Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A sea full of trash: Tackling the plastic problem

Guest Blog 

Beyond the landfills and trash heaps moldering in almost every town and city across the globe, manmade garbage has found its way into the natural landscape on a mind-boggling scale. It seems as though there are virtually no places left on Earth free of our rubbish. Junk can be found everywhere – from the bellies of animals and the tissues of our own bodies to the world’s vast oceans.
The gigantic mess currently swirling around our oceans is ever-growing. There are so many manufactured items floating around the briny deep that marine currents have formed sprawling expanses of crud in the water. One of the most disheartening of these disasters is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; a field of debris formed by wind and wave action and discovered by Captain Charles Moore in 1997. While there are no literal islands of trash, the vortexes are gargantuan concentrations of waste located in two major areas, with one midway between Hawaii and California and another off the coast of Japan. The overall amount of debris is still unknown, but scientists estimate the entire Patch encompasses nine million square miles of watery real estate, and is just one of five major garbage clusters occupying the world’s oceans. A majority of this pollution is made up of plastic, leaving scientists scrambling to invent methods to remove the non-biodegradable hazards.

The Plastic Paradox

During the 20th century, synthetic plastics became the material of choice for industries from consumer packaging to fashion. Practically indestructible and with the ability to mold into virtually any shape, plastic polymers could withstand the elements and remain intact longer than their organic counterparts. With plastic, perishable food could be transported and preserved longer, electronics insulated and made more efficient, and medical supplies kept sterile and disposable. Unfortunately, the physical tenacity that makes plastics so desirable as grocery store packaging or dishware also creates a gigantic problem for the environment. Most plastics produced today are formed from petrochemicals, which means it takes an enormous amount of time for each straw, water bottle, and single-use fork to break down and disappear. To make matters worse, extracting oil as a basis for these textiles adds fuel to the global warming fire by sustaining a demand for fossil fuels and toxic contamination.
So how do we halt the spread of plastic into the sea and remove what is already there? The first step toward keeping trash from entering the ocean is to reduce the amount created on land and repurpose what we chuck into trash bins.

Unfortunately, there are very few large-scale projects able to tackle the magnitude of our plastic predicament. To begin with, plastic manufacturing companies have little incentive to switch from oil-based polymers to more sustainable, biodegradable options, or to use recycled material. This is in part because it is still cheaper to produce items out of raw, fossil-based feedstock. The major forces driving the conversion to corn, potato, or soy bioplastics come primarily from consumer demand and regional campaigns in cities like Los Angeles and Concord, Massachusetts, where there are efforts to ban plastic bags and water bottles.
Help Keep Plastic from Reaching Waterways
Even if synthetic plastics were outlawed altogether by every nation on Earth, the challenge of removing what is still suspended in the ocean would remain a major dilemma. Scientists are just beginning to quantify the amount of plastic hanging out in the water column, how sunlight breaks down large pieces into smaller fragments called “microplastics,” and in what way these bits affect the food chain. The plastic can block sunlight from reaching algae and, in turn, negatively affect organisms that feed on this most basic and important level. Humans rely on that food chain for survival, so plastics (and the hazardous chemicals they contain) can eventually damage our dinners and poison our ecosystems.
To put oceanic plastic into perspective, consider this: In a 2014 study expedition conducted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a sample from a one-hour trawl 260 miles from the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch pulled up thousands of times more plastic by weight than plankton, meaning that more synthetic materials were present in one scoop of seawater than the animals that are supposed to live there. Deep-sea explorers such as those working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute in California were amazed to find crud thousands of meters down with a full third of the messy makeup consisting of plastic. Not just eyesores, the materials concentrate dangerous chemicals and act as sponges for toxins such as DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs.

A Solution for Synthetics

As researchers struggle to understand the scope of the situation, local governments, non-profits, and universities are working on a host of creative solutions. Since the physical problem is situated far from the jurisdiction of any one nation, the responsibility to find a fix seems to have fallen on committed organizations and stewards of the environment. Most focus on land-based initiatives such as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional action plans that coordinate cleanups around the U.S. through their Marine Debris program. The agency is also working with the fishing industry and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to reduce the damage done by derelict fishing gear.
Prototypes for marine robots – such as the Veolia Drone developed by French International School of Design student Elie Ahovie or the Protei invented by Cesar Harada – could one day scour the ocean for trash. Larger groups that employ booms and filters, like the Ocean Cleanup system proposed by entrepreneur Boyan Slat, could be placed in areas of concern to help trap trash. However, most of these technologies are still firmly situated on the drawing board, and have not adequately addressed logistics (like how the machines would determine the difference between tiny bits of plastic and living critters of a similar size). They would also have to be durable enough to withstand the destructive effects of seawater, storms, and physical stress.
In recent years, scientists have observed various species of bacteria colonizing rafts of plastic debris, making up what they have dubbed the “plastisphere.” Scanning electron microscopy from researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution revealed thousands of organisms creating an almost reef-like ecosystem on the surfaces of floating flotsam. It is still a mystery how the byproducts of their digestion affect the rest of the ecosystem. Bioengineers have proposed manufacturing bugs that could act in a similar way to their naturally occurring relatives to mop up the mess, both on land and sea. But releasing any new element into an incredibly complex web of life carries enormous risk. Considering at least one of the species of bacteria chomping on the particulate plastic occupies the same genus as one that causes cholera, no one wants to make any rash decisions. For the plastic that remains solely on land, students from Yale University’s Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory discovered a fungus in the Amazon in 2012 that likes to dine on polyurethane without the need for oxygen. Adding a heap of plastic into a strictly controlled digester along with Pestalotiopsis microspora may one day be a way to reduce the amount of plastic reaching the ocean from land.

How You Can Take Part

On a smaller scale, communities can do their part by organizing beach cleanups and switching from petrochemical plastics to organic-based alternatives. Simple changes in everyday habits, such as swapping plastic water bottles for reusable containers and opting for cloth bags instead of flimsy carryout sacks, would make a sizable dent in reducing the trash reaching our waterways. Choosing personal care products that do not contain tiny plastic scrubbing beads or seeking out packaging made from a percentage of recycled material help send a message to corporations: The health of the environment and human safety are important factors consumers are prepared to pay a little extra for. Contributing to non-profits such as the All One Ocean Campaign, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, and 5gyres.org expands efforts to spread awareness, mobilize citizens, and establish lobbying interests with enough power to influence legislation. Like climate change or air pollution, removing the plastic from the planet’s oceans will involve stakeholders that occupy positions in government, media, and the scientific community. Although the immensity of the situation may seem overwhelming at first, it is possible for a species clever enough to engineer such feats of chemistry to also help deal with its consequences.

Morgana is an environmental journalist, performer, and educator living in Northern California. In her spare time she enjoys telling jokes and singing jazz music.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Cold Climbs: Summer rock climbs in winter conditions

Gearing up for a 'summer climb'. Note the frozen stream! 
I must admit; I love the mountains under a mantle of snow and I love being amongst them; whether it’s simply walking over the tops or thrashing up a white frozen gully. However, the strange thing is, I’ve never been passionate about winter climbing in the same way as I’ve loved pure rock climbing. Given the choice between a winter climb or wrapping up and doing a pure rock climb summer style in winter then I’d choose the later every time.

Time was when my climbing season never ended. November often provided beautiful autumnal days when I’ve been in my T shirt-not this year!- and I’ve done routes in December, January, February and March; even on the coldest days. I know I’m not alone in this of course. Read any old timers account of their climbing days and they record climbing in all conditions and all times of the year.

These days though, people climbing in winter are the exception rather than the rule. Cheap flights to sunnier climes, indoor wall climbing, the popularity of skiing and mountain biking and of course the popularity of UK snow and ice climbing-conditions allowing- have all contributed to the gradual decline of rock activists out and about in the winter months.

With the next Carneddau guidebook being pulled together at the moment, I was racking my brains trying to think of an obscure climb I did with Scott Lloyd one bitterly cold day in the 90’s, on Braich ty Du above Ogwen Cottage? Rooting through some photo prints this morning I found some images from the day, although it hasn’t helped me remember the route name. The images show a frozen gully stream and the pair of us wrapped up and climbing in gloves. I think the route was about HS and had  at least four pitches. Unusual hereabouts as most  routes on Braich ty Du are only one or two pitches.

We finished late afternoon with the sun disappearing and I remember trying to squeeze feet that had been numbed inside rock boots into walking boots and not having any feeling in them whatsoever! We stumbled blindly down the rough frozen ground back to the car and didn’t warm up until we were virtually back home in north east Wales. Shaken and stirred with ice!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Express weather forecasts: Give em enough rope!

It’s that time of the year again. A time when the Daily Express splashes its Siberian Winter hokum across the front page. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Whatever the season, The Express is happy to inform its readers that it will be the 'coldest, hottest, wettest, windiest' etc, season on record. Accompanied of course by the appropriate buzz words.. ‘Arctic, Siberian, Tropical, Scorching, devastating’.

Yesterday The Express was at it again with its resident weather wizard, Nathan Reo-who presumably is on an extended work experience stint from some failing local comp?- telling us of a ‘Polar Vortex Warning’ which shows that the UK faces months of heavy snow. Never one to knowingly undersell a headline, Reo kicks off with-

"a freak series of rare atmospheric events is set to plunge Britain into the worst winter of modern times with heavy snow paralyzing the entire country within weeks!.'

“Shocked forecasters warned tonight the latest high-tech weather models point to a CATASTROPHIC big freeze in late 2014 with THREE MONTHS of blizzards and Arctic gales.They fear a lethal and unprecedented combination of low pressure, above-average rainfall and a freak Polar vortex will come together in a perfect storm of misery for Winter 2014 .Moist air from the Atlantic currently causing the mild, wet and windy weather threatens to collide with bitter arctic winds.It means a dramatic plunge in the current mild temperatures will turn torrential rain to blizzards capable of smothering the ENTIRE COUNTRY in feet-deep snowdrifts.’

Funnily enough, The Independent had a different take on the long range UK weather forecast: Quoting from The UK's Met Office, a spokesman offered... “Our latest three-month outlook suggests an increased risk of milder and wetter than average conditions for the period November-December-January based on our seasonal forecasts and those from other leading centres around the world.’

This is the highly respected Meteorological Office who are using their own data and that of other official bodies around the world. However The Express prefers to use agencies that no one has ever heard of. In this case,  'James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather'?? George Monbiot writing in the Guardian was forced to ask in an article published in 2012, If Extacta Weather and another much quoted weather forecasting company-Positive Weather Solutions- actually existed. Well they do it appears and they’ve even got their own Facebook page. Although if the aforementioned Mr Madden’s forecasts are anything to go by, you’d be better advised using the Met Office’s free and generally accurate service.

By today though, Mr Reo had tailored his latest briefing to  “Britain is braced for storm chaos tomorrow with 70mph gales and torrential downpours forecast for parts of the country.’.

In the wonderful world of Mr Reo and the Daily Express, it’s never ‘mild but a bit on the cloudy side’!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Photography as 'painting by numbers'

I caught the above piece doing the rounds on the social media yesterday and thought it was spot on. Anyone who moves in outdoor circles and has a Twitter or Facebook account will generally have more than a few acquaintances who describe themselves in terms of ‘Joe Bloggs-Photography’. Just how do you define a photographer though?  Like a lot of people reading this, I take thousands of images every year but I’d never in a million years describe myself as a photographer. Like the majority of people who use a digital camera, I’m a simple ‘happy snapper’ who might get lucky once in a while and produce an image which has some merit.

However, there is a tendency alluded to in the above piece which sees people of limited creative talent describe themselves as photographers. That’s fair enough I suppose. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some punters find images which to me are pure ‘chocolate box’ as ‘fantastic’ and bestow their praises accordingly. ‘Wow Denzil, that’s simply stunning!’..’OMG...I need to share this!!!’. But again, how can we judge an image objectively and how can we evaluate someone's work?  Is it someone who simply earns a living from photography? In that case a humble wedding photographer could be seen as a true photographer whereas a talented and truly creative amateur could be seen as a happy snapper.

I blogged a while back about how I generally find the work of photographers like Colin Prior simply boring. Technically exceptional but creatively limited. The fact that Prior sells thousands of books, calendars, greeting cards etc, suggests that my personal taste in photography is a minority view. People like their stereotypical images of mountains captured under a brooding sky with wisps of cloud wrapped around the pink tops. Nice for sure, but as the man said...’is it art’? Well not for me I’m afraid. Mountains are great photographic and painting subjects which are held in an ever changing elemental frame but there’s more to capturing their power and glory than by just taking a razor sharp image which captures that moment in time.

If we are attaching a creative value judgement on an image, how can we compare a technically brilliant photograph with say a naive, fauvist painting of a mountain by someone like James Dickson Innes or Augustus John ? Not surprisingly, if I had to hang an image on my wall I would choose the painting over the photograph every time; and not simply because of its financial value. The painting is a unique creative impression; a one off imbued with the essence of its creator whereas the photograph is the product of a machine. Captured by an individual for sure, but an image which can be recreated ad-nauseam from the original.

But this is rather drifting from the point. Painting v Photography is not the issue here. In the age of digital photography, everyone’s a photographer it seems but relatively few have genuine creative talent. Cameras, equipment and editing suites are so sophisticated these days that just about anyone can capture technically proficient images which appear to offer some artistic merit but in truth, it’s like painting by numbers. Follow the instructions and make a nice picture. No talent required.

Ironically, I caught an artists website on which a number of reviewers were quoted. I saw a quote from myself under which I was described as a ‘photographer’. Nope...never was, never will be, but I’ll continue to snap happily away all the same!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Snowdonia road bikers...back to black!


The hills of north Wales are alive...with the sight and sound of Wanabee Wiggos! Since the success of UK road bikers in international competition, there has been a noticeable explosion of interest in road biking which more than parallels the popularity of mountain biking in these ere parts. Driving through Snowdonia at the weekend, you cannot help noticing how busy the A5 and minor roads are with lycra clad teams and individuals belting head long through the mountain passes. I know for a fact that many road and mountain bikers are ex climbers who now just bike full time and have given up cragging altogether.

However, one thing that does perturb me about road bikers- and no, it’s not crawling through Capel Curig in a convoy behind a road bike club - it’s the frankly bizarre trend which sees road bikers geared up in all black! Twice in recent weeks I’ve come around the corner on a quiet country lane at twilight and come straight up behind a biker kitted out in black and with a tail light which was neither use nor ornament! Driving up Ogwen Valley a couple of days ago, it appeared that around 50% of road bikers were wearing black. Given that is was a grey and wet day then it goes without saying that they hardly stood out against the sombre background.

What is it about black though? Apart from the visibility element, it’s a terrible colour to wear on hot sunny days which are crying out for an all white ensemble! What exactly is wrong with Canary yellow, Lime green, vibrant orange, bright red- etc for biking apparel? Perhaps it’s not ‘cool’ in the same way as black. Not that road biking fashion could ever be considered cool. Tight Lycra and Darth Vadar helmets is such a bad look!  If you want to avoid slipping under the wheels of a timber lorry or caravan however,then personally I’d let road biking fashion go hang and go for a day-glo orange and shocking pink combo!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Clocaenog wind farm :something rotten in the state of Wales

I went for one of my occasional mountain bike rides in Clocaenog Forest yesterday and was shocked to see that the Forestry Commission-(now using Natural Resources Wales as its handle)- had started its clearance work for the recently approved, German owned wind farm in the forest. This 33 turbine power plant was approved by the Home Counties Liberal/Coalition energy secretary Ed Davey.

The speed at which it had progressed from being a rubber stamped planning application to the JCB’s rolling in suggested that the development was being driven by external factors. Not least of which are  global economic and national political trends which are sending chill winds through the boardrooms of the previously unassailable and highly profitable wind industry.

Looking at RWE’s plans for the forest, one thing struck me straight away.The Forestry Commission who are now an arm of the Labour controlled Welsh Assembly, had started clearing many of these turbine ‘keyholes’ even before the planning application was approved. I’ve previously mentioned that borrow pits (quarries) were being worked and tracks widened pre-approval. This rather confirms my belief that the planning enquiry was as valid and democratic as a North Korean show trial!

However, what really drives this home is the fact that Scottish Power Manweb who are responsible for erecting the grid line to take the electricity from Clocaenog and other approved but yet to be built wind farms in the area, have not yet received planning permission. The controversial application being bogged down in the planning process amidst a tide of appeals from landowners and communities affected by scheme along the power line corridor .

In effect, RWE throwing millions at the Clocaenog development is rather like Tesco building a supermarket in the middle of an agricultural field without permission being granted for access roads. They obviously know as they did with their own application that Scottish Power- a Spanish owned company these days- will eventually get planning permission hence their full steam ahead approach in the forest.
I mentioned above external factors which might also explain the speed at which the development is taking place. The unholy alliance between RWE/SP/Westminster and Cardiff have to consider the predicted downturn in the global economy for a start. China, previously a driver of global recovery has seen its economy stalled. The European economy is teetering on the brink of another recession and similarly, experts in the US are predicting that their economy is fragile and may fall back into recession.

At a national level, within the next few years the UK may have a Centre Right Tory/UKIP coalition government with the junior partners fiercely opposed to on on-shore developments. Furthermore, it is more than likely that the UK will leave the EU after the promised referendum in 2017 rendering EU environmental directives redundant.

These economic and political factors will be sending a shiver of fear throughout the boardrooms of these energy corporations for whom wind power is one of their most profitable areas of development. Little surprise then that the fat cats at RWE are falling over themselves to get Clocaenog up and running before the subsidy rug is pulled out from under their feet. In the mean time the industrialisation of a quiet upland forest continues apace. Yesterday,under a louring grey autumn sky, the birds of the forest seemed unusually noisy and active. I suppose you would be if your home was being torn down!