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Chronicling Global Warming’s Impact on Antarctica’s Chinstrap Penguins

A conversation with Ron Naveen from the film The Penguin Counters

The heating up of the Antarctic Peninsula by five degrees centigrade is having a colossal impact on the seventh continent and the species living there. Co-producers and co-directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon embarked on an arduous Antarctic odyssey with field biologists, led by the intrepid Ron Naveen, to probe this phenomenon by counting the region’s penguin populations. Their stunning new nonfiction film The Penguin Counters documents the effects climate change is having on Antarctica’s chinstraps, a penguin species so-called because of the distinctive black lines beneath their beaks.  

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of First Run FeaturesThe Penguin Counters follows a group of biologists on a mission to count Antarctica's chinstrap penguins, a species so-called because of the distictive black line beneath their beaks.

Getzels and Gordon are globetrotting filmmakers making documentaries for outlets like National Geographic and the UK’s BBC at far-flung locations, from the Andes to the Himalayas. Naveen is Getzels’ wife’s cousin, a connection that led to The Penguin Counters and the documentarians’ first trip to Antarctica. Filming there along with cameraman Eric Osterholm, the team shot with Panasonic P2 and GoPro cameras. Despite using relatively low tech digital technology and facing very challenging conditions, the camera crew rendered some exquisite cinematography, shooting eye-popping scenery and wildlife at one of the world’s most remote destinations, footage that gives armchair travelers a “you-are-there” feel.

This truly on location reportage is the best part of a documentary that goes off-topic for about a quarter of its 70 minutes. Just by chance, the filmmakers said, aboard the ship carrying them to Antarctica were also the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, commander of the early twentieth century’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, plus relatives of John Wild, the British polar explorer’s right-hand man during the expedition. In 2011, they carried Wild’s ashes, which had been found in Johannesburg, South Africa, to inter them on the right side of Shackleton’s grave at South Georgia Island, located north of the Antarctic Peninsula. (The year seems to be at odds with when the filmmakers say they went to Antarctica, which seemed to be 2013 or 2014.)

All this was filmed and included in the documentary, along with some history about the South Atlantic island’s facility for boiling blubber. History buffs may find the attention focused on Shackleton and Wild to be intriguing, but more environmentally-minded viewers may find it to distract from the main thrust of The Penguin Counters engrossing look at the struggle for …more

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Of Turkey Tails, Samoans, and how Culture Imbues Food

Our bodies and what we eat don’t exist in a social vacuum, Big Food knows this only too well

More than one livestock producer has told me that current food policy “maximizes assholes per acre.” I appreciate this off-color phrase as it emphasizes what ought to be obvious: that livestock intensification maximizes all elements of animal production, even those for which there may be no market. I calculate that there are roughly 50 billion animals in our food system at any given moment: 45 billion chickens/turkeys/ducks, 1.7 billion sheep/goats, 1.3 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs, 0.16 billion camel/water buffalo, and 0.12 billion horses. That is a lot of “undesirable” meat – 50 billion hearts, 100 billion eyeballs, and well over 100 billion feet.

photo of Smoked Turkey TailsMark TurnauckasNot long after World War II, US poultry firms began dumping turkey tails, along with chicken backs, into markets in Samoa. By 2007, the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year

Consider the American turkey tail: a case of one segment of the US poultry industry quite literally sticking its asses in the face of another nation’s eaters. I mention it because it offers insight into how new foods become not so new – perhaps even becoming a “traditional dish” – and how much work must go into dislodging them when this happens.

The turkey’s hind end, which also goes by such irreverent names as the parson’s nose, pope’s nose, or sultan’s nose, is not all feathers, as many first presume. Turkey tails contain flesh, with about 75 percent of their calories coming from fat. If you are reading this in an affluent country you likely have never come across turkey tails in a retail setting. They remain a largely undesirable by-product of the poultry industry in most Western nations, even though roughly 230 million turkeys, and tails, were raised in the United States in 2015. Not long after World War II, US poultry firms began dumping turkey tails, along with chicken backs, into markets in Samoa. (Not to single out the United States, New Zealand and Australia are on record for having done the same thing with mutton flaps – sheep bellies – to the peoples of the Pacific Islands.) By 2007, the average Samoan was consuming more than forty-four pounds of turkey tails every year. That is quite the success story for a food product “that was essentially nonexistent sixty years ago,” to repeat what I was told by someone who grew up in Samoa in the 1930s and ’40s.

Based on what I have …more

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Receding Glacier Causes Massive Canadian River to Vanish in Four Days

First ever observed case of ‘river piracy’ saw the Slims river disappear as intense glacier melt suddenly diverted its flow into another watercourse

An immense river that flowed from one of Canada’s largest glaciers vanished over the course of four days last year, scientists have reported, in an unsettling illustration of how global warming dramatically changes the world’s geography.

The abrupt and unexpected disappearance of the Slims river, which spanned up to 150 metres at its widest points, is the first observed case of “river piracy,” in which the flow of one river is suddenly diverted into another.

photo of Kaskawulsh glacierPhoto by Calypso Orchid Intense melting of the Kaskawulsh glacier, seen here in the center, has redirected meltwater away from the Slims river, leading to the first observed case of "river piracy."

For hundreds of years, the Slims carried meltwater northwards from the vast Kaskawulsh glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory into the Kluane river, then into the Yukon river towards the Bering Sea. But in spring 2016, a period of intense melting of the glacier meant the drainage gradient was tipped in favor of a second river, redirecting the meltwater to the Gulf of Alaska, thousands of miles from its original destination.

The continental-scale rearrangement was documented by a team of scientists who had been monitoring the incremental retreat of the glacier for years. But on a 2016 fieldwork expedition they were confronted with a landscape that had been radically transformed.

“We went to the area intending to continue our measurements in the Slims river, but found the riverbed more or less dry,” said James Best, a geologist at the University of Illinois. “The delta top that we’d been sailing over in a small boat was now a dust storm. In terms of landscape change it was incredibly dramatic.”

Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Washington Tacoma and the paper’s lead author, added: “The water was somewhat treacherous to approach, because you’re walking on these old river sediments that were really goopy and would suck you in. And day by day we could see the water level dropping.”

The team flew a helicopter over the glacier and used drones to investigate what was happening in the other valley, which is less accessible.

“We found that all of the water that was coming out from the front of the glacier, rather than it being split between two rivers, it was going into just one,” said Best.

While the Slims had been reduced to a mere trickle, the reverse had happened to the south-flowing Alsek river, a popular whitewater rafting …more

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When Rivers Hold Legal Rights

New Zealand and India recognize personhood for ecosystems

Winding its way through dense forest laced with hidden waterfalls, the Whanganui River is the largest navigable river in Aotearoa, the Māori word for New Zealand. With the passage of the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill in March, the river became the first water system in the world to be recognized as a rights-bearing entity, holding legal “personhood” status. One implication of the agreement is that the Whanganui River is no longer property of New Zealand’s Crown government — the river now owns itself.

photo of Whanganui RiverPhoto by Kathrin & Stefan Marks In March, the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first water body in the world to receive legal personhood status.

Five days after the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Naintal, in northern India, issued a ruling declaring that both the Ganga and Yumana rivers are also “legal persons/living persons.” But what does it mean for a river, or an ecosystem to hold rights? The answer may vary from place to place. 

The growing global movement for Rights of Nature — or the Rights of Mother Earth as some cultures prefer — seeks to define legal rights for ecosystems to exist, flourish, and regenerate their natural capacities. These laws challenge the status of nature as mere property to be owned and dominated by humans, and provide a legal framework for an ethical and spiritual relationship to the Earth. While recognizing legal rights of nature doesn’t stop development wholesale, it can stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of ecosystems. In the last decade, four countries and dozens of US communities have passed laws recognizing “legal standing” for ecosystems.

In many cases, legal recognition for the rights of ecosystems reinforces long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs. For the Māori of Aotearoa, like many Indigenous cultures worldwide, there is no separation between humans and everything else. When the Europeans first arrived in the seventeenth century, there was no word for property in the Māori language. Their relationship with the Earth was one of care and responsibility. “Māori cosmology understands we are part of the universe,” said Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the Whanganui River iwi (tribe). “The mountains and rivers are our ancestors. Our cultural identity as a people is inseparable from the river — it is more than water and sand, it is a living spiritual being.”  

Indeed, the Whanganui iwi are known …more

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One Man’s Mission to Protect Greece’s Ancient Olive Trees

Greek expat hopes his photo archive will help raise awareness about the value of the centuries-old trees in Laconia region

In the region of Laconia, located at the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, ancient olive trees grow from sections of ancient buildings, seeming to fuse into a single tableau. Other trees grow in inhospitable, rugged and arid regions. These trees can reach up to seven meters high, and have trunks of intricate designs plus oblong silver-green leaves, which hide small, round fruits, and emit a distinctive scent with fruity and woody notes.

photo of ancient olive treephoto by Adoni DimakosGreece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections.

And yet, the trees face an uncertain future. Locals clear them to make room for new crops or use the wood for burning. The problem is compounded by agricultural mismanagement — the government gives subsidies to farmers to rip out ancient olive trees and plant orange trees in their place.

Such ancient Greek olive trees, but also Italian, Spanish, and Moroccan trees are disappearing from the landscape for multifold reasons. Climate change in the Mediterranean has triggered a shift in precipitation patterns as well as extended droughts, floods, and immense heat waves that occur with greater frequency and increased intensity, and, which, in turn, adversely affect the production of crops and the whole olive orchard agroecosystem. Bactrocera Oleae scourges, on the other hand, make table olives unmarketable and negatively impact the acidity and quality of the produced olive oil. Modern agricultural practices such as re-landscaping for tractors to get nearer to the crop add to the problem. Enter using the olive tree wood for heating in a country that has been eight years in recession and has lost around one gross domestic product from the value of each of its citizens’ private wealth, and you understand the threats currently posed to Greece’s olives.

Greece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections, says Adoni Dimakos, a Greek-Canadian entrepreneur. He is currently spearheading an ambitious project, known as, to catalog and preserve these rare and endangered ancient olive breeds in his native province of Laconia.

Dimakos is an unlikely defender of Greece’s olives. Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1968, he lived in Greece during his formative teen years and started falling in love with the olive …more

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Trump’s Border Wall Plan Hits Snag with Environmental Suit

US Congressman joins Center for Biological Diversity in call for environmental analysis that could delay construction for years

A US congressman and environmental group have filed the first lawsuit targeting Donald Trump’s plan to build a 30-foot wall on the US-Mexico border.

photo of border fencePhoto by Gary Goodenough, Flickr A section of the existing border fence between Arizona and Mexico. A US congressman is calling for an environmental impact assessment before a border wall is built.

The suit, brought by Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and the Center for Biological Diversity in the US district court for Arizona, seeks to require the government to undertake a comprehensive environmental impact analysis before beginning construction.

Such a review would probably take several years to complete, delaying indefinitely the fulfillment of one of Trump’s signature campaign promises.

“It will take a significant amount of time to thoroughly analyze [the impacts of the wall], and that’s the point,” said Randy Serraglio, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“What we learned about the border wall in the past 10 years is that it’s hugely expensive, it doesn’t work, and it does a tremendous amount of damage,” Serraglio said. “The people in the United States have the right to know what the damage is going to be, what it’s going to cost, and whether it’s going to be effective. Those are questions the Trump administration is not interested in answering.”

The lawsuit invokes the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review of major federal programs.

The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, which are named as defendants, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Trump began his presidential campaign in June 2015 with the promise of a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, whom he characterized as “criminals” and “rapists.” In the first week of his administration, he signed an executive order calling for homeland security to “begin immediate construction” of the wall.

Homeland Security has since begun a bidding process for contractors to build prototypes for the multibillion-dollar project. Still, a lack of interest from major construction firms and a lack of funding from Congress may mean that the proposal never moves beyond a border wall beauty pageant expected to take place in San Diego this summer.

“American environmental laws are some of the oldest and strongest in the world, and they should apply to the borderlands just as they do everywhere else,” Grijalva, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These laws exist to …more

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Is Mexico’s Underwater Museum Diverting Attention from Bigger Environmental Issues?

Sculptures off coast of Cancún are meant to protect coral reefs from intensive diving, but some conservationists say they’re a distraction

More than 20 feet below the surface of the water, on the sandy sea floor between Cancún and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, a lobster takes refuge beneath a miniature concrete house. Scuba divers watch as the lobster slinks underneath the foundation. Farther on, hundreds of statues stand in tight circles. A little girl holds a purse close to her chest. A man looks straight ahead with a broom in hand. A thin layer of algae, sponges, and coral cover the statues from head to toe.

photo of underwater museumPhoto by Ratha Grimes The Underwater Museum of Art is meant to protect nearby reefs from intensive diving by diverting scuba divers. But some conservationists say it's more of a buisness venture than a conservation measure.

The statues, the house, and the lobster are all part of the Underwater Museum of Art, a project intended to divert scuba divers from the overused reefs in the national park Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizúc. The park is near Cancún and Isla Mujeres, an island 13 kilometers off the Cancún coast. Inexperienced divers can harm the reef by accidentally breaking corals. But some scientists are skeptical of the museum’s conservation value. And though it’s not hurting the reef, they fear the museum may distract from more important threats to reef health such as coastal development and inadequate water treatment.

“It’s a good business,” Roberto Iglesias Prieto, a reef researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology just outside of Cancún, said. “The problem is that it’s sold as a conservation measure.”

In the years leading up to the creation of the museum, several powerful hurricanes damaged the reefs in the national park. The Mexican protected areas commission (CONANP) considered closing the reefs to tourism to allow them to recover. That sounded like bad news to the dive operators in the area. Closing the reefs would hurt business, so divers and park managers worked together to find a compromise.

In 2009, the diving community and the protected areas commission decided to create an underwater museum. It seemed like the perfect solution: Divers would find the site interesting, it would take pressure off the nearby coral reefs, and it would provide habitat for sea life.

There’s just one issue: Igelsias Prieto doesn’t believe tourists are to blame for the deterioration of the reef. “They invented a problem …more

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