National Geographic March 2016, Part 1

I don’t know when I’m going to get the reading done for this post, but I’m going to get started writing it up anyhow.  Hopefully I’ll get the reading done on June 28 or 29 and get this knocked out by the end of the month. I may also get a start on the July 13 post, which will probably be another San Antonio city park, between now and then, as well.

The day after this goes live, by the way, Alex and I are leaving for our Salt Lake City/Yellowstone trip. Assuming that the flight is uneventful, we’ll be landing pretty early in the day, getting our luggage and our rental car, and heading off to Pando, the most massive single organism in the world.

July 6 – I was sort of close.  I got part of the reading done in very early July but then stalled.  I intended to finish up the second article while waiting for a doctor for some jaw pain I’ve been having lately. I got right in to see the doctor and got right back out again.  It’s now July 6 and I’m just now starting on the writing.

Waste Not, Want Not, by Elizabeth Royte, photographs by Brian Finke

First, the meaning of the term “want” had moved from “the lack of” to “a desire for” by such an extent by my own childhood, that it took me a very long time to figure out that “waste not, want not” didn’t mean “if you don’t waste it, you won’t want it.”

Second, this article returns us to the Future of Food series for the first time since I’m-not-sure-when. It’s been so long that the “future of food” tag doesn’t even show up on my widget.

Now, onward.

A shocking amount of food is wasted in the world. Some of it is food that was purchased in grocery stores or restaurants and went uneaten, but a lot of it is actually disposed of at the site where it is grown. Sometimes it comes out malformed and the buyers, either the shoppers themselves or the buyers who work for the retail industry. Sometimes there is actually something wrong with the produce, such as a fungal infection or an infestation by parasites.

We follow Tristram Stuart as he puts together meals from discarded food. We see him buying crookneck squash that took their name just a little too seriously, for example. These squash become part of a squash tempura, turnip dumpling, and zucchini noodle meal.

In this article, we go on to France, Kenya, Peru, and back to the United States (Las Vegas, this time) to see what Stuart, and others, are doing to use unsalable food.

The Cold Rush, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva

With the increasing warming of the Arctic region, several countries, including Canada, Norway, and Russia are attempting to harvest the natural resources that are coming closer to (and sometimes actually reaching) the surface. Norway is drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle, and Canada is mining gold and iron. Additionally, some ships (including a cruise ship) are taking advantage of the melting ice to take the proverbial “Northwest Passage”  from Europe to Asia through northern Canada.

It’s not all rosy, though. The Arctic Circle is so remote that workers need to be brought in in groups, the workers then live in those groups for weeks or months, and then they get shipped home. Also, ecological damage is being done. There are no oil pipelines that far north, so the oil has to be dumped into tankers, which leads to the risk of an oil spill. And, of course, mining always leads to damage.

The Azolla Event, which is the proliferation of azolla fern that led our carbon-rich atmosphere to go into an ice age, locked up more carbon than just the carbon in the fern. Some carbon dioxide was dissolved in the water and once the water froze, the carbon that was dissolved in it was trapped. Cold Rush points out that the melting ice is releasing further carbon into the atmosphere.

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 November 13, 2013, Part 2

The War for Nigeria, by James Verini, Photographs by Ed Kashi

As a pharmacy technician in my day job, I have worked with several of the around 6,000 Nigerian pharmacists working in the United States. So, for me, Nigeria is at least a little more than just a blob on a map to me.

For many in the United States, though, the last time Nigeria made much of an impact on popular culture was with the kidnapping of the girls from Chibok school by members of Boko Haram, a group who want to create an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria.  To this end, they have been, performing acts of violence against the population of northern Nigeria, targeting Christians in particular, but any Muslims that don’t support the Boko Haram agenda are targets as well.

The War for Nigeria is about the actions of Boko Haram in 2013.  We begin with the bombing of a bus station in Kano, the second-largest city in Nigeria. We then go to a local dispute between Christians and Muslims in rural Nigeria.  No one is sure where the dispute began, one villager says that it is based in the death of a cow, but the Christians in the village claim that they are being victimized by Boko Haram.

We then go into the history of Kano, which had been a caliphate before the British took over, and whose emir had been kept on as a sort of religious leader/figurehead.  There is still an emir in Kano, and while Verini doesn’t get to meet the then-current emir, Ado Bayero (who passed away in 2014 and has been succeeded by his great-nephew Mahammadu Sanusi II, who was apparently a banker before he became a religious leader), he does get to have a look around the emir’s palace.

In the process of writing this post, I stumbled across an assertion that “Boko Haram” is a reference to being opposed to western education.  And so I did some digging and found that apparently the Hausa word “boko” is a reference to “ilimin boko,” which means “fake education,” and means the western-style education brought by British colonialists.  “Haram” is an Arabic word that means that something is forbidden or a sin.  As a result, “Boko Haram” carries the meaning “western education is a sin.”

Follow the Water, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, photographs by Orsolya and Erlind Haarberg

Follow the Water is about the coast of Norway.  After reading about the harrowing lives of people in northern Nigeria, Klinkenborg’s lyrical musings on traveling up the coast of Norway was refreshing, but a little jarring as well.  Let’s hope for an era in which people will be able to write such gorgeous prose about the beauty of northern Nigeria.  I may not live to see it, but someday . . . .

Follow the Water is a beautiful article, and there’s not much to say about it that could possibly improve on it, but one point made in Follow the Water is that we have now made the to-date most accurate measurement of Norway’s coast, and the current figure is 63,000 miles.  That means that if you stretched it out, Norway’s coast would go around the equator just about two and a half times.

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 December 2013, Part 2

First Skiers, by Mark Jenkins, photographs by Jonas Bendiksen

The question of which people were was the first to ski is a complicated one. The invention of skiing is largely dated by petroglyphs, which are carvings in rock. There are ancient petroglyphs in both Norway and in China, possibly giving both the claim to having been the first to ski. To make matters more complicated, the oldest ski ever found is a fragment that has been dated using carbon dating, as 8,000 years old. It was found neither in Norway nor in China, but in Russia.

Jenkins takes the tack that the people in China, who are not ethnic Han, but Tuvan, who come from Siberia. Jenkins takes us to China to see these people, the Altay, at work. They do ski to this very day, using one ski, the bottom of which is covered in horse fur, and one pole. The horse fur is oriented so that the nap raises up when the skier is going uphill and prevents the skier from sliding downhill. When oriented in a downhill direction the nap lies flat and allows the skier to slide.

Jenkins also watches the Altay people show him the traditional Altay method of hunting elk. Elk-hunting is forbidden in China, so Jenkins’s hosts merely show him how to track and rope the elk and no elk are actually harmed in the process.

Virtually Immortal, by George Johnson

Virtually Immortal is about the projects of a group called CyArk from Oakland, California, to document as many historic structures as possible. They used computers to make virtual copies of many landmarks and World Heritage Sites, including (but not limited to) Chichen Itza, Carthage, Mount Rushmore, Pompeii, and Rapa Nui.

In Virtually Immortal, we go to India to watch the team digitize a step well called Rani ki Vav, or the Step Well of the Queen. In India, people dug wells to find water. As time passed, the wells became more elaborate, including staircases lined with sculptures that went down to the water. Rani ki Vav is extremely elaborate, with carvings of gods and nature spirits lining the walls. Rani ki Vav was filled in with silt and sand within about 200 years of its construction, and the people at CyArk aim to save a digital copy of it so that it will never be lost again.

National Geographic July 2015, Part 2

How Orcas Work Together to Whip Up a Meal, by Virginia Morrell, photographs by Paul Nicklen

That’s an uncomfortably wordy title, but I guess it’s descriptive. How Orcas Work Together to Whip Up a Meal is the final installment of the three-part Understanding Dolphins series, because orcas are dolphins — the largest of the dolphins, in fact.

The meaning of the title is that orcas do what is called “carousel feeding.” They surround schools of herring and swim in ever-tighter circles around the herring. Then, once they have the herring trapped, they smack them with their tails. This stuns or kills the herring, making them easy to eat. They use other tactics, of course, but carousel feeding is one of the most fascinating.

While researching the story, Morrell saw whales hunting with the orcas. This was surprising because whales are also prey of orcas (the name “killer whale” is actually a mistranslation of the Spanish name, asesina de ballinas, or “whale killer.” Yet the whales were out there with the orcas, unmolested. The orca specialist that Morrell was talking to, Tiu Similä, decided later that the whales were freeloaders. However, there were enough fish for all, so the orcas allowed them to hang around.

In the Footsteps of Gandhi, by Tom O’Neill, photographs by Rena Effendi

In the Footsteps of Gandhi is about Gandhi’s literal footsteps. As part of India’s path to independence from the United Kingdom, Gandhi and thousands of other Indians walked from to the coast of the Arabian Sea. The British forbade the people of India to harvest their own salt from the sea, instead requiring them to buy the mineral from the British. In protest, Gandhi walked to the sea, intending to harvest salt from the salt flats, but the British had ground the salt into the beach. Gandhi was able to find one crystal of salt on the beach and picked it up, breaking the law. Gandhi and tens of thousands of his followers were arrested.

O’Neill decided to walk the same path, from Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea. Through this article, we see the places he visits and talk to the people he meets, looking for traces of Gandhi.

National Geographic June 2014

The Dogs of War, by Michael Paterniti, photographs by Adam Ferguson

The Dogs of War is about the Marine Corps use of dogs to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  I was less enthusiastic about this article than I might otherwise have been because I don’t like war.  I’m one of those people who thinks that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.  And that goes for the dogs, as well.

Paterniti takes us to Afghanistan, where we meet Jose Armenta and his dog, Zenit.  Zenit is a German shepherd.  And when I say “his” dog, neither Paterniti nor I am using this word in a way that you would expect.  I have read articles about how most police dogs are socialized to live with humans and trained only to be aggressive on command.  As part of their training, they live with the police officers’ families more or less as a pet would.  I expected that to be the way that military dogs are kept as well.  It was kind of startling to find that while Jose lives in the barracks, Zenit lives in a kennel.

Though I should put that last sentence in the past tense.  We find out what happens, in the end, to Jose and Zenit and it’s a bittersweet ending.

Untouched, by Heather Pringle, photographs by Robert Clark

El Castillo de Huarmey is a tomb built into the side of a large rock formation in northern Peru.  The area around El Castillo had been used as a burial ground and had been violated by tomb robbers many times over the centuries.  As a result, when Polish archaeologists decided to explore El Castillo, which looked more or less like a step pyramid, no one but the archaeologists expected to find anything.

What the archaeologists found was the undisturbed tomb of one of the rulers of the Wari, a people who ruled this area of northern Peru for around 500 years.  One of the chambers contained what looked like a stone throne.  There were mummified guards, as well, all of whom were missing their left feet.  No one now living knows why their feet were removed.

In one chamber, the bodies of sixty women were found.  It appears that three or four of them were royalty and some 54 of the others may have been nobility.  These women were found wearing jewelry and fine clothing, then wrapped in cloth that left a roughly egg-shaped form.  There were also some other unmummified women found in the chamber, and it is possible that they may have been sacrifices.  Other goods, fabrics, vessels, boxes, and so forth, were found in the tomb as well.

And yet, with all of the bodies and materials and the throne, no sign of a king has been found yet.  The archaeologists are still searching, but while looking for other information on the Wari, I found a page at Archaeology Magazine’s website called “A Wari Matriarchy?”  And it occurred to me that why not?  Maybe the archaeologists will never find the “king” because there is no king to find.  Perhaps the highest-ranking woman, with the finest jewelry and clothing, was the ruler.

Puffin Therapy, photographs by Danny Green, text by Tom O’Neill

Before we get to the meat of this article, I find the way this article was credited interesting.  Generally, it’s the title, then after a few pages of photographs, when the text starts, the writer and photographer are credited in that order, and then the text starts.  In Puffin Therapy, the photographer credit is by itself where the writer and photographer credits normally go, and the writer’s credit is stuck at the very end of the text section, following a dash.  I wonder why they did it this way?  My first instinct is to say that perhaps Green was supposed to have written the text, but he had some kind of prior obligation that kept him from being able to do so and so they enlisted O’Neill at the last minute.

The text is largely about the mating behaviors of puffins.  The common image of puffins with their bright orange beaks is their appearance during mating season.  The rest of the year their faces and beaks are darker.  In fact, one photo that I found when searching for what puffins look like the rest of the year looks more or less like the puffins that we’re used to seeing right after a vacuum cleaner bag blew up in its face — all gray and sooty looking.

It wouldn’t be a National Geographic article without a mention of global climate change.  There is some concern that the change in climates may have a deleterious effect on the puffin population.  Puffins in some locations have had almost no offspring in some years.  Puffins are long-lived and can afford to miss a year or two of breeding, but this trend may be increasing and the puffin may end up being threatened as a result.

The title comes from Iain Morrison, who takes visitors to see the puffins.  He says that spending time with puffins makes the visitors happy and refers to it as “puffin therapy.”  And looking at Green’s photographs, I can definitely believe it.

How to Farm a Better Fish, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Brian Skerry

It should come as no surprise that an article called How to Farm a Better Fish would be about fish farming.  This installment of the Future of Food series focuses on the growth of the fish farming industry and how fish farmers and scientists are attempting both new and older methods in the industry.

As a general rule, fish is one of the most efficient forms of protein there is.  Where chicken takes around 1.7 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and the ratios are 2.9 for pigs and 6.8 for cattle, for fish, the ratio is close to one pound of feed per pound of meat.  Additionally, more people are eating fish than ever before.  As a result, there is more growth in the fish farming industry than in most other areas of agriculture.

We look at a number of farms, including the farm of Bill Martin, who  is attempting to develop carbon-neutral onshore fish farming.  We also see several offshore farms, including one eight miles offshore which raises cobia.  The man who developed this farm, Brian O’Hanlon, has put the farm so far offshore so that the currents will take away the waste. And, indeed, researchers have yet to detect any waste outside of the fish pens.  And one researcher, Stephen Cross, is attempting what is called polyculture, where many different edible species live in a sort of symbiotic relationship.  In Cross’s case, he is raising sablefish and then down the current from the fish, he is raising mollusks.  Down the current from the mollusks are kelp, and further down are sea cucumbers.  These three other species filter the water and remove waste from the sablefish.  Cross says that the biological filtration system that he is using could be fitted onto any fish farm and, since all of the species he is using for filtration are edible, the filters themselves can be harvested and sold.

The final farm we see is a kelp farm.  The owners of the farm, Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, grow three species of kelp that can grow up to five inches a day.  They then sell the kelp to restaurants, schools and hospitals.  Dobbins and Olson have increased their farm has increased to ten times its original size in the past five years and the kelp is cleaning the water in the area as it grows, a win/win for both the farmers and the environment.

I love seafood.  I was visiting a friend who was a vegetarian and he tried to convince me to go vegetarian.  I admitted that vegetarianism holds some appeal for me, but that I don’t think I could ever give up seafood.  And this article made me feel even better about seafood and its future as a source of food for the planet, than I felt before I read it.

Train for the Forgotten, by Joshua Yaffa, photographs by William Daniels

In 1974, the government of the Soviet Union began an ambitious project to showcase what they believed was Soviet superiority over nature.  They started work on a rail line connecting Lake Baikal to the Amur River in northern Siberia.  Around half a million people worked on the rail ine and on the towns that they had to build to connect it.  The original homes for the workers were wooden barracks in the woods, and as time passed, they erected prefabricated buildings to live in.

Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the construction project.  Since 1991, the people of this region, known as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (“BAM”) have been isolated and left with no regular health care.  In an effort to remedy this situation, the Russian government runs a medical train along the tracks.  The train, named for Russian health-care pioneer Matvei Mudrov, has exam rooms and medical personnel and visits each village on average every six months.  This may be okay for many of the residents, but for those who are sick or injured, it is not nearly often enough.  There are no urgent care facilities and people die of conditions that are treatable in the world outside the BAM.

Yaffa takes us into the world of the BAM, seeing how isolated the people are and how desperate their medical situation can be.  He show us the slowly crumbling buildings and infrastructure (where anything besides a dirt road exists; some of the villages don’t even have running water) of the villages along the BAM.  The story out of Russia is that the Russian government intends to use the BAM to ship containers, but none of that is seen here.  All we see is the slow decay of what started out as an audacious (in both senses of the term) project.

(originally posted July 2015)