Crete: A beekeeper’s story

 Crete: A beekeeper’s story

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

It’s May 4 — the height of spring in Crete, the largest Greek island. Crete is laid out like a ribbon across the southern Mediterranean Sea. Because of good rains last winter, wildflowers are in full bloom across lush green plateaus that stretch beneath the snow-capped peaks of Crete’s three picturesque mountain ranges.

Much of Crete’s landscape is underlain with karst limestone. Some 1,700 species of wildflowers — one tenth of which are found nowhere else on earth — thrive here on these limestone soils

Over the eons, water has carved out Crete’s limestone mountains to form spectacular deep gorges and caves. That morning, my friend Georgia and I set out to explore one of these gorges. We drove her Citroen rental car from the coastal city of Rethymno up into the Psiloritis mountains to find St. Anthony’s Gorge.

Along the twisting mountain road, as we gawked at the spectacular wildflower bloom, we spotted clusters of beehive boxes in the traffic turnouts. The bees must be having a field day.

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Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 20, 2017

Those warm, cuddly fleece jackets and quick-dry synthetic fabrics that fill so many of our closets now have created a big problem for the world’s oceans. Every time they get washed, clothes made from synthetic fabric shed thousands of tiny microfibers. Carried along with dirty wash water to the sewer and on to the wastewater treatment plant, many microfibers are so small they pass right through wastewater filters and are carried all the way out to our bays and oceans.

Tiny microfibers have turned into an enormous problem. In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published research describing the discovery of microfibers—mostly synthetic polyester and acrylic—on beaches worldwide, but most highly concentrated near wastewater disposal sites. Suspecting that these microfibers came from laundered clothing, Browne filtered the water used to wash a single fleece jacket and retrieved 1,900 fibers.

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Super Bloom: On the hunt for wildflowers in Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree

Super Bloom: On the hunt for wildflowers in Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree

by Betsy Herbert, features@santacruzsentinel.com

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 03/30/17

It was March 14. For weeks California State Park botanists had been predicting a “super bloom” of wildflowers — the best in twenty years — to peak across southern California deserts sometime in the middle of March, and the best would be in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, east of San Diego. After record winter rains, Anza-Borrego was already experiencing 80 to 90 degree temperatures — perfect conditions for a super bloom. I’ve lived in California most of my life and missed these gorgeous blooms in the past. This time I was determined to witness the show.

I set out in my hybrid SUV from Santa Cruz to hike and photograph in Anza-Borrego and then head northeast to Joshua Tree National Park, where I could expect to see those signature Joshua trees in full bloom.

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Conservation group’s winning strategy to protect island communities

Conservation group’s winning strategy to protect island communities

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 3/16/2017

Seacology, a Berkeley-based non-profit, got its start in 1990 when the island of Samoa’s government ordered the remote village of Falealupo to either build a new school house or lose its state-funded teachers. Desperate to continue their children’s educations, the cash-strapped community saw only one way out: Sell the logging rights to the 30,000-acre ancestral rainforest surrounding the village.

It just so happened that Dr. Paul Cox, an American ethnobotanist, was conducting field research in that same rainforest when he learned of the villagers’ dilemma. Shortly afterwards, Cox made a proposal to Falealupo’s leaders: If he could raise the money to build the new school, would the village agree to forever protect its surrounding forest?

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Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

 Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 2/24/17

Turkey vultures soar above in clear blue skies as I write from a hotel lobby on one of the 2,500 islands in the Jardines del Rey Archipelago off the north coast of Cuba. It’s day 13 of a 16-day tour focused on Cuba’s natural areas.

Our small group has been waiting here four hours to check in. Hotels in Cuba — even those billed as “four star” — seem completely overwhelmed by the booming influx of tourists from all over the world. Plumbing often leaks, Wi-Fi is sporadic at best, lights flicker, toilet seats are commonly missing, and towel racks dangle from the walls. But never mind, the music is infectious, the beer and rum flow freely, and the Cuban people are relaxed and friendly.

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Cotoni-Coast Dairies — The long path to monument status

Cotoni-Coast Dairies — The long path to monument status

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 01/19/2017

Who could imagine that the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property — once proposed by PG&E as the site of a nuclear power plant — would eventually become a national monument? But it’s true. On Jan. 12, President Barack Obama granted national monument status to this 5,875-acre property on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast.

Unquestionably, this iconic landscape is truly worthy of monument status ... for its scenic beauty and natural resources and as a tribute to the dramatic history of the land and the people who have dedicated themselves to protecting it.

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When the going gets tough, local high school kids get going

When the going gets tough, local high school kids get going

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/15/2016

When a colleague telephoned the other day, I asked him how he was doing. “In and out of depression,” he said. He’s not usually down in the dumps, but I understood. He’s a scientist. He’s deeply concerned about things like climate change, drought, sea-level rise and mass extinctions. The planet’s future is looking downright scary right now, especially as climate-change deniers assume power in Washington.

I’ve been wondering how aspiring young scientists are coping with this gloomy situation. That’s why I attended the San Lorenzo Valley High School’s Environmental Conference last night, hosted by science students Julianna Manseau, Kate Ussat and Haile Davis. Jane Orbuch, an acclaimed science teacher at the high school, sponsored the conference. But, she insisted, “The girls organized the whole thing — from setting up speakers, getting permissions, publicizing, and working with school personnel — it was entirely their gig.”

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Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 11/17/2016

What would happen if our nation’s schools embraced the teaching of art to enhance student understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects? According to local artist and entrepreneur Ed Martinez, integrating hands-on art projects into the widely accepted STEM curriculum would result in nothing short of an educational paradigm shift.

“Decades ago art was isolated from the academic environment. That made it easy to eliminate the arts from the curriculum, and that’s what we have now,” Martinez says.

“Many kids are lost along the way because their curiosity is not stimulated by book learning alone. When hands-on art projects are added to the STEM curriculum, students begin to recognize and tap their own genius,” he adds.

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Playground art: More than meets the eye

Playground art: More than meets the eye

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/19/2015

Just weeks before the start of October rains, art teacher Sue Friedland engaged 35 young students in painting a 25-by-36 foot map of the United States in the middle of their asphalt playground at Our Lady of Angels School in Burlingame. They are now embellishing the map with paintings of all the state flowers. But this is not graffiti!

“This project teaches children some basic geography and nature observation skills,” said Friedland, “and they learn to work together.”

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Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

I spent the past 10 days in Honolulu with some 9,500 conservationists from 192 countries, attending the IUCN Worldwide Conservation Congress, “the most important conference going on in the world today, but most people don’t know about it,” according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“We tend to think that the biggest threat is ISIS or interest rates ... amazing that we don’t think about the state of our biosphere,” Friedman added.

Conference attendees didn’t need any convincing. The 2016 conference theme “Planet at the Crossroads” highlighted the urgent need to change humankind’s path toward irreversible climate change and unprecedented species extinction.

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Trees can talk — can humans learn to hear them?

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 8/19/2016

I just watched a brilliant TED Talk by Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, explaining how trees talk to each other through vast underground networks of roots and fungus filaments called mycorrhizae. Simard explains that while trees don’t have brains or vocal chords, they communicate through these biological networks to — among other things — recognize and nurture their offspring and share resources with other trees in distress.

“It might remind you of a sort of intelligence,” she says.

A walk through the redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park can be a peaceful part of the day. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

A walk through the redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park can be a peaceful part of the day. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

She describes her 30 years of experiments in forests of the Pacific Northwest — research demonstrating that Douglas fir and paper birch trees communicate through these natural networks. These two symbiotic tree species help each other out by nutrient sharing during different times of the year.

In another experiment, she mapped forest underground networks to show how the biggest, busiest nodes cluster under the big “mother trees,” which send carbon and other nutrients through the network to their offspring trees.

Scientists have known about the fungus/plant root relationship since 1885, when the King of Prussia commissioned A. B. Frank to investigate cultivating truffles. While Frank didn’t succeed, he described the presence of mycorrhizae and coined the word, which means fungus-root.

Today, mycorrhizal networks are recognized as the modus operandi of more than 85 percent of plants in nature, including Sequoia sempervirens and other plants in the redwood forest ecosystem.

Since the 1990s, scientists have recognized that these vast mycorrhizal networks are fundamental to building soils and sustaining healthy forests. Mycorrhizal networks increase the supply of nutrients to trees and understory plants, provide protection from parasites and nematodes, stimulate tree growth, facilitate water uptake and increase carbon sequestration in soils.

At first I wasn’t convinced by Simard that trees talk. As a longtime forest protection advocate, I used to wear a button saying, “If trees could scream ... ,” alluding to the fact that trees can’t speak for themselves in the face of human onslaught. Simard made me do a double take. Maybe trees can talk, but we simply aren’t listening.

As author Michael Pollan said in the New Yorker in 2013, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary we can’t directly perceive or comprehend,” and the conversation takes place through these natural networks.

Pollan’s article summarizes an ongoing scientific debate, in which many scientists balk at the concept that plants possess intelligence, historically assumed to be the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. The argument goes something like this: Animals have neurons and brains, which are the seat of intelligence. Since plants don’t have neurons or brains, they can’t be intelligent.

Pollan’s article summarizes an ongoing scientific debate, in which many scientists balk at the concept that plants possess intelligence, historically assumed to be the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. The argument goes something like this: Animals have neurons and brains, which are the seat of intelligence. Since plants don’t have neurons or brains, they can’t be intelligent.

Other scientists argue that it depends on how one defines intelligence, a longstanding topic of philosophical debate. Advocates of plant intelligence like Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso define intelligence as “the ability to solve problems.” Given that definition, it seems undeniable to me that trees possess intelligence. Simard and other scientists have shown that trees communicate.

Is there something the trees are trying to tell us?

Simard implies that humans should listen carefully to what the trees are saying, particularly the intensively clear-cut forests of the Pacific Northwest, where she has done her research. Forests are complex systems with interconnected networks that allow trees to communicate, making the forest resilient.

But the forest is still vulnerable to things like bark beetles, high-grade logging and clear-cut logging. All these things destroy the hub trees, which, Simard says, can be seen as rivets in an airplane. Remove one or two and the plane still flies, “but if you take out one too many, or maybe that one holding on the wings, and the whole system collapses.”

Betsy Herbert is an environmental writer who recently returned from a yearlong trip around the world. She serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. You can read her articles and travel blog at www.betsyherbert.com.

 

Travel in a rapidly changing world

 Travel in a rapidly changing world

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 07/14/2016

I extensively planned my year-long trip around the world, but considering today’s quickly changing environmental and political conditions, I still expected — and got — the unexpected. A few examples:

On April 30, 2015, I abruptly left beautiful Jasper National Park, heading for the nearest international airport — in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After a death in my family I needed to fly back to California.

 

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Back in Santa Cruz remembering Rob Menzies

Back in Santa Cruz remembering Rob Menzies

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 6/13/16

As my plane descended over the California coast into San Jose on Easter Sunday, the hills were emerald green. When I had left a year ago to begin my trip around the world, the hills were dusty and brown.

Now, driving over Highway 17 in my rental car back home to Santa Cruz, I was thrilled to see Lexington Reservoir apparently full, another welcome sight, since it was bone dry a year ago.

After a year on the road, I was excited about re-connecting with friends. I’d been staying in touch through my travel blog and email, but it’s just not enough!

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Earth Matters: Hope for those literally in the dumps

Earth Matters: Hope for those literally in the dumps

by Betsy Herbert

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 5/19/16

During the past 12 months I’ve traveled through 36 countries, but it wasn’t until the last leg of my trip in Guatemala City that I encountered a place like Zone 3, infamous as the site of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, the largest landfill in Central America.

In 2009 the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported that 30,000 squatters lived around the 40-acre Guatemala City Garbage Dump. An estimated 7,000 of them are known as guajeros, or trash-pickers, and they depend solely on what they can glean from the dump to make a living. But in the process of scavenging, they are constantly subjected to toxic chemicals, disease and filth.

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A glimpse of Galápagos life before man intervened

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/28/16

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

In month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world, I flew from Quito, Ecuador, 600 miles west to the tiny Pacific island of Baltra in the Galápagos Islands. From Baltra, I took a spectacular cruise on a 75-foot catamaran, exploring six of the islands.

On this eight-day voyage, I was thrilled by the unique natural beauty of this volcanic archipelago. I also learned about some egregious human impacts that have taken a big toll here and the extraordinary efforts underway to reverse them.

The Galápagos, of course, are famed as the site of Charles Darwin’s epic 1835 journey on Captain Robert Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle. The strange wildlife endemic to this place — most notably Galapágos finches and giant tortoises — started Darwin’s wheels turning about natural selection and led to his eventual publication of “The Origin of Species.”

My longtime fascination with the Galápagos is shared with some 150,000 tourists who visit each year. Since 1959, most of the entire land mass of the Galápagos Islands was designated as a national park and as a World Heritage Site protected area. So, tourism is regulated, especially extended cruises, where trips to each island are professionally guided and well-coordinated.

Most of the islands still seem pristine and are incredibly beautiful. We hiked across huge spreads of black Pahoe-Hoe lava dotted with cacti. We got up close to some of the rarest birds in the world, including red-footed boobies, Galápagos finches and flightless cormorants. We plodded alongside huge Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas in the wild.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

We snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and Pacific green turtles and walked among hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the beach like stacks of pancakes.

But, as our guide carefully explained, the monumental efforts now in place to conserve biodiversity on the Galápagos got a late start.

When the first Europeans landed in the Galápagos in 1535, there were no humans living there. The islands’ remoteness, inhospitable terrain and scarcity of water would have made permanent settlement very difficult indeed.

In the 1700s, the Galápagos became a frequent port for whalers, because of the islands’ proximity to prime sperm whale habitat.

In the 1800s, whalers aggressively sought out the slow-moving Galápagos giant tortoise as a food source. Because these reptiles can survive for months without food or water, they could be easily be kept alive on board ship before ending up in the stew pot.

Whalers took more than 100,000 giant tortoises from the islands. As tortoise populations plummeted, whalers looked for a new food source. They released a few goats to one of the islands, intending to return periodically to hunt them.

But the goats, without any natural predators, quickly reached a population of 100,000 that devastated the island’s native flora needed by the tortoises — another step down the path to extinction.

Similar stories have played out throughout the Galápagos with goats, dogs, pigs — and lately, a fly maggot — all continuously being imported by people and wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

In 1959, when the Galápagos Islands was declared a World Heritage site, UNESCO partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to fund research, conservation, and education strategies to protect endemic species of the islands.

Since then, the Galápagos Islands have attracted top conservation scientists and witnessed some of the most extraordinary invasive species eradication projects anywhere. For example, Project Isabela, overseen by Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has eradicated feral goats and pigs from Santiago and Isabela islands.

While tourist dollars help fund conservation efforts, tourists also unwittingly import new invasive species every year. If you go, be prepared to have your baggage inspected!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is taking a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier puts on a show

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 17, 2016

The face of Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier is as tall as a 20-story building. In the background are the Andes and in the foreground is Lake Argentina.

It was Feb. 13 — month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world — and I stood bedazzled in front of the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina. It’s hard to comprehend the size of this aquamarine-tinted mass of ice. It’s 19 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 200 feet tall where its front edge meets Lake Argentina.

Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions, and with good reason. Chances are, if you wait for five or 10 minutes on the park’s viewing deck, you’ll witness the glacier as it drops or calves huge chunks of ice into the lake. This is part of a natural process that occurs as the glacier slowly expands and moves forward down the valley toward the lake.

Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions.

Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions.

Perito Moreno is one of 48 glaciers within the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. A few thousand years ago, glaciers here in the southern Andes covered much larger areas than they do today. They advanced like gargantuan caterpillars, fed by voluminous year-round snowfall characteristic of this part of the world. As they grew and moved slowly downhill, the glaciers eroded the rocky landscape, carving out expansive valleys edged by steep cliffs.

Our group took a small cruise boat onto Lake Argentina — getting as close as we dared — to watch Perito Moreno Glacier as it was calving. Park guides explained that this was a critical time; every three or four years, as the glacier expands forward, it connects to a point of land that juts out from the shore of Lake Argentina.

When the glacier meets this point of land, it forms an ice dam dividing the lake in half. The level of the top half of the lake begins to rise as water collects behind the dam. Eventually, the ice dam gives way, and an enormous surge of water smashes through, roaring down to the bottom half of the lake and thrilling expectant spectators.

Park guides told us that they have a 24-hour web-camera aimed at Perito Moreno’s ice dam and they expected it to break at any time. That day, we were lucky to see the glacier calving chunks as big as houses. Like most of the other observers with their cameras ready, we were hoping to actually witness the collapse of the ice dam ... but it wasn’t to be that day.

Park guides explained that Perito Moreno Glacier is exceptional in yet another way; it is still expanding, despite global warming. Most other glaciers in the world, as well as in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, are shrinking in response to increasing average global temperatures.

Why Perito Moreno Glacier is still expanding while most others are shrinking is still somewhat of a mystery. Every glacier has its own unique line of equilibrium. Above that line, the glacier takes on ice; below the line, it loses ice. Our parks guides explained that, to date, the enormous snow accumulation in the Andes has been enough to keep Perito Moreno growing, even as it loses a tremendous amount of ice at its front.

On March 10, just three weeks after my visit to Perito Moreno Glacier, I was watching the news in Quito, Ecuador, when I learned that the glacier’s great ice dam had just burst, creating an awe-inspiring show of collapsing ice and surging water. You can view the collapse of Perito Moreno’s ice dam on YouTube: https://youtu.be/JBpZvkNuUwU

Cutting-edge research in a tropical paradise

by Betsy Herbert

"Earth Matters," published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 02/18/16

Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here! I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes. My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world. In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time. Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind. Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public. The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050. These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years. “This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward. Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem. I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming. “We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.” That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.” Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.  

Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed

In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!

I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.

My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.

In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.

Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.

Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.

The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.

These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.

“This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.

Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.

I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.

“We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”

That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

Flying like a bird to support forest restoration

by Betsy Herbert

Earth Matters column, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 01/22/16

Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Up 120 feet in the forest canopy last week, I launched off a platform surrounding a towering 1,000-year-old kauri tree in Dansey Forest, Roturua, New Zealand. Holding onto my harness straps, I pushed off with my feet, surrendered my weight to the zipline, and went flying 720 feet through the treetops. About halfway through the flight, I let go of the harness, leaned back and spread out my arms. Exhilarating!

I had a little help of course. I was part of a group of 10 zipliners led by guides Scott and Kathy, locals employed by nonprofit Rotorua Canopy Tours.

During our three-hour adventure, we whizzed over .75 miles of ziplines, traversed three swinging bridges, and hung out on five tree platforms, all the while learning about the plight of New Zealand’s native birds and the group’s ongoing efforts to help them survive. By the time the tour ended, I was glad to know that a portion of my ticket price would be invested in supporting these efforts.

Kathy explained that 51 bird species endemic to New Zealand including the moa and other flightless birds are now extinct, while many other species are in decline. Because New Zealand birds evolved in isolation when there were no existing land mammals to prey on them, they never developed natural defenses needed to fend off introduced mammals.

While humans hunted the moa and other large birds, the nail in the coffin for many extinct bird species was the introduction of exotic mammals such as the possum, rat and stoat (a type of weasel). Fur traders introduced the possum because of its value in pelts, the rat came into New Zealand as a stowaway on ships, and the stoat was introduced in hopes that it would prey on rabbits, which were themselves introduced earlier with prolifically tragic results.

Some of the favorite foods of the possum are the new growth on New Zealand’s native trees and the eggs of its native birds. There are now some 30 million possums in New Zealand, so their impact is astounding.

The rat also likes to eat native birds, as well as the seeds and fruits of the native trees, inhibiting their ability to propagate. Perhaps worst of all is the stoat; once introduced to New Zealand, the stoat lost its taste for rabbits and instead took to preying on native birds, especially the kiwi, New Zealand’s national icon.

As all of these exotic mammals were being introduced, New Zealand’s native forests were being decimated by logging and slowly replaced with introduced tree species like Monterey pine, which is now the country’s leading commercial timber tree. As native forests were replaced with exotic tree plantations or converted to farmland, the habitat of New Zealand’s native birds took a huge hit.

What could be done to turn this around? The founders of Rotorua Canopy Tours, James Fitzgerald and Andrew Blackford, decided to create a successful eco-tourism business to support the active trapping and killing of possums, rats and stoats on this 1,235 acre Dansey Forest to bring back native bird populations. The group joined into a partnership with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which owns the land.

Their efforts have paid off. After testing different kinds of traps, the company now has installed more than 1,000 instant kill and humane traps in the forest. To date, 10 percent of the Dansey Forest is free from these exotic predators. Zipliners can now hear the birdsongs of the native North Island robin, the tomtit, tui, and the kaka, which are returning to the forest.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Western Australia: Dolphins, dead ‘roos, and dazzling coastline

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/17/2015

Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Just 10 days ago I was lazing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, reflecting on my travels over the past three months in Africa and Asia. The next day I boarded a plane in Bangkok, headed for Perth, Australia.

Ah, Australia! I’d be able to drink tap water without worrying about getting sick. I was also looking forward to renting a car. In Africa and Asia, driving a rental car would have been suicidal for a Westerner.

Decades ago, I’d lived in Australia for about seven months, so I’d visited Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Uluru and Darwin.

This time I wanted to see parts of Australia I’d missed before, so I started in Perth and drove up Indian Ocean Road and Route 60, along the sparsely populated Turquoise and Batavia coasts. The roads in this part of Western Australia are well maintained and there is little traffic other than huge “road trains” of triple-trailer trucks.

Countless turnouts allowed me to observe the astounding desert and coastal landscapes here. The Pinnacles rock formations in Nambung National Park rise out of bright yellow sand dunes. Further north, the natural bridges of Kilbarri National Park rival those of Utah. But in this part of Australia, the red rocks contrast spectacularly with blinding-white sandy beaches and the crystal clear blue-green Indian Ocean. To add to the eye-candy, many of the shrubs of the coastal heath, including hakea and banksia were still blooming, thanks to some late spring rains.

Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

I was saddened that the only kangaroos I saw on this trip were dead ones; the roadkill was shockingly plentiful. On one 50-kilometer stretch I saw at least 10 dead ‘roos on the side of the road. Almost every car in these parts has a hefty grill protector mounted across its front.

After another 400 kilometers, I crossed the 26th Parallel, which officially marks the boundary of Australia’s Northern Territory. Soon after, I reached Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, where the world’s largest spread of sea grass provides wonderful habitat for dolphins, dugongs, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtles, tiger sharks, and manta rays, to mention a few well-known megafauna.

Monkey Mia, a beach at Sharks Bay, is renowned for its daily visits from wild bottlenose dolphins. The park rangers there can identify each individual dolphin by the scars and outline of its dorsal fin.

I took a half-day cruise on Shotover, a 60-foot racing catamaran, which is now used for sea life spotting expeditions in Shark Bay. Our boat was accompanied at times by pods of dolphins, most of whom first mate Kate knew by name. We also caught glimpses of dugongs and green sea turtles.

Shark Bay is like a living laboratory where you can view the Earth’s oldest surviving organisms, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. Stromatolites are limestone structures resembling meter-wide cow pies. Each is formed over thousands of years by single-celled blue-green algae, which thrive in extremely salty water.

Though they’ve been around for some 3,500 million years, stromatolites still survive at Hamelin Pool only because of the high salinity of the bay here. These conditions are created by Shark Bay’s huge seagrass meadows, which form sand bars and shallow bays where water evaporates quickly in the hot dry climate allowing salt to build up.

No wonder Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Thailand’s efforts to help endangered Asian elephant

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 19, 2015

Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

After camping among wild African elephants in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, last September, I greatly anticipated visiting wild Asian elephants in Thailand this month. But when I arrived, I found that finding wild elephants in this country is a little tricky.

Like their larger African cousins, Asian elephants are a highly endangered species. According to the the American Museum of Natural History, hundreds of thousands of elephants roamed Asia until only about 100 years ago. Today, they have been wiped out from large areas of India, Southeast Asia and China, leaving fewer than 50,000.

I found three great places to visit Asian elephants in northern Thailand, all about an hour’s drive from the city of Chang Mai. Trouble is, the elephants in these places are not exactly wild. That’s because 95 percent of Thailand’s elephants are living in captivity, and nobody really knows how many wild elephants are left.

A friend and I drove to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the densely forested hills near Lampang. The TECC is a government-sponsored elephant camp that houses more than 50 Asian elephants (including six of the Thai Royal family’s white elephants). TECC seeks to educate tourists about the plight of elephants and to raise money for their conservation.

We watched the elephants bathe and frolic with their trainers in the creek flowing through the TECC grounds — truly a highlight of this trip!

After bathing, about a dozen elephants were led to a ring where they performed before an audience of some 200 tourists. They bowed as they were introduced one by one and did some cute tricks like removing the hats of their trainers. Later on, the elephants demonstrated how in the past, they were used to drag enormous logs out of the forest and stack them with their trunks. Elephants are no longer used by the timber industry because the Thai government banned logging in natural forests throughout the country in 1989.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the timber industry greatly increased logging of native teak and other tropical hardwoods in Thailand for export. Loggers began capturing and training large numbers of wild elephants to haul and stack logs. At the same time, this extensive logging destroyed much of the elephants’ natural forest habitat.

In 1988, Thailand experienced its worst flooding in 300 years, due to unsustainable logging and extensive forest clearing to create more agricultural land. So, in 1989 the Thai government banned logging in all natural forests in the country.

This ban put loggers as well as elephants out of work. Maybe not such a bad thing if the elephants could return to their natural habitats, but there was no place left for them to go.

In 1997, the Thai government founded the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center to help care for these “unemployed” elephants. The center advocates using elephants in tourism to provide income to care for them. Tourists can pay to ride the elephants after they pay to watch them perform.

Another organization, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is operated as a nonprofit to provide a natural sanctuary to treat and protect elephants from the sometimes harsh treatment in tourism as well as logging. They seek to re-introduce rescued elephants into the wild.

Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Finally, the Thai Elephant Hospital, sponsored by Friends of the Asian Elephant, rescues and treats injured elephants. When we visited, we were introduced to Motala, a 50-year-old female elephant who was badly injured, like many others, by a land mine as she was working in the forest. The hospital manufactures prosthetic devices to fit these elephants like Motala to enable them to walk.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. Read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website (www.betsyherbert.com).