Celebrating the wonder of snow on World Snow Day

Today, 20 January, is World Snow Day. Given that there’s much more snow falling in winter in the Northern Hemisphere than the relative sprinkling we typically get here in our Southern winters, I suppose it only makes sense to align World Snow Day with the northern snow season. But it still feels kinda strange to celebrate snow in January when you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Having said that, I’m sure many parts of Australia, currently experiencing their hottest summer in history, would not mind a miraculous bit of snow today!

Having fun in the snow during a mountain hike. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the only ways to celebrate natural snow in January in the Southern Hemisphere is hiking high up in the mountains, above the snow line.
(© All Rights Reserved)

World Snow Day was started by the International Ski Federation, FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), as the second phase in their “Bring Children to the Snow” campaign to promote snow and snow-sports around the world. The campaign started with “Snowkids” in 2009, which introduced children in FIS member countries to snow sports. With World Snow Day, the idea is to go beyond the FIS countries and to “celebrate all things snow around the world simultaneously”, with a specific focus placed on young people in the 4-14 age category.

2013 is the first time World Snow Day is celebrated, but the plan is to have it staged annually for years to come. The day is themed around three E’s – Explore (discover something new), Enjoy (have fun in and on the snow) and Experience (generate great memories and inspiration to continue enjoying the snow).

Having personally never lived in a region where snow is common, I have to admit the concept of snow sports completely passed me by as a kid. But that did not diminish my fascination with snow one bit – perhaps when you don’t grow up with snow around you, the fascination with curious icy flakes falling from the sky is even greater than when it is a commonplace occurrence.

Water vapour cooling down to form miniature ice crystals, that start to combine as they fall to form intricately shaped snowflakes – often amazingly complex hexagonal plates – that float down to the ground to create snow that can be up to meters deep. How magic is that? No wonder snow holds such fascination. And of course for any kid the best part of it is that the world becomes one giant playground… and if it snows enough, there’s even the possibility of missing school!

Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.(© All Rights Reserved)
Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I can just hear some grown-ups complaining about the ‘joys’ of cleaning driveways, commuting etc in heavy snow, and the mess made when snow turns to icy sludge. Very true, it’s not all fun and games, but then again World Snow Day is aimed primarily at the youngsters, so perhaps from a grown-up point of view this is a great day to not complain about the snow, and to just enjoy the pure wonder of it.

World Soil Day and the promotion of soil security

In 2002 the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) declared 5 December as World Soil Day. Soil may not be glamorous, but it is a key component of our natural system, and a critical contributor to food, water and energy security through its role in mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change.

Soil - a very undervalued resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Soil – a very undervalued resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Soil is vital to grow our food, to keep our livestock alive, and to keep our forests growing, which in turn keeps our environment healthy. On a human time scale, soils is a non-renewable resource, so sound soil management is extremely important. Sadly, despite this, soil is not high on most environmental decision making agendas – it is not a topic that makes for striking news headlines or wins elections.

Another factor pushing soil further down the agenda is increased urbanisation – with an ever growing percentage of the world population living in cities, soil is becoming less and less of a reality to most people.

World Soil Day aims to address this situation, by trying to raise the profile of soil and make people aware of the role it plays in a range of ecosystems.

Secure soil is the basis of a secure environment. In the words of American novelist and conservationist Wendell Berry, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Cloud seeding: Making your own rain and snow

Today, 13 November, marks the date back in 1946 when Vincent J Schaefer, American chemist and meteorologist, performed the first cloud seeding experiment, artificially inducing snow by sprinkling clouds with pellets of dry ice from an airplane.

While this first attempt was not completely successful – the artificially created snow evaporated as it fell through the dry air and disappeared before it hit the ground – it showed that the concept of cloud seeding is possible. This resulted in the GE Research Laboratory (where Schaefer was working at the time) receiving funding for further research into cloud seeding and weather modification.

New Zealand – getting enough rain and snow the natural way!
(© All Rights Reserved)

While initial experiments in cloud seeding was done using dry ice, later substances used include silver iodide, liquid propane and, more recently, salt. Cloud seeding has been done to different extents around the world, in Asia, North America, Europe, Australia and Africa, with China having the world’s largest commercial operation in this domain.

In some of the most recent experimental work in the field of cloud seeding, German scientists at the University of Geneva experimented with firing short infrared laser pulses into the air, the idea being that the pulses might encourage the formation of atmospheric particles which could act as seeding particles in the clouds. According to lead researcher Jerome Kasparian, “the laser pulses generate clouds by stripping electrons from atoms in air, which encourage the formation of hydroxyl radicals. Those convert sulphur and nitrogen dioxides in air into particles that act as seeds to grow water droplets.”

While this work is still at an experimental stage, it has shown promising results in laboratory conditions. A field experiment, where the pulses were aimed at the skies over Berlin, has also shown notable increases in the density and size of water droplets in the area, when measured using weather LIDAR and it is believed that, using the right frequencies and intensities, generation of rain by this means might become a real possibility.

This really feels like science fiction, doesn’t it? Quite incredible to imagine, really!

And of course it immediately reminded me of Kate Bush’s song ‘Cloudbusting’. So herewith, in commemoration of the pioneering work of Vincent Schaefer, father of cloud seeding, the wonderful short film produced for ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush and Terry Gilliam, starring Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich and Bush as his young son Peter.

Enjoy!

Some damming thoughts on World Rivers Day

Since 2005, the last Sunday of September has been celebrated annually as World Rivers Day. This global celebration of the rivers around the world is aimed at highlighting the value of rivers and the importance of sustaining river health. Global activities include riverside cleanups, school projects, art exhibitions, music festivals and more.

World Rivers Day originated in Canada, where a very successful BC Rivers Day, held in British Columbia since 1980, led to the creation of Canadian Rivers Day. This eventually gave rise to World Rivers Day, launched in 2005 as part of the United Nations’ Water for Life Decade initiative.

The Fish River Canyon, Namibia. Rivers are the arteries of the earth – keeping them clean, unblocked and free-flowing is critical for the health of the planet.
(© All Rights Reserved)

According to the World Rivers Day website, the two key global issues requiring attention are the decline of river fish populations and the construction of dams.

The construction of large dams in rivers can have severe environmental, economic and human impacts.

Environmentally, one of the biggest issues relate to the impact of dams on fish populations – dam walls block fish migrations and in some cases completely separate the fish’s spawning habitats from their rearing habitats, which can have disasterous effects on river fish populations. The dam walls also trap sediments, affecting physical processes and habitats downstream. The establishment of a dam also changes the upstream part of the river from a free-flowing ecosystem to a stationary reservoir habitat, affecting it chemically and physically, threatening existing fauna and flora and introducing new, invasive species. To quote the International Rivers Organisation, “Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forest, wetland and farmland, erosion of coastal deltas, and many other unmitigable impacts.”

Large dams are an important source of hydropower and drinking water, but they can have negative economic impacts as well. Aside from the huge cost of building and maintaining these dams, excessive dependence on hydropower can be a risky strategy in a world where climate change can severely affect rainfall patterns, potentially leading to drought induced power blackouts. While hydropower is an important sustainable power source, and an important part of an energy-secure future, it should be included as one component in a diversified power supply regime (including wind, solar etc) to mitigate economic risk.

Finally, there is the human impact, with the World Commission on Dams estimating that the development of large dams have forced between 40 and 80 million people from their land in the past half century. This has particularly impacted the poorer countries of the world, where most of the world’s large dams are being constructed. Beyond those directly displaced by the dam reservoir, large dams affect millions of people living downstream and upstream from the dam, as availability of clean water, food sources and other natural resources have been affected. Changed ecosystems, particularly in the tropics, have also resulted in the introduction of diseases like urinary and intestinal schistosomiasis (bilharzia).

The Gariep Dam, South Africa. Dams are critical sources of energy and continuous water supply, but can also severely affect river-related ecosystems.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Considering the importance of dams in energy creation, provision of drinking water etc, a balance obviously has to be struck between the advantages and disadvantages of building dams. Perhaps the key message lies in the following recommendation from the World Commission on Dams:

“Rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are the biological engines of the planet. They are the basis for life and the livelihoods of local communities. Dams transform landscapes and create risks of irreversible impacts. Understanding, protecting and restoring ecosystems at river basin level is essential to foster equitable human development and the welfare of all species.

Options assessment and decision-making around river development prioritises the avoidance of impacts, followed by the minimisation and mitigation of harm to the health and integrity of the river system. Avoiding impacts through good site selection and project design is a priority. Releasing tailor-made environmental flows can help maintain downstream ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.”

Give Mother Earth a break on Zero Emissions Day

Care for the health and wellbeing of Mother Earth? Then today is a good day to show her how you feel – it’s Zero Emissions Day, time to take a 24 hr holiday from fossil fuel energy.

Zero Emissions Day (ZeDay) celebrates it’s 5th birthday in 2012, and this year the theme is ‘Reboot!’. As the ZeDay website says, “Shut down everything non-essential powered by fossil fuels for a day – press reset – and then start up fresh. ZeDay 2012 marks our new beginning and you can help make it happen…”

This is what we’re doing to the environment with our energy-hungry lifestyles.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The idea is simple – don’t burn oil, gas or coal and minimize your electricity use – do this for just one day. The amount of energy consumed by modern society is staggering, with more and more power-hungry devices becoming part of our daily lives – ebook readers replacing books, tablets replacing notepads, GPS devices replacing maps, smartphones replacing personal contact… The list goes on. And all these devices need to be charged and powered… And all this power needs to be generated… And the bulk of the electricity generated globally is still fossil-fuel based, with only a small percentage generated through renewable sources such as water and wind.

The purpose of ZeDay is to give the earth a ‘rest day’ – from biblical times, the idea of a day of rest at regular intervals was promoted as a good thing, and with the pace of life increasing to the point where we simply don’t slow down anymore, re-instituting the rest day concept is a very necessary. We all need a chance to shut down and reboot every now and then, and the same applies to the environment. The date of 21 September was selected to coincide with the United Nations International Day of Peace.

Take a break, and give Mother Nature a breather as well.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Realistically, completely avoiding the consumption of any fossil-fuel generated energy for 24 hours is almost unthinkable – no driving, no cooking, no hot water, no computers, no TV, radio or Internet – and people who have done it have reported the experience to be ‘profoundly transformative’. Definitely something to strive towards – even if it’s too late to do it today, seeing that the day is already halfway through, nothing stops us from celebrating our own private ZeDay on any other date. In fact, if you can achieve more than one a year, even better. Admittedly many people will never quite go this far, but even if the day just acts as a reminder that we can all do our bit to limit our energy consumption in daily life, it would already be a victory for Mother Earth.

Go one, try it – imagine how good it’ll make you feel about yourself!

(OK, I should switch off now…)

Celebrating the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today, 16 September, is a critically important day for this little planet of ours – it’s World Ozone Day, or to be more precise, the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.

The day was officially proclaimed as one of the United Nations’ International Observances in 1994, falling under the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The date was specifically selected to commemorate the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer on 16 September 1987, marking this year as the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol.

So why is the preservation of the ozone so important? I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than my basic understanding of the subject, but in essence the ozone in the stratosphere plays a critical role in absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore ozone in the lower atmosphere also plays a role in removing pollutants from the air.

Not a pretty picture.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now as we humans are prone to do, many of our actions are not all that considerate of the health of the earth, and can be very detrimental to the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol aimed to identify and address substances and actions that contribute to the depletion of the ozone in the atmosphere, and is one of the great examples of international cooperation towards a global good. As an outcome of the Protocol, the phasing out of the use of ozone depleting substances is helping protect the ozone layer for generations to come. The international awareness created through the Montreal Protocol has also contributed to a greater appreciation and awareness of the effects of climate change on the earth.

To help create continued awareness, UNEP’s OzonAction Programme has developed a Public Service Announcement (PSA) video, in 6 UN languages, for global broadcasting and viral distribution.  The English announcement is embedded below, while links to the Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish announcements can be found here.

 

For more information, the UN website provides some very interesting general background on ozone preservation, as well as information of some ozone depleting substances in different industry sectors.

Protecting our atmosphere (and environment) for generations to come.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In celebration of World Ozone Day, take a minute today to appreciate the ozone layer and how it contributes to the world and the environment as we know it. Not only does it protect us humans from life threatening cancer-causing UVB radiation, but it is also critical for plant health, marine ecosystems and terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemical cycles.

The theme of this year’s event is “Protecting our atmosphere for generations to come” – surely a cause well worth supporting and celebrating.

Brrrr! Celebrating the coldest day ever

Today we celebrate an event that may be somewhat unthinkable on this day to our Northern Hemisphere friends, especially everyone suffering in the US heat. On this day, back in 1983, the coldest ever temperature on earth was recorded at Vostok Station, Antarctica.

So how cold was it? Well, believe it or not, but exactly 19 years ago, the poor folk at Vostok Station recorded an icy -89.2°C (-128.6°F).

Ice crystals on a frozen stream.
(© All Rights Reserved)

That’s pretty darn chilly…  Certainly not a temperature you want to be exposed to for any length of time.  Prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures has some interesting effects on the body.

Goose pimples and shivers

When the temperature falls below 8°C, touch sensitivity starts being compromised.  Goose pimples appear, lifting hair follicles as the body tries to protect itself from the cold. Unfortunately this does not help us humans much, because we don’t have enough body hair to have a significant effect, but you can imagine how this can be very useful to an animal with a dense fur coat.

The next step is shivering, as the body starts to increase its heat production by working the muscles – shivering is said to increase the body’s heat production five-fold.

Skin discolouration

Your skin also starts doing strange things. From below 10°C, the surface blood vessels start to dilate (your skin becomes red). As it gets colder, the blood vessels start constricting again, to avoid heat loss through your extremities. This is followed by alternating periods of dilation and constriction, as the body tries to balance the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the skin, with protection from heat loss. So you may start sporting an interesting blend of red and white skin tones.

Frostbite

During extended exposure to cold, the body has to start making decisions on how its available heat should be best applied.  In order to keep vital organs warm and avoid hypothermia, our extremities – fingers, feet, ears, nose – will be allowed to cool down, and blood flow to the extremities will also be reduced (to avoid blood cooling down as it circulates to the extremities). If this situation persists, it can lead to frost-bite, where the cells close to the skin surface start freezing and die. When heat returns to these cells, it results in swelling and blisters, forming a hardened black layer.

In extreme conditions, the frostbite can reach deeper layers of muscle and bone, resulting in permanent tissue damage, and ultimately amputation of body parts – a fate that has befallen many polar explorers and extreme mountaineers.

Hypothermia

Even though the body will do its best to maintain its core temperature, even sacrificing body parts in the process, it cannot keep up the heat if exposure to extreme cold continues.  Next the body will slow its metabolism to minimize blood flow and limit energy loss. At some point, however, the body core starts to cool, and hypothermia sets in. Not much of a core drop is needed for this – clinically, hypothermia sets in when the core temperature drops below 35°C.

First symptoms of hypothermia include reduced motor skills and slowed reaction times. Judgment also becomes impaired, with the dangerous result that the hypothermia sufferer may lose the ability to recognize the condition.

As the core temperature drops below 35°C, the body starts shivering more violently in an attempt to reverse the situation. You get more sluggish and tired, with a strong need to give up and go to sleep. Below 32°C the shivering stops, as there is no energy to keep it going, resulting in even quicker heat loss.

Unconsciousness sets in when the body core drops below 30°C. In a final primal attempt to avoid death, the heart rate and breathing slows down severely, to the point where the metabolism is so slow that the sufferer basically appears to be dead.

Below 28°C cardiac arrhythmias become more common. If the sufferer has not yet died, the heart finally stops beating at a core temperature of about 20°C.

Gender and age matters

Interestingly, women can survive extreme cold better than men. The temperature gradient from skin to body core is greater in women – women’s bodies will more readily allow the skin surface and extremities to cool down, while better protecting core temperature. So while a woman may sooner suffer frostbite, her warm core is likely to keep her alive longer. Women also tent to have a higher subcutaneous fat percentage, further helping to protect core temperature.

Age also plays a role, with people losing their ability to handle extreme cold as they age. Children are more likely to recover from the effects of extreme hypothermia – their organs appear less likely to be affected by physical stresses that may be fatal to older organs.

(Source: Science of the Cold)

Brrrrrr! Chilling stuff!  Suddenly the chilly New Zealand mornings seem decidedy mild. Enjoy the weather – whether you’re basking in the northern summer heat or shivering in the southern winter cold.  It could have been worse!