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)

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)

National Geographic October 2014

The Next Green Revolution, by Tim Folger, photographs by Craig Cutler

This installation of the “Future of Food” series focuses on technological improvements in food production, including genetic modification.  Folger starts out talking about the original green revolution.  Fears that millions of people in Asia would die of famine led to selective breeding of wheat and rice.  This allowed the volume of food to increase faster than the population, which meant that not only did they prevent the famine, but that the nutrition level of most of the people of Asia actually increased.

Now, we may be facing another potential famine and we, in Folger’s words, “need another green revolution.”  And one of the potential tools for this new green revolution is genetic modification.  Rather than using crossbreeding and taking your chances of developing another lenape potato (which had dangerously high levels of the poison solanin), scientists can identify the genes that contain the desirable traits and transfer them directly.   These transfers can be done across species, as well.  One famous example of this cross-species transfer is golden rice, which has a gene isolated from corn.  This gene allows the rice to produce beta carotene.  Beta carotene is the ingredient that the human body uses to produce Vitamin A.  Getting enough beta carotene will not only save vision, it will save lives.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people die from Vitamin A deficiency every year.

The Next Green Revolution discusses genetic modification and the ways it could conceivably help the people of Africa and Asia in particular.  Among others, we see cassava that are being bred to be resistant to brown streak virus and rice that is being bred to be able to survive under water (for use in places that are prone to flooding).

As you have likely guessed by my lack of panic, I am not against genetic modification, particularly where plants are concerned. I am not a trained scientist or anything of that nature, but I speak a little of the language of science.  I am trained as a medical librarian and I work as a pharmacy technician.  I can see value in genetic modification.  Humans have been messing with our food forever.  Just look at teosinte, the ancestor of corn.  Over years and years, humans increased the size, sweetness, and nutition of the teosinte kernels until they became something entirely different. And a number of our food has been similarly changed.  Watermelons are far different from their original ancestors, as well.

Most of these were done through selective breeding, which involves a lot of wasted time and resources.  Let’s say that you are breeding for trait A.  Your parent plants are likely to be Aa, where “a” is an undesirable trait.  Half of your child plants, on average, will also be Aa.  One-quarter will be aa, which won’t help at all, since “a” is exactly what you don’t want.  Only one-quarter of the child plants will have the desired genes of AA.  With genetic modification, you can take the A from another cell, replace the a in the original seed with it, and the plant that results will be AA.  This means that plants with the desired trait can be tested for safety and put into use a lot faster than they would be with selective breeding.

When the Snows Fail, by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by Peter Essick

In When the Snows Fail, Nijhuis discusses the drought in the southwest United States.  We meet the Diener family who run a small family farm.  In addition to the usual crops, almonds, broccoli, tomatoes, and so forth, the Dieners are experimenting with growing prickly pear cactus.  Not only is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus edible, but so are the pads, which are known as nopales in Spanish.

The Dieners live in the Central Valley of California, which is where most of the fruits and nuts sold for food in the United States is grown.  The Central Valley was chosen as a place to grow such high-water-use crops because of the richness of its soil and the moderateness of its temperatures.  There is only one problem.  The Central Valley has a dry climate.  This means that in order to grow all of the asparagus, carrots, grapes, and pistachios, water must be pumped in.  Some is groundwater pumped up from wells, but the rest must be brought in from reservoirs. These reservoirs are filled by melting snows from the mountains the surround the valley.

Thanks to climate change, the winters are becoming milder, which means less water in the mountains.  Less water in the mountains then, of course, translates to less water for the farmers.  This is requiring the farmers to rethink their water use and, in some cases, like Diener, the crops they grow, as well.

Medieval Mountain Hideaway, by Brook Larmer, photographs by Aaron Huey

Medieval Mountain Hideaway is about an area of the nation of Georgia known as Svaneti.  For a long time, the region of Upper Svaneti was isolated from the outside by the mountains that surround it.  However, from the invasion of the Russians in the 19th Century and into the 20th and 21st Centuries, much of the culture of Svaneti is slowly being lost.  Only the very oldest of the Svans, for example, speak Svan fluently.  The youth of Svaneti are engaged in something of a cultural revival, however, learning the old Svans songs and dances and learning to play the old Svan musical instruments.  However, it is likely the much of the language which is not preserved in these songs will be lost.

Prior to the Christianization of Svaneti in the 4th century, the Svans were sun worshipers and some of those traditions, largely dealing with fire, were imported into the Christian holiday observances of the Svan.

Svaneti is facing two new threats to its culture.  The first is emigration.  Jobs are scares in Svaneti, and there were dangers in the area including bandits on the roads (the bandits were vanquished by security forces in 2004).  Thousands of people have left for the lowlands.  The village of Adishi once had 60 families, but the population dwindled to the point where only four families remained.

On top of this, the goverment is attempting to turn Svaneti into a tourist destination.  The capital of Mesti, in particular, has many guest houses, and there are new ski resorts being built in the mountains around the area. The question that remains to be answered is whether tourism will save or destroy Svan culture.

Mister Big, by Tom Mueller, photographs by Mike Hettwer

Mister Big is the tale of the discovery of Spinosaurus, the largest theropod dinosaur yet discovered.  The earliest bones of Spinosaurus were found in Egypt in the early 20th century by Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, a German paleontologist and aristocrat.  Among the bones of the partial skeleton that Strohmer found were vertebrae with tall spines sticking up from them, presumably supporting a sail of some sort.   Stromer gave this new discovery the name Spinosaurus aegypticus.

Stromer found it odd that so many top-level predators were found in the same area as Spinosaurus, but comparatively few herbivorous dinosaurs were found in that area.  The paleontologist who figured the answer to this question was Nizar Ibrahim.

In 2008, Ibrahim was shown some dinosaur bones, one of which was broken, in purplish sandstone.  He bought the bones, despite their condition.  In 2009, he saw a partial Spinosaurus in a museum in Milan, and it was clear that the bone he had bought was broken off of one of the bones of the dinosaur in Milan.

In 2013, he found the fossil hunter who sold him that first piece of Spinosaurus (and who also sold the bones in the Milan museum). Ibrahim has since found more bones that are likely from that individual and perhaps bones from others as well, in that location.

The current belief is that Spinosaurus spent at least part of its time in the water.  This would explain some peculiarities in the anatomy of the Spinosaurus, including the positioning of its back legs, which would be better for paddling than for walking.  Also, this would explain the relative lack of prey — the valley where the Spinosaurus was found was part of a network of rivers that was inhabited by large aquatic animals, including both fish and turtles.

The Nuclear Tourist, by George Johnson, photographs by Gerd Ludwig

Chernobyl, in Ukraine (it is a real challenge for me to get used to not typing the “the” that used to be in front of “Ukraine”), is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history.  For some unknown reason, on April 26, 1986 the people operating the reactor at Chernobyl decided to do a safety test with a skeleton staff. As it turned out, the plant was not safe. During the test, the reactor overheated and there were two explosions. Most upsetting of all, it took 36 hours for them to start to evacuate the nearby residents.  In June of 1986, work began on enclosing the building in a steel and concrete enclosure known in English as the “sarcophagus.”  The sarcophagus was completed in November 1986.  However, the sarcophagus was not sealed properly, and so beginning in 2006, construction on another enclosure, called the New Safe Confinement, was begun.   In 2011, Chernobyl was opened for business as a tourist attraction.

The Nuclear Tourist is an account of the one tour group’s trip into the Chernobyl area.  We see, in words and pictures, the damage done by the disaster, by time, and by tourist groups and the occasional vandal. I found particularly interesting how relaxed the tourists became about radiation.  At one point, the tour guide actually led the group into a high-radiation area and the tourists used their radiation meters to see how high it would go.

Speaking of radiation, the one thing that I found confusing about The Nuclear Tourist were Johnson’s references to radiation levels. I spent a bit of time checking his math and referring back to other parts of the article.  He also opens with the statistic that five sieverts of radiation will kill you, then says that the rescue workers were exposed to 16 sieverts.  My initial response was, “Wouldn’t that have killed them?”  I’m still working on that one.  From what I’ve seen in other sources, it looks like they did develop acute radiation sickness but didn’t die until several days later.

(originally posted June 2015)