Archive for the ‘Planet Earth’ Category

The National Trust has a target of producing 50% of its energy from renewable sources on its land by 2020. It’s a challenging target. The new biomass boiler which was installed at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and which was switched on in July 2015, is one of five pilot renewable energy projects that will address that goal. This is the story of how trees on the 1,800 acres estate are being turned into fuel.

ickworth park, national trust, ickworth rotunda, nikolaus pevsner, gervase jackson-stops

Completed in 1829, the Rotunda was later described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘a crazy idea … it makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for rooms inside’. More recently architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops said the Rotunda was like a ‘huge bulk, newly arrived from another planet’ and an ‘overgrown folly’.

The 199kw boiler is fuelled by wood chip produced from timber taken from the 600 acres of woodland on the estate and it will supply 100% of the fuel for heating the Rotunda and the West Wing. These are the main buildings in the centre of the park, and were the idea of the 4th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey, who intended to use them as a place to display the treasures he gathered during his 30 years of travel in Europe. The Earl was seen more in Italy than in Suffolk.

Incidentally the Hervey family became more eccentric and more notorious right up to the 20th century; read more here. But ever since Ickworth was passed to the Trust in lieu of death duties following the death in 1951 of the 4th Marquess (and 8th Earl) , the buildings have been a nightmare to heat and the bills for the heating oil have been enormous.

Around 156 tonnes of wood chip fuel would be needed each year in addition to the 40 tonnes that was currently being supplied to the boiler at the Regional Office of the Trust at Westley Bottom a mile away. An independent assessment concluded that extracting this amount from the estate on rotation would be sustainable.

Removal of timber from the estate first started in autumn 2014 when ‘harvesting’ machines extracted non-native softwood trees like Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce and Larch, from a small area of Lownde Wood in the south of the estate. The logs had to be stacked nearby as the wood chip store still had to be built. This was to be located next to the existing wood store in the north of the estate. In September last year, harvesting of softwood resumed in Lady Katherine’s Wood on the east side of the estate (photos 1 & 2). The harvester cuts the tree at its base, and as the trunk is lifted up, it is fed through rollers. Knives strip the branches off the trunk, and a chain saw cuts the trunk into 12′ lengths. This all seems to happen in just a few seconds and it is fascinating to watch.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lady katherines wood, tree harvester

These plantations of softwood were likely planted forty or fifty years ago but they had not been managed for a long time. Not all of the softwood is cleared, no more than 30% of the canopy in fact (photo 3). This is to keep some cover for wildlife until the wood is replanted with native broadleaf species that will improve biodiversity. It also serves to protect the wood from strong winds which could blow down thinly spread trees. Standing and fallen deadwood is left, again for the benefit of wildlife.

The land for the wood chip store had by this time been cleared so all the timber, including that from Lownde Wood, was taken up to wood store in the north of the estate (photos 4) where it was piled into five long stacks (photo 5), enough timber to last Ickworth’s needs for an estimated three and a half years. Ideally the timber needs to be stacked for 18 months to 2 years to dry out before it is chipped.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lownde wood, timber stacks


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In December this year there will be a UN climate change conference in Paris. Scientists and environmentalists have said that this is the last chance for governments to act to keep the increase in global warming to within 2 degrees. The effects of a 2 degree rise in the temperature of the atmosphere are serious enough, but rises above this level will increasingly threaten human life on the planet.

Population, Consumption & Global Warming

Increasing population and increasing consumption have caused global warming by the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Global warming is causing more extreme weather, droughts and reduced crop yields, more wildfires, rising sea levels and flooding, loss of sea ice and glaciers, changes to the range of animals and plants. But increasing population and consumption have had other consequences as well. The resources of the planet that we rely on: the forests, rivers and lakes, the seas and oceans, the diversity of wildlife, the soils and minerals, are all being depleted or destroyed. The current world population today is 7.35 billion (considered by some environmental scientists to be already two to three times higher than what is sustainable). This is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 (and it is not expected to level off as previously thought).

And humans are living in increasingly crowded and polluted cities in a state of growing inequality and scarce resources. Desertification and conflicts over water scarcity and land grabs are leading to increased migration.

People in Developing Nations Want the Same as Us

The over-consumption of food, fuel, building materials, and manufactured goods in developed countries has played a major part in the depletion of the earth’s resources, but people in the developing world understandably desire the same things: more and better housing, heating and lighting; more cars and roads, more electrical goods, more shops and malls, more food and more meat, more flying as people want to travel overseas, and so on. An obvious example is China. China today has 78 million cars. If China was to have as many cars per person as in Britain (approximately one car for every two persons), then the number of cars in China would increase ten-fold to 705 million. This alone would require the current number of barrels of oil produced in the world today to increase from 87 million a day to 132 million a day. To build this number of cars (and to build their replacements when they become obsolete) would require a dramatic increase both in the materials that would have to be extracted from the earth, and of the energy required to build them. Also to be considered are the additional roads that China would have to build and the effect of a huge increase in pollution in its cities, many of which are already heavily polluted.

It is self-evident that the resources of the earth on the planet are finite; our exploitation of those resources is unsustainable. With the UK general election taking place on 7 May, are people in Britain aware of these issues?

ofcom, bbc one, itv, bbc website, sky news

According an Ofcom survey in July 2014, the most used news source is BBC One, which is used by 53% of people. 33% of people use ITV as their main source, 24% use the BBC website or app, and 17% use Sky News

How do people find out what’s going on in the world?

People in Britain get their news from an average of 3.8 different sources ie. newspapers, TV, radio, website or app, or social media. The main reason given by people in Britain for following the news, almost three in five people, is to find out ‘what’s going on in the world’. The top ten media news sources in 2014 were, in descending order, BBC One, which is used by 53%, ITV by 33%, BBC website/app by 24%, Sky TV by 17%, BBC News channel by 16%, The Sun by 11%, BBC Radio 2 by 10%, The Daily Mail by 9%, BBC Radio 4 by 9%, and Channel 4 and Google jointly used by 8% (Ofcom figures)

And so for the first time, adults are more likely to access the internet or apps for their news rather than newspapers, 41% compared with 40%. In any case, you will read very little about what is happening in the world, let alone the issues referred to at the beginning, in tabloid newspapers in Britain, and I don’t think that you will much about them either in some of the broadsheet newspapers.

So newspapers are no longer so influential. Television and websites are now the main sources of news for the majority of people, and the effects of global warming and environmental issues are covered by these media, though the depth of the reporting is extremely variable. But these global issues are overwhelmed by other hard news such as the economy and jobs, housing, the NHS, education, crime, immigration, welfare and pensions.

What are the issues that voters are most concerned about?

2015 general election, most important issues for voters. ipsos mori survey

These are the most important issues facing Britain today according to an Ipsos MORI survey of a 966 British adults between 6th and 15th February 2015.

Pollsters have been out and about trying to find out the issues that voters are most concerned about. When it comes to global warming and sustainability, the issue doesn’t seem to come up at all. The nearest seems to be the vague ‘care for our environment’ or the all-embracing ‘environment/transport’. This may be because pollsters have pre-determined what should be on the list of issues that voters are asked to rank as ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’. Of course they might be right: that it isn’t on their lists as global warming is not a priority issue for most voters.

But it is not as if the threat to the human race is below the news radar. On Wednesday this week, the Independent reported climate scientists as saying that there is now is a one in ten risk that atmospheric temperatures could increase by 6 degrees by 2100. This would lead to cataclysmic changes in the global climate with unimaginable consequences for human civilisation. Would you fly on an aircraft if there was a one in ten risk of it crashing? Are we all keeping out heads in the sand. Is it a case of tomorrow being just another day?

What are the political parties going to do about global warming & sustainability?


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paul crutzen, nobel prize, ozone layer

Paul Crutzen won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on the chemical compounds that were causing the hole in the ozone layer.

In 2000 Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel prize-winner, and American ecologist Eugene F Stoermer, proposed using the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology.

Fifteen years on, several of the papers that were presented at the four-day World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week referred to the advent of the Anthropocene era, though it is doubtful if many of the 2,500 attendees paid much attention.

Geological Epochs

So what is a geological epoch, when did the Anthropocene epoch start, and how is the Anthropocene relevant to us?

You will know about the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the earth*. But do you know some of the other periods of geological time: the Cambrian, the Devonian, the Carboniferous, the Triassic, the Cretaceous? The Cambrian period started about 540 million years ago, and the Cretaceous period ended 66 million years ago. This enormous length of time is only 10% of the age of the Earth, which is 4.6 million years old.

(*The dinosaurs actually first appeared in the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic period until the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago.)

The last 66 million years is also made up of geologic periods: the Paleogene, the Neogene and the Quaternary, and to make it more complicated, the Quaternary period is made up of two epochs, the Pleistocene (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago) and the Holocene (11,700 years ago to the present day). Even though human beings first appeared between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago, the Holocene, the start of which is marked by the end of the last major ice age, encompasses the rise of modern humans, all human written history, the development of major civilizations, and the relatively recent transition toward urban living. The word Holocene means ‘entirely recent’ and comes from the Greek holos, meaning ‘whole’ or ‘entire’, and –cene meaning ‘new’.

geologic time, cambrian, pre-cambrian

In this geological time chart, the time before the Cambrian period, the Pre-Cambrian, which extends for most of the top level, covers seven-eighths of the age of the earth, with the remaining one-eighth expanded into levels below.

The Anthropocene Epoch

But for some time, geologists, climate scientists and ecologists have been debating whether the profound effect that the human species is having on the Earth means that we are moving from the Holocene to a new epoch, the Anthropocene (pronounced an-thropo-scene). The first use of a similar term however goes back to 1873 when the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani  acknowledged the increasing power and effect of humanity on the Earth’s systems and referred to an ‘anthropozoic era’. Incidentally Eugene Stoermer originally coined the term in the 1980s, but never formalised it until Paul Crutzen, who had started using the term, contacted him. The name Anthropocene is a combination of the Greek roots anthropo- meaning ‘human’ and -cene meaning ‘new’.

Geologic epochs primarily refers to geologic time based on boundaries between different rock strata differentiated by fossils, which is the science of stratigraphy, and any decision on recognising the Anthropocene epoch, which is still an informal term, lies with the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ISC). The ISC set up an international Anthropocene Working Group of scientists which was ‘tasked with developing a proposal for the formal ratification of the Anthropocene as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale’. The working group, which first met in Berlin last year, has given itself until 2016 to come up with the proposal to submit to the ISC, but this month they put forward their initial view.

The Beginning of the Athropocene

The working group has proposed that if there were to be a single date to mark its beginning of the Anthropocene epoch, it would be 16 July 1945, the date that the first atomic-bomb test took place at the US Army testing range at Alamogordo in New Mexico, as the subsequent nuclear tests left an indelible mark around the Earth due to the release of radioactive isotopes or ‘fallout’ which settled in the soil and land around the world. This event also coincided with a worldwide ‘great acceleration’ of other human activities that ushered in a new geological epoch.

However a significant minority of the working group supported alternative dates, and the group plans to bring forward a formal, evidence based, proposal in 2016. Scientists have argued for a number of different dates that mark the start of this new human epoch. One date is the start of the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century when coal became the main source of fuel, production by hand changed to production by machine, new processes to produce iron were introduced, and the use of steam power increased dramatically. Earlier dates include the invention of agriculture and the clearing of forests about 10,000 years ago, and even further back to 14,000 to 15,000 years ago based on lithospheric evidence, the exposed top layers of the earth. These latter dates would be closely synchronous with the current epoch, the Holocene.


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cow parsley, plant diversity, wild flowers

Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also known as Queen Anne’s lace and wild chervil, engulfs the verges of many of Britain’s roads and lanes.

If you went for a walk along a path in a wood or beside a stream or canal, or drove down a country lane last weekend, everywhere you look you would have seen a lush growth of plants. Unfortunately a small number of plants will be dominating all others. Engulfing many verges will be cow parsley, with its tiny white blooms on umbrella-like stems, the soft leaves of the common nettle on erect wiry green stems, and thick tangled prickly brambles. And at roundabouts, you will see thousands of lovely ox-eye daisies and buttercups, but not much else.

Going back many decades I can remember a good mix of flowers alongside hedgerows and on the edges of woods, and beside paths on commons and in parks, though not being an expert on plants, I don’t know most of their names. And there were so many more butterflies: brimstones, orange tips, hairstreaks, blues, specked woods, fritillaries and many more. Cow parsley may appear to be very decorative of our roadside verges, but where are all the other plants.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, which is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, carries out surveys of the countryside every ten years, and their survey in 2007 found that between 1978 and 2007, the extent of cow parsley in Britain had increased by almost 60% in the plots surveyed. That’s more than half as much again of the stuff as there was 30 years or so ago. But why is it happening?

There seem to be three reasons: how roadside verges are managed nowadays, the increased fertility of soil due to intensive farming, and the aerial deposition onto the land of compounds from car exhausts.

wildflower meadow, plant diversity, winterfield park, dunbar

A beautiful wildflower meadow close to the coast at Winterfield Park, Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland. © Richard West/Creative Commons Licence

In the past, verges were often grazed by farm animals or were cut for hay, and the grass and other plants, once mown, were taken off. Now verges as well as hedges are mown by local councils, and the mowings are left in place, which add nutrients to the soil and makes it more fertile. The fertility of soil along hedgerows and on the margins of fields and woods is increased by the large amount of nitrogenous fertilisers used by farmers on their crops. That’s the reason why the chalk grassland of Salisbury Plain supports such a diversity of plants: it’s never been sprayed with agricultural chemicals because it is an army training ground. Significant areas of grassland have been ‘ploughed in’ since the Second World War which led to an increase of nitrogen compounds in the soil. And across the entire landscape, the air and rain is more fertile because of the nutrient effect of nitrogen oxide gases emitted by motor vehicles.


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david attenborough, naturalist, overpopulation

Sir David Attenborough, Naturalist (b1926)
‘The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us.’

Governments seem unable or unwilling to face up to the alarming consequences of an ever-increasing world population – projected by the United Nations to increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 million by 2050 (source) – and ever-increasing consumption. Climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels; water and food shortages; the destruction of forests, species extinction and loss of biodiversity; competition for dwindling mineral resources, as well as the inevitability of increasing human conflict.  Is this because voters in developed  (democratic) countries usually vote their governments in or out on the basis of whether they are able to deliver economic growth. Growth that has to be achieved at almost any price, and which at present relies on the exploitation of unsustainable resources?

So what chance is there that the governments of developing countries, with 5.9 billion people who like us will want cars and will want to fly to distant places, what chance is there that their governments will be able to act differently? For us as individuals, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? Are we expecting that technology will come to the rescue, that something will turn up?

This brings to mind the oft-quoted lines:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

winston churchill, gathering storm, second world war, house of commons, nazi

The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes by Winston Churchill on The Second World War in which he recalls warning the House of Commons in 1935, to little avail, of the growing threat from Nazi Germany

This short poem was quoted by Winston Churchill in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, of his six-volume history, The Second World War. On page 110, he recalls a debate in the House of Commons on 19 March 1935 on the air estimates (ie. money to pay for the production of aircraft) when as a back bencher he challenged the government’s assurances that the budget was adequate to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany, who had reached parity with Britain in the number of aircraft. He wrote ‘Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make  Parliament and the nation heed the warning  … was an experience most painful’.

Reflecting on the debate, he said ‘there lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown author about a railway accident, I had learnt from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton’. He then quotes the lines above, and ends ‘However, I did not repeat them’. In this clip from the 2002 TV film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie, his wife, Churchill angrily quotes the lines following his warnings being ignored by the government.

The poem was in fact taken from a much longer poem titled Death and His Brother Sleep which appeared in Volume 99 of Punch magazine published on 4 October 1890 and which was attributed to ‘Queen Mab’. The poem was written by Edwin James Milliken (1839 -1897) who, as well as being a poet, was an editor of Punch, a journalist and satirical humorist. The shorter poem is made up of the first two lines and last four lines of Death and His Brother Sleep, but how Churchill came to use only these lines is not known, though they do have a dramatic effect.


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storm surge, rising sea levels, london, flood

A scene from the 2007 disaster film Flood showing central London flooded by an extreme storm surge.
Lionsgate Films

For some people, one of the  consequences of global warming, almost unnoticed by the rest of us, is already upon them. The seas are rising, and this affects human populations living in low-lying coastal regions and on islands. While studies show that sea levels for millenia changed little until 1900, they began to climb in the 20th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007 that during the 21st century, sea levels will rise another 18 to 59 cm, but these numbers did not include the impact of melting ice. More recently, the US National Research Council suggested in 2010 rises over the same period of between 56 and 200 cm ie. between half a metre and two metres. Future sea levels are notoriously difficult to predict, and different studies can show different results, but in all cases sea levels are going to rise.

This rise in sea level is a result of the thermal expansion of water due to the higher air temperatures, and the melting of land-based ice like glaciers and ice sheets, both stemming directly from man-made global warming. In addition, it may be that the seas are absorbing more of the heat of the atmosphere than was forecast. This may explain why the rate of increase in warming of the earth’s atmosphere has slowed in the last decade, but the sea is rising faster as a consequence.

The effect of rising sea levels is not felt equally across the globe. Ocean-borne storms and surges exacerbated by global warming can raise sea levels much higher than normal, causing sea water to flood inland over wide areas destroying urban development, or arable land through salt water contamination. The destruction of mangrove forests in coastal areas by human activity can dramatic alter the impact of rising sea levels. Coastal land can also be inundated or eroded far quicker where there are little or no sea defences or where rocks are softer.

If sea levels continue to rise, quite a number of cities, let alone thousands of smaller centres of population, are threatened this century by rising sea levels: Guangzhou and Shanghai (China), Alexandria (Egypt), Calcutta and Mumbai (India), Venice (Italy), Osaka-Kobe (Japan), Bangkok (Thailand), Boston and New York (USA), and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). Longer term projections that contemplate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, would lead to a rise in sea level of seven metres, enough to submerge hundreds of cities worldwide including London and Los Angeles.

sundarbans, mangrove, world heritage site, ganges delta, bangladesh, rising sea levels

A map of the Sundarbans swampland and mangrove forest, a World Heritage Site and part of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, which is threatened by rising sea levels

In Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, agricultural land up to 100km inland has already  been damaged by  storm surges, and it is projected that a 1.5 m rise in sea levels would affect 17 million people and 16% of the landmass of the country. The Ganges delta is the largest river delta in the world. Much of the part that lies in Bangladesh supports one of the most densest human populations in Asia, the Sundarbans mangrove forest. It is projected that 75% of what remains of the forest will be destroyed by 2100 as a result of rising sea levels with a devastating impact inland due to flooding. Already two islands have disappeared. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, where 26% of country is below sea level and vulnerable to flooding, a massive building program is being considered to strengthen the country’s water defences against a rise in the North Sea of 1.3 metres by 2100 and 4 metres by 2200.

kiribati, pacific ocean, submerged, rising sea levels

One of the many atolls in Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, which will be submerged as a result of rising sea levels.

Across the world however, small communities are already being destroyed.

  • Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has a population of 102,000 on 32 low-lying atolls and one coral reef island, Most of its population has already moved to the island’s main island Tarawam, after many of the atolls disappeared beneath the ocean. The government is negotiating to buy land on Fiji to where its population could be re-located (more…)

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If you look hard enough, the news is full of stories about climate change, loss of species and biodiversity, rising sea levels, the shrinkage of arctic sea ice and glaciers, increasing pollution, the destruction of forests and jungles, the depletion of earth’s natural resources, and so on. The coverage is relentless. And if you read for long enough, you might feel depressed and wonder if the human race is running out of time. Or perhaps you feel that scientists have got it wrong, and/or that humans with their limitless ingenuity can master these changes. Even if the population is projected to rise from 7,177,594,112 at the time of writing (link) to 10 billion by 2050. That’s 10,000,000,000 people.

krill, euphausiid, crustacean, antarctic, ocean

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are one of the most abundant and successful animal species on Earth. There are about 85 species of these open-ocean living crustaceans which are known as euphausiids (Photo: Stephen Brookes)

Well if that’s not enough, scientists are now warning that substantial reductions in the numbers of antarctic krill could have catastrophic consequences for marine mammals and birds in the cold oceans of the southern hemisphere. Krill? What are krill?

Krill are small crustaceans found in all the world’s oceans. In the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are the backbone of the food chain and are the primary food for penguins, seals, fish and whales. They make up an estimated biomass of over 500,000,000 tonnes, roughly twice that of humans on the planet, and may be the largest of any multi-cellular animal species on the planet. A study by the Australia’s Antarctic Division published in Nature Climate Change has found that once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean reach about 1,250 micro-atmospheres due to the oceans becoming more acidic as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, the numbers of krill eggs hatching successfully begins to decline dramatically. Some of the areas for krill already reach 550 micro-atmospheres.

krill, antarctic, happy two feet, film, brad pitt, matt damon

In the 2011 Australian-American 3D animated film, Happy Feet Two, Brad Pitt provides the voice of Will the Krill, and Matt Damon that of Bill the Krill. Will seeks a life outside of the swarm, with Bill following reluctantly, but they realise they are at the bottom of the food chain. Although Will tries to be a predator, they eventually return to the relative safety of the swarm. Hopefully these two cute crustaceans will raise the profile of this potentially threatened species.

As well as mammals, birds and fish being threatened, commercial fishing is currently taking around 200,000 tonnes of the crustacean from the same areas affected by the projected decline. The krill are used in food products, health supplements, and as feed for farmed fish.

These findings come as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources  – comprising 25 countries including the European Union – is considering proposals to protect thousands of species in the Southern Ocean from exploitation. The increasing acidification of earth’s oceans due to the burning of fossil fuels however will respect no such boundaries.

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