Sargassum as a metaphor for life

Sargassum seaweed, South Padre Island

The path of least resistance is not always the most interesting.

The in-laws are Winter Texans, as this particular species of snowbird calls itself. So every year or two, we trek down to South Padre Island and spend a week on this strip of sand. I tell my daughters it will be gone by the time they’re old enough to be Winter Texans, swallowed by the rising seas.

I run in the mornings, timing it for sunrise, which is straight out to sea. Some mornings, like today, the clouds and mist form a wall of gray, wrestling the sun to a sort of draw in which daylight presses forward with gradual luminosity and no color.

South Padre’s is a wide beach, sand like silk underfoot. Surf rolls in frothy sheets, it’s emanations hazing up the condo towers at the distant flanks. In retreat, the tight sands resist absorption, and water flows back to the gulf like rain on a window during a deluge.

In the spring, when we come down here, the sargasso joins us. This is seaweed, greenish brown and red, collecting like clumped fur across 20 or so yards of vertical beach, ad infinitum. It is to the sand what foam is to the sea, rusting, static on the gentle beige slope.

I run in the beach. I can run high on the beach, which is softer and tracked with truck tires (some narrow and auto-like, from the white trucks that drive along, policing or detritus-collecting; others thick-treaded, belonging to the bulldozers whose Sisyphean job is to shove untold tons of sargasso into dunes high on the beach). I tend to go lower, toward the water, where it’s firmer and closer to the sandpipers and gulls making their living from the moon’s twice-daily gifts.

There is lot of sargassum in the way, and when I was running this morning I noted something about the accumulated seaweed. Some of it collected in extended clumps that were from any distance clearly nonnavigable. This was higher on the beach. Closest to the water, the sargassum had scattered, orphaned clumps like tiny shrubs with tenuous desert footholds. One risks soaking one’s running shoes here. Then in between, where the sand is firm and dry — the best place to run — the seaweed looks formidable from a distance, too. But once you decision to tackle it, up close, step-by-step, paths emerge that you can’t see from afar. The running is easier than you might have imagined, and more interesting, as there are little hurdles and unexpected barriers to be dodged or hurdled, introducing variety and a bit more exercise. And so the metaphor.

The happiest doomsday clock

I’m on the Asahi Glass Foundation mailing list. Despite being made of glass, this is a serious foundation, most famous for its annual bestowing of the Blue Planet Prize.

When I say mailing  list, I mean this literally — you get paper-based mail. The interesting thing that, despite being based in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, my mail from the Asahi Glass Foundation comes via Brunei, on the northern tip of Borneo. I once spent a night in an airport there.

In addition to the Blue Planet Prize, the foundation does something called the “Questionnaire on Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind.” I fill it out every April (one can do this online). The most recent results were apparently released on Sept. 5, 2013. I just got them a few days ago, perhaps because they’re mailing via Brunei.

I was one of 1,364 respondents last April. The survey asked questions about the perceived nature of environmental problems and their possible consequences. Going in-depth here is beyond the scope of this post (all 22  years’ worth of .pdfs are posted here). Suffice it to say that we respondents collectively set the environmental doomsday clock at 9:19 p.m. At 161 minutes to midnight, we were considerably more optimistic than the folks over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose doomsday clock stands at 5 minutes to midnight. We gave the planet four more minutes than the previous year, though 90 minutes less than when the folks at Asahi launched the survey in 1992.

It is a very serious survey, querying our sense of major environmental concerns (biodiversity, climate change, pollution/contamination, water availability, population pressure, food scarcity, land-use problems) and the levers we might collectively pull to ease them (involving renewable energy, urban infrastructure, education, regulation, energy conservation, poverty reduction, tech transfer and other tools).

It breaks the prioritizations down by country and region, which is interesting. In the Middle East, zero percent of respondents believed that “stringent standards for auto emissions and energy waste” were desirable government measures to mitigate environmental burdens. Imagine that. In “Korea” (my guess this means South Korea, most North Koreans being too malnourished to type), 24 percent thought this might be a good idea.

The survey’s crowning achievement, though, was in a separate sheet of paper, which I photographed on my kitchen floor.

Asahi Glass Foundation Environmental Doomsday Clock 2013

This has not been photoshopped.

My eight year old was like, “What’s that?”

“It’s a doomsday clock,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and was off to play Subway Surfer on her Christmas Kindle Fire.

My initial reaction was to chuckle at the depiction. I mean, who names a rabbit “Gring?” (As a white rabbit, “Gringo” might have worked, though). Or is the name “Grin” after all (see the bottom-center of the wheel)? And these other characters — what’s with the pumpkin dude and the three-eyed rabbit-alien? Why is the panda a doll and not real? And if that’s Dumbo, did you get the OK from Disney?

But on second thought, I began to wonder if maybe the Asahi people aren’t onto something. Scads of dry, terrifying IPCC reports haven’t turned much of a tide — certainly they haven’t affected Middle Eastern survey respondents. The great problem with environmental communication — particularly climate communication — is that it’s faceless. It’s about the fish tank and not the fish. Maybe we need more colorful little Grings and Woodins and crowned elephants and blue dragons. Hello Kitty, another Japanese development, may be widely mocked, but it’s universal. Maybe cute is just what we need to connect people with the drivers of environmental doomsday.

Snorkeling in seven-degree weather

Lily and Maya in the water at Denver Divers

Lily and Maya with their snorkeling instructor this afternoon at Denver Divers.

Occasionally the full ridiculousness of modern, rich-country existence slaps you square on the cheek. It should happen more often. This morning, I was washing off fresh raspberries when I told Maya, 8, “You know, this is kind of miraculous. It’s two degrees Fahrenheit outside and here are these raspberries.”

Scuba tanks and snow

Scuba tanks in wait beneath a window shielding them from the 7-degree weather outside.

That wasn’t the slap, though — merely the sort of thing we should all take a moment now and then to consider. Rather, not three hours later, we were over at Denver Divers at 6th Avenue and Milwaukee (in Milwaukee, the dive shop is at Sixth and Denver). I have driven by the shop hundreds of times and always chuckled at the idea of a dive shop at a mile elevation. One of the great alliterative oxymorons in retailing, probably. But an interesting place inside, full of gear and fins and masks and wet suits for sale, most without prices (if you’re hardcore enough to dive in Denver, one spares no expense). It was also tropically humid. One of the lady workers was chipping thick ice from the bottom of the swinging metal-glass doors.

It  was humid because about half the square footage is occupied by a sizable swimming pool. In it, the girls took a snorkeling lesson. Because it is inadvisable to snorkel without proper training. It was 7 degrees outside at the time. Weirdest thing was, once they were in the water, it didn’t seem strange at all.


New climates, unknown consequences ahead

IPCC - global surface temperature now and in the future.
Aggressive climate action ASAP (left figure) minimizes future warming. Inaction (right figure) results in catastrophic levels of warming, 9°F over much of U.S. (Via ClimateProgress, IPCC)

If the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report didn’t scare you, a study in the journal Nature should do the trick. It may have a dull title (“The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability”), but it makes up for it with alarming findings.

The abstract is, as abstracts tend to be, clinical:

Ecological and societal disruptions by modern climate change are critically determined by the time frame over which climates shift beyond historical analogues. Here we present a new index of the year when the projected mean climate of a given location moves to a state continuously outside the bounds of historical variability under alternative greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Using 1860 to 2005 as the historical period, this index has a global mean of 2069 (±18 years s.d.) for near-surface air temperature under an emissions stabilization scenario and 2047 (±14 years s.d.) under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. Unprecedented climates will occur earliest in the tropics and among low-income countries, highlighting the vulnerability of global biodiversity and the limited governmental capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. Our findings shed light on the urgency of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions if climates potentially harmful to biodiversity and society are to be prevented.

What’s this really saying?

These researchers considered the long-term average temperatures places all over the world, and then figured out how far into the future they would have to go until global warming pushed the average temperature in these places above the hottest of the 145 years from the end of the Civil War through 2005. When your hottest year becomes your average year, you’re in a new climate.

Alastair Doyle of Reuters explained it this way:

Billions of people could be living in regions where temperatures are hotter than their historical ranges by mid-century, creating a “new normal” that could force profound changes on nature and society, scientists said on Wednesday.


Temperatures in an average year would be hotter by 2047, give or take 14 years, than those in the warmest year from 1860-2005 if the greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with the tropics the first affected area, a new index indicated.


“The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon,” lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii said. “Within my generation whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.”


The data suggested the cities to be hit earliest included Manokwari in Indonesia, which could shift to a new climate from 2020 and Kingston, Jamaica, from 2023 under the fastest scenario of change.


At the other extreme, Moscow would depart from historical variability only in 2063 and Anchorage in 2071.

The year 2047 isn’t that far away. My kids will be about my age then. I may still be alive, even. My kids will have every right to be angry with me for my part in all this.

Maybe it’s the federal shutdown, maybe it’s the fossil-industry-funded denier machine, maybe I was closer to it in 2007 when I covered the IPCC’s fourth assessment report as a writer for the Daily Camera in Boulder. But it feels like there’s less interest in these kinds of stories now than there was six years ago, despite carbon-dioxide concentrations having risen and its consequences becoming irrefutably clear.

Al Bartlett and the Essential Exponential

Al Bartlett, January 2005

Al Bartlett in January 2005. Photo by Marty Caivano/Daily Camera

Al Bartlett, Boulder physics professor emeritus who dedicated his post-retirement career to preserving Boulder and trying to get people not as smart as him (which was pretty much everybody) to understand the exponential function and its environmental and social impacts, died over the weekend. Brittany Anas, my former colleague at the Camera, did a very nice piece on him, so I won’t belabor the big picture. Except, I guess, to say that without Bartlett and the Blue Line he backed, Boulder’s foothills would look like those north of Phoenix, crawling with single-family homes until too steep to build.

Al was a great guy, and he was present at creation during the University of Colorado “Rocket Project” that spawned both today’s LASP, the largest university-based space science and engineering house in the world, and  Ball Aerospace, builder of Hubble instruments, spacecraft and other dizzyingly complex hunks of space hardware. He helped me understand the lay of the land around the CU physics department and its personalities for the book, too.

I did a feature on him in early 2005, back when he had only given his “exponential” talk  1,540 times (he got to 1,700, ultimately, and according to Brittany, there’s a team of followers poised to carry the message onward — though Al’s already immortal on YouTube. Nearly 5 million views.).

Many don’t like the message. But the it’s just math. Others choose to turn Bartlett’s pessimism on its head, and that works, too — see Ray Kurzweil. Fact is, we misunderstand the exponential regardless of application, whether it has to do with our impact on the planet or the pace of innovation that might stem that impact.

Here’s my old piece, courtesy the Daily Camera:

Professor talks at exponential rate – Bartlett has given speech on growth 1,540 times

January 24, 2005

Albert Bartlett has given the same presentation 1,540 times.

That’s the equivalent of once a day, every day, for more than four years. But the 81-year-old physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado has spread things out a bit. He has been teaching his lesson on the power — and danger — of exponential growth since 1969.

This week, he’s presenting “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” four times — twice at CU in Boulder, once at CU-Denver, and, on Friday, at California State University, Fresno. He expects to present it between 30 and 40 times this year, mostly at CU-Boulder.

He has been busier. In 1979, he gave the speech 132 times.

“That was too much,” Bartlett said last week from his Boulder home.

In 1987, he gave it seven times in a single day, to high school students in Brush. At that pace, he could have knocked out all 1,540 in about seven months, including weekends.

These statistics — and many, many others — are in a book published last year. It’s called “The Essential Exponential!: For the Future of Our Planet.” Compiled by Bartlett devotees at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, it is a compendium of journal articles by Bartlett and others with the same message: exponential growth of human population and natural-resource consumption can`t happen forever.

It’s all in the mathematics of compound growth. For investors, a constant 7 percent return doubles your capital in 10 years. But the same dynamic can be calamitous to the environment, Bartlett contends.

For example, a population of 10,000 growing at a constant 7 percent rate will hit 10 million a century later.

Robert Malthus, who in a 1798 essay predicted mass starvation because population growth was outstripping food production, was a major intellectual influence on Bartlett .

The agricultural revolution has only delayed the problem, Bartlett says. More people are starving today than ever, and per-capita global grain production has been falling since the 1980s, he said. Further, the engine of all this crop growth is petroleum-based fertilizer, and oil is a finite resource whose production peak could be happening now, Bartlett said. (More sanguine forecasters estimate global peak oil production in 2035.)

He likes to cite the late economist Kenneth Boulding’s “Dismal Theorem,” which says: “If the only ultimate check on growth of populations is misery, the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.”

Boulding, for the record, also had a “Moderately Cheerful Form of the Dismal Theorem,” which says, if humanity can react to forces other than misery and starvation, we’ll be just fine.

Bartlett believes such proactivity hinges on ending the widespread “innumeracy” — illiteracy with numbers — with respect to the hard truths of exponential growth.

He says capitalism can survive without population growth. The fertility rates in Italy and Spain have long been below replacement, he notes.

“It’s not been a disaster,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett rails against population growth, which, he says, “never pays for itself.” He says building more reservoirs and highways doesn`t solve problems, but rather invites even more growth and bigger hurdles down the road. Politicians lack the will to view population growth as something to be avoided and not invited, he says.

Bartlett has many fans and admirers, especially among scientists who appreciate a scientific message delivered in a memorable, blunt and funny way, said Larry Nation, communications director of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which hosted a Bartlett presentation at a convention in Dallas last year.

“He sat down in a chair and you felt like you were talking to your uncle, who by God is going to tell you how the cow eats cabbage,” Nation said.

But doesn’t Bartlett ever tire of saying the same thing — however interesting — over and over and over?

“I feel sort of like Billy Graham. I`m an evangelist. You’ve got to get it out to the people,” Bartlett said. “I`ll do it as long as I can.”