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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

Baobab Toilet Caprivi

God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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Ordovician(by mirelai from Deviant Art)

In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans.  Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage.  They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large.  They can even be transparent.  However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives.  One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo.  The memory comes with a dark post-script.  I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams.  They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.

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But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds.  We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island.  Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth.  The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans.  It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats).  The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending.  So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.

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Unexpected life forms are flourishing.  The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time.  Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers.  However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems.  Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite.  A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.

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Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards.  Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you).  I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined.  Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?

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Hawaiian bobtail squid (image from forums.furcadia.com)

It is possible.  The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.

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Close observation of this image will make you feel better about our current financial situation and about the moral progress of our nation.

The Panic of 1837 was one of the worst financial crises to ever hit the United States of America (at the time it was the worst).  It brought a five year recession in its wake.  Gloom mongers (and even hard-headed realists) believed that the nation would never recover its prosperity.

During the 1830s there was an immense boom of real estate speculation focused on public lands which were being sold off to buyers with political connections.  Huge fortunes could be made by reselling this land to railroad companies and canal builders who were rushing forward with competing projects.  The individual states were complicit with this mania, sinking vast amounts of public money into a diverse array of infrastructure projects both good and bad.

A "wildcat" three dollar banknote issued by a Michigan Bank for some sort of "Safety Fund" in 1837

Through various vetoes and political maneuvers President Andrew Jackson had successfully engineered the demise of the Second Bank of the United States (which was unable to renew its charter in 1832).  A great rash of new banks and investment companies sprang up throughout the 1830’s to supplant the bank.  Rather than paying off their debts and refinancing new projects, these financial houses anticipated greater profits from investing borrowed capital in the booming land speculations.  Because of this apparent national prosperity, the balance of trade shifted.  America, previously an exporter, was suddenly importing more goods than it was selling.  In anticipation of the huge profits, American states and corporations (and wealthy individuals) were borrowing money from European banks.  Additionally,  the world’s climate was changing in the 1830s.  An unusually cold era marked by intense volcanic activity and by an anomalous paucity of sunspots (the Dalton minimum) was coming to an end.  As environmental conditions changed, crops failed in 1835 and in 1837.

All of these factors were topped off by disastrous executive meddling.  The Specie Circular Act was an executive order issued summarily by Andrew Jackson in 1836 (during his last year in office) and carried out by his unfortunate successor. It required payment for all government land to be in gold or silver.  Jackson anticipated that the nation’s coffers would fill up with precious metals (he apparently did not trust paper money).  But people did not and could not pay.  The bubble burst.  Over 600 banks failed and the cotton market completely collapsed.  Eight states partially or wholly failed and even the Federal government was unable to discharge its debts.  Trade stood still as business confidence evaporated entirely.  Food riots shook the country.  Unemployment and hardship were the watchwords of the time.  The whole sad affair was exacerbated by economic calamity overseas: European bankers, suffering from their own setbacks, curtailed lending.  It was not until 1842 that the economy began to recover.

"I have no money and cannot get any work."

Strangely enough, the grim era between 1837 and 1842 witnessed tremendous technical innovations which would reshape the nation and the world.  In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, which he successfully tested on January 6th 1838 at the Speedwell near Morristown, New Jersey–thus inventing the telecommunications industry.  Crawford Williamson Long used ether for the first time on March 30, 1842 to remove a tumor from the neck of a patient and usher in a new era of surgery.  In Europe a German chemist invented artificial fertilizer while James Nasmyth perfected the steam hammer (which made it much easier to build large machines).  Morse’s accomplishments and those of his fellow inventors are remembered.  The failures of the rapacious bankers, greedy speculators, and incompetent politicians have been forgotten by everyone except for historians.

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