National Geographic February 2013, Part 2

Stranded on the Roof of the World, by Michael Finkel, photographs by Matthieu Paley

In this article, we visit the Kyrgyz of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. The Wakhan Corridor runs from a low of about 10,000 feet to a height of about 16,000 feet. That puts the entirety of these people’s world above the tree line. Many of them have never even seen a tree. At the time this was written, there were no doctors and no roads. The closest road to their territory was  a three-day hike away.

Their entire lifestyle revolves around their livestock. They live too high to grow crops, so they raise sheep and yaks and goats both to eat and to use as currency. They have been able to enter something like the 21st century by trade as well. They have solar-powered batteries and use them to charge cell phones, which they use to play music and take pictures. They cannot use them as phones, however. There’s no service that high up.

So far, however, it looks like that is as far as modernization has gone. They still lack basics like plumbing, roads, schools, and medical clinics.

Joy Is Round, photographs by Jessica Hilltout, text by Jeremy Berlin

Hilltout traveled to Africa and took photographs of African youths playing soccer (football to the rest of the world) and posing with their homemade soccer balls both to chronicle the development of the youth soccer leagues of these countries but also, from what I can tell, to convince people to donate money to a project that would buy real equipment for these leagues. As she traveled through Africa, she swapped the homemade balls for real balls that she carried in her car. Included in this article are the photographs she took of those balls.

While researching Hilltout’s project, I found Futbol Friends International’s website. They are raising money for soccer-related projects in Africa. I looked to see if they’re on the up-and-up and so far have found that Charity Navigator has a page for them, but hasn’t rated them because they are too small to have to file the form that Charity Navigator gets their information from. If you’d be interested in donating, however, their website is at Futbol Friends International.

The Sultans of Streams, by Adam Nicolson, photographs by Charlie Hamilton James

The Sultans of Streams, in addition to getting an old Dire Straits song stuck in my head, is about the decline and resurgence of otters in England (their numbers never declined much in Scotland). Industrialization and DDT caused the decline of otter habitat to only 6 percent of streams in the 1970s. Since then, however, they have been making a comeback. As of 2010, otters were present in 59 percent of streams and the numbers have probably increased even farther since then (I cannot find anything definitive).

National Geographic, June 2013, Part 3

This installment is two short pieces that the editorial staff have probably been waiting for just a little bit of space to run.

The Rebirth of Gorongosa, by E.O. Wilson, photographs by Joel Sartore

Gorongorosa National Park was at one time one of the gems of Mozambique, roamed by the megafauna of Africa — hippos, buffaloes, elephants — and also apex predators like lions.  However, in the last 40 years, things have been difficult. Mozambique used to be a colony of Portugal, and when they gained their independence (in 1975) everything went to heck. There was a civil war and the different sides killed the animals for food and ivory. After the war ended, the park became the victim of poachers. They are trying to get it together now though, and an American businessman named Greg Carr has put his own fortune into repairing the damage done to the park.

To that end, Carr has hired Wilson, the author of this piece, who is telling us how they are reforesting the rainforest at the top of Mount Gorongorosa and tracking the fauna of the park.

Last of the Viking Whalers, by Roff Smith, photographs by Marcus Bleasdale

Smith and Bleasdale visit the Lofoten Islands of Norway, which are home to a dying way of life. For centuries, the people of the Lofoten Islands, which are about as far as you can go in Norway while still being in Norway, have raised families fishing for cod and catching minke whales.

Over the past few generations, however, the children of these families have been going to the mainland for high school and then going on to get jobs in places like Oslo. One of the islands, Skrova, had a population of 237 in 2005 according to an old link to Statistics Norway used at Wikipedia.  Looking at the 2015 figures, it seems that the population has dropped to 198.

Nowadays there is still quite a bit of fishing being done, but most of it is done by large businesses with big ships and not by families. It is likely that the population will, in the next few decades, drop to effectively 0.

National Geographic April 2014, Part 1

Can Coal Ever Be Clean? by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by Robb Kendrick

Many places are dependent on coal for their power. Unfortunately, coal-fired power plants have a lot of drawbacks, chief among them the carbon dioxide that they produce. This carbon dioxide then goes into the atmosphere and helps with (I’m not sure if “helps” is the right word — “contributes to,” maybe?) global climate change.

This article primarily focuses on the experiments by coal-fired power plants in sequestering the carbon dioxide underground. In some places, they are pumping the carbon dioxide into caves, and in at least one, the Norwegian Sleipner oil field in the North Sea, they are pumping the carbon dioxide that is an impurity in the natural gas that they are harvesting into a brine-filled aquifer under the North Sea.

As an aside, I’ve been reading a lot about Norse mythology (including Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer) and so when I saw the word “Sleipner,” I’m, like, “the horse?” Then I looked again and realized that it was “SleipnEr,:” not “SleipnIr.”

The scientists and engineers who are doing this acknowledge that it is risky. If these caves and aquifers spring leaks, a natural disaster could result. So, they are monitoring these sequestering locations 24/7. But, as with what people tell me when I tell them about my photo-scanning project, the technology may not always be there. What happens in a thousand years, if our civilization collapses and we lapse into something of a Dark Age and *then* these things spring a leak? I can just see our many-generations-distant descendants declaring these spots off-limits because no one can breathe the air there. It seems like we’re just kicking the can further down the road here.

It’s a pity that it would be prohibitively expensive, from an energy-use standpoint, to break the bonds between the carbon and oxygen. We’d end up with a big pile of carbon (which, maybe, could be reused as pencil leads or something?) and a lot more oxygen. And the increased oxygen would make the climate cooler, as well, I think. I ran that past Alex, and he agreed that it sounds to him that it would be the net effect, so there’s that. Of course, since oxygen does make things cooler, you would have to release the oxygen pretty far from the plant, because the oxygen would either make the plant explode, or would make the plant cooler, which would defeat the purpose of the fire in the plant.

Personally, I would like to see all parking lots, at least in the area from, oh, about the 30th or 35th parallels north to the 30th or 35th parallels south (so that they won’t spend the winter covered in snow) should be covered with solar panels. This would be a win-win-win situation. The landowner would get at least some free electricity from the panels, there would be less demand for coal-fired power, and, in the summer, the air conditioning in the cars would take effect faster, using less gasoline.

I’m also a big fan of planting trees. I take Matthew 6:2 very seriously, which leads me to be reluctant to make a big deal out of charity donations that I have made, but I guess it’s safe to say that I have two favorites. One is the Plant a Billion Trees project of the Nature Conservancy (they have other projects, but I usually donate to their attempt to reforest the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil). The other is American Forests. My favorite of their projects is their Urban Forests project, which is, well, planting trees in cities, and making things better both ecologically and psychologically.

A Tale of Two Atolls, by Kennedy Warne, photographs by Thomas P. Peschak

The two atolls of the title are Île Europa and Bassas da India, two teritories of France (despite the Portuguese name of Bassas da India) that are in between Madagascar and Mozambique. The two atolls are very different — Île Europa is an actual island with trees everything, and Bassas da India is just a ring of rock, but together, they support a wide variety of wildlife, including birds, sea turtles and Galapagos sharks.

National Geographic July 2014

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, by Michael D. Lemonick, photographs by Mark Thiessen

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth is pretty much just like it says:  it’s about scientists’ attempts to find life on other planets.  Needless to say, Mars is one of the planets they are considering as home for this extraterrestrial life, but Mars is too close.  Rocks travel back and forth between Earth and Mars periodically.  As a result,  the discovery of life on Mars would not prove that said life developed there.  It could be terrestrial life that made the trip between the two planets.

Based on the premise that life should be develop in places with liquid water, we are also looking at two of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as possible sites of life.  Saturn’s moon Titan also has liquid, but that liquid is methane and not water.  As a result, scientists who are looking for life haven’t ruled Titan out, but they are uncertain what kind of life would develop in liquid methane.

Then there is the possibility of life beyond our solar system.  In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake created what is now known as the Drake Equation, which is an equation to calculate how many extrasolar civilizations we should be able to contact.  The equation included the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy, the number of those stars that had planetary systems, the number of planetary systems that have planets capable of sustaining life, the number of planets that actually do develop life, the number of those whose residents develop intelligence, and the number of those who develop radio signals that we could detect.  We are just now starting to be able to apply numbers to these variables.

As someone who has read and watched entirely too much science fiction for her own good, I think that the Drake Equation may understate the number of planets that we might be able to communicate with.  What if a society jumped right to television?  Or used some other form of radiation that we cannot yet detect to communicate?  Or evolved while orbiting a sun completely different from ours?  The Drake Equation might be a good estimate, but there are no guarantees that it is the only way for life to develop.  It’s just the way that our life developed.

The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Robin Hammond

The Next Breadbasket is another installment in the Future of Food series.  For this installment, we travel to Africa to watch the various ways that the fertile land, and those who work it, are being both used and exploited by agribusiness.  In too many African countries, the government allows the agribusiness entities to run people, some of whom have been farming this land for generations, off of their land.  Bourne names names, both of the companies that have treated the indigenous people well and those who have treated the people poorly.

So far, two of the ones that Bourne seems to support are a company called African Century Agriculture which uses an “outgrower” model, in which African Century provides soybeans, weeding, and training in conservation agriculture to small farmers. The farmers then sell the soybeans that they grow back to African Century, which deducts the costs of their services from the payment.  This way, the small farmers get to keep their land and also get education in the latest agricultural techniques.

Another company that Bourne seems to me to think well of is Bananalandia, the largest banana farm in Mozambique.  The owner of Bananalandia, Dries Gouws, pays his workers at least 110% of the Mozambican minimum wage and he also has done things to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding villages, including paving roads, providing electricity, building a school, and making improvements to the sewage system.  I know well that 110% of minimum wage is in no way going to raise these people out of poverty, but I feel that the other improvements in the quality of life that Gouws has made are not insignificant either.

The Wells of Memory, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

In The Wells of Memory, the second installment of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk series, Salopek is walking up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through an area known as the Hejaz.  The Hejaz was added to what is now Saudi Arabia in 1925. Both Mecca and Medina are in the Hejaz, so until the era of airplane flight, most of the pilgrims coming from around the world had to pass through the Hejaz. Jeddah, also in the Hejaz is the burial place of Eve, according to legends.

Salopek focuses in part on the wells that are spread, a day’s walk apart, through the Hejaz.  The wells date back to the Caliphate of Caliph Umar in 638.  There were also guesthouses, forts, and hospitals along the route, courtesy fo the Caliph.  Today, in addition to the ancient wells, there are asbila, outdoor electric water coolers along the route these days.

Salopek is one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to travel this route in close to a century, but this is the route taken by other Westerners in the past, including Lawrence of Arabia.

As with nearly all National Geographic stories, The Wells of Memory is punctuated by photographs.  However, some of the photographs in this story were taken with a smartphone and then edited to look like vintage, sepia-toned photographs with an app called Hipstamatic.  Stanmeyer chose this approach to reflect his feeling that he “had one foot in the present, and the other had stepped back a hundred years.”

Big Fish, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

For the past 25 years, the Altantic goliath grouper has been a protected species.  Once sport fishermen would catch them by the dozen, but goliath groupers are long-lived and reproduce slowly.  This meant that the fish were not able to replace their numbers as quickly as they were being harvested.  This resulted in the species being granted legal protection as an endangered species.

Now, some fishermen believe that their numbers have rebounded enough that it should be safe to start catching them again.  In part they want the trophies, but these fishermen also believe that the goliath grouper is eating fish that the fishermen should legally be able to catch, thus reducing the numbers of legal fish even farther.

Holland seems unswayed by these fisherman’s arguments.  She has spoken with scientists who are studying goliath grouper and who believe that the population is still too low.  Goliath groupers tend to stick to one area, and until they start to overpopulate that area, they will not spread elsewhere in their range.  Additionally, according to Holland, there are a number of studies (she doesn’t tell us which ones) that show that there is not much overlap between the targets of the fishermen and those of the goliath grouper.  If the fishermen are finding it difficult to find fish to catch, it is not the fault of the goliath grouper.

Additionally, just because their numbers are rebounding now does not mean that this will continue indefinitely.  Goliath grouper juveniles live in mangrove swamps, and the mangroves in their home range are being decimated.  To make matters worse, due to mercury levels, goliath grouper are coming down with lesions in their livers.  This may also have an impact on their population numbers in the long term.  It also makes goliath grouper unsafe to eat, so fishermen who catch them would need to throw them back, or use them only for trophy purposes, which would be wasteful.

Empire of Rock, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Carsten Peter

Alas, Empire of Rock has nothing to do with popular music.  It is, in fact, about the karst caves underneath Guizhou, China.  This part of China was once covered by a sea.  Over the centuries, the mollusks left their shells behind, which compressed into a  limestone formation known as karst.  Karst is limestone which is punctured by holes.  Water seeps down into the holes, which wears the holes away until they join together and eventually form caves.  This area is relatively unique in that this process has taken place over so many centuries that there are entire mountains of karst on the surface.  Have you ever seen photographs or Chinese paintings of large, steep stone mountains, usually surrounded by mist?  Those are karst mountains.

Funk accompanied a group of scientists and cavers who were attempting to measure the volume of one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Hong Meigui chamber.  Though Funk’s eyes we watch them descend into the chamber and see their laser scanners, which Funk tells us is about the same size as a human head, measure the volume of the cave.  Funk and her hosts also visit other caves and karst formations in the area.

“Hong Meigui,” by the way, is the word that inspired me make my last post, on my experiences with foreign language.  “Hong Meigui,” depending on the tones, can mean “red rose.”  And I suspect that may be the meaning here, since there is a caving organization called the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society and the characters for the name of that group are the “hong,” “mei,” and “gui” of “red rose.”  Another chamber mentioned is the Miao Room, and my first instinct was that the “miao” in question is “temple,” but, when looking at a list of other “miao”s, it could also be the “miao” that means “infinity,” or any of a number of other Mandarin words that can be transliterated as “miao.”  I just don’t know.  To make things more frustrating, Funk does imply one translation when he tells us that the Yanzi cave is named for the swallows that live in the walls.

Two months after the cover date on this magazine, in September 2014, the title of the largest cave in the world was granted to the Miao Room.

(originally posted June and July 2015)

2/3/2019 On or around November 28, 2018, I realized that I need to start monetizing this blog. To that end, I’m starting to put what I call Gratuitous Amazon Links into my posts. As of January 12, 2019, I’m going back to add GALs to my older posts. If I can’t find anything exactly on-topic to the post, I’m choosing from among the highest-rated items on the same topic as the post. For example, for a post on a park, I’ll search Amazon for books on parks and choose one of the ones with the highest reader ratings. Here is the GAL for this post:

National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia: 2,500 Animals with Photos, Maps, and More! by Lucy Spelman (Author)