Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mushroom Hunter and Mycotechnologist Extraordinaire

Ken Miller received a national award for his article on Paul Stamets which was featured in Discover Magazine.

Paul Stamets


For Paul Stamets, the phrase mushroom hunt does not denote a leisurely stroll with a napkin-lined basket. This morning, a half-dozen of us are struggling to keep up with the mycologist as he charges through a fir-and-alder forest on Cartes Island, British Columbia. It s raining steadily, and the moss beneath our feet is slick, but Stamets, 57, barrels across it like a grizzly bear heading for a stump full of honey. He vaults over fallen trees, scrambles up muddy ravines, plows through shin-deep puddles in his rubber boots. He never slows down, but he halts abruptly whenever a specimen demands his attention.

This outing is part of a workshop on the fungi commonly known as mushrooms — a class of organisms whose cell walls are stiffened by a molecule called chitin instead of the cellulose found in plants, and whose most ardent scientific evangelist is the man ahead of us. Stamets is trying to find a patch of chanterelles, a variety known for its exquisite flavor. But the species that stop him in his tracks, and bring a look of bliss to his bushy-bearded face, possess qualities far beyond the culinary.

He points to a clutch of plump oyster mushrooms halfway up an alder trunk. These could clean up oil spills all over the planet, he says. He ducks beneath a rotting log, where a rare, beehive-like Agarikon

dangles. This could provide a defense against weaponized smallpox. Read PDF


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Volcanism, Climate and Food Security

Most have heard of the Battle of Waterloo, but who has heard of the volcano called Tambora? No school textbook I’ve seen mentions that only two months before Napoleon’s final defeat in Belgium on June 18, 1815, the faraway Indonesian island of Sumbawa was the site of the most devastating volcanic eruption on Earth in thousands of years.

Mt. Tambora

The death toll claimed around 100,000 people, from the thick pyroclastic flows of lava, from the tsunami that struck nearby coasts, and from the thick ash that blanketed South-East Asia’s farmlands, destroyed crops and plunged it into darkness for a week. Both events – Napoleon’s defeat and the eruption – had monumental impacts on human history. But while a library of scholarship has been devoted to Napoleon’s undoing at Waterloo, the scattered writings on Tambora would scarcely fill your in-tray.

This extraordinary geological event took place 199 years ago this week, and on the cusp of its bicentenary Tambora is finally getting its due. With the help of modern scientific instruments and old-fashioned archival detective work, the Tambora 1815 eruption can be conclusively placed among the greatest environmental disasters ever to befall mankind. The floods, droughts, starvation, and disease in the three years following the eruption stem from the volcano’s effects on weather systems, so Tambora stands today as a harrowing case study of what the human costs and global reach might be from runaway climate change.

Tambora’s greatest claim to infamy lies not in the impact it had on what was then the Dutch East Indies (which were terrible enough), but its indirect effects on the disease ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather system, for the following two years.

Tambora's eruption was heard 2,oookm
away in Sumatra, and ash fell metres deep

Drought brought on by the eruption devastated crop yields across the Indian sub-continent, but more disastrously gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera. Cholera had always been endemic to Bengal, but the bizarre weather of 1816-17 triggered by Tambora’s eruption – first drought, then late, unseasonal flooding – altered the microbial ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The cholera bacterium, which has an unusually adaptive genetic structure highly sensitive to changes in its aquatic environment, mutated into a new strain. This met with no resistance among the local population, and it spread across Asia and eventually the globe. By century’s end, the death toll from Bengal cholera stood in the tens of millions.

Just as the biological disaster known as the Black Death defined the 14th century in Europe and the Near East, so cholera shaped the nineteenth century like no other calamity. Much of our medical science, and our modern public health institutions, originate in the Victorian-era battle against cholera. But only now, thanks to renewed scientific interest in the relation between cholera and climate change, can we make the connection between the worldwide cholera epidemic originating in 1817 and Tambora’s eruption thousands of miles away.

Tambora’s ripple effects were felt across the globe. In southwest China, the outlying mountainous province of Yunnan suffered terribly from the cold volcanic weather, losing crop after crop of rice to bitter winds and flooding rains. The situation was so extreme that desperate Yunnanese resorted to eating white clay, while parents sold their children in the town markets, or killed them out of mercy.

In the aftermath of this three-year famine, Yunnan farmers turned to a more reliable cash crop – opium – to ensure their families’ survival against future disasters. Within a few decades, opium was being grown all across Yunnan, while opium processing technology and expertise drifted south into the remote mountains of modern-day Burma and Laos. The “golden triangle” of international opium production was born.

If the Tambora disaster persists in cultural memory at all, it is as the “Year Without a Summer,” 1816, the most notorious and best chronicled extreme weather event of that century. Snowstorms swept the east coast in June, ensuring the shortest growing season on record. Crowds of desperate and hungry rural folk from Maine and Vermont fled snowfalls of up to 18 inches to the western frontier, which had been spared the worst of Tambora’s weather.

Here grain harvests were fetching sky-high prices on the famine-struck Atlantic market, but after the boom came a shattering bust – the so-called Panic of 1819 – which triggered the first sustained economic depression in US history. East coast speculators had invested hugely in western agriculture post-1816, only to lose their shirts when the similarly-affected European grain markets returned to normal in 1819, and commodity prices plummeted. “Never were such hard times,” wrote Thomas Jefferson of ordinary Americans who, across the country, found themselves “in a condition of unparalleled distress,” persisting well into the 1820s.

As it turns out, however, the indirect ripple effects of Tambora – what climate scientists call “teleconnections” – were even more historically significant. Cholera, opium, and the Panic of 1819 are three examples; another is Arctic exploration.

One of the paradoxical effects of a major tropical eruption is that while the planet in general is cooled by the blanket of volcanic dust that drifts from the equator to the poles, the Arctic itself is drastically warmed owing to changes in wind circulation and north Atlantic ocean currents. This anomaly was only discovered after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the tropical Philippines, the first observed with the benefit of modern climatological instruments.

In 1817 and 1818, the British Admiralty began to receive exciting reports from whaling captains of a remarkable loss of sea ice in around Greenland. Huge icebergs from a broken icepack were spotted floating as far south as Ireland and New York. The prospect of a northwest passage for shipping to the East – a holy grail England had sought since Elizabethan times – beckoned once more. With a generation’s naval captains still hungry for glory but now languishing onshore after the defeat of Napoleon, the Admiralty launched an expensive and ultimately disastrous 50-year-long campaign to chart the elusive northwest passage.

The British could not have known then, of course, that Tambora had caused the Arctic to melt, and that the climatic impacts of a tropical eruption persist for no longer than three years. The Arctic refroze just in time for the arrival of Britain’s first polar expedition under Captain John Ross in 1818. Years of fruitless, icebound sallies into the polar seas culminated in the tragic Franklin expedition of the 1840s, when all hands were lost, and the heroic age of British Arctic exploration came to an end.

It is time to recognise Tambora as the Napoleon of eruptions. The implications – for historians – of a revised, volcanic nineteenth century are immense. As with the global cholera epidemic, and the growth of a Chinese opium empire, Victorian-era polar exploration might not have happened at all, or would have evolved in an entirely different direction, had it not been for Tambora’s climate-wrecking detonation in 1815.

For two long centuries, the connections between this major volcanic disaster and human history have been obscured by two factors: the limitations of scientific knowledge, and by our narrow, anthropocentric vision that seeks out only human causes for human events, neglecting the influence of environmental change. Now, in the 21st century, as we begin to appreciate more profoundly the interdependence of human and natural systems, the lesson of a 200-year-old climate emergency may finally be learned: a changing climate changes everything. More

How would the modern world survive an eruption of this magnitude? Given the relativly low global grain reserves how would we feed affected populations? Editor


Friday, April 11, 2014

The Ohio State University presents Jeffrey Sachs

On April 4, 2014, Jeffrey Sachs spoke at Ohio State University on "The Age of Sustainable Development." Professor Sachs's lecture was both the Keynote Address for the COMPAS Program's Spring Conference and the inaugural Provost's Discovery Themes Lecture. Introductory comments are presented by Michael Neblo ofOSU's Political Science Department, Executive Dean and Vice Provost, David Manderscheid, and Executive Vice President and Provost, Joseph Steinmetz. After his lecture, Professor Sachs was joined on stage by Professors Elena Irwin and lan Sheldon, both of Ohio State's Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics Department for a discussion that was moderated by Michael Neblo.



OSU Discovery Themes Initiative:

Water Crisis: 2020 Statement by Mikhail Gorbachev on 20th Anniversary of Green Cross

Water crisis – clear and present danger

We live in urgent times. The sum of the concurrent crises that have been engulfing everything from climate to energy, to the economy, is creating a spiral of need for change. But the water crisis sticks out of this list in terms of being an explicitly clear and present danger with deadly implications.

Mikhail Gorbachev

The mounting water crisis and its geography make it clear that without resolute counteraction, it will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities within the coming decades. This could result in massive migration, severe socio-economic stress, destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree.

By 2025, a predicted 1.8 billion people will live in regions suffering from absolute water scarcity. Two-thirds of the world population could be under hydric stress conditions. Demand for water will rise: water withdrawals in developing countries will increase by 50%, and 18% in developed countries by 2025.

Despite these demands, what state is the world’s water in? Despite the fact that we use slightly more than half the world’s (54%) accessible water, more than 50% of the 3.5 billion people living in urban circumstances around the world already do not have access to adequate water and sanitation.

But the really bad news is that the water use is growing even faster than the population: the 20th century water consumption grew twice as fast as the world population. As a result, a third of the world's population lives in water-stressed countries now. By 2025, this is expected to rise to two-thirds.

In addition to unsustainable water use we are polluting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Most wastewater (about 80%) from residential and industrial sources enters the environment untreated.

The growing human need for water, to sustain life and wellbeing, plus the pressures on the resource itself, from mismanagement, pollution and a general lack of foresight, make for the most telling case for improved global water conservation and consumption.

But too little is being done on these fronts. We have been waiting since 1997 for just 35 countries to sign the UN Watercourses Convention, to promote the management and sharing of the world’s 276 cross-border rivers and connected underground water sources, and we are still a handful short.

The lack of a global framework to manage water sources that cross national borders endangers the world in many ways, not least of all in terms of the risk of conflict between countries over who controls the same river that runs through their respective frontiers.

Then there is the Right to Water and Sanitation, which Green Cross was a loud advocate of before it finally came into being in 2010. While this recognition itself, that access to safe drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights, is a success, what must be happening at breakneck speed now is the realization of this right. This means creation of national legislation enshrining the right (alongside education, health and others) and investing in the infrastructure needed to make safe water and sanitation services available to all.

Despite UN adoption of this vital principle, the deficit of fresh water is becoming increasingly severe and large-scale – whereas, unlike other resources, there is no substitute for water.

While the Millennium Development Goal for access to drinking water and sanitation was announced met in 2012, almost 800 million people still have no access to safe water today, and three times that number lack adequate sanitation. Thousands of children die daily in the developing world due to related waterborne diseases.

The scale and global nature of the water crisis demand stronger statesmanship, vision and international action. To master the water crisis, we must address its effects and causes. The economic, social, water and environmental aspects must be properly coordinated in any response.

A comprehensive “water goal” must be injected into the post-2015 development agenda, linking development and environment in analyses and in governance policies. Such a goal would address the three interdependent dimensions of water: water, sanitation and hygiene; water management; and wastewater management and water quality.

This goal must be based on principles of equity, solidarity, recognition of limits of planet and rights approach, coupled with effective means to check and demand the accountability of all stakeholders.

We live in volatile and transformative times, faced with the awe-inspiring global challenge of climate change, the devastation of civil wars, and the hope-crushing scourge of extreme poverty. But one thing is constant: our need for water. Whole regions are languishing in poverty and conflict, effectively held hostage by their hydrology: we must break this cycle and give people a chance for their future. Benjamin Franklin said that "when the well's dry, we know the worth of water." The alarm clock has been ringing on deaf ears for far too long, it is time to wake-up before it is too late, before the wells of the world have run dry. More


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'This Is Not Over': Gulf Life Still Reeling From Toxic BP Spill

Report on four year anniversary of worst oil disaster in US history details fourteen ailing species, and raises the question of

"What should be the legal liability for polluting the Global Commons'?

Nearly four years after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, plants, animals, and fish in the Gulf of Mexico are still reeling from the toxic spill, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Wildlife Federation.

The report, which arrives just ahead of the disaster's anniversary, examined 14 species of wildlife in the Gulf and found ongoing impacts of the disaster that could last for decades.

"Four years later, wildlife in the Gulf are still feeling the impacts of the spill," said Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation. "Bottlenose dolphins in oiled areas are still sick and dying and the evidence is stronger than ever that these deaths are connected to the Deepwater Horizon. The science is telling us that this is not over."

According to the findings, in 2013 dolphins were dying at three times normal rates, with many suffering from "unusual lung damage" and immune system problems.

In addition to the ongoing plight of dolphins in Gulf waters, the researchers found that every year for the past three years roughly five hundred dead sea turtles are found near the spill, "a dramatic increase over normal rates." These sea turtles only recently recovered from near extinction—a recovery that has now been drastically threatened by the spill.

"The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle has long been the poster child for the possibilities of restoration in the Gulf," said Pamela Plotkin, associate research professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University and director of Texas Sea Grant. "Once close to extinction, it has rebounded dramatically over the past thirty years. But four years ago, the numbers of Kemp’s ridley appear to have flat-lined. We need to monitor this species carefully, as the next few years will be critical."

According to the report, sperm whales in the area are showing higher levels of "DNA-damaging metals" than others in other parts of the world—"metals that were present in oil from BP’s well."

In addition, deep sea coral colonies, which "provide a foundation for a diverse assortment of marine life," within seven miles from the site of the spill, were still "heavily impacted."

Other findings, as stated by the group, include:

  • Oyster reproduction remained low over large areas of the northern Gulf at least through the fall of 2012.
  • A chemical in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has been shown to cause irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna that can lead to heart attacks, or even death.
  • Loons that winter on the Louisiana coast have increasing concentrations of toxic oil compounds in their blood.

"Despite what BP would have you believe, the impacts of the disaster are ongoing," said Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior policy specialist for Gulf and coastal restoration. "Last year, nearly five million pounds of oiled material from the disaster were removed from Louisiana’s coast. And that’s just what we’ve seen. An unknown amount of oil remains deep in the Gulf."

The Gulf oil disaster—which is the worst in U.S. history—"will likely unfold for years or even decades," NWF writes. "It is essential that careful monitoring of the Gulf ecosystem continue and that mitigation of damages and restoration of degraded and weakened ecosystems begin as soon as possible."

Despite the ongoing travesty the Environmental Protection Agency announced last month that it removed its ban on BP contracts in the U.S. and new drilling leases, including in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shortly after, the oil giant won bids to start new drilling operations in two dozen separate locations, a total pricetag of $54 million.


Given that the oceans are one continous body of water that encircle the globe, and furthermore that ocean currents will eventually spread the pollutants mentioned above around the world, affecting all inhabitants of the planet, I would argue that all States / countries would be justified in suing BP. Until we can implement Ecocide as the Fifth Crime Against Peace under the Treaty of Rome this may be the only way to stop the destruction of the ecosystem that all living things on Earth are dependant of for their survival. Editor