The Last Winter

by Porter Fox

Published by Little, Brown on November 2, 2021

 

“Winter is not a weather event.  It is, in part, the result of an ancient astronomical collision.”

Porter Fox loves winter and skiing has been a major part of his life.  He wants to ensure that his children will be able to experience winter throughout their lifetime.  He’s not sure that will be possible and sets out to investigate. 

Fox’s book is sometimes labeled as a travel adventure.  He does take us along on a journey.  Each section describes his personal exploration to understand the evolving climate’s impact on winter.  To learn what is happening and why, Porter interviews geologists, glaciologists, indigenous people, and others who have specialized knowledge or affection for snow and ice.  These are not mere conversations in brightly-lit labs and cozy restaurants.  Instead, Fox joins the experts in the field and participates in their studies.  

As Fox works with the field teams, they explain why the loss of winter will increase forest fires, flood coastlines, and will create other disasters.  More impactful than reporting just the data, these teams are involved in monumental efforts to document and communicate their findings.  Fox conveys their concern, their haste, and their determination.  Even for someone reasonably aware of the looming climate disaster, Fox’s findings add to the distress.  

Despite this, the deft prose carries you forward. The writing is strong in part because of its honesty and vulnerability. He speaks a truth that we know in our hearts but somehow we cannot face.

“It was pleasant on the plane.  Warm.  Safe-feeling, even.  The sedating effect of modern convenience made it seem like everything was going to be all right, like someone would figure everything out…Maybe there would be a technological Hail Mary…Maybe the planet would mend itself…That would be nice, I thought.  Then I reached for the screen and searched for a movie, a football game, a comedy, any possible distraction.”

Climate change is a frequent topic in the news these days, as it should be.  Unfortunately, for many audiences, the realities of climate change seem distant, both in where it is happening as well as when it will occur.   Fox shows that climate change is real, it is now, and the consequences impact all of us.  Whether we like winter or not, we need it and so do our children.

 

Why you should not miss this one:

  • Real people, real stories, real impact
  • Porter Fox’s writing feels like he is speaking directly to you, almost as if he is sometimes breaking the fourth wall
  • This will likely become a classic in environmentalism literature

Thanks to NetGalley, Little, Brown, and the author, Porter Fox, for the opportunity to read a digital copy in exchange for this review.   

#NetGalley  #TheLastWinter @PorterFox

Hey, fellow nature-lovers!   There are two days left to the WeDigBio event for you to participate.   WeDigBio stands for Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections and focuses on the digitization of natural history museum specimens. 

All you need to do is complete five transcriptions. Anyone can do this as the process is easy. There are instructions to guide you along.  Use this link to get started:  

https://www.zooniverse.org/organizations/md68135/notes-from-nature?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=announce14oct2021

Topics range from plants to bugs to marine invertebrates and many others. If there’s a natural subject that you are interested in, there is probably a project focused on it.

If our entire readership does just five transcriptions each, we can make a significant contribution to the cause. 

Have fun.  You might even learn something at the same time!  The event ends on October 17th so don’t delay.

This challenge is rated as easy.   

#WeDigBio

Photo 199977285 © Samuel Martins | Dreamstime.com

Remember the last time you stood at the edge of the ocean?  Perhaps you climbed some rocky ledges and gazed into tidal pools or maybe you were standing on a pier.  If you looked closely you may have seen barnacles or mussels stuck to whatever surfaces were available.  Despite the ever-crashing waves, they were stuck, like glue.

Recently, a team from McGill University described how mussels achieve this adhesion.  

Photo 159976138 / Mytilus Edulis © Milton Cogheil | Dreamstime.com

The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) uses an internally produced fluid protein and mixes it with iron and vanadium extracted from seawater.  Within 2 to 3 minutes, the glue is useable by some of the mussel’s anatomical parts. 

As you may know, mussels have beards.  (If you ever cook mussels, you remove this part before cooking, or at least you should.  It’s rather chewy otherwise.)  These are made up of 50 to 100 fibrous byssal threads that keep the mussels tethered in place. At the end of each thread is a disc-shaped plaque that becomes the interface for applying the glue to the target surface. 

This glue is strong enough to withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater.  Consequently, understanding its composition and properties may lead to new products for applications such as surgical sutures.  After all, the body is 70% water and rather salty.  

Barnacles, on the other hand, may create a somewhat different type of glue.  Their biochemistry was described in detail in 2019.  Barnacles may have up to three different events in their lifecycle that contribute to their adhesive chemistry.  It is so complex that I don’t feel qualified to summarize it here.   A comprehensive overview is available at:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00565/full

Once again, nature offers more than one solution to the same sticky problem. 

Unfortunately, the mussel glue academic paper is behind a paywall, but here is McGill’s press release:  https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/how-mussels-make-powerful-underwater-glue-333875

There is also a video of the mussels making the glue here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X5A0aZvRuI

In recognition of Indigenous People’s Day, here is a selection of wonderful books that convey some of their deep knowledge about living with and learning from nature.

Many of you have probably already read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  Themes range from how we relate to the land, to the meaning of reciprocity, to plant biology, and more.  Traditional and scientific information are woven together producing beautiful insights.

Also by Kimmerer is the widely-lauded book, Gathering Moss: A Natural & Cultural History of Mosses.  I haven’t read this one yet, but it is definitely on my to-be-read list.

Kimmerer is a scientist and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Another perspective on ethnobotanical uses and influences is the exquisitely illustrated Iwigara, The Kinship of Plants and People.  This describes the traditional medicinal and ceremonial purpose of 80 different plants.   You will recognize many of these plants but you may be surprised by their applications.

The author, Enrique Salmón is a member of the Rarámuri tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Lastly, consider reading The Wayfinders:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis.   Davis, a Canadian, is a National Geographic anthropologist who has been studying the practices of indigenous groups from around the world for many years.  

While not strictly about non-human species, natural elements play a significant role in most of the rituals that are described.  The interrelationship of cultural health and ecological health are clearly explained.  

Enjoy the books and appreciate the many people who contribute to a vital source of knowledge.  

Who doesn’t love pandas or elephants?  Doesn’t a baby hippo steal your heart?  Aren’t you in awe of the majesty of lions and the fierceness of tigers?  Each of these endangered species has one or more organizations dedicated to saving them.  Each is also a charismatic species.  We are drawn to them because we like them and we are inspired by them.  We recognize something about each that we don’t want to lose.  

Now imagine if every species, threatened or not, had an advocate.  Unfortunately, not every species has the ability to naturally attract a fan club.  Some are born photogenic, others are rather plain.  This shouldn’t dictate their chances for long-term survival.

Since there are no available photos for use of Northern Bog Lemming, here is a similar-looking Common Red-backed Vole. © Jarmo Saarinen | Dreamstime.com

For today’s nature challenge, select a little-known or under-appreciated species.  For example, in Maine, we have the Northern Bog Lemming (Synaptomys borealis).  It is the rarest mammal found within the state and it is considered threatened here.  The species shares much of the range with the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis).  However, the lynx is a charismatic species that receives federal protection.  Not so for the Northern Bog Lemming. 

I chose this as my species to support.  Now, it’s your turn.  What species will you choose?

Each state and many countries have lists of local species.  Find one that intrigues you.  Seek out one that you’ve never heard of before.  Learn as much as you can about it.  In what kind of environment is it found?  What is its life history?  How would you go about making it more well-known and more popular?  Note, many of these don’t have decent photos available on the internet.  Perhaps you could capture a compelling snap?

If you were this species’ public relations manager, how would you advance its image?

For inspiration, you might want to listen to Lucy Cooke’s wonderful presentation to the Commonwealth Club of California.   She almost single-handedly made sloths popular.  Here is a link to the podcast:  https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2018-04-26/lucy-cooke-truth-about-animals

Another great listen is by Dr. George Schaller, also known as the Feral Biologist.  Here is the link to Scientific American’s show called Science Talk for the episode:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/2d91176b-d494-02ed-fb892017eb1c1dbf/

This challenge can be rated as easy or difficult depending on how involved you want to become as the PR manager for your selected species.   Good luck!

At least 40% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, according to the USDA’s website.  Many of these have been used to treat common ailments for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.  Examples include willow bark which contains aspirin’s active ingredient and emetine from ipecacuanha which is used to induce vomiting when someone accidentally ingests a poison.  You may more readily recognize it as Ipecac syrup.  These and similar ailments have bothered humans for as long as we’ve existed.  But can plants defeat illnesses associated with modern lifestyles?

The answer is probably yes.  A research team from the University of South Florida Health found preliminary evidence that Basil (Ocimum) may help protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.    

Basil Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Basil plants have an abundant natural compound called fenchol.  You may already be familiar with this compound even if you don’t know its name.  Fenchol contributes to basil’s delicious smell.  Additionally, in preclinical studies conducted in non-human disease models, fenchol affects two critical brain chemistry processes.  As a result, the fenchol reduces neurotoxicity in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s.

Once again, possible answers to our most perplexing problems lie within our environment.  This time, it may be an ingredient in your dinner!

To read more about this research:  https://hscweb3.hsc.usf.edu/blog/2021/10/05/natural-compound-in-basil-may-protect-against-alzheimers-disease-pathology/

To read more about plant-derived medicines, check out:  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/index.shtml

 

Can you guess how far a dragonfly that weighs 1/100th of an ounce will migrate?  How about 1250 miles, including flying over open seas.

Photo 62479615 / Pantala Flavescens © Aryut Tantisoontornchai | Dreamstime.com

A team lead by researchers from Lund University in Sweden discovered that the Globe Skimmer Dragonflies (Pantala flavescens) migrate from India to East Africa each spring.  Approximately 15% of them survive the lengthy journey.  About 40% manage to make the return trip in the autumn.  

These dragonflies cannot travel this distance solely based on the fuel from their fat stores.   They are simply too small.  Instead, they must gauge the wind currents to push them along the way.  We’ve seen this in birds as well. 

This type of research is often derided as wasteful.  Who cares how far this dragonfly travels?  In response, the team notes that this type of research increases knowledge of how migratory animals, including insects, may inadvertently spread disease.  As wind patterns shift due to climate change, this information will be invaluable to predicting illness breakouts in new locations.

You can read more about this work at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2021.698128/full

Many traditional news outlets have reduced the amount of science-based reporting included in their coverage.  Fortunately, social media, blogs, and certain websites fill some of the need.  

Here, I will introduce a few compelling articles and their links.   Most of this material presented today and in future posts is written for knowledgeable non-scientists.  You won’t need a PhD to parse through scientific papers. 

 Here we go.

Rachel Carson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The website, brainpickings.com  is one of my favorites online reads.  Recently, Maria Popova offered a brief sketch of Rachel Carson’s life and contributions.  Carson was the marine biologist and author who exposed the dangers of DDT.  As impressive as this accomplishment is, her life’s work reached much further.  Check out the link here:  https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/06/07/rachel-carson-the-edge-of-the-sea/  And read some of Carson’s writings. 

 

 

At the website lithub.com, Nick McDonell documented his conversation with ecologist and writer Carl Safina.  The article is entitled What the Animal World Can Teach Us About Human Nature.   Safina proposes the concept of cultural inheritances in three representative species, sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees.  

After reading the article, you’ll want to read Safina’s book, Becoming Wild, if you haven’t already read it.

Reach the article here:  https://lithub.com/what-the-animal-world-can-teach-us-about-human-nature/

Image by Viktor Bernhard from Pixabay

 

The New York Times is one of the newspapers that continues to produce outstanding nature-themed reporting.   The article entitled Bruce Is a Parrot With a Broken Beak. So He Invented a Tool, both entertains and exemplifies excellent storytelling.   You can’t help but smile as you read this one.  

Connect here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/10/science/kea-beak-tools.html

Nature frequently inspires product ideas and improvements.  Recently, a team from McGill University recognized the genius of the inner layers of mollusk shells.  This iridescent layer is called nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl.  Nacre is both durable and rigid, an unusual combination.

The team replicated the architecture of the nacre using glass components.  The result is a glass that is three times stronger and five times more fracture-resistant than normal glass.

Think of what that would do for your mobile phone!

Read more about the nacre-based research here:  https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/unbreakable-glass-inspired-seashells-333730

And you can learn more about nacre here:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/nacre

 

Photo 24975394 / Nacre © Stephan Pietzko | Dreamstime.com