27 March 2011

Go Beyond the Hour


So it was Earth Hour last night! Without a doubt one of my favourite days of the year. I was meant to be helping out at the GCI event on Lower Campus but that didn't work out... I feel a little guilty about it but where I did end up was on Signal Hill with a friend, looking out over an ever so slightly darker Cape Town cityscape :) The highlight - seeing Table Mountain switch its lights off for the hour. Earth Hour is such a beautiful concept. What I love the most is that it started off as a small scale WWF event in Sydney in 2007 and has since grown to become a global symbol of environmental awareness. One thing I really enjoyed yesterday was watching the hype on Twitter, as Earth Hour hit different time zones. Aah, it warms my heart when worldwide, people are acknowledging the problem of climate change and adding their voice to the fight against it.

This year, WWF took the message of Earth Hour further. They added the + to the "60" logo, asking everyone to go beyond the hour. Basically, along with switching off your lights and non-essential appliances during Earth Hour, people are being encouraged to do a little more and take on-going action that'll make their lives more sustainable and show their commitment to doing their part to combat climate change. In my last post I said I'd make my pledge on what I'm going to do to go beyond the hour. There's a lot of things I want to do to make my lifestyle more sustainable. Student life is pretty sustainable as it is, but I'm going to start with using less water and reducing my waste. COP17 is also part of my ambitious plans for going beyond the hour - spreading the word :P

Earth Hour has become one of those flagship environmental campaigns, so naturally, it attracts a lot of criticism. One of the most common things you'll hear from the skeptics is "what difference does it make if one person switches off their lights for an hour, it's not going to stop global warming from happening, (maybe they'll say climate change isn't even real)". There are very few things that bother me more than people who are so opposed to taking individual action in global problems. Sure, in the case of Earth Hour, switching off your lights isn't going to have much of a direct positive impact (though the drop in electricity consumption in cities worldwide has in the past been quite significant). But I think in campaigns like this it's the indirect impact that matters - the awareness and noise you create out of it. Like I said, it's amazing when people across the globe are acknowledging a problem as big as climate change and willing to do something about it.

I'm going to be quiet for a while because I'm off on ecology camp all of next week. I am so excited for a week of fieldwork in the West Coast National Park. I can't describe how cool it is to be going away somewhere and throw field guides, binoculars and a dissecting kit into my bag. Nick put it quite well and said it makes you feel like a real scientist :P The vegetarian animal rights activist in me is feeling a little iffy about the prospect of catching fish and things and dissecting them. But it's in the name of science and it's a grey area I haven't made my mind up on yet so I'm just going to man up and do whatever needs to be done and get good grades. Much like the snail, lobster and frog dissections from first year biology :S But I'm extremely excited. I've heard only amazing things about the ecology camp and I'm hoping it lives up to its reputation :)

Anyhow, I've got an EGS assignment to submit before leaving. Many ecological stories shall be told in the next post :)

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20 March 2011

Sounds of Science

Ahh! I have so much I want to write about. None of it is particularly exciting, life's been boring - just the standard UCT adventures and drama. Also, either I haven't been reading enough or there's just nothing exciting happening in the world, but I haven't been coming across any cool stuff to share and blog about... but I need to start mixing it up more because this blog can't be allowed to stagnate into a bunch of personal rambles. Especially since I've actually got readers now thanks to my dad's publicity (thank you pa) :P That said, this one is again about my life and not about some specific issue and it's going to be rather long to compensate for the lack of writing otherwise. So where to start...going to try and go about it systematically.

I've really loved varsity this week. We've started the "Ecology of the Individual" section in Ecology, currently busy with this amazing section on parasitism. Learning so many amazing new things...like for instance - I've seen documentaries about the candiru - a small parasitic fish in the Amazon that's been known to swim into people's genitals, for lack of a better description. But it's only this week that I learnt why. Candiru generally like to attach themselves onto the gills of other fish because they thrive on some of the waste that's expelled from the gills. One of these waste products is urea so that's why they swim up people's urethras, the urea confuses them. Quite interesting I think :) As for the practicals in ecology? Currently we have none, our prac afternoons consist of watching episodes of BBC Life in the zoology labs :) And when we do have a proper practical, it'll be in the form of a five-day camp next week doing all sorts of exciting fieldwork. Definitely a course that I'm happy with. 

EGS has been amazing too. Frank Eckhardt is an amazing lecturer. He knows how to teach things in a manner that grabs your attention and interest. He's just finished teaching us on tropical environments and has now moved onto arid environments. He's brilliant. The images and videos he shows us are always so eye-opening. Which makes me realise - I lied in the first paragraph, I do have exciting things to share. Firstly, some PHENOMENAL interactive before and after satellite imagery from the Japan tsunami. Play around with the slider on the images, it's so shocking but such amazing use of technology. And wow, if anything demonstrates the sheer power of nature, it's these pictures. The other amazing thing is Yann Arthus Bertrand's Earth from Above photographs - "An Aerial Portrait of our Planet towards Sustainable Development". Just take a look at the website (quite intense music plays when you open it, so dramatic), I put some pictures up but they're all copyrighted, there's lots more on there :)

I first heard about him last year during Teamwork's Bonjour India festival, he was showcasing his photos along a famous road (I forget the name) in Mumbai. But this is the first time I've seen his photos, thank you Frank Eckhardt. Incidentally, he also took the photo that is my current Google Chrome skin. What I love about his pictures is how they give you a completely new perspective on the world we live in. The best way I can describe it, it's a bird's eye view of 1) how beautiful our planet is, 2) how advanced human society has become and 3) put 1 and 2 together and you get an image of how we have destroyed and continue to destroy so much of the Earth. When I look at human civilisation from this angle, I can't help but think of this line from the 11th Hour that describes us as a disease, "Our biosphere is sick and we have a planet that's behaving like an infected organism. If you look at it from outer space, you see all these lights, the lights of these people... it's like looking at an organism with some sort of infection on it". But James Lovelock puts it best - "We have grown in number to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease. As in human diseases there are four possible outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis - a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and the invader."  It's an analogy that appeals strongly to my biology-centric mind. Anyhow, such moving images.

MAN

coal mine in South Africa
favelas in Rio de Janeiro
Gullholmen, Sweden
townships in Cape Town
Hashima Island, Japan
boats stranded on the Aral Sea which has long since dried up
Palm Jumeira, Dubai
(anyone who knows me knows I have a deep hatred for Dubai and how everything there is man-made and ruled by oil money)
freeways in LA

NATURE
New Caledonia mangrove swamp
(the heart shape is natural)
Yellowstone National Park
(the colours are because of cyanobacteria)

flamingos in Kenya

Back to the writing, oceanography continues to disappoint me, which is really sad news. I've always been fascinated by the marine world and how the properties of the ocean have the power to shape the whole planet. They're such a powerful force on Earth and the most appealing thing about them is that they're so vast, there's still so much more to learn about them. But god, I didn't realise how complicated this stuff would be to learn about. Memorising maps of heat flux (I still don't know what the term even means) patterns, knowing all these abbreviations like ABFZ, NADW, AABW - names of different currents, how weather patterns link to ocean circulation, the list goes on and it's all so complicated and intricate. It does give me a greater appreciation for oceanography, but it really deters me from pursuing the subject. Buuut like I said before, I need to do this course because it's got some really important foundation information and it'll be a great background if I ever want to do atmospheric science or marine things in the future.

The GCI is as exciting as ever. I love being involved in the COP17 project. There's so much scope. So much we can do as the student voice of South Africa. And we have the whole year to prepare for it. It's so rewarding. The Earth Hour project hasn't been as great, the planning has been happening very quietly, I don't really know what's going on there...but as I write this, Earth Hour is in exactly one week. As I've mentioned before, this year, the message of Earth Hour is to "go beyond the hour" and do something more than just switching off for the hour. Basically, as an individual you should commit to another ongoing action that will make your life most sustainable... I'm trying to decide what mine will be. I'm thinking of committing to sustainable transport - more public transport/carpooling/walking, but that's something I already am doing so I guess I just need to take it further...I'll make a pledge later in the week :)

Another great that happened at varsity last week was this series of lectures by Dr. Tom Woodward, head of the C.S. Lewis Society and strong advocate of intelligent design (the theory that it was an intelligent being, not nature that created the universe and life, a theory that I obviously find highly offensive). He did four talks starting with a general introduction on life and its place in the universe and how intelligent design is the best explanation for what we see on Earth, then moving onto the subject of DNA, then the fossil record and then a final one on genetics which I missed. The first one was great in getting everybody angry at him, highly contradictory, he provided no productive arguments for ID or any information or evidence. In fact, he did so for the whole lecture series. The DNA one was basically "a really bad genetics lecture" in Kyran's words. I completely agree, he spoke no sense. And he referred to the amount of information in a chromosome as so complex that it must be something supernatural. So insulting. Worse than that was the one on the fossil record. It was hilarious attending it with Nick though, someone who specialises in paleontology. Their anger may have been the highlight of the talks actually... I went to the talks to learn about how ID people support their theory but I got nothing from Woodward, learnt far more from Ky and Nick. But I'll write more about this once I feel confident enough on the subject to dedicate a whole long post to the cause of evolution :)

Outside of varsity I've been accumulating a great collection of nature documentaries. I just got my hands on BBC Life, I got a whole bunch of amazing stuff from Nick, I've got BBC First Life which I need to finish and of course - I'm currently busy with season 3 of Whale Wars. There are three ships in this season, and I love all the different crews, each has its own character. I'd love to have been on the Bob Barker. Anyway, it's a captivating season of campaigning as always. As for BBC Life. Wow. I highly recommend every single person alive to watch this series. If there's anything that makes you see the beauty of life and the wonders of evolution, it's BBC Life. From what I've seen so far, some moments that stand out - the life of mudskippers in the fish episode, from the Hunters and Hunted episode the ibex-fox chase, the star-nosed mole, the stoats, dolphins and Ethiopian wolves. And of course one of my favourite bits of footage EVER, from the primates episode - Brazilian brown-tufted capuchins which over the years, have figured out how to open impossible palm nuts using tools like hammer stones, determining which kind of rocks are right to use. The intelligence and the way they go about problem solving is just brilliant. Another amazing one from the Hunters and Hunted episode was the ground squirrels - they chew up bits of shed snake skin into a paste which they then rub into the fur of their young so that they smell not like prey but like rattlesnakes - mind-blowing.

Another cool little thing that's been happening outside of varsity - as I write this I realise it's not that cool, it's really quite mundane but I find it exciting - I think there are geckos breeding in my bathroom. I'm coming across these TINY ones on a daily basis. I'm so annoyed because I still can't be sure of what species they are. I'm thinking Marley's Flat Gecko but I'm not 100% sure and I still haven't found a nice adult to look at. Very keen to find out where they're coming from though, maybe I'll find the parents... it's great though because it's given me a lot of confidence in catching them and handling them :) For those of you that don't know *confession moment*, I have quite the phobia of insects/creepy crawlies in general. Yes, let's all laugh at nature girl with her bug phobia. I don't know when it started...I used to collect and play with caterpillars and things when I was younger. The geckos don't fall into the phobia category because I absolutely love every kind of reptile, but I was still quite iffy about catching/handling them myself. I've realised that if I'm in a controlled environment where someone else (a professional) gives me any animal to handle, I can do it - I've held tarantulas, rats, so many reptiles I've lost count, birds, everything. But as soon as it's just me and the animal one on one I get nervous. In the case of the reptiles, birds and mammals it's mostly because I don't feel confident in holding it, I feel scared I'll do something wrong or upset it - which I have, I've been bitten by lots of little guys. But with insects it's a different story...I've established it's their unpredictable movements that bother me most. My worst ones are praying mantises, grasshoppers/locusts, crickets, christmas beetles, bigger moths and of course cockroaches - absolutely terrified of them to the point that just seeing one can bring me to tears like a little girl. It's embarassing. Getting rid of it is one of my long term goals...how can you claim to love nature and yet be so terrified of a group of animals so vital to understanding and appreciating the animal kingdom? Pathetic.


In even more news, I spent the whole day at the beach with Tara yesterday. It was an absolutely stunning day. So refreshing. I feel honoured to live in a city as beautiful as Cape Town. While lounging on the beach, I started reading James Lovelock's "Revenge of Gaia". I didn't get very far but I did find some quotes that spoke to me so I'll jot them down here and then stop rambling, they're from the foreword by Crispin Tickell.

"As has been well said, the first requirement is to recognise that the problems exist. The second is to understand and draw the right conclusions. The third is to do something about them. Today we are somewhere between stages one and two."

"We are currently trapped in a vicious cycle of positive feedback. What happens in one place very soon affects what happens in others. We are dangerously ignorant of our own ignorance, and rarely try to see things as a whole. If we are eventually to achieve a human society in harmony with nature, we must be guided by more respect for it."

sunset over Camps Bay, and if you enlarge it and look closely a huge flock of (I think) cormorants
 

Oh and I'm still confused about what field I want to specialise in. But I won't start on that now or I'd go on forever.

Eish, that's enough. What a long post. I don't know how I managed to write such a positive ramble considering I'm currently in a state of severe irritation and pain from a sprouting wisdom tooth. Not an aspect of evolution that makes me happy. It's a long weekend, a supermoon tonight and easily one of the hottest nights I've experienced in Cape Town. Good night :)

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14 March 2011

Watch This Space

Well hello! I haven't got much to say today except that my new beginning has begun. My dad had a look at my blog which means he's shown it to my mom and grandparents. It's always nice getting compliments and encouragement from family but I think this means I need to start being a bit more careful about potentially aggressive language in my rants from now on...hmm.

I just quickly wanted to write a little update on what's happening with me at UCT currently...

I've finally started appreciating what a truly amazing course Principles of Ecology and Evolution is. The EGS course is also quite amazing, I absolutely love the main lecturer Frank Eckhardt. He's been talking to us about tropical environments and the issues that they have, lots of stuff about deforestation with some shocking satellite imagery. I love his lectures, I think it's the images that keep you interested. I can't say the same for oceanography, it's something I'm really struggling with and I'm wondering if it was a bad idea to take the course. The last couple of weeks have taught me that I'm definitely not cut out for atmospheric/ocean science and climatology. It's just not my cup of tea. It's so interesting to a certain extent but once you get into the technicalities of currents and winds, I'm completely gone. But I'll stick with it because it's absolutely fundamental to what I want to go into. So I'll just have to work through it.

The other thing at varsity that's keeping me really excited is the GCI. Ky and Nick have criticised it a bit, questioning how effective the group actually is. And a lot of other people have actually raised the issue, do they actually do anything for greening UCT? All they do is put recycling bins out and run around in green overalls and make noise during Green Week? I've been hearing rumours about how all the effort that goes into the campus recycling is pointless because it all just gets mixed together anyway when the waste gets collected. I do find all these comments a little concerning, and I do wonder about them, about what the GCI are actually accomplishing. But I think there's no point criticising. Even if there is some truth to all the remarks, I'd rather be a part of the initiative and make changes to make them more effective wherever they may be lacking. Personally, I find it so rewarding to be part of a group of student activists dedicated to the cause of sustainability and the green movement. I've decided that I want to be heavily involved in two of their projects this year - Earth Hour and COP17. I think attending Earth Hour planning meetings back in WWF-India has given me this huge respect for the event. I love the fact that it started out just a few years ago as a small movement in Sydney and it's grown to the point that it's a global event, a date that stands out on your calendar. I love how it shows such mass support for the cause of fighting climate change. The fact that something as simple as turning off your lights for an hour has caused such a stir worldwide is deeply appealing to me :) And so I'm keen to make sure that UCT and the GCI take the message of Earth Hour far. Especially since this year, with the 60+ campaign it's all about going beyond the hour and doing something more to show your commitment to fighting global warming. COP17 though. Wow that's a whole different story. I want it to be huge. For voices to be heard. At the end of the year the world's eyes will be on South Africa and the pressure will be on us as hosts to make sure that the conference is fruitful, to be leaders with our national climate policy, to make sure that this is the conference that makes the difference. (Yes I just referred to South Africa as us/we :P) We had the first meeting of the COP17 team on Thursday and it was great! The team is full of people who know what's going on and want to make sure that something comes out of the summit. It's going to be a great year working on this project. We don't yet know what we actually want to do at the conference, but we're thinking of combining forces with other university initiatives and being a collective voice in Durban. We're first going to hold a little workshop amongst our team on climate policy issues so everyone can get up to speed on what's expected at COP17 and we'll take it from there I guess... I've gone a bit crazy with this and taken it upon me to ask to be a site admin and add resources and info on climate policy etc. onto the project site. It's very exciting :) In fact, I think all that uploading has provided me with my thrills for the week. But it also means I need to do lots of research and know stuff inside out, which is a huge task because jesus there is just SO much detail to these climate issues.

Watch this space for a hectic post on climate policy and other exciting things :)

Oh and also this week, there's a series of talks on intelligent design vs. evolution on campus. Very excited. I went to a philosophy talk with Ky and Nick last week that only briefly touched on criticising systematics/classification and it was awesome watching guys from the botany department and other scholars take the poor guy down. Needless to say this week will be exciting. It's always great when theologians are attacked by the biologists :) Which brings me to another small sidetrack actually - while this blog is all about conservation issues, it's also meant to represent the things that I'm passionate about in nature. And one of those things is evolution. It's not something I've talked about much, but I am quite the atheist and strong advocate of evolution and I think there is space for that on my blog. I don't want to go into attacks on religion and whatnot because that's irrelevant, but I will say this - at the end of this semester I will have finished a course that covers evolution and I hopefully will have finished reading Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth so I've decided I will have to write a post on evolution. My blog is all about appreciating and conserving nature and evolution is a beautiful thing that is so central to understanding the natural world, so it has to be done. Stay tuned :)

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06 March 2011

Extinctions and Expiration Dates

Well hello! First post of the new month! I've been having serious trouble getting my brain/life organised so blogging is quite difficult at the moment. That said, I have something I want to write about. My favourite thing to blog about - tigers.


It's a well established fact that the Bengal tigers are screwed but work is being done/attempted towards their conservation. What hasn't been so well established in the public mind is the state of the Amur or Siberian tigers. I came across this story by the BBC last week talking about the Amur tiger's population crisis. The wild population of the Amur tiger is around 500 individuals, and a lot of great work has been done to determine their status. The problem lies in the genetics. In the 1940s the population was down to just 20-30 individuals. While the population has recovered from this bottleneck, its gene pool hasn't. The current Amur tiger population is so heavily inbred that genetically speaking, in terms of diversity, there are effectively fewer than 14 individuals remaining. I really hope some good old ex situ conservation can help them and add to the mix, but currently, they may as well be doomed for extinction. It's sad news.

That's all I've got to report on for now but there's definitely more to come :)

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