Nature News Roundup, Feb. 20th, 2021

Welcome to the good, the bad, the adorable, & news from valley of the cool sunshine

A tale of two whales: Two highly endangered right whale calves made headlines this week, from opposite sides of the ocean. One story falls into the bad-news column. It washed up dead near St. Augustine, likely the victim of a collision with a sport fishing boat. Divers spotted the other calf off of the Canary Islands in Europe, which was a big surprise as they’ve been extinct on that side of the north Atlantic for some time. The sighting could mean they are starting to move back into their former territory off of Europe and Africa. Right whales are in a lot of trouble for many reasons. Less than 400 remain, and in the last few years 47 have been found dead or seriously injured. To see the more uplifting side of right whales, watch the BBC’s The Life of Mammals, during which you also get to hear David Attenborough, with his delightful accent say, “The male right whale can boast a twelve foot-long penis and the biggest testicles of any animal on earth.”

Some particulate-ly useful balls: In other news from the ocean, scientists in the Mediterranean discovered that seagrass can trap plastic pollution. As the plants sway in the currents, they create natural bundles of fiber called Neptune balls, which can collect and sequester millions of plastic bits. Eventually the balls end up on beaches, and out of the marine environment. Seagrass is a bit of a miracle plant, not just because it lives in salt water, but also because it absorbs 10 to 40 times as much carbon as dry-land forest, while protecting marine life and improving water quality. There are more than 70 species of it, which live from the Arctic to the tropics.

Trickster plants: On land, some plants seem to be equally as uppity. Historically, the herb Fritillaria delavayi, which grows in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China, sports green leaves and one bright yellow flower. But after being over-harvested by humans, the once colorful plants are now growing gray and brown. Scientists suspect they’re evolving to hid from their main predator, us.

Finally some good climate news: A Paris court found France guilty of not living up to its promises to combat global warming. Four environmental groups had sued, after 2.3 million people signed a petition in favor of doing so. “This should inspire people all over the world to hold their governments accountable for climate change,” said the executive director of Greenpeace France, who also added, “No more blah blah.” As another plaintiff reminded us, it’s not just a victory for France, but “for all the people who are already facing the devastating impact of the climate crisis that our leaders fail to tackle.” The French government aimed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, but so far is not on track for that. Only time will tell if they kick it up a notch, or continue with the blah blahs.

Followed by some bad news: 8.7 million people died in 2018 as a result of air pollution, a new study finds. That’s one in five total global deaths, and more than all of those who died from both smoking and malaria combined. Much of this could be a thing of the past, if we can replace those smucky fossil-fuel power plants with wind and solar, and get on with electric cars.

And some lip service from Shell: The oil giant set new targets this week to be net zero by 2050, but many environmentalists are calling it greenwashing. While the company says its historic oil production peaked before the pandemic and is now falling for good, the company is ramping up natural gas production by 20 percent. Also, its plan for going carbon neutral depends on technologies that don’t yet exist en masse, like carbon capture, and unrealistic carbon offsetting goals, such as planting trees over an area equivalent to the size of Brazil. Oh yeah, and then there’s this little detail that they’re also continuing to back anti-climate lobby groups.

Something we can help with: Nestlé is selling off its North American water business, and environmental watch-doggers are calling for our help. The Story of Stuff, a group that for years has been documenting the damage of the corporation’s operations to both communities and ecosystems, calls it, “a massive, private transfer of ‘water wealth’ — a resource that belongs to all of us — and a betrayal of communities across the U.S. and Canada.” They are warning that the new private equity firm owners will likely cut costs and corners, leading the brand to “duck its minimal environmental commitments and promises.” To help their efforts, you can sign a petition here, or donate here. And if you want to see what happens in a community where Nestlé prowls, check out the documentary Tapped, which doubles as a good watch on single-use plastics, along with these two good shorts from The Story of Stuff: This Land is Our Land and 5 Things Nestlé Doesn’t Want You to Know.

One of the places Nestlé gets water is from the Upper Arkansas River Water Conservancy District. The Arkansas runs through many arid and delicate ecosystems, like this one at the Royal Gorge, near Cañon City, Colorado. Photo: Karuna & Steve.

A great idea reborn: Not long ago, Biden signed an executive order to create a Civilian Climate Corps, a hearkening to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps of nearly a century ago. If successfully created, it will train young people for environmentally friendly careers, and put them to work in a range of tasks to bolster community climate resilience and help nature, like building green stormwater management systems, installing solar panels, cleaning up toxic waste sites, developing urban gardens, planting trees, and restoring public lands and waters (which will also help Biden’s 30 by 30 goal to conserve a third of America’s lands by 2030). To become large enough to be truly effective though, the Green New Deal-esque program will need support from congress, which may or may not be possible as Fox declares anything Green New Deal as “a socialist plot that’ll take away your hamburgers.” Nonetheless, when one poll omitted the word “climate” from its question, 85 percent of Americans supported the move. Not to worry, future hard-working CCC boys and girls, surely your employment contract won’t come with hamburger ban.

It’s hard to find a state or National Park at which the CCC didn’t leave a legacy. They also built guest cabins, like this one at Chewacla State Park, Alabama (which also has great mountain biking, by the way). Photo: Karuna & Steve.

And in case you just need a little adorable in your life today: Scientists have found the world’s smallest-known reptile. The Brookesia nana chameleon is about the size of a sunflower seed. Though they only found one male and one female, its habitat in Madagascar was recently placed under protection, so scientists are somewhat, at least a little bit, hopeful for its odds of survival.

News from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine

(a.k.a. the house build)

The San Luis Valley is known as the Valley of the Cool Sunshine for obvious reasons — it’s usually sunny, and despite that, it’s usually cold. For those just tuning into this newsletter, my husband and I recently bought an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in the valley, and are in the process of bringing it back to life. It’s a first for us, and we are learning a lot, and enjoying the process.

Last week we finished gutting the inside of the house, and as I write this, Steve is rebuilding the back framing (it was, how shall we put it… a bit inadequate to properly hold up that side of the house).

Unfortunately, we didn’t find too many treasures in the walls. Mostly unoccupied mouse nests, some crazy insect colony that we weren’t able to identify, a 20-peso coin from 1983, two popsicle sticks, and tiny plastic toy rifle.

Luckily, we didn’t find anything alive, except in the pump house, which is underground. In there, Steve spotted two black widows, which he was hoping were just hanging in the webs after completing their time on this earth. But the next day they had moved, so they’re still in there somewhere. It led us to some interesting research, though. Apparently spiders can produce a form of antifreeze, which explains how they survived in single-digits and even some sub-zero temps… As if spiders didn’t already have enough super powers to be totally cool.

Backing up a day or two, we drove from the big city earlier this week, pulling a U-haul trailer loaded with drywall and some goodies we found at the used materials store Resource in Boulder — like 24 used kitchen cabinets and a $15 shower base. What a great place that is, a rotating treasure trove of used construction stuff on the cheap. But back to the drive, it was a beautiful day until we neared the top of the last pass. Turns out, it had snowed there just enough to slicken up the road. The van and trailer came to a tire-spinning stop, and we had some harrowing moments trying to get out of the road. We ended up dropping the trailer and coming back for it the next day, which was great timing because when we finally arrived, it coincided with our internet installation. The guy who came to install it was so great, he helped unload the drywall — which saved us hours of time and my ability to use my back, totally boosted our faith in humanity, and reminded us of the power of a good deed.

Also, my awesome brother gave us a bird feeder, which we hung today. Excited to see who shows up.

A parting thought

One of the world’s greatest migrations is underway, or rather over-way. The numbers of sandhill cranes overhead are increasing by the day, and their chatter makes for an ongoing sense of wonder and calm — and a great noise to wake up to each morning.

That’s all for now. Have a great week and keep up the good! And if you like what you just read, one way to speak up for nature is to share it!

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