Tag Archives: climate change

“Green” investment funds spring back

An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, California, U.S. on December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ross Kerber
May, 2017

BOSTON (Reuters) – After U.S. President Donald Trump’s election last November, investors pulled nearly $68 million (53 million pounds) from so-called “green” mutual funds, reflecting fear that his pro-coal agenda would hurt renewable energy firms.

But now investors are pouring money back in, boosting net deposits in 22 green funds to nearly $83 million in the first four months of 2017, according to data from Thomson Reuters’ Lipper unit.

Investors’ renewed faith in the funds reflects a growing belief the president will not succeed in reviving the coal industry and will not target the government subsidies that underpin renewable power, which have bipartisan support.

It also sends a positive sign for the wind, solar and energy efficiency firms and make up a large portion of the green-fund portfolios.

The coal industry faces problems in the marketplace that are too big for any government to solve, said Murray Rosenblith, a portfolio manager for the $209 million New Alternatives Fund, among the U.S. green funds seeing investor inflows.

“Trump can’t bring back coal,” he said. “There’s nothing that can bring it back.”

A Reuters survey of some 32 utilities in Republican states last month showed that none plan to increase coal use as a result of Trump’s policies. Many planned to continue a shift to cheaper and cleaner alternatives, including wind and solar.

A White House official did not respond to a request for comment about the administration’s efforts to boost coal or its position on wind and solar subsidies.

Lipper classifies “green” funds as those with screening or investment strategies that are based solely on environmental criteria. Many make it a point to avoid purchasing shares of traditional oil, gas or mining companies.

For a graphic showing the turnaround in green-fund investments, see: http://tmsnrt.rs/2qPISl4

The funds, while still an investment niche, have become increasingly popular over the past decade amid rising worries about climate change. They tend to draw younger and more environmentally minded investors who see profits in the burgeoning renewable power industry.

“Solar and wind power are creating a lot of jobs. There is a long-term secular trend taking place,” said Joe Keefe, Chief Executive of Pax World Management LLC, whose $418 million Pax Global Environmental Markets fund is one of the biggest in the green fund sector.

Solar firms employed about 374,000 workers in 2016, while the wind industry employed 101,738. Combined, they produced job growth of about 25 percent over 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The average fund among the group of 22 green funds tracked by Lipper posted a six-month return of 9.37 percent. That lagged the S&P 500 index’s 12.14 percent, excluding dividends, over the same period through April 30, but beat the S&P’s oil and gas index, along with several major coal companies which have slumped since the election.

The growth helped boost the group’s combined assets under management to $2.4 billion by the end of April, up from $2.1 billion in November, according to the data.

Tom Roseen, Lipper’s head of research, said the inflows into green funds could reflect value-shopping after the election triggered an initial sell-off in the solar and wind energy sectors.

He cited solar module maker First Solar Inc, a popular stock among green funds, trading at about $39.50 a share, far off the highs above $70 it reached last year but up more than 35 percent from a drop it suffered after the election.

TRUMP SCEPTICS

A GE 1.6-100 wind turbine (front C) is pictured at a wind farm in Tehachapi, California, U.S. on June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File photo

Trump campaigned on a promise to revive the ailing oil and coal industries, in part by dismantling former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

He also vowed to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight climate change, a promise White House officials said Trump is now reconsidering, under pressure from lawmakers, global allies, and scores of major oil, coal and other companies.

Trump’s more conservative supporters – including the man who led his transition at the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell – have complained about the slow pace of progress in dismantling Obama-era climate initiatives.

While many drilling and mining companies have applauded Trump’s efforts, some investors are sceptical that repealing climate regulation will provide a big boost to fossil fuels.

The government subsidies that are crucial for growth of wind and solar power, meanwhile, seem to enjoy bipartisan support in Congress.

Existing tax credits for solar and wind projects were extended for five years at the end of 2015 by a Republican-controlled Congress. A number of Republican lawmakers represent states with burgeoning wind and solar industries, such as Texas and North Dakota.

Trump administration policy has yet to affect renewable energy firms – and may not affect them much going forward, said Mike Garland, Chief Executive of wind farm owner Pattern Energy Group Inc..

“Most investors are starting to realize that the federal government is limited in its impact and the risk to (green energy subsidies) is relatively low,” he said.

Pattern’s stock has gained 20 percent since the beginning of the year, after falling 10 percent between the November election and the end of 2016.

Many of the green funds tracked by Lipper are heavily invested in renewable energy companies with overseas operations that reduce their exposure to U.S. politics.

One of the top holdings of Rosenblith’s fund, for example, is Vestas Wind Systems, the Danish company that produces and services wind turbines. If U.S. policies turned against wind power, Vestas could still expect strong demand elsewhere, Rosenblith said.

A number of exchange-traded funds focused on renewable energy also attracted money this year, led by Guggenheim Investments’ Solar ETF, which took in $28.5 million.

Its top holdings include Arizona-based First Solar and China’s Xinyi Solar Holdings.

William Belden, Guggenheim’s head of ETF business development, said the inflows suggest that “some of the early responses to the Trump administration were overdone.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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The terrifying mathematics of the Anthropocene

By Owen Gaffney and Will Steffen,
February, 2017

Here are some surprising facts about humans’ effect on planet Earth. We have made enough concrete to create an exact replica of Earth 2mm thick. We have produced enough plastic to wrap Earth in clingfilm. We are creating “technofossils”, a new term for congealed human-made materials – plastics and concretes – that will be around for tens of millions of years.

But it is the scale that humans have altered Earth’s life support system that is the most concerning.

In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that human impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and ice sheets had reached such a scale that it had pushed Earth into a new epoch. They called it the Anthropocene and argued the current Holocene epoch was over.

The Holocene began 11,700 years ago as we emerged from a deep ice age. Over the past 10,000 years, the defining feature of the Holocene has been a remarkably stable Earth system. This stability has allowed us to develop agriculture and hence villages, towns and eventually cities – human civilisation.

We use pretty powerful rhetoric to describe the Anthropocene and current human impact. As The Economist stated in 2011, humanity has “become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale”. We are like an asteroid strike. We have the impact of an ice age.

But what does this really mean? Does it mean, for example, that we are having as big an impact as these natural forces are having right now, or is it, somehow, more profound?

Humans: the new asteroids.
Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

The maths of the Anthropocene

In our recent study, we wanted to find the simplest way to mathematically describe the Anthropocene and articulate the difference between how the planet once functioned and how it now functions.

Life on Earth, the chemical and physical composition of the atmosphere and oceans, and the size of the ice sheets have changed over time because of slight alterations to Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes to the sun’s energy output or major asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Cyanobacteria changed the world; now it’s our turn.
Matthew J Parker, CC BY-SA

They can also change due to geophysical forces: continents collide, cutting off ocean currents so heat is distributed in a new way, upsetting climate and biodiversity.

They also shift due to sheer internal dynamics of the system – new life evolves to drive great planetary shifts, such as the Great Oxidation Event around 2.5 billion years ago when newly evolved cyanobacteria began emitting the deadly poison oxygen that killed all simple life forms it came in touch with. Life had to evolve to tolerate oxygen.

Taking as our starting point a 1999 article by Earth system scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, we can say the rate of change of the Earth system (E) has been driven by three things: astronomical forcings such as those from the sun or asteroids; geophysical forcing, for example changing currents; and internal dynamics, such as the evolution of cyanobacteria. Let’s call them A, G and I.

Mathematically, we can put it like this:

It reads: the rate of change of the Earth system (dE/dt) is a function of astronomical and geophysical forcings and internal dynamics. It is a very simple statement about the main drivers of the system.

This equation has been true for four billion years, since the first life evolved. In his article, Schellnhuber argued that people must be added into this mix, but his theory came before the full impact of humanity had been assessed. In the past few decades, this equation has been radically altered.

We are losing biodiversity at rates tens to hundreds of times faster than natural rates. Indeed, we are approaching mass extinction rates. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The last killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, now humans are causing the sixth.

The rate we are emitting carbon dioxide might be at an all time high since that time too. Global temperatures are rising at a rate 170 times faster than the Holocene baseline. The global nitrogen cycle is undergoing its largest and most rapid change in possibly 2.5 billion years.

In fact, the rate of change of the Earth system under human influence in the past four decades is so significant we can now show that the equation has become:

H stands for humanity. In the Anthropocene Equation, the rate of change of the Earth system is a function of humanity.

A, G and I are now approaching zero relative to the other big force – us – they have become essentially negligible. We are now the dominant influence on the stability and resilience of the planet we call home.

This is worth a little reflection. For four billion years, the Earth system changed under the influence of tremendous solar-system wide forces of nature. Now this no longer holds.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland

A new reality

Heavenly bodies of course still exert some force; so does the ground beneath our feet. But the rates at which these forces operate are now negligible compared with the rate at which we are changing the Earth system. In the 1950s or 1960s, our own impact rivalled the great forces of nature. Now it usurps them entirely.

This should come as a shock not only to environmentalists but to everyone on Earth. But our conclusion is arguably a modest addition to the canon of academic literature. The scale and rate of change has already been well established by Earth system scientists over the past two decades.

Recently, Mark Williams and colleagues argued that the Anthropocene represents the third new era in Earth’s biosphere, and astrobiologist David Grinspoon argued that the Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s “life”, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.

Still, formalising the Anthropocene mathematically brings home an entirely new reality.

The drama is heightened when we consider that for much of Earth’s history the planet has been either very hot – a greenhouse world – or very cold – an icehouse world. These appear to be the deeply stable states lasting millions of years and resistant to even quite major shoves from astronomical or geophysical forces.

But the past 2.5 million years have been uncharacteristically unstable, periodically flickering from cold to a gentle warmth.

The consumption vortex

So, who do we mean when we talk of H? Some will argue that we cannot treat humanity as one homogenous whole. We agree.

While all of humanity is now in the Anthropocene, we are not all in it in the same way. Industrialised societies are the reason we have arrived at this place, not Inuits in northern Canada or smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

Others may say that natural forces are too important to ignore; for example, the El Niño weather system periodically changes patterns globally and causes Earth to warm for a year or so, and the tides generate more energy than all of humanity. But a warm El Niño is balanced by a cool La Niña. The tides and other great forces of nature are powerful but stable. Overall, they do not affect the rate of change of the Earth system.

Now, only a truly catastrophic volcanic eruption or direct asteroid hit could match us for impact.

So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved? The current rate of change must return to around zero as soon as possible. It cannot continue indefinitely. Either humanity puts on the brakes or it would seem unlikely a global civilisation will continue to function on a destabilised planet. The choice is ours.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Owen Gaffney is an Anthropocene analyst and communicator, co-founder of theFuture Earth Media Lab, and Director of media at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.  Will Steffen is Adjunct Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Hunting, fishing, farming biggest threats to wildlife

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

By Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland 
August 13, 2016

History might judge the Paris climate agreement to be a watershed for all humanity. If nations succeed in halting runaway climate change, this will have enormous positive implications for life on Earth.

Yet as the world applauds a momentous shift toward carbon neutrality and hope for species threatened by climate change, we can’t ignore the even bigger threats to the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Climate change threatens 19% of globally threatened and near-threatened species – including Australia’s critically endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog. It’s a serious conservation issue.

Yet our new study, published in Nature, shows that by far the largest current hazards to biodiversity are overexploitation and agriculture.

The biggest threats to the world’s wildlife
Sean Maxwell et al.

The cost of overexploitation and agriculture

We assessed nearly 9,000 species listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. We found that 72% are threatened by overexploitation and 62% by agriculture.

Overexploitation (the unsustainable harvest of species from the wild) is putting more species on an extinction pathway than any other threat.

And the expansion and intensification of agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees) is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss.

Hunting and gathering is a threat to more than 1,600 species, including many large carnivores such as tigers and snow leopards.

Unsustainable logging is driving the decline of more than 4,000 species, such as Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum, while more than 1,000 species, including southern bluefin tuna, are losing out to excessive fishing pressure.

Land change for crop farming and timber plantations imperils more than 5,300 species, such as the far eastern curlew, while the northern hairy-nosed wombat is one of more than 2,400 species affected by livestock farming and aquaculture.

The threat information used to inform our study is the most comprehensive available. But it doesn’t tell the complete story.

Threats are likely to change in the future. Climate change, for example, will become increasingly problematic for many species in coming decades.

Moreover, threats to biodiversity rarely operate in isolation. More than 80% of the species we assessed are facing more than one major threat.

Through threat interactions, smaller threats can indirectly drive extinction risk. Roads and energy production, for example, are known to facilitate the emergence of overexploitation, land modification and habitat loss.

But until we have a better understanding of how threats interact, a pragmatic course of action is to limit those impacts that are currently harming the most species.

By ensuring that major threats that occur today (overexploitation, agriculture and so on) do not compromise ecosystems tomorrow, we can help to ameliorate the challenges presented by impending climate change.

Getting it right

Overexploitation and agriculture demand a variety of conservation approaches. Traditional approaches, such as well-placed protected areas and the enforcement of hunting, logging and fishing regulations, remain the strongest defence against the ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers.

Achieving a truly effective protected area network is impossible, however, when governments insist on relegating protected areas to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses.

Reducing impacts from overexploitation of forests and fish is also futile unless industries that employ clearfell logging and illegal fishing vessels transition to more environmentally sustainable practices.

Just as critical as traditional approaches are incentives for hunters, fishers and farmers to conserve threatened species outside designated conservation areas.

Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum remains threatened by logging.
Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For nations like Australia, our study shows there is a growing mismatch in environmental policy and the outcomes for biodiversity. Environmental programs such as the once well-funded National Reserve System Strategy and Biodiversity Fund were important in that they helped conserve wildlife on private and public land, and were fundamental to defeating the biggest, prevailing threats to Australia’s biodiversity. But these programs either do not exist anymore or have little funding to support them at state and federal levels.

On top of this, land-clearing – without doubt one of the largest threats to biodiversity across the country – is on the increase because laws have been repealed across the country. Any benefits accrued by previous good environmental programs are being eroded.

If we are to seriously tackle the largest threats to biodiversity in Australia, we need to recognise the biggest threats. This means efforts to reduce threats from agriculture and overexploitation of forests and fish must include durable environmental regulation.

Creative Commons


This article was co-authored by Thomas Brooks, head of science and knowledge at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sean Maxwell is a PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; James Watson is Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller is Associate professor, The University of Queensland. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Facts, and Opinions, that matter this week

People film with their phones and cameras during a flag-raising ceremony at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China June 4, 2016.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.

Taiwan tells China not to fear democracy. Above, people film with their phones and cameras during a flag-raising ceremony at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.

Reports:

Shelter the focus at Venice Architecture Biennale, by Joel Dullroy

The Venice Architecture Biennale is usually a showcase of prestigious architecture projects from around the world, but Germany’s entry this year has taken a different angle, focusing instead on simple shelters used to house asylum seekers.

Emily Dickinson’s garden, “native” plants, and climate change, by Janet Marinelli

A plant from the homestead of poet Emily Dickinson is challenging basic precepts of conservation practice, such as what is the definition of “native”? Are climate refugees that hitchhike north via horticulture less worthy of protection than plants that arrive on their own? Do they pose a threat to existing native species? Should native plant gardening, the domestic form of assisted migration, be used to help plants stranded in inhospitable habitat?

Taiwan tells China not to fear democracy, by J.R. Wu

On the anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on student-led protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Taiwan’s new president told China that democracy is nothing to fear, and Taiwan could serve as an example to China.

Commentary:

Hong Kong activists split over Tiananmen Square, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist

For the first time, Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, a coalition of student unions, eschewed the Victoria Park demonstrations over the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising and killings. Instead, it focused on democracy and even independence in Hong Kong’s future.

Polls: The good, the bad and the ugly, by Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda column

A few suggestions about what to watch out for in political polls: how you can tell a good one from a bad one, and why you never, ever, ever bet your house on one poll only.

Magazine:

Christopher Park/ ProPublica

Christopher Park/ ProPublica

Gunfight in Guatemala: and insider’s tale of Latin America corruption. By Sebastian Rotella

Big or small, leftist or rightist, rich or poor, with only a few exceptions, Latin American nations struggle with a crime problem that threatens political stability and security; many are in a struggle between the rule of man and the rule of law. This is one man’s story in the large, long-running war.

 

Notebook:

This fall’s US presidential election will affect the world. Barring a cosmic event or supernatural intervention, Republican Donald Trump will be pitted against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. A campaign milestone  —  the Democratic party primary in California — will occur Tuesday June 7. Some polls place Sanders and Clinton in a statistical tie. The latest developments include a remarkable letter released Friday by Green party contender Jill Stein urging Californians to support Bernie Sanders, unless already registered with the Green party,  to support “the agenda of economic and racial justice shared by Bernie’s and my campaigns.” Robert Reich, one of Sanders’ most vocal supporters, urged Democrats to put aside their differences no matter who wins. “I can’t criticize anyone for voting their conscience, of course. But your conscience should know that a decision not to vote for Hillary, should she become the Democratic nominee, is a de facto decision to help Donald Trump,” he wrote on his blog.

Follow the campaigns at these credible outlets: New York Times; Politico; Reuters; Bloombergthe BBC; the Guardian; the Economist.  Here are the campaign pages for Sanders, Clinton, and  Trump.  America’s two dominant parties are not the only ones in the running, though all others typically are ignored by pundits and political journalists and — in a Catch 22 — receive precious few votes. Here are the pages for the Green’s likely presidential candidate Stein, and for Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party.

Elsewhere:

This is good: Muhammad Ali, a feature and a video documentary on the New York Times about the fighter who died this week.

“Muhammad Ali was a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion who transcended sports and helped define his turbulent times. He entertained with his mouth as much as his fists, narrating a life of brash self-confidence full of religious, political and social stances.”

And THIS is surprising, and important: A criticism of neoliberalism by, of all organizations,  the International Money Fund

Neoliberalism: Oversold? Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion….

There has been a strong and widespread global trend toward neoliberalism since the 1980s, according to a composite index that measures the extent to which countries introduced competition in various spheres of economic activity to foster economic growth….

“There is much to cheer … however:

“An assessment of these specificpolicies (rather than the broad neoliberal agenda) reaches three disquieting conclusions:

•The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries.­

•The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.­

•Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.­…

As Maurice Obstfeld (1998) has noted, “economic theory leaves no doubt about the potential advantages” of capital account liberalization, which is also sometimes called financial openness. It can allow the international capital market to channel world savings to their most productive uses across the globe. Developing economies with little capital can borrow to finance investment, thereby promoting their economic growth without requiring sharp increases in their own saving. But Obstfeld also pointed to the “genuine hazards” of openness to foreign financial flows and concluded that “this duality of benefits and risks is inescapable in the real world.” (my emphasis.)  Visit the IMF site to read the  analysis 

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Note to our readers: F&O’s weekly blog post was delayed this weekend by a technical glitch. Thanks for your patience.

In Case You Missed These:

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Emily Dickinson’s garden, “native” plants, and climate change

The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson’s home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.

by Janet Marinelli
June, 2016

On rare occasions, the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, would catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure dressed in white, leaning over to tend her flowers by flickering lantern light. The mysterious recluse, who was better known to neighbors for her exquisite garden than for her lyric poems that revealed a passionate love of nature, differed from fellow 19th-century American writers whose thinking became the bedrock of modern environmentalism. While Thoreau famously declared wild places to be “the preservation of the world,” Emily Dickinson was finding nature’s truth and power in an ordinary dandelion.

Among the plants that survive on the family property where Dickinson confined herself for much of her adult life are picturesque old trees called umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) — so named because their leaves, which can reach two feet long, radiate out from the ends of branches like the spokes of an umbrella.

A Bellemare Magnolia tripetala, in Concord, MA

A Magnolia tripetala, in Concord, MA. Photo by Jesse Bellemare

The trees, believed to have been planted by Emily’s brother Austin, have jumped the garden gate in recent decades and established wild populations not far from the poet’s home. This new location is a couple of hundred miles north of the tree’s native range, centered in the sheltered woods and ravines of the Appalachian Mountains, and is the first evidence that native plant horticulture in the United States “is giving some species a head-start on climate change,” according to Smith College biologist Jesse Bellemare.

Ironically, the denizen of the Dickinson homestead is also challenging basic precepts of conservation practice, such as what is the definition of “native”? Are climate refugees that hitchhike north via horticulture less worthy of protection than plants that arrive on their own? Do they pose a threat to existing native species? Should native plant gardening, the domestic form of assisted migration, be used to help plants stranded in inhospitable habitat?

The standard definition of native, says Bellemare, was based on a view of nature as unchanging, and of what constitutes “native” as absolute and enduring. But “this very local definition breaks down,” he says, as climate change makes many plants unsuited to habitats they historically have occupied. The definition of native needs to shift, he adds, as the boundaries of entire biogeographic regions, like the eastern deciduous forest, shift with changing conditions.

A few years ago, Bellemare began to notice umbrella magnolias “peeking out from roadside vegetation” in western Massachusetts. A new, more nuanced set of terms than ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ is needed,’ says one biologist.

Most of the naturalized plants, he observed, were “close to, or within sight of, horticultural specimens.” Intrigued, he set out to determine the age of the garden escapees. Although some of the landscaped trees, like those on the Dickinson homestead, were planted more than a century-and-a half-ago, core samples from a number of the largest naturalized individuals revealed that the species started escaping profusely only in the last 20 to 30 years.

As Bellemare and coauthor Claudia Deeg pointed out in a paper last July in Rhodora, this is also when the climate began warming quickly in the region. In a presentation at the Ecological Society of America conference last year, Bellemare and a group of collaborators concluded, “It is unlikely that natural dispersal from the South would have allowed Magnolia tripetala to reach this region anytime soon.”

For years, scientists have predicted that natives planted well north of their historic geographic limits inevitably would not only survive, but thrive and naturalize outside of horticulture in habitat made increasingly hospitable by global warming. In a 2008 paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, biologists found that 73 percent of the 357 native European species they investigated were being sold hundreds of miles north of the plants’ natural geographic ranges.

“While debate continues about whether humans should actively assist the migration of species in the face of climate change, it is clear that the horticulture industry has already done so for hundreds of species,” they wrote.

Natural range shifts of birds and other mobile species have been documented in the past decade, but new studies suggest that many native plants are also struggling to keep up with climate change by migrating to higher elevations or towards the poles. In an analysis of the flora of Worcester County in central Massachusetts in 2013, biologist Robert Bertin found that the ranges of native plants appear to be contracting.

“Northern” species most widely distributed in upper New England, he wrote, are declining faster than the region’s “southern” plants, primarily from New England’s lower reaches, which are expanding their ranges northward. In a paper published earlier this year, biologists detected significantly fewer shifts in elevation by plants in California than by other organisms such as birds and mammals. They also found that the migration upward in elevation of non-native invasive plant species was nearly five times greater than that of the flora overall, and even more when compared to localized endemic plants.

Endemic plants with small ranges, scientists believe, are among the species at greatest risk as their preferred climate shifts far beyond their ability to disperse. Bellemare and University of Minnesota biologist David Moeller have analyzed the likely impact of climate change on one of the most celebrated clusters of endemic plants — herbaceous wildflowers of the Southeast, from bleedinghearts to trilliums — which produce a flamboyant explosion of blooms that carpet the forest floor in spring.

These endemic wildflowers have been unable to disperse northward in the 15,000 years since the last ice sheet began receding. While they would probably be well positioned to survive the climatic cooling of another ice age, the breakneck speed of current warming seems to place many of these plants “on the wrong side of climate history,” Bellemare has written.

Horticulture has helped the umbrella magnolia disperse beyond its former range limit south of the glacial boundary. Naturalized populations have been discovered throughout the Northeast, including on Long Island, where the trees were planted widely in the 1920s, and perhaps earlier.

The population located a stone’s throw from the Dickinson homestead, consisting of several hundred trees spread over six or seven acres, is believed to be one of the largest clusters in the Northeast.

Not all biologists are toasting the plant’s arrival in the northeastern U.S., however. Because the umbrella magnolia arrived via horticulture, Bill Brumback, director of conservation at the New England Wild Flower Society, says he would not consider it native — the basic prerequisite for a plant worth preserving.

“I really don’t know” if southeastern species that have escaped from cultivation should be considered native in New England, says Brown University biologist Dov Sax, who is collaborating with Bellemare and other scientists on a nationwide study of what shifting ranges portend for the survival of native plants in the face of rapid warming. “A new, more nuanced set of terms than ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ is needed,” Sax says.

The debate over how to characterize plants colonizing new areas as the climate changes is based in large part on concern over their potential to hijack the habitat of existing native species. This same worry has made assisted migration of species threatened by climate change one of the most controversial topics Native plant horticulture is giving us some fascinating insights into what is likely to happen with climate change.’
in contemporary conservation science and has fueled concern among some scientists over gardeners moving native plants well beyond their current boundaries.

“Native plant horticulture is giving us some fascinating insights into what is likely to happen with climate change,” says Bellemare. “But we’re not at a point where most botanists and ecologists would feel comfortable advocating” that gardeners help protect plants by moving them to cooler climes, he adds. Indeed, given their rampant spread, Brumback worries that the naturalized magnolias may be in the early stages of biological invasion. “If I saw them taking over a woodland, I’d recommend removing them,” he says.

Brown University’s Sax suspects that this is unlikely, noting that studies indicate a species’ risk of becoming invasive increases with the distance of its historic native range from the region it is colonizing. Although he is concerned that a small percentage of plants introduced from other continents “will likely become problematic,” he believes that a nearby native like the umbrella magnolia, which has outlier populations in southern Pennsylvania, “poses little risk” in New England.

Both Sax and Bellemare have pointed out that the threat of negative ecological consequences is likely lessened by the fact that the umbrella magnolia and other forest plants from the Southeast and mid-Atlantic share a biogeographic history with those in New England.

Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.

When viewed in the context of this larger time scale, they suggest, many climate refugees are simply ancient natives returning home.

According to paleoecologists, as the climate cooled and glaciers expanded during the Pleistocene era, forest plants of the Northeast survived by migrating to so-called refugia in the South. When the climate warmed and the most recent ice sheet receded, some species were able to recolonize the habitat they had lost. But others, Sax suspects, were impeded by the human-driven extinction, about 12,000 years ago, of the mastodons, giant ground-sloths, and other megafauna that had dispersed their seeds for millennia.

“If we still had those big mammals,” says Sax, it’s likely that “many species that are currently restricted to the Southeast or mid-Atlantic would now be in New England.” One of these species may be the umbrella magnolia, which has no apparent modern seed disperser, biologists and horticulturists say, with the notable exception of humans.

While scientists grapple with the implications of escaped magnolias, there is poetic justice that a plant from the Dickinson homestead has sparked the discussion. Although the view of enduring wilderness championed by Thoreau and John Muir came to dominate conservation thinking, Emily Dickinson, who perceived the beauty and destructive capacity of nature all around her, may be the more appropriate literary icon for an age of climate disruption.

@ Yale Environment 360, 2016

This story is reprinted with permission; it originally appeared on Yale Environment 360.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , , |

AI chills and thrills, climate pledges, a Nazi haven, children’s lit, and a film about a genius: Facts, and Opinions, that matter this week

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kisses his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson after signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kisses his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson after signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Reports:

Ban Ki-moon (2nd from R), Secretary-General of the United Nations, delivers his opening remarks at the Paris Agreement signing ceremony on climate change as French President Francois Hollande (2nd from L) looks on at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike SegarChina, US, among those pledging to ratify Paris Agreement. By Michelle Nichols & Valerie Volcovici  Report

China and the United States, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gas emissions, pledged to formally adopt by the end of the year a Paris deal to slow global warming, raising the prospects of it being enforced much faster than anticipated. The United Nations said 175 states took the first step of signing the deal on April 22, the biggest day one endorsement of a global agreement.

Focus on Artificial Intelligence

Figure-1The chilling significance of AlphaGo. By Sheldon Fernandez  Magazine

In March, a computer named AlphaGo played the human world champion in a five-game match of Go, the ancient board game often described as the ‘Far East cousin’ of chess. That AlphaGo triumphed provoked curiosity and bemusement in the public — but is seen as hugely significant in the artificial intelligence and computer science communities. Computer engineer Sheldon Fernandez explains why.

The Sunflower Robot is a prototype that can carry objects and provide reminders and notifications to assist people in their daily lives. It uses biologically inspired visual signals and a touch screen, located in front of its chest, to communicate and interact with users. Photo by Thomas Farnetti for Wellcome/Mosaic, Creative CommonsA one-armed robot will look after me until I die. By Geoff Watts Magazine

I am persuaded by the rational argument for why machine care in my old age should be acceptable, but find the prospect distasteful – for reasons I cannot, rationally, account for. But that’s humanity in a nutshell: irrational. And who will care for the irrational human when they’re old? Care-O-bot, for one; it probably doesn’t discriminate.

And from earlier this year:

Product and graphic designer Ricky Ma, 42, gives a command to his life-size robot ''Mark 1'', modelled after a Hollywood star, in his balcony which serves as his workshop in Hong Kong, China March 31, 2016. Ma, a robot enthusiast, spent a year-and-a half and more than HK$400,000 ($51,000) to create the humanoid robot to fulfil his childhood dream. REUTERS/Bobby Yip SEARCH "ROBOT STAR" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIESBuilding a humanoid Hollywood Star. By Bobby Yip  Report

The rise of robots and artificial intelligence are among disruptive labor market changes that the World Economic Forum projects will lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years. Where will they come from? Why, we can make them ourselves. Or at least some of us can, and do.

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Commentary:

By Brian McMorrow - http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/45156182, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=833719This Week’s Other Birthday, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs  column

Until quite recently, while Queen Elizabeth and her family were celebrating her birthday every April 21, a group of elderly men in south-west Africa were nursing the effects of the birthday toasts they had drunk the night before, to Adolf Hitler,  born on April 20, 1889. The men had been senior  Nazi officials, and had managed to escape capture by the Allies at the end of the Second World War. What is now Namibia offered a lasting sanctuary.

Why Bernie Sanders need to fight on … and surrender, by Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda Column

It looks like the end is nigh for the Sanders campaign. But it is absolutely necessary that Bernie not give up running. Yes, he should start to encourage his supporters to support Clinton. I am, however, totally in favor of him building up his delegate total and going into Philadelphia in late July demanding that the party’s platform reflect his point of view.

Those Healthy Yankees: Graham and Alcott, by Jim McNiven, Thoughtlines Column

Sylvester Graham and William Andrus Alcott were men of their disease-ridden times, amongst the first American promoters of “health food,” “phys-ed” and temperate living for health in both the here and now — and the afterlife.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean in this July 12, 2011 NASA handout photo. Kathryn Hansen/NASA via REUTERS/File PhotoAfter Paris climate pact, let’s get personal. By Gwynne Taraska and Shiva Polefka  Loose Leaf salon Column

Reengineering global economic dependence on carbon pollution requires conscious commitment and action from individuals as well as governments and corporations.

Arts:

image-20160421-30266-12jsnvsHow GH Hardy tamed Srinivasa Ramanujan’s genius. By Béla Bollobás   Report

Throughout the history of mathematics, there has been no one remotely like Srinivasa Ramanujan. There is no doubt that he was a great mathematician, but had he had simply a good university education and been taught by a good professor in his field, we wouldn’t have a film about him. Credit is due to GH Hardy.

Why children’s books are serious literature. By Catherine Butler Report

Once a generation, it seems, a cri de coeur goes out, in which a representative of the world of children’s literature speaks with revelatory authority to the literary establishment and makes it reassess the place of children’s books.

Last but not least: alongside the many musical tributes to the American artist Prince, who died this week at age 57, his appearance on the Muppets should not be missed:

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Paris Agreement on climate

Paris Agreement: landmark accord, turn from fossil fuels. December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Paris Agreement: landmark accord, turn from fossil fuels. December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Paris Agreement: landmark accord, turn from fossil fuels, By Alister Doyle and Barbara Lewis

 The global climate summit in Paris agreed a landmark accord on Saturday, setting the course for a historic transformation of the world’s fossil fuel-driven economy within decades in a bid to arrest global warming.

Climate: Paris Agreement at a glance, by The Conversation staff. Report

Paris Agreement massive “take-back” scheme, by Myles Allen, University of Oxford. Analysis

I wonder how many of the delegates in Paris realise that they have just created the mother of all “take-back schemes”. The Paris emissions cuts aren’t enough — we’ll have to put carbon back in the ground.

Related on F&O:

Climate watch: the world cannot afford a war
PENNEY KOME: Over Easy  Column

World at “breaking point” as Paris summit begins
BRUCE WALLACE & ALISTER DOYLE

Talking about the Weather
GREG LOCKE  Photo-Essay

American climate change deniers’ last gasp
TOM REGAN: Summoning Orenda Column

Mark Carney: The tragedy of the horizon, in Expert Witness
MARK CARNEY

Big World, Small Planet: book excerpt.
JOHAN ROCKSTROM & MATTIAS KLUM Expert Witness

Catastrophe will result if climate summit fails — Pope.
PHILIP PULLELLA & GEORGE OBULUTSA Report

U.S. rejects Keystone XL pipeline 
F&O post

Global oil industry slipping into the red
RON BOUSSO, KAROLIN SCHAPS & ANNA DRIVER Report

From F&O’s vault:

Chris Wood’s Natural Security series

 The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene. By Clive Hamilton

How does the IPCC know climate change is happening? By Mark Maslin

An Argument for Carbon Divestment. By Desmond Tutu

The march of the king crabs: a warning from Antarctica. By Kathryn Smith

Are countries legally required to protect from climate change? By Sophia V. Schweitzer, Ensia

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world. By Philip Loring

Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding. By Deborah Jones

Welcome to Iceberg Alley: Mixed blessing of icebergs in Newfoundland. Photo essay by Greg Locke

On eve of encyclical, Pope Francis appeals for “our ruined” planet. By Philip Pullella

RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Defended climate science, resigned amid sex scandal. By Marianne Lavelle

Verbatim: The Doomsday Clock ticks closer to disaster, F&O

The Pointy End. By Tzeporah Berman

The Drowning of the ‘Amazon of North America.’ By Bob Marshall, The Lens, and Brian Jacobs and Al Shaw, ProPublica

Talking about the weather: photo-essay by Greg Locke:

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions survives with an honour system. Try one story at no charge. If you value no-spam, no-ads, non-partisan, evidence-based, independent journalism, help us continue. Details.  

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White House decision on Keystone pipeline

Photo of an Alberta oil rig by Greg Locke, Copyright 2014

Alberta oil rig. Greg Locke © 2014

UPDATED: The U.S. rejected the final phase of the Keystone pipeline, President Barack Obama announced at his Friday morning press conference.  “The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States,” said Obama in a statement, adding “I agree.”

TransCanada Corp.’s application for the Keystone XL pipeline, shipping oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the southern U.S., hit a wall earlier this week when Obama rejected the company’s 11th hour request to suspend a review of the pipeline’s final construction phase.

The pipeline is partly symbolic at this point; as the tortured application process wound its way through  America’s Byzantine politics, much of the oil that Keystone would carry has already found alternate ways south, through existing pipelines and via rail. But Obama’s decision is a key signal on how serious America is about climate change, leading up to the Paris summit in a few weeks.

Links below. Drag the counter to the 51 second mark to replay the live announcement from the White House here:

Excerpts, via @WhiteHouse Twitter feed :

  • “The pipeline would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy.”
  • “A bipartisan infrastructure plan…could create more than 30 times as many jobs/year as the pipeline”
  • Our businesses created 268,000 new jobs last month…the unemployment rate fell to 5%.
  • “The pipeline would not lower gas prices for American consumers. In fact, gas prices have already been falling steadily”
  • “Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security.”
  • “We’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025.”
  • “We’ve…multiplied the power we generate from the sun 20 times over.”
  • “America has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”
  • “America is leading on climate change with new rules on power plants”
  • “We’ve got to come together…to protect the one planet we’ve got while we still can.”
  • “If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now.”

Statement from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, emailed:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today issued the following statement on the Keystone XL pipeline decision by the United States:

“The application for a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project was turned down by the United States Government today. We are disappointed by the decision but respect the right of the United States to make the decision.

“The Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and co-operation.

“We know that Canadians want a government that they can trust to protect the environment and grow the economy. The Government of Canada will work hand-in-hand with provinces, territories and like-minded countries to combat climate change, adapt to its impacts, and create the clean jobs of tomorrow.”

Links:

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F&O this week: Daylight Savings; Spectre; oil; China’s children

Welcome to Facts and Opinions. We rely on the honour system: enjoy one story at no charge, and if you value our independent, no-spam, no-ads journalism, chip in at least two bits. Click here for details.

World:

America’s Lying Season. By Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda column

It’s the lying season in American politics.  What’s different is our willingness to accept these lies.

Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CC

Axing China’s one-child rule unlikely to change population. By Stuart Gietel-Basten

China’s policy change will have little impact on population.

Washington, courts defy Beijing imperialism. By Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist

Beijing has been dealt significant set-backs to its  campaign of imperial expansionism.

Global oil industry slipping into the red. By Ron Bousso, Karolin Schaps and Anna Driver

The oil sector is slipping into the red; top companies have cut spending, made thousands of job cuts and scrapped projects.

North Korea’s black market the new normal. By James Pearson and Damir Sagolj

"Soldier-builders" carry things in central Pyongyang October 8, 2015. Picture taken October 8, 2015. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-CHANGE/ REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

“Soldier-builders” carry things in central Pyongyang October 8, 2015. Picture taken October 8, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The underground market is becoming the new normal in isolated North Korea.

Arts:

Spectre: James Bond in an age of cybersecurity. By Joseph Oldham, Arts

Spectre, the fourth Craig Bond, Spectre, takes us unambiguously into a world that we all recognise.

A Satirist Wanting to Be Taken Seriously: Nancy White. By Brian Brennan, Brief Encounters column

At her most prolific, Nancy White was writing three to five topical satire songs a week and performing –nobody could maintain that pace indefinitely.

Reports:

Daylight savings linked to injuries, heart attacks. By David A. Ellis, Report

More than 1.5 billion people worldwide are exposed to Daylight Savings Time risks, from heart attacks and injuries to mood and productivity changes.

Worldwide daylight savings time. Blue means DST is used, orange that it was formerly used, and red that it has never been used. Paul Eggert/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Worldwide daylight savings time. Blue means DST is used, orange that it was formerly used, and red that it has never been used. Paul Eggert/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

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Facts and Opinions, a boutique of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders, is independent, non-partisan and employee-owned. F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. You are welcome to try one story at no charge. If you value our work, please support us, with at least .27 per story. Click here for details.  Real journalism has value. Thank you for your support. Please tell others about us, and find us on Facebook and Twitter.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope Also tagged , , , , , , |

Earthprints: Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit

Leading up to the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December, Reuters has a series of photo-essays titled “Earthprints,” each installment aiming to “show the ability of humans to impact change on the landscape of the planet,” accompanied with NASA satellite images showing the scale of the change. Here, F&O presents an urban photo-essay from Canada, featuring the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, Ontario.

Geese fly over Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada's largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY PICTURE 4 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "EARTHPRINTS: LESLIE STREET SPIT"SEARCH "LESLIE SPIT" FOR ALL IMAGES

Geese fly over Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Story by Andrea Hopkins, original photos by Mark Blinch, Reuters
Fall, 2015

An eastern cottontail rabbit hides in the grass at Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto June 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada's largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYPICTURE 16 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "EARTHPRINTS: LESLIE STREET SPIT"SEARCH "LESLIE SPIT" FOR ALL IMAGES

An eastern cottontail rabbit hides in the grass at Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto June 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Like a rooftop garden in an overcrowded financial district, Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit is an unexpected urban oasis whose narrow escape from development has brought marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city.

Jutting into Lake Ontario just minutes from the worst of Toronto traffic, the more formally named Tommy Thompson Park was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbour.

The dumping continues to this day. While development plans have threatened the spit from its early days, the passion of the cyclists, birders, hikers and naturalists who flock to the artificial peninsula every weekend has preserved the unlikely park and left nature to prevail.

For some, the spit offers the best views out to the Great Lake and towards the city’s soaring skyline. For others, the auto-free roads offer safe, serene cycling, running and roller-blading in a city whose streets are often clogged with cars.

A cyclist rides at sunrise through Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada's largest city. While development plans have plagued the Spit from its beginning, the passion of the cyclists, birders, hikers and naturalists who flock to the artificial peninsula every weekend has preserved the unlikely park in its unnatural state. REUTERS/Mark BlinchPICTURE 25 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "EARTHPRINTS: LESLIE STREET SPIT"SEARCH "LESLIE SPIT" FOR ALL IMAGES

A cyclist rides at sunrise through Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 24, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city. While development plans have plagued the Spit from its beginning, the passion of the cyclists, birders, hikers and naturalists who flock to the artificial peninsula every weekend has preserved the unlikely park in its unnatural state. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

For most, it offers a 5-km stretch of nature untamed by development: home or visiting spot to 300 species of birds and site of 500 hectares of pioneer plant life, cottonwood and poplar groves, grassy marshes and gravel beaches.

While trucks hauling concrete and earth from the city’s construction sites ply the spit from Monday to Friday, the park is turned over to an eager public every weekend, when its main road and numerous winding paths beckon city residents. Admission is free.

More than 100,000 people visit annually, according to the Toronto and Regional Conservation Authority, which owns the land and bodies of water included in the park.

Hasan Mohammad fishes at Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 26, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada's largest city. REUTERS/Mark BlinchPICTURE 2 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "EARTHPRINTS: LESLIE STREET SPIT"SEARCH "LESLIE SPIT" FOR ALL IMAGES

Hasan Mohammad fishes at Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto May 26, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Initially eyed for port-related facilities in the 1950s, the spit was opened to the public in the 1970s after a decrease in lake shipping made those early plans obsolete.

The spit of land has a diverse ecosystem, with a rugged eastern shoreline giving way to wildflower meadows in the middle sections and marshy lagoons on the western shore, beneath the city skyline.

The gradual transformation from a lifeless pile of rubble to an urban wilderness means the Leslie Spit is never finished, an ever-changing and unmanicured parcel of water and land.

Cobble beaches are, upon closer examination, composed of red brick, concrete, and kitchen tile worn to colourful pebbles, with patches of rusting rebar and urban detritus piled nearby – unlovely to some, a gritty oasis to others.

People look out at the Toronto skyline from Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto August 9, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada's largest city. REUTERS/Mark BlinchPICTURE 19 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "EARTHPRINTS: LESLIE STREET SPIT"SEARCH "LESLIE SPIT" FOR ALL IMAGES

People look out at the Toronto skyline from Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto August 9, 2015. It was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city’s busy harbor. An unexpected urban oasis, the development brings marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Colonies of gulls, terns, herons and cormorants nest along the beaches or in the groves, attracting binocular-toting enthusiasts at dawn. Late summer brings butterfly enthusiasts to the spit, while anglers fish from the park’s shores and small bridges.

The place has been eyed for other uses in the bustling city – the population of greater Toronto is some 6 million. From early on, an activist group who call themselves the Friends of the Spit have fought off development, including plans for a hotel, amphitheatre, government dock, yacht clubs, parking lots, water skiing school and campground.

“As honey attracts bees, vacant land attracts plans,” the Friends say on their website, pledging persistent vigilance to protect the park for public use forever.

“No other piece of land has attracted such passionate defenders, nor has any other piece of land had such a lengthy battle waged, simply to maintain it and allow it to grow as nature intended.”

Copyright Reuters 2015

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