Category: Technology

Resilience Thinking – a review

A book to make one think anew.

Let me make myself absolutely clear about this book, indeed I can do no better than to publish part of an email that I sent to the authors last Saturday:

To say that I was inspired by what you wrote is an understatement. More accurately it has changed my whole understanding of this planet, of the natural order of things, of the politics of the Western world, of vast numbers of us humans, and how precarious is our world just now. It has opened my eyes radically, and I thought before that I was fairly in touch with things.

Resilience is a simple idea but in its application has proved to be anything such. On page 2 the authors set out as they saw it The Drivers of Unsustainable Development. Here’s how that section develops:

Our world is facing a broad range of serious and growing resource issues. Human-induced soil degradation has been getting worse since the 1950s. About 85 percent of agriculture land contains areas degraded by erosion, rising salt, soil compaction, and various other factors. It has been estimated (Wood et al. 2000) that soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by around 15 percent in the last fifty years. In the last three hundred years, topsoil has been lost at a rate of 200 million tons per year; in the last fifty years it has more than doubled to 760 million tons per year.

As we move deeper into the twenty-first century we cannot afford to lose more of our resource base. The global population is now expanding by about 75 million people each year. Population growth rates are declining, but the world’s population will still be expanding by almost 60 million per year in 2030. The United Nations projections put the global population at nearly 8 billion in 2025. In addition, if current water consumption patterns continue unabated, half the world’s population will live in water-stressed river basins by 2025.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2004 Annual Hunger Report estimates that over 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Hunger kills 5 million children every year.

It goes on ….!

Now I want to quote from the end of the book, from their section on Resilience Thinking.

In our opening chapter we observed that there were many pathways into resilience thinking and suggested readers not worry too much if the finer details of a resilience framework are a bit obscure. We emphasized that what is of much more importance is an appreciation of the broader themes that underpin such a framework. Those broader themes revolve around humans existing within linked social and ecological systems. These are complex adaptive systems, and attempts to control or optimize parts of such systems without consideration of the responses that this creates in the broader system are fraught with risk. Much of this book has been spent on attempting to explore the consequences of such an approach.

In the broadest sense, optimizing and controlling components of a system in isolation of the broader system results in a decline in resilience, a reduction in options, and the shrinkage of the space in which we can safely operate. Resilience thinking moves us the other way.

It is our hope that readers who are persuaded of this basic premise will be encouraged to explore the inevitable consequences of such thinking. Even if you are not completely clear on the basins of attractions, thresholds, and adaptive cycles, if the concepts of ecological resilience and dynamic social-ecological systems have any resonance then you are in a better position to appreciate what is happening to the world around you.

The phrase complex adaptive system was new to me but intuitively I got what the authors meant. As they state on page 35: The three requirements for a complex adaptive system are:

  • That it has components that are independent and interacting,
  • There is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions),
  • Variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in),

This was my eye-opener. It was now obvious that many processes, especially in nature, that I had hitherto regarded as constant were changing albeit usually on a timescale of many decades sometimes centuries.

And the other conclusion that was inescapable was that we humans were largely responsible for those changes because we couldn’t see the longterm consequences of what we were doing.

As I remarked in a previous post :

David writes that firstly carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants, for example like air particulants.  Then later goes on to say:

The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.

As Joe Romm notes in a recent post, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera slipped up in his latest column and referred to technology that would “help reverse climate change.” I don’t know whether that reflects Nocera’s ignorance or just a slip of the pen, but I do think it captures the way many people subconsciously think about climate change. If we heat the planet up too much, we’ll just fix it! We’ll turn the temperature back down. We’ll get around to it once the market has delivered economically ideal solutions.

But as this 2009 paper in Nature (among many others) makes clear, it doesn’t work that way:

This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. [my emphasis]

My last piece in this review is to republish a graph that is shown on the NASA Global Climate Change website:

For all our sakes, dogs and humans and many other species, let us all please change our behaviours! Soon!

Back to the book: It is a remarkable book!

I will close with quoting one of the praises shown on the back cover. This one by Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of political science, University of Toronto, and director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Resilience Thinking is an essential guidebook to a powerful new way of understanding our world – and of living resiliently with it – developed in recent decades by an international team of ecologists. With five clear and compelling case studies drawn from regions as diverse as Florida, Sweden, and Australia, this book shows how all highly adaptive systems – from ecologies to economics – go through regular cycles of growth, reorganization, and renewal and how our failures to understand the basic principles of resilience have often led to disaster. Resilience Thinking gives us the conceptual tools to help us cope with the bewildering surprises and challenges of our new century.

Please, if you can, think about reading it.

Off air for the time being.

My Mac is playing up.

Dear good people,

Yesterday I updated my iMac and ended up with a dark screen.

Apple Support recommended me downloading and reinstalling the latest O.S.

This morning I still can’t get my Apple to behave normally.

I have no option other than to take it into a local Grants Pass computer technician and see if he can make sense of the issue.

In the meantime normal service will be somewhat curtailed.

The Seafire Spitfire and dogs!

Ray offers us a guest post.

As can happen from time to time, I was contacted by Ray Dunthorne in England. He very kindly said that he had been following Learning from Dogs for a while and also was aware of my previous interest in flying.

So I emailed Ray saying that I would love to publish his account as a guest post and lo and behold in came the following story.

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The Story of Lulu

Ah hello again, I’ll try ever so hard not to give you my full life story, but just stuff you might find interesting and relevant, but can’t promise to get the balance right! 

Willows Activity Farm St Albans 

My adult dog journey began with Lulu, 15 years ago, but the seed was sown some 5 years earlier at a city farm. We’d gone with the then middle-born five-year-old for his birthday party. The shepherd who did herding demonstrations was over from New Zealand and had two dogs who’d just had a litter of puppies, which we were shown. We’d never heard of the New Zealand Huntaway, it was described as a combination of German Shepherd, Border Collie and Labrador, with a few other breeds thrown in for good measure. 

They’d been consistently bred in, yes, you guessed it, New Zealand for over 100 years, specifically to help move large herds of sheep or cattle over long distances. The agile New Zealand Huntaway became known for its ability to move across packed, penned herds by leaping from the back of one sheep to another. Its loud LOUD bark was also required, as if not busy barking to get cattle or sheep moving, the Huntaway would be sent after a sheep or lamb that had strayed out of sight, hold it down (I don’t know how) and BARK so the shepherd could locate the unruly pair. 

Little thought was given to the New Zealand Huntaway for a few years, when – on the other side of divorce – my then ex-wife and I decided to get a dog to raise collaboratively, to keep the disparate family united in some way. Divorce-wise, it wasn’t so amicable initially, as these things usually aren’t, but soon settled down with the three growing boys being the priority. 

Lime End Farm, Sussex

Of course we couldn’t agree on the type of dog. I’d always wanted a German Shepherd, madame a Border Collie and a Labrador was a popular choice with Stanley, Arthur and Sidney (the aforementioned three boys). I bet you can tell where this is going. Yes, I remembered the New Zealand Huntaway. In 2006, it was a lot harder to find a litter in the UK than it is now, but I did. Down on a farm in Sussex. Lulu’s mum and dad were also over from New Zealand with a shepherd, this one herding cattle at Lime End Dairy Farm. 

Lime End is in Herstmonceux, East Sussex, which is as Olde English countryside as it sounds, with a castle and an annual Medieval festival to complete the picture.

As soon as we arrived in the classic farm yard, all the puppies bumbled out to say hello, emerging three at a time from under an old caravan where they’d been sheltering from the sun. Their dad, Lord Toro was tied to a nearby barn, doing some general barking ‘he’s frightened of the puppies’ the lady told us. The nine puppies all toppled about us for a few minutes, then all rushed off to find dinner. All except one.

Eight week old Lulu came back with me, Sidney and Helen, my new girlfriend at the time, who I’d charmingly had to borrow the £300 needed to secure Lulu from. It was a four or five hour round trip for the three of us, four including Lulu. A bonding opportunity all round.

I always remember that – to add to the idyllic Sussex farm scene, as if it wasn’t enough like a scene from a film Hugh Grant drives a Mini in – just as we were leaving, an old barn door got pushed open from the inside and a litter of Border Collie puppies and their mum and dad ran out, to say hello to the remaining Huntaways and good bye to us.

Best Laid Plans

The wisdom of bringing that hard-working herding dog into two separate St Albans houses didn’t cross my mind. It probably should have, especially as my ‘house’ was a rented Maisonette, no dogs aloud. The theory was Lulu would be at the children’s house in the week, mine along with the children at the weekends. It didn’t turn out like that.

After a few months both me and my ex-wife got short contracts that meant heading off to work in an office for the day. Far from ideal, but no money at that point meant no choice. At least it was only temporary. Lulu would have been about six months old by then and absolutely should not have been left alone FOR A SECOND.

The office was just 15 minutes away (PC World, Maylands, Hemel Hempstead). I did manage to pop back at lunchtime most days and a child would pop round a few hours later after school. New Zealand Huntaways are like any puppy only more so. They need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation, or else you will pay.

A novice dog guardian then, I learned everything the hard way. Before her first birthday, Lulu had removed the floor covering in the kitchen and the lounge. She’d moved a large old cathode ray TV across the room, knocked bookshelves over and generally done over £1,000 of damage. I know it was that much because I got a bill from the landlord. I paid. 

What dogs do

I will cut to the end here. That was in the first year of Lulu’s life.

The contract I mentioned was my first proper BIG company for the digital stuff I was doing, without it I wouldn’t have been able to have the career I’ve had, which started late as I accidentally tried to be a musician for ten years. Not too successfully. That doesn’t matter though.

The 14 years has gone by and even Sidney, who was about five years old when he came with us to East Sussex to meet Lulu, has gone off to university, the older two long-since moved away, to Nottingham and London respectively, leaving me, Lulu and my Helen, that new girlfriend who’d come to Sussex with us on that early date, who moved in a year or so later and is still here. 

What Lulu did was tie us all together. Yes, she was a nightmare initially. Yes, she would run away, out of sight chasing imaginary deer, for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. Yes, she’d bark at everything, constantly herding the children when they were small, stopping them from fighting among each other as they got bigger, becoming more and more generally in control and charming with each year. Almost without us noticing. All of a sudden, she was one of us. Not a pet, not a ‘furry friend’, not even a dog really.

She could sense when someone was ill or in distress and would attend accordingly. She loved small children and even when in a fierce mood, if a small child the same size as her approached, she would sit down and raise her head waiting for a pair of tiny arms to be thrown around her. It had all just got normal for us. Pretty much every time when we were out with her, she’d do something that would further add to our respect for her understanding of what’s going on. She WAS one of us. 

Lulu loved an air show, going to several with us over the years. Here she is at Eastbourne air show, enjoying the Lancaster Bomber and a Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. 

Now it’s all gone

It’s only when Lulu was finally gone I noticed everything else that’s passed too. All that time, pretty much my entire career, moving from acrimoniously divorced to getting along just fine and concentrating on giving the three boys as good a start as we could manage.  The three boys no longer the children they were when Lulu was working out her role in the family, now all long-since scarpered and working harder than I ever have. 

My career is pretty much done too. I’m finding it harder to get new contracts or jobs in digital. ‘What are you doing working in digital? I thought that was a young man’s game’ one marketing director interviewing me for a dull digital role I didn’t want tactfully said, almost ten years ago too. I won’t say where, for reasons of professional discretion (David Lloyd Leisure, Hatfield, Monday 4th March 2013)

When I was working from home and madame, who I now call Mrs Tagmaster, was coming home from London, me and Lulu would go and pick her up. I trained Lulu to sit in the middle of the station and wait for Mrs Tagmaster for as long as 10 minutes, which meant several packed commuter trains unloaded past her. I’d hide out of sight, watching to see how many pats on the head she got. Usually several.

Lulu’s Legacy is Ten Year Tags

Phew, we’re getting up to date at last. Lulu lost dog name tags like it was something she was born to do. Sometimes in a few months, sometimes in a few days. We got through dozens. I’m a bit slow on the uptake, it took me a while to work out the dog name tags on the market just might not be up to the job.

It took about a year of fact-finding, market assessment and trying to work out how to make a better dog name tag before I was ready to start planning the equipment we needed. Having wasted months liaising with companies in China to get the tags made in volume, I gave up on that idea to both keep our carbon footprint down AND have more control over any supply chain and not have to worry about any one critical supplier. 

With over 9 million dogs in the UK alone, there’s a good sized market. Research quickly revealed this ubiquitous, low price point product has largely been ignored, especially digitally. Consequently many competitors are getting away with minimal product quality and poor customer experience (I’ll come back to this).  This surprised me, as not many products pretty much anyone can manufacture are actually required by law in the UK courtesy of a stupidly out of date Dog Tag Law

I pretty much, at least subliminally, thank Lulu for every tag I press out and when it’s a busy day that started at 6 am and is only drawing to a close with a 6pm trip to the sorting office with a sack of 50 or more orders, I’m ever so grateful to Lulu, as without her showing us the flaws in all those substandard products over the years, patiently waiting until Raymond here got the hint, we probably wouldn’t be coping at all right now. Lulu is still looking after us.

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Thank you, Ray.

This is such a delightful story. So much so that I am going to post another story for Saturday. Namely, a short article, broadly written by Ray, and featuring the Spitfire.

Ray’s company Ten Year Tags is linked to Ray’s website.

The Old and the New

This caught my eye!

Humans are great inventors! Indeed, a better way to describe H. sapiens ever since we separated from the chimpanzees, some 5 or 6 million years ago, is to describe us as explorers both outwards and inwards constantly in search for new worlds and new insights into meaning.

Thus this naturally caught me eye as Doug Thron uses a modern device, a drone, to search for animals in distress, a very ancient behaviour!

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Drone Pilot Rescues Animals After Natural Disasters

Doug Thron goes to devastated areas to save pets and wildlife.

By Mary Jo DiLonardo

Mary Jo DiLonardo

Published June 9, 2021.

Doug Thron with Duke, a dog he rescued after California wildfires.”Doug to the Rescue”

For nearly three decades, seaplane and drone pilot Doug Thron has been a professional photographer and cinematographer, primarily for nature shows and magazines. A few years ago he was using his drone to film the devastation left behind after wildfires in California when he teamed up with rescuers to help find lost pets and reunite them with their owners.

A long-time animal lover and environmentalist, Thron realized he could combine those passions, using his aerial skills. He now travels wherever there is need, using his drone to help communities dealing with the destruction after natural disasters.

Thron is featured in a six-part documentary series “Doug to the Rescue”streaming on CuriosityStream beginning June 10.

He talked to Treehugger about his first animal rescues, his drones, and some of the challenges he’s faced.

Treehugger: Which came first: the animal rescue work or the drone?

Dough Thron: I was using drones for filming for TV shows, commercials, and real estate clients before doing the animal rescue work. 

Were you involved in animal rescue and realized that your drone work could come in handy? 

Definitely. I was doing animal rescue work after the wildfires in Paradise, California. I was working with an expert cat rescuer named Shannon Jay, and I saw him using an infrared scope at night to help find the cats. We talked about how incredible it would be to put one on a drone and when the opportunity came up about 10 months later in the Bahamas after the category 5 Hurricane Dorian, that’s what I did and it worked incredibly.

I had raised orphaned baby animals as a kid and worked with animals such as possums, raccoons, squirrels, beavers, and even mountain lions. I’ve been using drones since 2013 for cinematography, so I’ve used them for quite a while before I got involved in the actual rescuing of animals with drones.

Duke in the Bahamas.Doug Thron / “Doug to the Rescue”

What was your first big rescue using a drone?

My first big rescue using a drone was in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. I was there helping to deliver aid and film the destruction when I spotted a dog roaming around the mountains of debris. He obviously hadn’t had any water or much food for days. He was really apprehensive at first, but warmed up over the course of the day, as I just sat with him. Dog food and water helped! The next day, some animal rescuers came with me to get him. He’s such an incredible dog, and meant so much to me, so I adopted him and named him Duke after a sign I’d seen where I found him.

Where are some of the places you’ve gone to help stranded animals? 

The Bahamas, Australia, Oregon, California, and Louisiana.

Thron with a rescued koala.”Doug to the Rescue”

What were some of the most challenging circumstances?

In Australia, it was challenging because the hurt koalas were deep in burnt out forests, often with a dense canopy. It was so hot out you had to fly strictly at night with spotlights and infrared and fly the drone pretty far and often drop it down through the trees to see the animals, which takes a lot of skill. Koalas are also very aggressive and strong, and not always thrilled when you go to grab them out of a tree to rescue them. On almost all these rescues, Australia and everywhere else, it’s countless long hours of work—generally about 20 hours a day—which can certainly wear you down day after day.

What is it like when you spot an animal in an area of devastation where there is no other sign of life? 

It’s great to be able to rescue these animals so much more efficiently and faster and, in many cases, find animals that never would have been found.  It’s different everywhere I go—finding animals when there aren’t any others alive nearby is always really hard. But in places like Louisiana, where I was searching in so many neighborhoods, it gives you a feeling of hope when you find a cat or dog, knowing it was someone’s pet. 

In other places, like Australia, I’d be covering dozens of miles a night, sometimes and only finding an occasional animal. It’s really sad because you realize how many thousands of animals didn’t make it. It’s also really hard to see how fires and other natural disasters as a result of climate change are taking out the last patches of unentered habitat and endangered animals.

A dog rescued in Louisiana.”Doug to the Rescue”

How heart-wrenching can it be?

It can be really heart-wrenching to find animals that are severely wounded, but it’s wonderful to be able to save them. 

How euphoric is it when you make a great save?

It’s awesome to be able to save people’s cats and dogs because frequently, that might be the only thing they have left after a fire or hurricane. Obviously, for the animal’s sake, it’s so incredible because without the infrared drone, in many cases, the animal would have never been found and would have died, sometimes a slow and painful death.

Thron with his drone.”Doug to the Rescue”

What is your drone like?

The Matrice 210 V2 are the drones I use with an infrared camera, spotlight, and 180x zoom lens. The combination of using those three attachments for animal rescue has never been done before.

How much time do you spend doing animal rescue work? What else do you do?

The rescue work is pretty continuous for 9 to 10 months during the fire and hurricane seasons. After that, there are occasional lost pets to be found.

What else do you want to accomplish?

I hope to make using infrared drones for animal rescue as popular as helicopters are for rescuing people after a natural disaster. So many more animals can be saved when you can find them so much faster and find ones that never would have been found on foot because there is just too much area to cover.

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This account makes me want to choke up. Doug is clearly used to being a professional photographer and, also, works with others in the field of animal rescue. But this story is about Doug and he is engaged with animal rescue with his heart as well as his head!

Doug has been reported widely I am delighted to say and there’s a YouTube video that you can watch.

It doesn’t get any better than that!

The food we buy for our pets

A report from BBC Future suggests there is a hidden reason

With six dogs feeding them is quite an exercise. I don’t really take much notice of what Jeannie does although I do know that we feed them kibbles, canned food and Jean cooks up beef for the dogs as well.

Recently BBC Future had a report saying that there is a hidden reason that processed foods are addictive. I am going to share that article with you.

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The hidden reason processed pet foods are so addictive

By Zaria Gorvett 20th May 2021

From potently smelly additives to offal concentrates, pet food companies turn to some surprising ingredients in the quest to make kibble delicious.

The cue might be a hand in a pocket, the opening of a cupboard door, or even a word said carelessly aloud – “dinner”. Before you know it, you’re tripping over a pet excitedly awaiting a portion of… dull-brown dried pellets. What’s in these mysterious morsels, that makes them as delectable as roasted chicken, wild salmon, or bundles of fresh herbs? 

Take my flatmate, a small black rabbit. For a large part of every day, he can be found sitting attentively with his paws on his empty food bowl, awaiting his next portion of kibble – even though it looks like his droppings and smells equally unappetising. He used to have an automatic dispenser with a timer, but he learnt to throw it across the room to access its contents prematurely. No matter what delicacies I place before him – home-grown parsley, soft-cut hay, fresh carrot-tops, organic kale – he would always rather eat processed pet food.

It seems that this is not unusual. Anecdotes abound about pets whose thoughts are largely preoccupied with kibble, such as the cat that has a daily panic attack when it realises it has eaten all its pellets and the pragmatic German shepherd found carrying a bag of dog food around the streets of Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

As it happens, this addictive quality is carefully engineered. Big Pet Food is a multi-billion-dollar industry which invests heavily in research into “palatants” – ingredients that make our pets want to eat their products. And from potently smelly chemicalsusually found in rotting meat to an additive commonly added to potatoes to stop them discolouring, the quest to make the most scrumptious pet food has led to some surprising insights.

“Big [pet food] companies have huge departments that make palatants,” says Darren Logan, head of research at the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, part of the company Mars Petcare. “Just like we make them for humans, we make them for pets as well.” 

Upper-class dogs

The first pet food was invented in 1860 by James Spratt, an enterprising lightning-rod salesman from the US state of Ohio. Legend has it that he had travelled to England for his business, and was looking out over the docks of Liverpool one day when he noticed stray dogs knocking back leftover hardtack biscuits.

This was a revelation for two reasons.

Rabbits eat fresh vegetables in the wild, but many kept as pets feast instead on processed pellets (Credit: Getty Images)
Rabbits eat fresh vegetables in the wild, but many kept as pets feast instead on processed pellets (Credit: Getty Images)

Firstly, hardtack were famously unappealing – loathed by generations of the soldiers and sailors who ate them, these simple slabs of baked flour and water were tougher than wood and sometimes hard enough to break your teeth. Their nicknames included “sheet iron” and “worm castles“, the latter because of the high proportion that were infested with maggots and weevils. The oldest piece of surviving hardtack was baked just nine years before Spratt’s dock visit, and still looks suspiciously well-preserved 170 years later.

Secondly, until that moment it hadn’t occurred to anyone to check what their pets would like to eat – or that this could be monetised. For as long as we had kept domesticated animals, they had been fed more or less the same food as humans, or expected to fend for themselves.

One striking example is the husky. In their native territory of Arctic Greenland, Canada and Alaska, Inuit hunter-gatherers have traditionally fed these dogs on seal meat, which comprises the majority of their own diet. Sled-dogs are so well-adapted to this that when the British Antarctic Survey brought them to Antarctica as a form of transport in 1945, they found that they struggled to digest commercial dog food. In the end, they had to kill a number of local seals each year, just to feed the dogs, before they were largely replaced with skidoos in the 1960s and 70s.

Spratt’s innovation coincided with a cultural revolution in the way people saw their pets

Meanwhile in Victorian London, dogs that were lucky enough to be looked after were either given table scraps or gruel. Even specialist exotic animals were fed everyday human food – the 20,000 or more tortoises imported from Morocco each year were mostly expected to survive on ordinary garden vegetables or bread soaked in water. Cats were considered street animals and rarely fed.

But Spratt had hit upon something entirely new. Over the coming months he developed the “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake”, a biscuit-like concoction of beetroot, vegetables, grains and beef of dubious origins that claimed to meet all the nutritional needs of his customers’ hounds. (While its packaging implied that it was the finest prairie beef, what it was actually made from was a secret he took to his grave.)

Spratt’s innovation coincided with a cultural revolution in the way people saw their pets – dogs and cats went from being viewed as mere utility animals or borderline-vermin to beloved family members to be coddled. Consequently, the Meat Fibrine Dog Cake was marketed as a luxury food for aristocratic pets.

The husky dogs taken on early Antarctic voyages had to be fed with freshly killed seals (Credit: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The husky dogs taken on early Antarctic voyages had to be fed with freshly killed seals (Credit: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The adverts labelled them “Dog’s Delight” and included gushing testimonials from wealthy customers. Ironically, Spratt’s also promoted the fact that they were chosen to feed the sled dogs on Captain Scott’s 1901 trip to the Antarctic, though we now know they would much rather have eaten seal.

Eventually the company branched out into cat food – “Spratt’s puts pussy into fine form!”, they said – and the rest is history. However, the science of pet food palatants still had some way to go.

Disgusting smells 

Today it’s possible to buy specialised kibble for almost any kind of pet, from frogs to sugar gliders (a small marsupial). Most follow roughly the same formula – they usually contain some kind of base carbohydrate, assorted proteins and fats, sugars, a source of fibre, antioxidants or other preservatives, emulsifiers (which keep the fat in the food and prevent it from separating), vitamins and minerals, and colouring agents

More sophisticated versions may also contain probiotics or digestibility enhancers – such as chicory, which is often added to dog food – as well as enzymes, anti-parasitic compounds and minerals to prevent the build-up of tartar on teeth.

Oddly, there is very little relationship between how healthy a pet food is and its inherent deliciousness

To turn these ingredients into a dry pet food, it’s formed into a paste and “extruded” via a process that involves heating it up and forcing it through a plate with holes in it, to form an aerated product that matches the shape of the holes. It’s the same process that’s used to make puffed snack foods, with flavourings added in the final step – in the case of pet food, they’re either sprayed on or added as a powder.

Oddly, there is very little relationship between how healthy a pet food is and its inherent deliciousness. That’s because in the US, the EU and many other parts of the world, in order to describe one as “complete” – containing everything the body needs to be healthy – it must meet certain nutritional standards. These set out acceptable ranges for most ingredients, so manufacturers can’t just load up on sugar and fat to make it compelling.

“From my standpoint as a nutritionist, all pet foods are the same,” says Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

The first processed dog foods were luxury products which ushered in the idea of the "pampered pet" (Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)
The first processed dog foods were luxury products which ushered in the idea of the “pampered pet” (Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Instead, companies turn to chemistry.

Many animals rely heavily on smell to navigate the world around them, and this is often the main sense that’s targeted. While human noses contain around 50 million olfactory receptors, cats have 67 million, rabbits have 100 million and dogs have around 220 million. On the other hand, their sense of taste is generally less discriminating than ours – our relatively high density of taste receptors is thought to have evolved to help us cope with our diverse omnivorous diets

The catch is that appealing to animals that find the smell of roadkill, sweaty socks, and vomit utterly enchanting – as carnivorous pets often do – while not making their human companions feel violently ill, is extremly tricky. “There is a slight paradox there, because the smells that cats particularly but also dogs seem to like are often the opposite of what humans like,” says Logan.

Nestle puts it more bluntly – “animals eat faeces”, she says. “They like strong animal odours and pet food manufacturers have a really difficult time, because they have to make it disgusting enough so that the animal will eat it, but not so disgusting that the owners won’t buy it.”

Pet food manufacturers have a really difficult time, because they have to make it disgusting enough so that the animal will eat it, but not so disgusting that the owners won’t buy it – Darren Logan

Examples include putrescine and cadaverine, colourless chemicals produced naturally by the breakdown of proteins. They’re largely responsible for the revolting smell of rotting flesh – and cats love them. While in human food, their levels are sometimes closely monitored as a way of ensuring the freshness and safety of meat, they’re often actively added to cat and dog food, either as offal extracts or lab-made additives.

In the case of naturally vegan animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, irresistible smells such as mint and oregano are sometimes added in the form of concentrates.

Japanese-inspired cuisine 

Other insights are arguably more surprising. A recent study identified nine volatile compounds in common pet food flavourings that are linked to how delicious they are to dogs, including heptanal, nonanal, and octanal, which all have strong, fruity odours.

However, taste is also important – and here the preferences of carnivorous pets are not so different from ours.

One of the most popular additives in human food is the enigmatic “hydrolysed protein”, which is formed by breaking down the long strands of proteins into their constituent amino acids, usually using enzymes or hydrochloric acid. It imparts a flavour similar to that achieved by meat or vegetable stock, and often comes with MSG, which is produced as a by-product of the same reaction and is responsible for the savoury taste of tomatoes, cheese and Iberico ham.

Though hydrolysed proteins are produced artificially, the process is similar to what happens when you cook food for a long period of time – it’s a kind of pre-digestion, and is thought to contribute to the enticing smell of many brands of kibble.

Early processed dog food resembled the tooth-challenging hard-tack biscuits often taken on long sea voyages (Credit: Getty Images)
Early processed dog food resembled the tooth-challenging hard-tack biscuits often taken on long sea voyages (Credit: Getty Images)

“The understanding of cat palatability is very similar to Japanese or Asian cuisine, where there’s a lot of focus on umami and another taste modality called kokumi,” says Logan.

Kokumi was discovered in Japan in 1989, and has been proposed as the sixth taste in humans, after sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami. It’s described as a kind of mouth-feel rather than a flavour per se – a texture that imparts richness and “thickness” to foods. Unlike the others, kokumi hasn’t yet been linked to a specific set of compounds, but foods that conjure this sensory experience include scallops, soy sauce, shrimp paste, yeast and beer.

While cats are particularly drawn to Japanese food, which is rich in meat and seafood, you’re unlikely to find them stealing ice-creams or doughnuts

The sixth taste is thought to be particularly popular with carnivorous animals, which may discern it via receptors in their mouths that evolved to detect calcium. And as you would expect, pet food companies have already begun targeting it with cocktails of flavour-enhancing chemicals.   

But there are some flavours that you will never find in certain pet foods.  

For example, most wild carnivorous animals lack the receptors for tasting sugar or carbohydrates. And unlike dogs, which have been living around humans and feasted off our scraps for up to 40,000 years, domestic cats have only been around for about 4,300. For the majority of that time, they were considered a kind of free pest-control that could fend for themselves.

So, while cats are particularly drawn to Japanese food, which is rich in meat and seafood, you’re unlikely to find them stealing ice-creams or doughnuts – unlike dogs, they simply haven’t been around humans for long enough to have evolved the ability to taste sugar.

Cats are irresistibly drawn to the chemical compounds found in rotting fish (Credit: Getty Images)
Cats are irresistibly drawn to the chemical compounds found in rotting fish (Credit: Getty Images)

On the other hand, because vegan animals eat exclusively vegetable matter, which is often rich in fibre and carbohydrates, they tend to prefer sweeter pet food.

Finally, no list of palatants would be complete without pyrophosphate, described in Popular Science as “cat crack”. This common additive performs a number of roles in human food, such as preventing potato products from going dark after they’re cooked – none of which involve improving its taste. Nevertheless, cats go nuts for it, possibly because it intensifies the flavour of amino acids.

Pet food companies are now so successful at making food delicious that they’re increasingly encountering a dilemma – it’s almost too good. “The danger for cats and dogs today is the same as for people, it’s overconsumption,” says Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester.

Pet obesity is a growing problem in the developed world, with one survey of veterinary professionals at a vet show in London suggesting that around 51% of dogs, 44% of cats and 29% of small mammals are now overweight or obese.

Pet foods made from more sustainable ingredients such as insects or soya are generally just as acceptable to carnivorous pets as the real deal

According to Logan, this is not down to the way pet food is formulated, but humans succumbing to their beloved pets’ pleading gazes. “The reason we make pet food palatable is that if they don’t eat all the food that we give them, it won’t meet the nutritional needs that they require,” he says. “The real problem is owners feeding them too much – pets can’t open the packets themselves.”

However, there is an upside. There are mounting concerns about the environmental impact of pet food, too – in 2009, two New Zealand scientists estimated the planetary cost of keeping a dog as roughly twice that of having a medium-sized SUV.

Pets given too much calorific processed food may, just like humans, put on extra weight (Credit: Getty Images)
Pets given too much calorific processed food may, just like humans, put on extra weight (Credit: Getty Images)

This is where palatants come in. Because most pet foods comprise a fairly tasteless base that is spruced up with delicious flavourings and smells, pet foods made from more sustainable ingredients such as insects or soya are generally just as acceptable to carnivorous pets as the real deal. (Though cats cannot be fed a diet that is meat free.)

“According to this really large-scale study that we’ve just finished, the animals on vegan pet foods seem to be just as happy as animals on meat ones,” says Knight, who is hopeful about their future potential.

“There is a broad recognition that the need to be more sustainable will have a big impact on the pet food business,” says Logan, who explains that the pet food company he works for has just released its own brand of insect-based pet food.

So, why do our pets find pet food so addictive? Well, because it’s been made that way. Just like us, our pets find it hard to say no to the food we have designed to be tasty.

* Zaria Gorvett is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets at @ZariaGorvett

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That is a really useful article that goes a very long way to explaining how ‘big business’ interferes with the food that our pets eat.

And did you read right at the end of the article: “According to this really large-scale study that we’ve just finished, the animals on vegan pet foods seem to be just as happy as animals on meat ones,” says Knight.

Now there’s a thing!

The Elephant in the Room

This is one of the most important posts since I started blogging!

I was born in 1944 and that makes me 76. I am reasonably engaged in the issues facing us but, in a sense, protected from the realities of the modern world because I have a loving wife, two loving young people, as in my son Alex and my daughter Maija, and a special grandson, Morten.

We are also very lucky in that my wife, Jean, and I are both retired and we live on 13 rural acres in a beautiful part of Southern Oregon and enjoy immensely our six dogs, two horses, two parakeets and feeding the wild birds and deer.

But it can’t stay that way because of the encroaching elephant in the room.

I am speaking of climate change that if not dealt with in the near future, say in the next 10 years, will lead to an unimaginable state of affairs.

Now one could argue that you come to Learning from Dogs to get away from climate change and the like. But this is too important and, also, involves all of us including our gorgeous dogs.

First, I want to include an extract from a recent Scientists Warning newsletter (and please read this extract carefully).

Recently, one article on the climate emergency above all others has cut through – with over ONE MILLION views, “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap”  published in The Conversation is being talked about by many thousands, and led Greta Thunberg to tweet:  “This is one of the most important and informative texts I have ever read on the climate- and ecological crises.” 
So why is this article so very important?

In our latest interview, I talk with two of the authors – Dr.  James Dyke, global systems scientist at the University of Exeter and Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, climate scientist at Lund University. And the conversation does not make for comfortable viewing.  We discuss what led James, Wolfgang and Professor Bob Watson to write an article that they have described as being one of the hardest they have ever written. The article is *not* an attack on net zero, nor does it advocate a fatalistic position. Instead, as you will hear, the interview reveals the heartfelt concerns of two scientists who are profoundly worried about the failure of a climate policy system that suppresses the  voice of science and is fundamentally flawed. A climate policy system that year after year has failed.

But  it is not just the climate policy system that has failed. Academia has failed too, and continues to fail Greta and young people like her. And this *must* stop. Young people have become the adults in the room. We cannot place this burden on their shoulders. They have shown their courage and bravery. Now it’s time for academia to step up to the challenge and to critically examine why we are failing. 

Secondly, I want to share that interview with you. This is a 36-minute interview. Please, please watch it. If it is not a convenient time just now then bookmark the post and watch it when you can sit down and be fully engaged. You will understand then and agree with me that this is one of the most important videos ever!

Lastly, I would like you to read the article published in The Conversation. I have included a link to it but I am also going to republish it on Friday.

Because we have to listen to the scientists without delay and press for change now.

Thank goodness for our younger generation. Because these young people are coming together to fight for change. May they have universal encouragement from those of us who will never see our younger days again!

men's white and blue gingham dress shirt
Photograph by Zach Lucero

What goes around comes around!

Another account of dogs bonding with humans.

Chernobyl is a name that anyone born before, say, 1970 will associate with a terrible nuclear accident in Russia.

As Wikipedia put it:

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on Saturday 26 April 1986, at the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in terms of cost and casualties, and is one of only two nuclear energy accidents rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The initial emergency response, together with later decontamination of the environment, ultimately involved more than 500,000 personnel and cost an estimated 18 billion Soviet rubles—roughly US$68 billion in 2019, adjusted for inflation.

But recently BBC Future spoke of the bond that the guards and the abandoned dogs made.

Read it below: (Unfortunately you will have to go here to view the stunning photographs because the BBC prevents them being republished! But it is still a very interesting article.)

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The guards caring for Chernobyl’s abandoned dogs

The descendants of pets abandoned by those fleeing the Chernobyl disaster are now striking up a curious relationship with humans charged with guarding the contaminated area.

It wasn’t long after he arrived in the irradiated landscape of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that Bogdan realised his new job came with some unexpected companions. From his first days as a checkpoint guard in Chernobyl, he has shared the place with a pack of dogs.

Bogdan (not his real name) is now in his second year of working in the zone and has got to know the dogs well. Some have names, some don’t. Some stay nearby, others remain detached – they come and go as they please. Bogdan and the other guards feed them, offer them shelter, and occasionally give them medical care. They bury them when they die.

All the dogs are, in a sense, refugees of the 1986 disaster in which Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the Ukrainian city of Pripyat. They were told to leave their pets behind. (Read more about the long-term toll of the Chernobyl disaster.)

Soviet soldiers shot many of the abandoned animals in an effort to prevent the spread of contamination. But, undoubtedly, some of the animals hid and survived. Thirty-five years later, hundreds of stray dogs now roam the 2,600km (1,000 sq mile) Exclusion Zone put in place to restrict human traffic in and out of the area. Nobody knows which of the dogs are directly descended from stranded pets, and which may have wandered into the zone from elsewhere. But they are all dogs of the zone now.

Their lives are perilous. They are at risk from radioactive contamination, wolf attacks, wildfires and starvation, among other threats. The dogs’ average lifespan is just five years, according to the Clean Futures Fund, a non-governmental organisation that monitors and provides care for dogs living within the Exclusion Zone.

That dogs inhabit this ruined place is well known – some of them have even become minor celebrities on social media. Clean Futures Fund co-founder Lucas Hixson, who gave up a research career to look after the animals, offers virtual tours of the Exclusion Zone featuring the dogs.

But less is known about the local workers who interact with these canines on a daily basis.

Jonathon Turnbull, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge, realised it might be worth collecting these people’s stories.

“If I wanted to know the dogs,” he says, “I needed to go to the people who know them best – and that was the guards.”

What he discovered is a heart-warming story of the guards’ relationship with the animals they encounter in this abandoned environment – a tale that provides insights into the deep bond between humans and dogs.

The guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections

For instance, the guards have given several of the dogs nicknames. According to Turnbull, there’s Alpha, whose name refers to a type of radiation, and Tarzan, a dog well-known to Chernobyl tourists, who can do tricks on command and who lives near the famous Duga radar installation built by the Soviets. Then there is Sausage – a short, fat dog that likes to warm herself in the winter by lying on heating pipes. These pipes serve one of the buildings used by workers in the Exclusion Zone who are part of ongoing efforts to decommission and decontaminate the ruined power plant.

Access to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone requires a permit, so guards are tasked with controlling checkpoints on roads in and out of the area. People who dodge these checkpoints to trespass in the Exclusion Zone are known as “stalkers”. Guards report them to the police.

When Turnbull, who lives in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, started making regular visits to the zone, he met Bogdan, and other checkpoint guards. They were reluctant to talk at first so he had to win them over. Then he offered them to chance to take part in his research, which he says was a “turning point”. His idea was to give the guards disposable cameras and ask them to take pictures of the dogs – not posed portraits but scenes of everyday life. The guards only had one other request – “please, please – bring food for the dogs”. So Turnbull did.

The photos taken by the guards revealed how much they had developed companionships with the wandering dogs of the Exclusion Zone.

Turnbull published some of the resulting images and material from interviews with the guards in a paper in December. More recently, he interviewed one of the study participants again on behalf of BBC Future. The guard in question has asked not to be identified to avoid disciplinary action at work, so we refer to him here by the pseudonym “Bogdan”.

When Bogdan walks around the abandoned streets of the zone to check for stalkers, the dogs happily accompany him, he says. They always appear eager to see whether he, or a passing tourist, might be carrying food. Should a companion dog get distracted or run off to chase an animal, it always eventually returns to Bogdan, he adds.

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The loyalty goes both ways. Turnbull says the guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections.

Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone

Monitoring who comes and goes from the Exclusion Zone sometimes makes for a dull occupation. But there are always dogs nearby.

At some checkpoints, the guards have more or less adopted some of the animals. They feed them and give them shelter. But not all are so tame. During his research, one guard told Turnbull, “We can’t inject Arka because she bites.”

Another participant spoke of one dog that was even more difficult to approach. It refuses to be touched at all. “You should just give her a pan [of food] and go. She waits until you leave and then she eats,” the guard explained.

The dogs sometimes bark at strangers on first sight, that’s their nature, says Bogdan. But so long as they don’t feel threatened, they sometimes calm down and wag their tails. Occasionally it even seems as though they’re smiling, he adds.

Generally, visitors to Chernobyl are advised not to touch the dogs, for fear that the animals may be carrying radioactive dust. It’s impossible to know where the dogs roam and some parts of the Exclusion Zone are more contaminated than others.

There is wildlife living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone besides dogs. In 2016, Sarah Webster, a US government wildlife biologist who was working at the University of Georgia at the time, and colleagues published a paper in which they revealed how mammals, from wolves to boars and red foxes, had colonised the Exclusion Zone. Camera trap data showed that the animals’ numbers were not noticeably lower in those areas where radioactive contamination is higher.

Animals living in the Exclusion Zone are not necessarily confined there. A later studyby Webster and colleagues, published in 2018, detailed the movements of a wolf tagged with a GPS device. It travelled 369km (229 miles) from its home range in the zone, taking a long arc to the south-east, then north-east again, eventually entering Russia.

Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone.

“We know it’s happening but we don’t understand the extent or the magnitude,” says Webster.

Turnbull says the guards do not generally worry about radiation, though they might occasionally use dosimeters to check a dog over.

It actually seems as though the dogs, through the companionship they offer, end up reassuring those who interact with them regularly, says Greger Larson, an archaeologist who studies animal domestication at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in Turnbull’s research.

“They’re kind of putting themselves in the shoes of the dogs,” he suggests, referring to the guards. “If the dog is fine, that means you’re fine.”

But in truth, this may only be a false sense of security.

“It’s an uncanny environment,” notes Turnbull. “You can’t see the danger. You’re constantly aware that it might be there but everything looks normal.”

Despite the fact that the dogs could pose a risk in terms of radioactivity, guards like Bogdan instead emphasise the benefits of having them around. For example, he claims to know dogs that bark in noticeably different ways depending on what they have spotted in the distance – a human stranger, a vehicle, a wild animal. Because of these helpful warning signals, Bogdan thinks of the dogs as “assistants”.

What’s happening in the Exclusion Zone is an echo of interactions with dogs that are known to have occurred within human civilisations for thousands of years, says Larson.

“We find this for the last 15,000 years or more, this is what people do, they make very close associations with not just dogs but a lot of domestic animals […] to sort of say, ‘this is our attachment to the landscape’,” he explains.

All over the world, there are dogs that inhabit a similar, in-between state – not quite fully domesticated, not quite fully wild. These are the feral dogs that roam cities and industrial areas looking for food, the ones that may become to some extent adopted by people but still wouldn’t be considered pets.

Chernobyl’s dogs also live in this sort of space, on the edge of domestication, but there is a difference argues Webster, who has participated in a separate study of Turnbull’s in the past.

“The Exclusion Zone is very different in that it’s abandoned by humans,” she says. “The only people in that landscape on a day-to-day basis, really, are the guards.” As such, the dogs’ opportunities for befriending humans are very limited.

While the outside world remains fascinated by the dogs, and their story, for many guards the connection runs much deeper. Bogdan says he is often asked why the dogs ought to be allowed to stay in the Exclusion Zone. “They give us joy,” he replies. “For me personally, this is a kind of symbol of the continuation of life in this radioactive, post-apocalyptic world.”

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What is so fascinating is that this interaction between the dogs and the people is an echo of the first interaction between hunter/gatherers and wolves of, perhaps, 25,000 years ago or more. And the guards of today and the dogs, whom Larson calls his assistants, are perfectly bonded.

It just goes to show that ‘what goes around comes around’!

Picture Parade Three Hundred and Eighty

This was a real treat!

Jim Ingraham of our local Caveman Camera Club sent out an email last week.

Wednesday, March 17th will be our next education meeting. It will be a light painting field trip with Dale George as the teacher/instructor.

We will meet at Reinhart Volunteer Park (also known as All Sports Park) at 7 pm. When you go into the park take your first left. Just go to the end of the very long parking lot and you are there.

As much as I don’t want to say this, I gotta…Observe social distancing and wear your facial covering. I want all members to attend. I cannot and would not attempt to enforce this, do what you’re going to do, but please be respectful of others.

Bring camera, tripod, remote shutter (not absolutely necessary), fully charged battery, warm clothes, maybe a headlamp to see your camera dials.

Daylight savings time will be in effect so it won’t be getting dark until 7:30 or so.

Let’s get out of the house and have some fun.

Jim Ingraham
Education Coordinator

Now I didn’t have a clue as to what a “light painting field trip” was but Jeannie agreed to come with me so we both turned up on the 17th at 7pm.

This was the area of the park where we all assembled.

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In the main a single individual stood in front of us waving a light board in a synchronised manner. It was a flashing board. But there were times when he was joined by a woman and they both swung their own light boards.

Apart from cropping the images a little these photographs are as they were shot!

Talk about incredible!

(The shots were taken with a Nikon D750 with a Nikon 24-120 mm lens attached.

The settings were approximately 30 seconds Bulb f7.1 ISO 320.)

Lessons

Nothing to do with dogs but everything to do with the future!

An item in The Conversation recently was not only interesting from a scientific point-of-view but also it had real lessons for the way that we humans are interfering with the planet.

As The Conversation introduced the article:

A mile below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, an ancient Arctic ecosystem is preserved in the frozen soil. How scientists discovered its leaves, twigs and mosses is a story in itself. It starts with a secret military base built into the northern Greenland ice.

Scientists Andrew Christ and Paul Bierman describe the discovery as something of a Rosetta stone for understanding how well the ice sheet stood up to global warming in the past – and how it might respond in the future.

So, for a change, read something that has nothing to do with our furry friends.

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Ancient leaves preserved under a mile of Greenland’s ice – and lost in a freezer for years – hold lessons about climate change

Remnants of ancient Greenland tundra were preserved in soil beneath the ice sheet. Andrew Christ and Dorothy Peteet, CC BY-ND

Andrew Christ, University of Vermont and Paul Bierman, University of Vermont

In 1963, inside a covert U.S. military base in northern Greenland, a team of scientists began drilling down through the Greenland ice sheet. Piece by piece, they extracted an ice core 4 inches across and nearly a mile long. At the very end, they pulled up something else – 12 feet of frozen soil.

The ice told a story of Earth’s climate history. The frozen soil was examined, set aside and then forgotten.

Half a century later, scientists rediscovered that soil in a Danish freezer. It is now revealing its secrets.

Using lab techniques unimaginable in the 1960s when the core was drilled, we and an international team of fellow scientists were able to show that Greenland’s massive ice sheet had melted to the ground there within the past million years. Radiocarbon dating shows that it would have happened more than 50,000 years ago. It most likely happened during times when the climate was warm and sea level was high, possibly 400,000 years ago.

And there was more. As we explored the soil under a microscope, we were stunned to discover the remnants of a tundra ecosystem – twigs, leaves and moss. We were looking at northern Greenland as it existed the last time the region was ice-free. Our peer-reviewed study was published on March 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Two men with the ice core
Engineers pull up a section of the 4,560-foot-long ice core at Camp Century in the 1960s. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Paul Bierman, a geomorphologist and geochemist, describes what he and his colleagues found in the soil.

With no ice sheet, sunlight would have warmed the soil enough for tundra vegetation to cover the landscape. The oceans around the globe would have been more than 10 feet higher, and maybe even 20 feet. The land on which Boston, London and Shanghai sit today would have been under the ocean waves.

All of this happened before humans began warming the Earth’s climate. The atmosphere at that time contained far less carbon dioxide than it does today, and it wasn’t rising as quickly. The ice core and the soil below are something of a Rosetta Stone for understanding how durable the Greenland ice sheet has been during past warm periods – and how quickly it might melt again as the climate heats up.

Secret military bases and Danish freezers

The story of the ice core begins during the Cold War with a military mission dubbed Project Iceworm. Starting around 1959, the U.S. Army hauled hundreds of soldiers, heavy equipment and even a nuclear reactor across the ice sheet in northwest Greenland and dug a base of tunnels inside the ice. They called it Camp Century.

It was part of a secret plan to hide nuclear weapons from the Soviets. The public knew it as an Arctic research laboratory. Walter Cronkite even paid a visit and filed a report.

Workers cover a trench to build the under-ice military base
Workers build the snow tunnels at the Camp Century research base in 1960. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Camp Century didn’t last long. The snow and ice began slowly crushing the buildings inside the tunnels below, forcing the military to abandon it in 1966. During its short life, however, scientists were able to extract the ice core and begin analyzing Greenland’s climate history. As ice builds up year by year, it captures layers of volcanic ash and changes in precipitation over time, and it traps air bubbles that reveal the past composition of the atmosphere.

One of the original scientists, glaciologist Chester Langway, kept the core and soil samples frozen at the University at Buffalo for years, then he shipped them to a Danish archive in the 1990s, where the soil was soon forgotten.

A few years ago, our Danish colleagues found the soil samples in a box of glass cookie jars with faded labels: “Camp Century Sub-Ice.”

Scientists look at the sediment in jars
Geomorphologist Paul Bierman (right) and geochemist Joerg Schaefer of Columbia University examine the jars holding Camp Century sediment for the first time. They were in a Danish freezer set at -17 F. Paul Bierman, CC BY-ND

A surprise under the microscope

On a hot July day in 2019, two samples of soil arrived at our lab at the University of Vermont frozen solid. We began the painstaking process of splitting the precious few ounces of frozen mud and sand for different analyses.

First, we photographed the layering in the soil before it was lost forever. Then we chiseled off small bits to examine under the microscope. We melted the rest and saved the ancient water.

Then came the biggest surprise. While we were washing the soil, we spotted something floating in the rinse water. Paul grabbed a pipette and some filter paper, Drew grabbed tweezers and turned on the microscope. We were absolutely stunned as we looked down the eyepiece.

Staring back at us were leaves, twigs and mosses. This wasn’t just soil. This was an ancient ecosystem perfectly preserved in Greenland’s natural deep freeze.

One of the authors looking excited
Glacial geomorphologist Andrew Christ (right), with geology student Landon Williamson, holds up the first twig spotted as they washed a sediment sample from Camp Century. Paul Bierman, CC BY-ND

Dating million-year-old moss

How old were these plants?

Over the last million years, Earth’s climate was punctuated by relatively short warm periods, typically lasting about 10,000 years, called interglacials, when there was less ice at the poles and sea level was higher. The Greenland ice sheet survived through all of human history during the Holocene, the present interglacial period of the last 12,000 years, and most of the interglacials in the last million years.

But our research shows that at least one of these interglacial periods was warm enough for a long enough period of time to melt large portions of the Greenland ice sheet, allowing a tundra ecosystem to emerge in northwestern Greenland.

We used two techniques to determine the age of the soil and the plants. First, we used clean room chemistry and a particle accelerator to count atoms that form in rocks and sediment when exposed to natural radiation that bombards Earth. Then, a colleague used an ultra-sensitive method for measuring light emitted from grains of sand to determine the last time they were exposed to sunlight.

Maps of Greenland Ice Sheet speed and bedrock elevation
Maps of Greenland show the speed of the ice sheet as it flows (left) and the landscape hidden beneath it (right). BedMachine v3; Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), CC BY-ND

Chart of CO2 concentrations over time
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is well beyond past levels determined from ice cores. On March 14, 2021, the CO2 level was about 417 ppm. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CC BY-ND

The million-year time frame is important. Previous work on another ice core, GISP2, extracted from central Greenland in the 1990s, showed that the ice had also been absent there within the last million years, perhaps about 400,000 years ago.

Lessons for a world facing rapid climate change

Losing the Greenland ice sheet would be catastrophic to humanity today. The melted ice would raise sea level by more than 20 feet. That would redraw coastlines worldwide.

About 40% of the global population lives within 60 miles of a coast, and 600 million people live within 30 feet of sea level. If warming continues, ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica will pour more water into the oceans. Communities will be forced to relocate, climate refugees will become more common, and costly infrastructure will be abandoned. Already, sea level rise has amplified flooding from coastal storms, causing hundreds of billions of dollars of damage every year.

A rock and tundra with a glacier in the background
Tundra near the Greenland ice sheet today. Is this what Camp Century looked like before the ice came back sometime in the last million years? Paul Bierman, CC BY-ND

The story of Camp Century spans two critical moments in modern history. An Arctic military base built in response to the existential threat of nuclear war inadvertently led us to discover another threat from ice cores – the threat of sea level rise from human-caused climate change. Now, its legacy is helping scientists understand how the Earth responds to a changing climate.

Andrew Christ, Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Geology, University of Vermont and Paul Bierman, Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment, Professor of Geology and Natural Resources, University of Vermont

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The article is republished with the full permission of The Conversation.

I hope you read it because the way the climate is changing is affecting all of us now and sooner rather than later we have all got to amend our ways. Indeed, when I look at anyone who has potentially thirty or more years of life in them I ponder what their future is going to be like. And, of course, it won’t be a drastic change in thirty years it is already happening now albeit at times difficult to see.

But there is not one scintilla of doubt that we humans are the cause and we humans have to be the solution!

A re-run of March, 2018

A very frustrating day!

I powered on my Mac to see some malware present. It was the “ActivityInputd” malware.

I spent a great deal of time trying to get rid of it, including a long call with Apple Support and an attempt to install Malwarebytes software. All to no avail at present.

So I just decided to republish the post I published on March 4th, 2018. It was a Picture Parade. Number Two Hundred and Thirty-Three.

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Closer to home!

In a reply to a post response left by fellow blogger Tails Around the Ranch I wrote:

Came up to Oregon for the rain, found a property that had been empty for years, Bank owned, put in a silly offer that was accepted, sold our Payson home and moved here, with 12 dogs and 6 cats, in October, 2012! Love the place. Will share some pictures of here next Sunday!

So today I am sharing a few pictures with you all. (All of them taken very recently.)

Mount Sexton just to the North-East of us. Take Feb. 24th.

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Another, more starker, Mt. Sexton taken two days later.

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Smoke from our neighbour’s wood fire mingles in the damp air of the trees in the corner of our property. Taken March 1st.

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Rain-laden clouds almost mask Mt. Sexton. Taken March 1st.

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The deer that we feed each morning have made their own trail. March 1st.

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The deer trail to the area by the stables where the food is put out each morning. March 1st.

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Young, dear Oliver playing in that deer trail. March 1st.

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The rain drops on these pine needles caught my eye. March 1st.

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Not just deer that coming feeding on our property. March 1st.

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Another scene that caught my eye. March 1st.

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Final picture showed how the storm deteriorated during that first day of March. Taken at 2pm.

So this is why Jeannie and me and all our dogs, not to mention the horses, love living here.

ooOOoo

It was chosen purely at random but it is a real pearl of a post.

My how things change!