genetically-modified foods are still met with strong resistance in China; I don’t believe the parents had agreed to the experiment,” one user wrote.

China Daily, the regime’s primary media outlet for external propaganda, questioned the evasive response from regime officials. “Central authorities’ first and foremost priority should be to find out the truth and dispel the doubts people have about this matter,” it wrote in an editorial.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Genetically-Modified Camel Milk Being Explored For Pharmaceutical Benefits

Camels. Photo courtesy: jasejc/CC BY-SA 2.0

My sympathies go out to Dr. Frank N. Stein's horse. The poor thing must be completely knackered constantly transporting the doctor's genetically-modified experiments from one country to another, one government to another.

This time Dr. Stein and his horse are in the United Arab Emirates to clone (of all things) camels.

Pretty scary stuff here (on a number of levels): reports that researchers in Dubai are working on developing genetically-modified camels. The project aims to slash the prices of life-saving drugs — including insulin, and clotting factors for treating haemophilia — in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Nisar Wani, head of the Reproductive Biology Laboratory at Dubai's Camel Reproduction Center, in the United Arab Emirates.

"We are establishing camel cells modified with exogenous [foreign] DNA, for use in producing transgenic cloned animals, or GM camels," Wani told SciDev.Net. "Hopefully we will transfer camel transgenic embryos to surrogate mothers for the first time later this year."

Wani went on to say he was unable to pinpoint when the first transgenic animal would be born, as the calving rate for cloned embryos was only 5%, and "this rate gets even smaller when transgenic cells are used".

Why camels? Cows would be a better option from the standpoint of milk production; but, camels have been chosen for this research as they are better suited for the arid environment of the United Arab Emirates and surrounding nations where the work will actually take place.

The Reproductive Biology Laboratory was established in Dubai in 2003, to study the reproductive techniques in species from the region, particularly camels.

"[Previously] there was little or no literature available on assisted reproductive techniques in camels, so we had to standardise all the basic techniques one by one," explained Wani. "Finally, in 2009, we produced the first cloned camel calf — named Injaz — and thereafter produced many more."

The lab's researchers have established a cell bank from 'elite' camels, which excel in milk production and adapting to drought and hot weather, and now plan to clone these animals.

Once again, the question of ethics rears its head. What right do we, as humans, have to alter the genetics of a species without even knowing what the long-term effects could be to the animals forced to participate; especially when any benefits reaped are solely for the good of humans not the species altered.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Antarctic Ice Sheet May Cover a Vast Reservoir of Methane

Half the West Antarctic ice sheet and a quarter of the East Antarctic sheet lie on pre-glacial sedimentary basins containing around 21,000bn tonnes of carbon, said the scientists. Photo courtesy: Nasa

A vast reservoir of the potent greenhouse gas methane may be locked beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, a study suggests.

Scientists say the gas could be released into the atmosphere if enough of the ice melts away, adding to global warming.

Research indicates that ancient deposits of organic matter may have been converted to methane by microbes living in low-oxygen conditions.

The organic material dates back to a period 35m years ago when the Antarctic was much warmer than it is today and teeming with life.

Study co-author Prof Slawek Tulaczyk, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, said: "Some of the organic material produced by this life became trapped in sediments, which then were cut off from the rest of the world when the ice sheet grew. Our modelling shows that over millions of years, microbes may have turned this old organic carbon into methane."

Half the West Antarctic ice sheet and a quarter of the East Antarctic sheet lie on pre-glacial sedimentary basins containing around 21,000bn tonnes of carbon, said the scientists, writing in the journal Nature.

British co-author Prof Jemma Wadham, from the University of Bristol, said: "This is an immense amount of organic carbon, more than 10 times the size of carbon stocks in northern permafrost regions.

"Our laboratory experiments tell us that these sub-ice environments are also biologically active, meaning that this organic carbon is probably being metabolised into carbon dioxide and methane gas by microbes."

The amount of frozen and free methane gas beneath the ice sheets could amount to 4bn tonnes, the researchers estimate.

Disappearing ice could free enough of the gas to have an impact on future global climate change, they believe.

"Our study highlights the need for continued scientific exploration of remote sub-ice environments in Antarctica because they may have far greater impact on Earth's climate system than we have appreciated in the past," said Prof Tulaczyk.

The Antarctic ice sheet covers the southern continent's land mass and not the sea around it. Methane hydrates - a combination of frozen water ice and methane - are also found at the bottom of the oceans where they form as a result of cold temperatures and high pressures.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Oxfam Warns of Soaring Food Prices

Climate change will drive up prices of wheat, maize and many other foods traded internationally, Oxfam warns. Photo courtesy: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Climate change's impact on future food prices is being underestimated, Oxfam warned in a report on Wednesday.

The development charity predicts that massive price spikes will be a devastating blow to the world's poorest people who today spend up to 75% of their income on food.

Its report, Extreme Weather, Extreme Price, suggests extreme weather events such as droughts and floods – made more likely by global warming – could drive up future food prices. Previous research has tended to consider gradual impacts of rising global temperatures, such as changing rainfall patterns.

I sponsor 4 World Vision children - a girl in Sierra Leone (the world's poorest nation), 2 boys in Democratic Republic of Congo (2nd poorest nation in the world), and a girl in Bolivia. The two boys are already suffering with food insecurity, food shortages, and lack of food options. One of my boys says he enjoys the two meals he gets a day; but, hates the famine. This young man is only eight. He shouldn't be worried about food at this age. None of them should - nor should their parents have to spend most of their meagre income to feed them when families have so many other places to spend their money raising a family.

Neither of the two boys had a birthday celebration this year as all their money goes to food. The only remembrance of their birthdays was the parcels I sent to them. This year, I am sending all four an extra monetary donation to help keep their tummies full for another year. The girls (Sierra Leone & Bolivia) seem to be doing better; but, the situation is not good.

Oxfam's research, commissioned by the charity and undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies, examines the impact of extreme weather scenarios on food prices in 2030. It warns that by that date the world could be even more vulnerable to the kind of drought happening today in the US – the worst in 60 years – with dependence on US exports of wheat and maize predicted to rise and climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme droughts in North America.

Watch Heather Coleman discus findings from the new Oxfam report. Video courtesy: Climate Desk

The research claimed that:

• Even under a conservative scenario another US drought in 2030 could raise the price of maize by as much as 140% over and above the average price of food in 2030, which is already likely to be double today's prices.

• Drought and flooding in southern Africa could increase the consumer price of maize and other coarse grains by as much as 120%. Price spikes of this magnitude today would mean the cost of a 25kg bag of corn meal – a staple which feeds poor families across Africa for about two weeks – would rocket from around $18 to $40.

• A nationwide drought in India and extensive flooding across south-east Asia could see the world market price of rice increase by 22%. This could lead to domestic spikes of up to 43% on top of longer term price rises in rice importing countries of such as Nigeria, Africa's most populous country.

• Climate shocks in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to have an increasingly dramatic impact in 2030 as 95% of grains such as maize, millet and sorghum that are consumed in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to come from the region itself.

As well as affecting the world's poorest, such rises will also hit those on the lowest incomes in the UK, who already spend up to half their household budget on food, the report notes.

Oxfam's climate change policy adviser, Tim Gore, said: "Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns hold back crop production and cause steady price rises. But extreme weather events – like the current US drought – can wipe out entire harvests and trigger dramatic food price spikes. We will all feel the impact as prices spike but the poorest people will be hit hardest."

He said the world needed to wake up to the drastic consequences facing our food system of climate inaction: "As [greenhouse gas] emissions continue to soar, extreme weather in the US and elsewhere provides a glimpse of our future food system in a warming world. Our planet is heading for average global warming of 2.5–5C this century. It is time to face up to what this means for hunger and malnutrition for millions of people on our planet."

The report comes as UN talks aimed at tackling climate change are due to close in Bangkok on Wednesday with little sign of progress, while tomorrow the Food and Agriculture Organisation is due to publish further information on how the worst US drought in 60 years is impacting on global food prices.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Free Rain Gardens - An Idea I Can Get Behind

Diagram of the principle behind a rain garden. Image courtesy: © L.A. Rain Gardens

According to the L.A. Rain Gardens website, Los Angeles County has 300 million gallons of drinking water running off dry and impermeable surfaces every day. Rain in Los Angeles, as in all populated areas to a greater or lesser degree, travels across concrete and asphalt where the water collects pollutants like automotive fluids, trash and pesticides that it carries downstream through the storm drain system.

Much of this now "grey" water reaches the nation's waterways; and, eventually the ocean untreated. So not only is the water lost without any environmental benefit being gained from it; but, this lost water is eventually entering the waterways and oceans untreated and polluted.

The amount of urban runoff that reaches the rivers and ocean can be minimized by planting rain gardens.

Not only are rain gardens environmentally-friendly, they are a beautiful addition to any yard or garden. Photo courtesy: UF/IFAS Okeechobee Extension Service

So...what is a Rain Garden exactly?

Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the ground planted with native and region-appropriate flowering plants and grasses that trap runoff. These gardens beautify your property; support wildlife and biodiversity; and, direct water into the ground instead of into streets and sewer systems.

The water that is directed into the ground now can used for many useful purposes. The LA area (Los Angeles, CA) is a particularly dry area with not much in the way of rainfall. Los Angeles has a Subtropical-Mediterranean climate and receives just enough annual precipitation to avoid being judged a semi-arid climate. Los Angeles has plenty of sunshine throughout the year, with an average of only 35 days with measurable precipitation annually.

Los Angeles also boasts a very large population with a high demand for plenty of water. They can use every drop they can get!

One of the most obvious benefits to directing the water deep into the ground is that it is available for vegetation use for a much longer period of time. This means less sprinkling of gardens releasing a large portion water to be used in other ways - drinking, perhaps.

Through a partnership between Tree People and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (good for you!), L.A. Rain Gardens is offering rain garden installations to residents of the Northeast San Fernando Valley--free of charge!

The benefits of installing rain gardens in areas that have little rainfall coupled with drainage problems are so varied, I can't believe this hasn't been done before. Applause to the LA Department of Water and Power for realizing that the money spent on these free rain gardens will come back to them a thousandfold in the coming years.

Here are a few of the many benefits of installing a rain garden in your yard:

•Because rain gardens are comprised of native and location-friendly plants, they play an important role in restoring habitat for and diversity of animal species, some of which are endangered

•Rain gardens save homeowners money on their water bills because native plants require less water and less maintenance (once established) to maintain a sufficient level of health and beauty

•The use of native and location-friendly plants restores native landscape that pioneers and settlers saw upon their arrival

•Location-friendly plants aesthetically enhance our natural environment

•Rain gardens promote soil health and independence by giving the soil water when it needs it, producing healthier and stronger rooted plants

•Rain gardens reduce toxic runoff from entering storm drains and instead promotes efficient use of rain water by diverting it into our largest and most organic storage facility, the soil

•Helps to restore and sustain the water quality and flow of the LA River Watershed
•Allows water that runs onto your property to infiltrate through soil

•20% of California’s electricity resources are devoted to transporting, cleaning, and using water; installing a rain garden helps to mitigate these costs

•Lastly, with the LA Rain Gardens Project installing a rain garden is completely free!

Los Angeles County has 300 million gallons of drinking water running off of dry and impermeable surfaces daily. That's a lot of good drinking water going to waste.

This is the type of program that could (and should) be initiated everywhere. What a low-impact, low-cost, environmentally-friendly solution to a real problem.

If you live in the LA area, here is how the program works:

There are two ways to participate in the test program if you live in the area. The Do-It-Yourself option gives you the opportunity to plant the garden yourself and be reimbursed up to $500 per garden installed or $1000 per household (credit for two gardens allowed). This option, of course, allows you to have exactly what you want, where you want it.

The second and easiest option, is to sign up and let the L.A. Rain Gardens program install your rain garden for you. I can't find out whether the LA Rain Gardens team takes your ideas into consideration or not. I would expect that they do; however, a question worth asking.

To learn more about the project, and to get your own rain garden installed, visit the L.A. Rain Gardens website.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Seeds From 100-Year-Old Ballast Growing Today

ALL photos courtesy: © Max McClure

These lush green plants contain more history than one would imagine. They came from soil carried as ballast in early shipping boats. The empty trading ships needed weighing down, for balance, and what could be easier, and cheaper than to use soil. Once they arrived in port, they dumped the ballast (earth, sand, rocks, etc) unto the river banks and picked up their cargo.

The boats roamed the seas between 1680 and the early 1900's. In this way the seeds were carried from ports and regions all over Europe. Now, hundreds of years later, the seeds in that soil have been planted in an old barge (how appropriate) and floated down a river in Bristol, UK.

The project by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alvesis, (who just happens to be co-founder of Brazil's Green Party) is called Seeds of Change. She discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that by excavating the river bed it is possible to germinate and grow them into plants. Since 2005, she has been visiting Bristol to research its maritime history through these non-native plants.

Working with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, and using an old grain barge, the Ballast Seed Garden is planted with a host of non-native plants that are a living history of trade routes and ships docking in Bristol's harbour.

Non-native plants have a bad reputation, with all the emphasis on native plants now. But a professor associated with the project has a different and compelling view.

He says:
The Ballast Seed Garden shows that the majority of non-native flora do not become naturalized, and that even fewer actually become invasive. So a project like Maria Thereza’s can act as a powerful advertisement for ‘multihorticulturalism’ – an antidote to the widely held view that all non-native plants, unless firmly under control in a garden, are a menace to our natural national heritage.

The list of seeds that have been planted, and their origin, is fascinating. It illuminates a time when the main form of transport for goods was along seafaring water routes from continent to continent. The plants include Squirting Cucumber from Mediterranean Region of Southern Europe to North Africa and warm temperate areas of South West Asia, Amaranthus caudatus from the American tropics, oats from the Middle East, Common Fig from Cyprus, Turkey, Caucasus, to Turkmenistan Republic and Afghanistan and flax from Eurasia, cultivated by man since 8000 BC.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Wonderwater Cafe Will Show You How Much Water You Eat

The statistics around water consumption are staggering. And while taking shorter showers or even skipping showers all together can save significant amounts of water, these personal conservation tips are nothing compared to the bigger, thornier question of how we tackle water use in agriculture, manufacturing and other industrial processes.

Wonderwater, a new pop up cafe which has already made appearances in Beijing and Helsinki, is looking to set the record straight and spark new conversations about the realities of water use:
- Water scarcity will be an increasingly critical issue as global populations rocket towards 9 billion in 2050, as reported by scientists at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm this week
- Currently, the average UK citizen consumes 4,645 litres of water per day, with more than 60% of this water coming from overseas (
- The water we consume 'indirectly' through the production of major items such as food, clothing and paper is far greater than our domestic water use, which accounts for just 150 litres per day.

Visitors to the cafe, which will be setting up at Leila's Shop in Shoreditch as part of the London Design Festival from the 12th to the 23rd September, will be able to select items from the menu that have low, medium and high water footprints, while perusing backdrops with infographics and "surprising facts" about water consumption.

As Simran Sethi's recent TED talk explained, assailing people with facts is not always the best way to create change. It's in making the personal connections between the issues and how they impact our daily lives and the lives of our loved ones that we start to see people behaving differently.

It will be interesting to see whether Wonderwater can serve up that kind of consciousness shift on its menu.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Quotable Quotes

"While stubbornness shelters one from reality, open-mindedness reveals all of life's truths."
- Unknown

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."
- Alexander Graham Bell

"If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you started."
- Marcus Garvey

Did You Know That...

It is evident that many people want to see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That is because France enjoys the highest tourism rate of any country in the world with 80 million visitors every year.

There is a reason for everything, even the naming of chocolate bars. The famous Snickers bar was named after a horse belonging to Frank Mars, founder of the chocolate candy maker, Mars Incorporated.

Surgery is an intricate and modern practice; but, it has an age-old history. An Indian doctor performed brain surgeries 2,600 years ago. The earliest medical school was also in India.

The country of Ukraine is known for its custom of decorating eggs in an elaborate fashion. Traditionally, birds' eggs were used. This type of craft is known as Pysanky.

Each year, nearly 50% of paper bills manufactured in the United states are one-dollar bills. These bills only last about 18 months before they have to be replaced. Some people think it's time to switch to coin currency - Canada already has with a $1.00 coin and $2.00 coin.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Snail Shell Mini-Gardens

All photos courtesy: Megan Anderson except one.

We've seen plenty of mini-gardens before, whether suspended as part of a lamp, hung in knitted "plantbomb" pockets all over the city, or even strapped to a bike, but these glorious little gardens growing out of snail or sea shells take the cake. Not only are they something that anyone can create, but their tiny stature reminds us how fragile life can be.

These diminutive delights were spotted over at Recyclart, grown by Los Angeles-based crafter and photographer Megan Andersen (a.k.a. "Radmegan"), who told us the inspiration behind these beautiful creations:
I love gardening. My husband and I live in a house now, but I've spent many years in apartments where the (lack of) space was just not conducive to gardening. I started looking at small and slow-growing succulents as well as various natural vessels that would make interesting mini gardens so that anyone could enjoy a little nature in their home.
All right, so how to make one of your own?

Make your own snail/sea shell garden

Here's what you'll need:

•Small-growing succulents that have taken root or some air plants

•A variety of large, clean snail shells or sea shells

•Potting soil or decorative moss, etc. for air plants

It's pretty simple from here: put a thumbful of potting soil into the shell, transplant your chosen succulent(s), and voila! an almost-instant itsy-bitsy wonder.

Air plants are from the family tillandsia; and, are sculptural plants that grow without soil. There are many varieties, all of which gather nutrients exclusively from air, water, and sunlight, with roots that serve the sole purpose of attaching them to any amenable surface. They will thrive on wood, metalwork, stone, seashells…all that is required for care is a weekly misting.

Air plant. Photo courtesy:

Maintenance tips

Perfect for small spaces, these succulents are also pretty light on daily care, says Megan, who also has a tutorial on her blog for making these snail shell gardens:
I knew that whatever I planted inside of a snail shell (where there's not a lot of room for potting soil) would have to be somewhat drought tolerant. All of my snail shell gardens are still alive and well since I first posted that tutorial. My growing secret? I keep them on the window sill in my kitchen so that I see them every day. I only water them every week or so, but I SEE them every day so that I can keep an eye on their general health, and catch those special moments when the succulents bloom
or the air plants pup!

Air plants can be bought at any large, reputable florist or garden centre. They come attached to a small plug of hot glue that must be heated before affixing air plant in place. Not only are they beautiful; but, they come in a wide varies of types.