strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

  • Advertisements

Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Could Your Air Conditioning Help Cure–Not Cause–Climate Change?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

It is one of the great dilemmas of climate change: We take such comfort from air conditioning that worldwide energy consumption for that purpose has already tripled since 1990. It is on track to grow even faster through mid-century—and assuming fossil-fuel–fired power plants provide the electricity, that could cause enough carbon dioxide emissions to warm the planet by another deadly half-degree Celsius.

paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy:  Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour.  Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a developing fix for climate change—also depend on moving large volumes of air.  So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

This futuristic proposal, from a team led by chemical engineer Roland Dittmeyer at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, goes even further. The researchers imagine a system of modular components, powered by renewable energy, that would not just extract carbon dioxide and water from the air. It would also convert them into hydrogen, and then use a multistep chemical process to transform that hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbon fuels.  The result: “Personalized, localized and distributed, synthetic oil wells” in buildings or neighborhoods, the authors write. “The envisioned model of ‘crowd oil’ Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

How to Send a Finch Extinct

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2019

Australia’s southern black-throated finch: Going, going …

This one caught my eye because it’s such a pretty bird, and because of the mindlessness with which Australia is letting human development drive it to extinction.

The state of Queensland and Australia’s federal government have allowed more than 1900 square miles of potential finch habitat to be cleared without anybody asking: Is this really a good idea? Almost 800 developments have been proposed and only one was turned down for its unacceptable impact on the finch, which has now vanished from 80 percent of its original habitat. Still in the works, five new coal mines in the last remaining high quality finch habitat.

It’s kind of amazing in a country that just this month is experiencing fish, wild horse, and bat die-offs  because of climate change.  (“Their brain just fries.“)

There’s a Senate hearing in Brisbane Friday on the continuing decline and extinction of Australia’s diverse wildlife. Time for somebody to get riled up. And of course it’s not just Australia. Development is our God everywhere, and the natural world pays the price.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Confused Animals Look Around and Sing: “This Is Where We Used to Live”

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 18, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

A shift in home range by a handful of bird species along an obscure ridge in the Peruvian Andes might once have seemed like sleepy stuff, even to ecologists. Instead, it made headlines last month when researchers reported that the birds’ uphill push for cooler terrain has already resulted in population losses for most species and the probable extirpation of five species that were common at the top of the ridge just 33 years ago.

It was some of the strongest evidence yet for the long-standing prediction by scientists that climate change will lead — is leading now — to widespread loss of wildlife. University of British Columbia ecologist Ben Freeman and his co-authors summed up their findings with a chilling metaphor: Mountain birds, they wrote, are “riding an escalator to extinction.”

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, didn’t report any actual extinctions. The Cerro de

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

Pantiacolla rises to a maximum height of only 4,642 feet, and the birds that disappeared from the ridgetop persist on higher and larger mountains — in effect, on other escalators — elsewhere in the area. Reliable scientific evidence that climate change has caused actual extinctions is in fact scarce so far, despite projections by climate modelers that such extinctions are likely. The only known example is a marsupial called the Bramble Cay melomys, which vanished sometime after 2009 from a low-lying island off northern Australia, after sea level rise and extreme weather caused repeated inundation of its habitat.

But the new study from Peru lends support to the predictions being made by climate modelers. It also fits into a rapidly expanding body of evidence that plants and animals everywhere are on the move as they struggle to adjust to climate change. The ecological upheaval is “happening right now and it will almost certainly continue to happen,” says Freeman, lead author of the Peru study, and “there is an immediacy to something happening right before our eyes that’s different from a study saying, ‘this is what it’s going to be like in 2100.’”

When plants and animals move uphill, they can lose habitat, simply because mountains become smaller the higher you climb. A shift in range can also mean the loss of old partnerships, the introduction of Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Bill McKibben: Green Mountain Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2018

Bill McKibben (Photo: Mark Teiwes / Lesley University)

by Richard Conniff/Yankee Magazine

It’s a mid-September afternoon, and Bill McKibben—author, climate change activist, nemesis of the fossil fuel industry, cross-country skiing addict, devotee of small-town New England life, and drinker of local beers, in more or less that order—is at the wheel of his electric-blue plug-in hybrid, heading north out of Providence.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, have been away from their home in the Green Mountains outside Middlebury overnight, on a trip to promote his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. It’s a funny book, and McKibben is not known for funny books. Well, it’s funny unless you happen to be a Walmart manager: McKibben starts his fable with small-town renegades flooding a new Walmart store knee-deep with the contents of the local sewer system. (Oh, come on, that’s funny.) And it’s funny unless you think there is something deeply alarming about Vermont seceding from the bigness and manifold badness of the United States at large. McKibben says the independent Republic of Vermont is just a plot device, not a movement. But his passion for his home state is genuine. As he hits the on-ramp out of Providence, he is almost quavering in anticipation of getting back.

McKibben is, of course, better known for books that are genuinely alarming. Climate change is his subject, both as an author and an activist. Fellow climate journalist Andrew Revkin describes him as “the ultimate endurance athlete of climate campaigning.” In a series of books and articles beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben has meticulously laid out the evidence that the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from our massive burning of fossil fuels, is destroying the world as we once knew it. “The basic issue of the planet right now,” he told Revkin in a recent interview, “is that it’s disintegrating.” He refers to “my last grim book,” as if grim books were a genre, and has described his life after The End of Nature as 25 years of “sadness” and of “looking for ways out, for places that work.”

For McKibben, Vermont is one such place. Even in his grim books, he writes yearningly, sentimentally, about the maple cream cookies that a neighbor brings to the annual town meeting, about stopping to visit “the farm of the six Dutch brothers,” about “the sun shining through the winter-bare ridge at dusk,” and about the consoling mantra of local names—Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain, Otter Creek—with which he lulls himself to sleep while on the road. The mountainous country around Lake Champlain, he writes, is “the landscape that fits with jigsaw precision into the hole in my heart.”

Vermont is also, however, what transformed him from author to activist and led him reluctantly to spend much of his life away from home. The turning point, he says as he heads north on 95 across Massachusetts, was a five-day protest march for climate action, from his hometown of Ripton to Burlington, in 2006. “We slept in fields,” he recalls, and had potluck suppers at Methodist churches along the way, “potluck suppers being their sacrament.”

He meant the protest to be a one-time thing, “but when I got to Burlington, 1,000 people were marching with us, and in Vermont, 1,000 people is a lot of people,” he says. “But what was amazing was to read the story in the paper the next day.” It was 17 years after The End of Nature, and nine years after passage of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change. An overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence had demonstrated the reality of climate change and the human role in causing it. And yet a newspaper story was describing 1,000 people walking across Vermont as the largest U.S. demonstration ever against climate change. It dawned on McKibben that writing books and making meticulous arguments wasn’t enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

As Climate Change Bears Down, Do We Relocate Threatened Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 26, 2017

(Photo: Frans Lanting)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

On a knob of rock in New Zealand’s Cook Strait known as North Brother Island, a population of the lizard-like creature called the tuatara is quickly becoming all male. When scientists first noticed the imbalance in the late 1990s, the sex-ratio was already 62.4 percent male, and it has rapidly worsened since then, to more than 70 percent. Researchers say climate change is the cause: ground temperature determines the sex of tuatara embryos, with cooler temperatures favoring females and warmer ones favoring males.  When climate pushes the sex ratio to 85 percent male, the North Brother Island tuataras will slip inescapably into what biologists call the extinction vortex.

So what should conservationists do? For the tuatara and many other species threatened by climate change, relocating them to places they have never lived before–a practice known as assisted colonization—is beginning to seem like the only option. “We’d prefer to do something a little more natural,” says Jessica Hellman, a lepidopterist at Notre Dame, who was among the first researchers to put the assisted colonization idea up for discussion. That is, it would be better for species to shift their ranges on their own, using natural corridors to find new homes as their old ones become less habitable. But for many island and mountain species, long distance moves were never an option in the first place, says Hellman. In other cases, old corridors no longer exist, because human development has fragmented them.

The idea of assisted colonization as a conservation tactic has elicited fierce criticism, however, because of its potential Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Apocalypse Then … Then & Then. One More for the Road?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 10, 2017

asteroid2-620x330

Artist’s conception of a major steroid impact

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

For everyone who loves disaster movies, and the sound of Wile E. Coyote going splat, here’s a book about Planet Earth’s multiple suicide attempts—sorry, mass-extinction events. The Earth “has nearly died five times over the past 500 million years,” notes science writer Peter Brannen in “The Ends of the World.” One of these events, the End-Permian Extinction 252 million years ago, killed more than 95% of all living things, earning it a reputation as “the Great Dying.” The other four, muddling along at a somewhat more modest rate, were nonetheless apocalyptic enough to make biblical floods and famines seem like Monday at the office.

Mr. Brannen sets out to learn “just how bad” it could get, with a view to understanding our own future as climate change advances across the planet. Brace yourself. It’s not just about “a rock larger than Mount Everest” slamming into the planet at a speed “twenty times faster than a bullet.”

That is of course the leading theory about what happened to Tyrannosaurus rex and friends in the best-known mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago. Debate about this theory in the 1980s began in ridicule and progressed to widespread acceptance, with the fatal asteroid ultimately linked to an impact crater 110 miles wide on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. An alternative—or possibly complementary—theory puts the blame on massive volcanic eruptions occurring almost simultaneously on the opposite side of the planet, in the Deccan Traps of India.

As a result of the debate over what killed the dinosaurs, the study of mass extinctions, “long pushed aside as a disreputable fringe of paleontology,” became cutting edge, Mr. Brannen writes, and it has opened up a whole new world of potential Armageddons. Thus he gleefully introduces readers to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Climate Change Complicates the Whole Dam Debate

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2017

Oroville Dam in California. (Photo: California National Guard)

by Richard Conniff/ScientificAmerican.com

With California now on track to have the rainiest year in its history—on the heels of its worst drought in 500 years—the state has become a daily reminder that extreme weather events are on the rise. The recent near-collapse of the spillway at California’s massive Oroville Dam has put an exclamation point on the potentially catastrophic risks.

More than 4,000 dams in the U.S. are now rated unsafe because of structural or other deficiencies. Bringing the entire system of 90,000 dams up to current standards would cost about $79 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Hence, it has become increasingly common to demolish problematic dams, mainly for economic and public safety reasons, and less often to open up old habitats to native fish. About 700 dams have come down across the U.S. over the past decade, with overwhelmingly beneficial results for river species and ecosystems.

Now, though, a new study in Biological Conservation takes the science of dam removal in an unexpected direction. While acknowledging that reopening rivers usually leads to “increased species richness, abundance and biomass,” a team of South African and Australian authors argues

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2017

coal_pile_npsWith Donald Trump promising to promote “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives. Not coincidentally, much of China and Europe are both now struggling with heavy pollution due in large part to coal burning.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

mountaintop-removal“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway.  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Climate Change Killed This Little Guy. Can Relocation Save Other Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2016

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Australian scientists were “devastated” in 2014 when they visited the tiny island home of the Bramble Cay melomys, the Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal, and found no one home. They described it as probably “the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.”

What really hurt was that they were visiting the island on a rescue mission, to find enough individuals for a captive breeding project. The ambition was to rebuild the population and reestablish it in some more hospitable habitat. They were too late: Repeated storm surges had wiped out the plant that was the major food source for the melomys, and the last few members of the species, the product of a million years of evolution, were probably swept out to sea and drowned.

That painful example has many conservationists thinking hard about what they call “assisted colonization.” That is, they are wondering whether and how to move species to places they have never lived before—because that may be their only chance

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »