Friday, November 30, 2012

Walking the Dog on Mars

Lunar Eclipse by Glen Tepke

Some of our most most profound moments arise when we are mindful of the ordinary, everyday happenings in the natural flow of our lives. A wondrous thing can occur when we look with fresh eyes...  we experience reality anew.  An honest and open look may throw us into confusion at first, but then there's always the potential for that "ah" moment when our understanding of nature deepens, and our conceptual world broadens... a moment of profound satisfaction.

That's what happened to me last night as I walked my small pet beagle, and  I looked up at the moon.

I tilted my head, and the shape of the craters and lunar seas took on the form of a rabbit, but that was not the surprise.  I've traveled the southern hemisphere where the rabbit on the moon resides.  I saw myself standing on the surface of the earth, nestled within the thin sliver of blue atmosphere that shelters all life as we know it.  The moon stood far beyond that safety, beautiful, cold and sterile.  The stars around it felt even further, beyond my imaginings...  I experienced a brief moment of fear.  The earth, my very existence, seemed fragile, a tiny sphere lost in an immense universe as lifeless as the moon.

NASA Illustration of Curiosity
How outrageous we humans are, I thought.  Half a century ago some of us went to the moon... how outrageously curious and bold.

It occurred to me that as I stood there, at that very same moment, on the surface of Mars several machines of our making roamed. My eyes scanned the sky for that tiny reddish tinged light in the sky and found it.  I felt a pull on the leash and noticed my dog sniffling around a bush hoping to find something.  There was an excitement to him.

I pictured Curiosity, NASA's latest rover, sniffling here and there, not so different from the efforts of the beagle at my feet.

It was an uplifting feeling, an ah moment, not so much about the moon but about ourselves.  The image of Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder of the lunar lander stood sharply in my mind.  No matter the cultural and political constraints of the day, I mused, we will always be excitedly searching.  We will always be venturing forth because that is who we are....

Monday, November 19, 2012

Winds of Life

Pomarine Jaeger by Patrick Coin
Birds often get caught by the fierce winds of hurricanes, finding shelter in the eye and riding a tropical cyclone, sometimes for thousands of miles.  Some storms make landfall and travel far inland, and wayward sea birds settle on foreign coasts or in lakes and ponds.

After the Superstorm Sandy, pomarine jaegers were found in many places as unlikely as Pennsylvania. Rescued pelicans in Rhode Island were flown back to a place more like their natural home, Florida.

Birds of all stripes follow the wind during their yearly migrations.  Sometimes the process is interrupted by violent events like Sandy, and they may end up far from their preferred habitats.  There were many such sightings after that massive northeastern hybrid storm: a Ross gull from the arctic turned up in Upstate New York, for instance, and in New Jersey a red-billed tropicbird was spotted.

Sandy is an example of how life itself is guided by the ubiquitous winds that move and shape clouds and weather.  Sometimes the effects are gentle as well as beneficial.  Throughout the world, the winds bring essential rain far inland, to places that lack their own source of moisture.  The breezes of the earth disperse seeds so many species of plants need to propagate.

See the relationship of wind and current in this NASA Scatterometer Image.
The effects of the wind on the biosphere are great and small.  The prevailing winds push on surface water creating great oceanic rivers, like the Gulf Stream; currents that in turn circumnavigate the globe and help spread the excess, equatorial heat from the direct sun to the rest of the earth.  Without that process the tropics would be scorched of life, and great masses of ice would abound in much of the rest of the planet.

The wind... although we can’t see it, we can feel it as an ever-present force.  Like with Sandy, it reminds us that in life everything changes.  The nature of the wind is written into our very thoughts and words.  If change is near we say there something in the wind.  Unpredictable people are said to be as fickle as the wind.

And on this earth the winds of change forever blow, reminding us nothing is permanent, not even the mountains that over geologic spans of time are beaten down by the wind and rain, and like great swells ultimately return to the waters of the ocean.

Monday, November 5, 2012

White-headed Capuchins of Central America

White-headed Capuchin by JoeOcchipinti
White-headed Capuchin, a photo by JoeOcchipinti on Flickr.

As New World monkeys of Central America, white-headed capuchins are perhaps one of the most recognizable of all primates, best known as partners of the street-performing organ grinders of early 20th century New York City. White-faced Capuchins are known to be very clever and can easily evade capture. In fact, they are so intelligent that they are sometimes used as animal helpers for  people who are paraplegic.

White-faced Capuchin MonkeysIn our travel to Costa Rica we were fortunate enough to observe two different troupes of Capuchin, one in a mangrove forest and another near our beach hotel.  In the mangroves, they were wary of us and posturing for us to leave (above), while by the beach resort they couldn't have cared less, and happily socialized with each other (left).  I will long remember the day when standing in the growing shadows of tall palms, we watched these wondrous creatures until the sun set into the Pacific.

I can tell you, it is truly amazing just how human-like these creatures are.  In the wild these amazing animals employ the use of tools to access and gather food, and have been known to use plants medicinally.  Capuchins have been seen rubbing citrus fruits and vines on their fur, perhaps in an effort to rid themselves of parasites or as a way to scent themselves. On a few occasions, researches have observed them armed with sticks for protection.  There is one story of  mother frantically hitting a snake so it would let go of her infant.

These arboreal creatures are very social and like to live in large groups, often establishing alliances with each other. Kinship is important, particularly female to female bonds.  Females are pregnant for about five months and usually bear a single young. Mothers share parenting duties.

Like humans the young mature slowly, usually weaned in about a year, and remain adolescents for several years.  They have been known to live to fifty years and beyond.

Click here to see more capuchin images from our trip to Costa Rica.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Will Sandy be a turning point?

When facing illness we give consideration to our health and to our bodies, but before then we take our health for granted.  Sandy has engendered a moment of clarity for all of us.  Our relationship with the natural world is as intrinsic and as fundamental.  As with our own health, we often don’t give it much thought until crisis comes.

Earth is our home.  We have no other. 

Sandy's aftermath
Sandy is only the latest example of a rapidly changing climate.  We can now see and measure the effects; changes like the radical disappearance of the polar ice cap, the increased frequency of droughts and forest fires, and the rise in sea level.  These things are no longer a matter of speculation.

Let us see clearly… Taking care of our planet is the defining issue of our times.

As a civilization, we are beginning to understand many of nature’s wondrous mechanisms, including those that have shaped the evolution of our atmosphere and climate.  We can point to many factors of natural climate change, like the moving of continents and rising of mountains, like earth’s fluctuating relationship with the sun.  We also know the greenhouse effect (the collection of gases that act to keep the earth’s heat trapped in the atmosphere) is a natural process, and makes our planet more hospitable for life; without it, all of the world’s oceans would be frozen over.  Natural processes shape a perpetually changing climate, from global tropical conditions to ice ages
The earth’s biosphere has adapted accordingly.  Nature endures, will we?

The same cannot be said for the civilization we humans have created.  We have harnessed the power of fossil fuels, and in doing so have inserted ourselves as shapers of climate change.  Nature has kept CO2 gas in check by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into buried coal, oil and gas.  What took nature hundreds of millions of years, we are undoing in a matter of a few generations by releasing all of that carbon back into the air.  It is the main way we are altering the chemistry of our atmosphere, and the climate is beginning to respond.  We are now feeling the consequences, but is only the beginning.

It is clear: We must find a better way. We too must adapt.

When other problems arise, like a bad economy or a blossoming federal debt, the environment takes a back seat, as evident by the fact that climate change was hardly mentioned in the 2012 presidential campaign. We can argue about the role of government, but even those who give voice to small government believe the fundamental role of the State is to protect the people from harm.
A destabilizing global climate is the biggest threat we face.

Each one of us has the responsibility to act in whatever way we can.  It starts with electing people who understand what we face, but it does not end there.  We must educate ourselves and find a way to make a difference.

It is our clarion call.