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August 2009 printable subscriber newsletter

Ecologist

31st July, 2009

In this month's newsletter, we profile one woman standing against coal-mining in the US, show how hospitals, schools and councils could source local food, delve into the science of mobile phones and health, and learn lessons from the first ever climate change evacuation. Scroll to the bottom of the page to download the newsletter

In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’, one of visiting scientists asks the gamekeeper of the dinosaur-filled island whether the resurrected creatures exhibit signs of intelligence. The gamekeeper replies:
‘They show extreme intelligence, even problem solving... testing the fences for weaknesses. Systematically. They remembered.’

The moral of the film - within the confines of Hollywood - is of course that nature, once roused, is not just powerful but highly unpredictable, filled with embedded systems that can, to an observer, appear as human-like intelligence.

It’s just the kind of behaviour we’re starting to see from the climate system, judging by some of the latest reports from scientists.

At the end of June, scientists at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, released research showing that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could have the chilling side-effect of turning staple crops like cassava and sorghum poisonous – by stimulating the plant into creating higher levels of naturally-present chemicals known as cyanogenic glycosides that break down to release cyanide.

Although the cyanide only accumulates in the leaves, the scientists also found that higher levels of CO2 – referred to by some as a plant ‘fertiliser’ – cause the plants to grow weaker with smaller edible tubers. Bad news indeed for the estimated 750 million who rely on crops like cassava for their daily calories.

Less than a month later, research by scientists at the University of California found that fruit and nut trees – frequently hailed by environmentalists as the sustainable plants of the future – could in fact suffer badly in future, warmer winters.

If the trees don’t experience cool enough winter conditions they stay dormant into the spring, and then flower erratically (which hinders pollination) and fruit poorly. US farmers are already spraying orchards with hormones to induce flowering.

Not to be outdone, climate scientists based in the US released a study just days later demonstrating that the deceptively ‘cool’ weather (on a global level) of the last few years was in fact due to a lull in the sun’s activity, and that this had effectively ‘masked’ the warming trend caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Give it a few years, the scientists said, and the mercury will rocket.

Is this Nature getting her own back? No, it’s not. Are these examples of how Nature, once prodded with a stick, bites back in unexpected ways? Yes, they are.

Much like Spielberg’s gamekeeper, studies like those above put us in the position of troubled observers, watching as creatures of our own creation start testing the electric fences of our science and society.

The fences may yet hold: we may breed new varieties of cassava and sorghum, almonds and cherries. Copenhagen may yet yield a ground-breaking deal. But underestimating how Nature might react to any of this would be a foolhardy mistake.

Mark Anslow, Editor

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