All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Natural wonders of Canada

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Mount Thor, Nunavut: the world’s largest vertical drop

Ever heard of Atlas Obscura?  What a rabbit hole! I’ve spent a good part of last week exploring the site. It’s a complete experience of virtual traveling: not only to you get to exotic places, as planned from your search, but along the way you end up in the most unexpected spots. A huge time wasting distraction – but so well worth it!

But never mind exotic destinations.  I’ve discovered a number of things about Canada, too, and one recurring theme is that we’re not braggarts. I can’t explain otherwise why so many “world’s biggest” features are so broadly unknown and ignored.

And I don’t mean buildings or public art displays.  Yes we have a good many of those: the largest nickel (Sudbury), easter egg (Vegreville), lumberjack’s ax (Nackawic), or hockey stick (Duncan), among many others.  No, I mean natural wonders.  I think if we, Canadians, had more awareness of what is unique about the land, we would put a bit more focus on protecting it.

Some of these marvels are known in particular communities.  For instance, serious rock climbers will know that Mount Thor, in Nunavut (Baffin Island), has the largest purely vertical drop in the world, at 1250 meters. It is a key feature of Auyuittuq National Park.  And yes, some people have rappelled down the whole length of one and a quarter kilometer. Amazing. A misstep means that an unlucky climber would splatter at the bottom after a whole 26 seconds, reaching terminal velocity about a third of the way down…  

(The above picture is from a different site that I discovered researching this,, yet another rabbit hole…)

Physical geography instructors will realize that this one the better examples of U-shaped valleys, carved by glaciers (in contrast to V-shaped ones, shaped by rivers).  They may be pleased to learn that Nunavut is also home to the world’s largest third-order island: an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island, Victoria Island. This is the key of information of no practical value whatsoever that I find inspiring, for some nerdy reason. Victoria Island is already the eighth largest island in the world, bigger than Great Britain, and the unnamed island in the unnamed lake is 145 km from the nearest community, Cambridge Bay. The oddity, discovered only recently (2007), is often attributed, erroneously, to Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.

The Canadian north is also home to the hellish looking Smoking Hills, where erosion continuously exposes bands of oil shale that release flammable gases and have been burning for centuries. There is also the Haughton crater, an impact structure considered the closest to a Martian environment; the dry conditions of the high north means that there has been little erosion and the crater is in mint condition, so to speak, despite being 23 million years old.

The Athabasca sand dunes

Haughton crater is not the only crater of note, of course.  Manicouagan Lake in northern Quebec is an artificial reservoir in the shape of an almost perfect circle that outlines the shape of a giant crater that formed about 214 million years ago from the impact of a 5km diameter asteroid strike right smack during the dinosaur era.  Further north in Quebec is the Lake Pingualuit, in a crater formed by a much more recent impact (a mere 1.4 million years ago).  The lake has a nearly perfect circular shape but its key feature is the quality of its water, reputed to be the purest in the world. The salinity of 3 ppm is less than 1% of that of the Great Lakes, and the water may be the clearest in the world (a Secchi disk can be seen at 35 meters).

That is even more remarkable considering that several glaciations barely changed the lake’s shape or depth. Glaciers are indeed responsible for several of the country’s natural wonders: the largest erratic bloc in the world (15000 tonnes of quartzite, it gave its name to Okotoks, Alberta), or the various unexpected sand hills such as those of Prelate, or the Athabaska dunes, the most northerly active dunes in the world both in Saskatchewan.

The Bruce Blue Grotto

But way before the glaciers, the Canadian landscape developed some unique, if out of the way, features.  For instance, the oldest pool of water in the world (over 2 billion years old) has collected at the bottom of a mine pit in Timmins, Ontario (in what happens to be the deepest metal mine in the world).  A much more recent, and much more accessible, underground pool is in the Bruce Peninsula Grotto; practically unknown, it has the same blue as the much more famous (and touristy) Blue Grotto in Capri.  The Bruce Grotto is at the northern end of the Niagara escarpment; at the southern end is Hamilton, known as the gritty steel town – but who knows it as the city of waterfalls?  With over 130 falls and cascades within city limits, it has the most in the world.

Inside Hamilton city limits

Then there is the largest marl lake in the world (Little Limestone Lake, Manitoba) that regularly changes colour depending on the temperature (which affects the solubility of the light-reflecting calcium carbonate in it); or saline Little Manitou Lake in Saskatchewan, nearly as concentrated as the Dead Sea, where a swimmer similarly can’t sink.  For that matter Canada has some lakes that cause hydrologists to scratch their heads.  Medicine Lake in the Alberta Rockies mysteriously empties every fall as if a bathtub plug had been pulled out. Conversely, Lake on the Mountain in Ontario is perched above the Bay of Quinte, an arm of Lake Ontario, without any perceptible source of water; according to textbooks, it just shouldn’t be there – but it is.

Many people will have heard about the Bay of Fundy tides, the highest in the world; but who is aware that the tidal current of Skookumchuk Narrows is the fastest in the world? Okay, local whitewater kayakers know.  But again, we have a natural jewel at our doorstep, mostly ignored.  Likewise, Wood Buffalo National Park: most people would hazard a guess that it is meant to protect a few remaining herds of wild buffalo (yes, the largest in the world). But few know that it is also one of only two known nesting sites of whooping cranes, as well as several other rare species. The largest fresh-water delta in the world, the Peace-Athabasca Delta, is located within the park boundaries. The park is also the world’s largest dark-sky preserve; this makes it handy to watch northern lights, but it is most important for the ecology of resident bats and birds.  And yes, its integrity is threatened by the exploitation of the nearby Tar Sands as well as by the Site C hydroelectric project on BC’s Peace River.

There are amazing natural wonders in this country; I didn’t even mention the Great Bear Rainforest (home to the unique spirit bear) or the Narcisse knot of garter snakes, the largest such phenomenon in the world.  We need to protect them all; and learning about them is the first step. Happy browsing, thanks to Atlas Obscura!

Written by enviropaul

March 27, 2021 at 2:59 pm

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The innovative bike paths of Belgium

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Poor Belgium – it seems to be the perpetual also-ran of European tourism, the Rodney Dangerfield of vacation planning. I’ve been to Europe and visited its neighbours, the Netherlands, Germany, and France; but I’ve never been to Belgium, only through it on my way to somewhere else.  My experience is sadly typical – but as a result Belgium has created some pretty unique attractions to get visitors.

As in the Netherlands, cycling is entrenched in the culture – it’s just not as well known abroad. The province of Limburg has decided to do something about it, with four rather unique bike path projects.

Limburg is the province that has the most natural land and wildlife in the whole country, and the paths take advantage of this.  One such path takes a detour through the forest: an elevated spiral that gently climbs above the canopy for a unique view of the forest.  Another two, under construction, are called Cycling through the Heathland and Cycling Underground (through marl caves).  The third, possibly the most creative is Cycling through Water. In the words of the Atlas Obscura writers:

 “The Cycling Through Water bike path cuts clean through a pond in surrounding Bokrijk Park, giving riders the feeling, for about a tenth of a mile, of zipping through two neatly parted seas. The contrast of the path’s straight lines amid natural features makes for dramatic contrast. And, as the 200-meter path is sunk nearly five feet, it puts cyclists eye level with the surrounding water.”

Talk about feeling like Moses – only, on a bike. You can take a look at the projects in this video here:

Limburg has also created a number of art installations along the bike routes.  For instance

“Somewhere in a grassy field in Halen, close to the cycle route network, 44 large concrete helmets stand side by side. The Helmets in Halen are a reminder of the past, a moment of reflection in the present, and a view on the future. Every helmet is a unique creation and tells a war story of one of the 44 Limburg municipalities.”

It’s not just Limburg, though. Other provinces have extensive cycle paths. One is on the former railbed to Luxemburg: because of an accident of history, the railbed is Belgian territory, but the land on either side of it is Germany. Here’s Atlas Obscura’s impression of it (and yes, it’s flat):

“The route passes through scenic countryside and small towns, and by historic sites and convenient rest areas. Cycling the full route takes one through three countries and includes many border crossings, many of them barely noticeable, which shows how this geographic anomaly has become an excellent example of cooperation within the European Union.” 

One of the historic sites in question is the whimsical Museum of Carrots. But damn Covid. All these paths are outdoor, accessible to all – provided you can make it there, which is not possible for now.  But if there is a silver lining, it is that Covid has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants (temporarily, probably) but it has also given a shot in the arm to cycling, and that looks to be permanent. Cyclists cycle more, and many more people have taken to cycling during the pandemic, both for recreation and for commuting.  Bicycle shops and bicycle makers can’t keep up with the demand; new cycling infrastructure is popping up everywhere.

But let’s get back to cycling in Belgium.  I want to leave you with this video of the cycling infrastructure in Antwerp. As befits the port city, it has attitude: gritty, gray, rainy, and very critical of some of the poor designs and uncompleted projects.  But it sure makes me wish we had enough infrastructure to have the problems he complains about. Ah well…but Belgium is now firmly on my radar of places to visit.


Written by enviropaul

March 23, 2021 at 12:05 pm

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Hope and the environment: the Bitterfeld story

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The lignite workers (from the Leipzig art gallery)

It is difficult to remain upbeat when looking at environmental issues.  The Doomsday Clock has been reminding us that we are near the abyss. Even as rational a figure as environmentalist Barry Commoner was quoted as saying “if you can see light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

And yet, there are other stories.  The story of Bitterfeld, a city in the former East Germany, is one of those, and it’s a remarkable one.

Bitterfeld was in the middle of the “black triangle” of the GDR, a chemical industry hub that made a number of chemical feedstocks, solvents, dyes, and finished products such as soap and pesticides, all synthesized from the locally abundant brown coal.  The extent to which it was polluted was pretty much unknown, though, until near the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime.  A 30-minutes documentary, Bitteres aus Bitterfeld, filmed and smuggled in 1988 under the nose of the Stasi (the East German secret police), exposed the whole hideous truth.

Bitterfeld: no trees surviving in the June picture

In the movie the narrator intones “Bitterfeld is falling in ruins, black with soot, it stinks.  It is considered the dirtiest town of Europe.”  Indeed, at the time the movie was made, only one in ten of the tall smokestacks have any sort of pollution control device.  Raw wastewater from the chemical plants, all sheen and strange colours, are dumped directly into the river Mulde, which is by then biologically dead.  Hazardous chlorinated waste, some from toxic military products, is leaking from a poorly maintained landfill. The degree of respiratory diseases among the inhabitants is between five to eight times higher than that of the province, itself already a concern.  Employees suffer from a variety of industrial poisoning; some suffer from bone decay, while other have large bony growths in their wrists.  The government of the GDR was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem; in the words of Joachim Radkau, “by 1980 the GDR leadership was in the grip of sheer fatalism.”  

Excerpts from 1988 Bitteres aus Bitterfeld

I was not able to see the actual documentary, but I found an excerpt, above.  It is in German only, but the images are eloquent enough. (If you want even more depressing, there is a documentary that was made shortly after the wall came down, in 1990, about the health problems of the children of Bitterfeld, at 

It has been thirty years since the wall came down.  The polluting industry has been shut down.  New industry has replaced it, and pollution controls have been installed, as well as sewage treatment in the city.  Not all the new industrial initiatives were successful, and some of the locals resent the arrogance of the West Germans.  But the environment has been a clear winner.  Trees grow in the city.  The river Mulde is alive; fishermen brag of their catches of northern pike, tench, perch, bream, even eel.  The Silbersee, a large lake mostly artificial, left behind by lignite mining, is now a popular tourist facility.    

The two videos posted below show the situation now.  Considering the situation just a few decades ago, it is mind-boggling that fishing, swimming and sailing are common activities around Bitterfeld.  There is a saying that goes “people often overestimate what can get done in a short time, but they always underestimate what can be achieved with enough time.”  This applies nicely to environmental worries, I think.  Nature is resilient; we have to keep at it and give her time to heal. 

Written by enviropaul

December 14, 2020 at 5:42 pm

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Envirobooks for Christmas

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Book suggestions?  Yes, it’s that time of the year – though with Covid anytime is a good time to snuggle up with a book.  Here are a few that caught my eye and have an environmental theme to them.

Buying local is always a good idea, so let’s start with three from Vancouver-based authors.

Melissa and Chris Bruntlett are the founders of Modacity, a group dedicated to inspiring healthier, happier, and simpler forms of urban mobility.  When I picked up their book, Building the Cycling City, I though I was getting a description of projects in the Netherlands.  I got that plenty – the book starts, unexpectedly, with modernist Rotterdam.  But for each Dutch city the authors discuss, lessons and applications for other cities are presented.  I have not finished the book yet; I am reading the chapter about Eindhoven when Calgary is introduced.  Calgary, a cycling city?  I have so much to learn; I didn’t know about the Peace bridge, nor that its originator, city councillor Druh Farrell, was exposed to so much hatred for supporting cycling infrastructure that she needed a bodyguard escort.  The Santiago Calatrava designed bridge has now been completed and is a huge success.  The book is full is such surprises.  But it’s not about infrastructure, mostly; it’s about cycling culture, including cycling in poorer immigrant neighbourhoods.  A little gem, and especially relevant now that Covid has created a boost in cycling.

The Peace Bridge in Calgary

The other two came out just this year, and I have barely cracked the (compelling) preface of Seth Klein’s A Good War, let alone started Lynne Quarmby’s Watermelon Snow.  But I know both of them as excellent speakers and writers, and I suspect these are books that people will want to talk about. 

So instead of my own commentary, I’ll offer these two quotes (copied from here and here):

Watermelon snow refers to red algal blooms among snow colonies of microorganisms. Normally green, the algae adapt to warmer temperatures by using red pigments as sunscreens. Unfortunately, this also speeds up snow melt, setting up one of the many feedback loops that magnifies polar warming. Quarmby researched these jewellike, intricate microbes with wonder; the text communicates how exciting scientific discovery can be.

Quarmby also reveals her anger, grief, and frustration about global warming. Her climate activism includes civil disobedience and arrest over pipeline construction; she campaigned as a Green Party politician. She participated in the expedition to witness the impact of climate change on the Arctic, and to help other voyagers understand the science behind the changes, but admits “I am also feeling the emotional weight of being here, at the soft heart of global melting.”

Seth Klein explores how we can align our politics and economy with what the science says we must do to address the climate crisis. But Klein brings an original and uniquely hopeful take to this challenge. The book is structured around lessons from the Second World War – the last time Canada faced an existential threat. Others have said we need a “wartime approach” to climate change, but this is the first book to delve into what that could actually look like.

And now for something quite different: Un Lun Dun, by British author China Miéville.  It’s not new; it was first published in 2007, and my copy is from one of these community free book boxes.  When I picked it up, I had no idea that it is written for young readers.

I don’t know what that says about me, but I was hooked right away.  The story is simple, as fantasy stories go.  School girl Zanna, the main character, realizes that she is Shwazzy – the chosen one – for the dwellers of Un Lun Dun, an underground London in an alternate reality.  And this reality is one of garbage and pollution: everything discarded by the “real” London ends up there, from broken appliances to empty milk cartons.  But the residents of Un Lun Dun are under threat, and sides line up, including broken umbrellas that serve as smog shields.  You can see the attraction for a budding environmentalist.

Except that nothing is at it seems.  Shwazzy is not the main character; she gets defeated by the evil smog early on.  Sidekick Zeena is the one that takes over.  This is one of the twists that keeps the story going, with the underlying theme that what is written in The Book, including how to select the Shwazzy, is all wrong.  The well-meaning authorities that obey The Book are constantly upended; this gives Un Lun Dun a delicious iconoclastic flavour.  Spoiler alert: it’s a book for young readers so the bad guy – the smog – is defeated at the end, and all ends well.  But it’s a lot of fun getting there, and maybe that a dose of optimism that was quite welcome.  

Optimistic isn’t quite what I would call my next selection, Erin Brockovich’s Superman’s Not Coming.  This important book details the career of the famous environmentalist.  It is part biography, part science explanation, and part community activism how-to.  Brokovich’s work has focussed on water quality – why what comes out of the tap is sometimes polluted and unfit to drink, much too often.  She returns to Hickney, the site of the case of hexavalent chromium pollution that made her famous in the eponymous movie (I was aghast to read that the site is still contaminated, decades later).  We visit Flint.  We visit military bases where the residents have seen their kids get dangerously ill from the water.  And so on – it is not cheerful.  In the process we learn about what Brokovich considers the top five water pollutants: hexavalent chromium (an anti-corrosion agent), chloramines (a disinfectant), trichloroethylene (a dry-cleaning fluid), perfluorinated chemicals, and fracking chemicals.

Lead is also hugely important, and Brokovich discusses it in the Flint context.  Nobody puts lead in drinking water; it comes from corrosion of old pipes.  This corrosion is much worse when a city uses chloramines (as opposed to chlorine or ozone) as disinfectant; worse yet when a city like Flint switches its raw water source to warm river water (to save money); and worse still when officials, again to save money, skimp on monitoring and enforcement.

Given that, I hesitate to recommend my last selection, Donna Leon’s Trace Elements, her latest installment of the Commissario Brunetti series. I do like that series, the simple whodunits in the serene atmosphere of Venice, where the description of food and cafés is as important as the plot.  But in this one Leon stumbles badly, and it’s a bit jarring.  Possibly responding to Amitav Ghosh’s contention that not enough fiction addresses climate change, she describes a summer city that is relentlessly hot and humid, with a villain who says “don’t start with all that nonsense about global warming.” 

The crime, though, revolves around water pollution, with nefarious goings-on in a private water utility.  It’s fun to read about nitrates or mercury – except that Leon has a completely unrealistic view of how water quality is monitored.  She has an employee explain that

 “The various conduits that transport water – pipes, streams, rivers – have sensors placed all along them, about a half-kilometer from one another, sometimes closer, and if one of them detects anything harmful or dangerous, our system registers it and a technician is sent to collect that particular sensor [which includes a sample in a tube], replace it with a new one, and bring it back for further examination…sometimes it’s possible to determine from these tests where the pollutant came from.” 

These automatic sensors test for arsenic, nitrates, copper, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, “bisfenolo”, “clorato, beta estradiolo, and micro-cistine.”  Sample tubes are made of glass “because one of the things we check for is plastic.” 

Wow – that sure would be nice.  Do I need to specify that such sensors do not exist – or that samples of water are not routinely tested for all these substances?  It’s still a fun yarn, though.  Maybe it is an indication of how complex environmental science is that a good fiction writer ends up making stuff up, not because the plot requires it but because she can’t tell a clorato from a bisfenolo.  Environmental teachers and communicators, you have your work cut out for you.

Be that as it may – grab a good book, it’s the best thing to do these days.  Happy reading!

Written by enviropaul

November 23, 2020 at 6:51 pm

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The vulgar wasp (a book review)

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Thank God the new books section of the library has finally opened after the initial Covid lock-down.  I’ll read e-books but I’m an old-fashioned browser who likes paper.

That’s how I discovered Phil Lester’s The Vulgar Wasp.  Lester is an entomologist working in New Zealand, where the common wasp (vespula vulgaris) is not only a pest but a recent introduction – an invasive species type of pest.  All the more to detest the insect; but no, Lester’s book is a spirited defense of the animal and its role – as well as a thought-provoking analysis of how we manage invasive species.  But if you think you know wasps, hang on; there are a lot of interesting surprises in that book.

Me, I mostly thought of insects, wasps included, as clever automata: born with an innate set of hard-wired instructions that they obey by instinct and cannot deviate from. Turns out, that’s a very wrong, very obsolete view.  Wasps can learn and adapt to situations, and not just as a nest aggregate, but as individuals.  And, inasmuch as we can assess self-awareness, we know they feel pain.  They can memorize landscapes (they know where they are) as well as individual faces (of their sisters, but also of other species). Like bees, they can learn new tasks and improve on ways of doing things, meaning that (to quote Lester) “entirely novel behaviours could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities, should relevant ecological pressures arise.”  Not bad for beasts with a total brain size of half a cubic millilitre.

This is even clearer in New Zealand; wasps arrived there only in the 70s, probably individual queens hidden in ship containers. But New Zealand is a completely different environment from their native Eurasia: different food sources, plants, etc. They were faced with new problems in their new home.  For instance, they learned a strategy to defeat the tiny native bush ant.  When some insect dies, normally the tiny bush ants are first on the scene to eat it.  A wasp wanting to grab the morsel is quickly swarmed, even though the ants are much smaller (a wasp is 20 times heavier than a bush ant). Wasps have learned to grab ants quickly and gently enough to avoid a spray of acid, and air lift them away from the carcass, repeating the procedure until there are few enough ants to be able to safely abscond with the carcass themselves.

But still, nobody likes wasps.  Bees, maybe; they kinda look cuddly with their fur, they give us honey, they pollinate our plants, and somehow everyone knows that they’ll sting only if pushed to it.  Wasps, on the other hand, look like they’re toxic and nefarious; they’ll sting just because they are aggressive; and what is the good of them, anyways.  All wrong, it turns out.

Toxic?  Nope.  They are actually good eating; Hirohito, the former emperor of Japan, said that wasp larvae were one of his favourite food (Japan still imports wasp larvae from China for its specialty food market).  In fact, a great many animal – badgers in particular – think that a wasp nest is a great source of protein-rich food, and that explains the aggressivity of the insects.  But if a wasp lands on you, and you don’t scare it by sudden gestures, the odds that you’ll get stung are pretty low.

What’s the good of them, though?  Their ecological role is significant. Yes, they are a source of food for some species, but it is what they eat that matters.  In Britain, where the wasps are native, they play a major role in eliminating other pests.  As Adam Hart explains,

Social wasps are predators and as such they play a vital ecological role, controlling the numbers of potential pests like greenfly and many caterpillars.  Indeed, it has been estimated that the social wasps of the UK might account for 14 million kilograms of insect prey across the summer. A world without wasps would be a world with a very much larger number of insect pests on our crops and gardens.

Wasps also control flies; one observer counted between 300 and 400 flies removed from two cows by wasps in 20 minutes.  Indeed, the yellow-legged hornet Vespula velutina feeds largely on flies.

And they also pollinate.  But that’s in Britain; what about New Zealand, where they are an introduced and very successful invasive species?  Surely, they must be damaging the ecological equilibrium that existed before they arrived.

This is where it gets interesting. Yes, they are disruptive, but some of the consequences are unexpected.  The wasps have discovered that scale insects are a great source of food.  These are insects that suck the sap of trees in the beech-dominant forests and excrete honeydew.  They must process a lot of sap since the protein content is of the sap is low; the processed sap that scale insects excrete contain all the excess sugar that they don’t need.  This honeydew is consumed by a variety of native birds such as the honeyeater, the tui, the bellbird, the silvereye, and others, who do not eat the scale insect itself.  The Kaka parrot eats copious quantities of honeydew; that calorie-rich food replenishes the energy that parrot expends in breaking up the bark of some trees to get at its choice protein source, a variety of caterpillar that tunnels under bark.  But even with all these birds, most of the honeydew drips on to the ground – to the tune of four tonnes per hectare, according to one estimate.

 Or so it did until the wasps arrived. Now there are far fewer scale insects and much less honeydew available, to the detriment of the honeydew-eating birds, whose numbers have dropped (introduced rats are also a concern, though, and it is difficult to tease out the exact contribution of the wasps to the problem).  And there is much less sticky honeydew on the ground; this normally causes the soil to look burned, as sooty mould covers any spot where honeydew falls.  The ground is then rich with fungal-eater tardigrades and nematodes.  But add the wasps and remove the honeydew droppings, and the soil ecology completely changes, from one where decomposition is chiefly done by fungi, to one where bacteria prevail; instead of fungal eaters, arthropods are much more numerous.  Even the air in the forest smells different.  But one key research finding of the effect of the wasps is climate related; when the soil tips from fungus to bacteria, organic matter decomposition slows down, and carbon accumulates.  One researcher found an increase in sequestered carbon of 38% in just four years.  So yes, wasps are changing the ecology and the character of the forest and endangering some bird species; but it is also helping our climate predicament by storing 4 million tonnes of carbon per hectare of beech forest, which is definitely a positive thing.  Lester suggests that attempts at eradicating a well-established invasive species are futile; focussing on its positive impacts may be a more productive approach.

Lester focuses on common social wasps: hornets, yellowjackets, paper wasps, common wasps, German wasps, and certainly these are already interesting enough on their own.  But there are a huge variety of other wasps, and Lester does mention those in passing.  The smallest flying insect is a wasp, Kikiki Huna, a type of fairyfly wasp, 0.15 mm long (its genus is Tinkerbella; entomologists have a sense of humour). One of the major pest wasp is not one that stings; rather, it is the sawfly wasp, a strict vegetarian whose wasp can only eat decaying wood. The adult sawfly lays its eggs under the bark of a tree, along with a fungus that kills the tree and enables the larva to eat and prosper.  The cuckoo yellowjacket has evolved a technique to enter a common wasp nest without being detected as an outsider, kills the resident queen and usurps her throne, the worker wasps raising her brood instead.  Parasitoid wasps actually come in a large variety of species; most are solitary hunters and don’t quite fit the stereotype of a wasp.  Ut their behaviour is still the stuff of nightmares.

For instance, the emerald cockroach wasp (ampulex compressa), as the name implies, hunts cockroaches.  It stings it, which temporarily paralyses it.  Once paralyzed, the wasp delivers a very precise second sting to the part of the brain that control the escape reflex.  The roach eventually recovers, grooms itself, but cannot move away; the second sting blocks the action of octopamine, which seems to rob the roach of its free will.  The wasp breaks one of the antennae and drinks a little of the haemolymph – maybe to assess the concentration of venom.  It then drags the roach by its other antenna to a little lair, and lays an egg on the roach.  The larva eats the roach alive, starting with the non-essential organs, eventually pupating inside of the dead roach’s exoskeleton.  Charming, these parasitoid wasps.  But they hold great promise as biological pest control.

A fig wasp

But the only that may be the most fascinating is the fig wasp. Lester barely mentions it, as it is its own complex topic.  Few of us have even seen a fig wasp: they are microscopic.  But nobody has even seen a flowering fig tree; what we think of as the young fruit is actually a group of inner flowers, that only a fig wasp, small enough to crawl into the fig’s opening at the bottom, can pollinate.  Lester mentions that “the relationship between figs and fig wasps is arguably the most interdependent pollination symbiosis known to man”.  The co-evolution of figs and wasps has been ongoing for over 60 million years. There are over 750 known species of fig, each with its own specific wasp species. And figs are keystone species in tropics, feeding 1274 species of mammals and birds.  There is no such thing as an unimportant wasp.  (For more details, Ben Crair wrote a cool overview for the New Yorker in 2016.)

And they still have a lot to teach us.  The yellow stripes of the otherwise mundane vespa orientalis work as a solar panel; the pigment xanthopterin that gives it its characteristic colour also turns light into (faint) electric energy.  What purpose that serves is still quite unclear; but for me, it makes it clear that wasps will continue to surprise us if we just bother to study them.  (Tip for entomologists: Lester says that social wasps are much more talented than bees in finding a hole in a suit.  Double-thickness fabrics, taping of all seams is mandatory.)  Maybe a biologically based solar panel is just awaiting a better understanding of that wasp.

Be that as it may – wasps are fascinating.  Yes, keep a respectful distance, and if hosting a barbecue provide an offering (salmon skin works wonders).  But learning to observe them for what they are instead of swatting reflexively, is not only safer; it is much more interesting.

Lester, Phil 2018. The vulgar wasp: the story of a ruthless invader and ingenious predator. Victoria U Press.

Written by enviropaul

August 16, 2020 at 4:40 pm

The German Green Belt along the old border

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The old GDR patrol road, now part of the Green Belt

A monument of repression turned into a symbol of renewal – that’s what Wikipedia calls the German Green Belt.  Most people have heard of the Berlin Wall; but fewer know that there was an equally lethal wall, 00 km long, separating the two Germanies.  It is this strip along the former border that has been transformed into one of the longest linear parks of the world, a strip of wild land 1400 km long, almost continuous.  What makes this zone special?  Christian Schwägerl explains:

In most parts of Germany, East and West, intensive agriculture, highways, and cities put huge pressure on ecosystems and many species of plants and animals. But the border area was off limits to most humans for decades, and thus became a safe haven for rare wildlife and plants. “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing,” [BUND’s Dieter] Leupold said as we walked recently along the former border near the East German city of Salzwedel. “We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.” In the end, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified.

A green strip through farmland in Saxony-Anhalt

It is not quite complete – and may never be.  As soon as the landmines were removed, some farmers quickly took over the land.  Still, there’s an impressive 68% of the original area that is protected in one form or another.  Nature has taken over even areas of concern: the two control strips, 2 meter and 6 meter wide, respectively, where generous amounts of herbicides were used along with raking to create a smooth strip of soil where footsteps could be easily seen.  Given a chance, nature is pretty resilient.

Connectivity is one key element of large linear natural areas like this one.  It facilitates species migration between areas that would otherwise be isolated habitats, islands of wilderness in a sea farms.  For instance, the Green Belt connects with the 25,000 ha Harz Natural Park or the 15,000 ha Schaalsee Lake natural reserve of moors and meadowlands.  It also makes it easier to create new areas that serve as both natural areas and floodplains, such as the Lenzener Elbtalaue:

[This] Elbe river floodplain near Lenzen is of national importance for its habitat types and complexes characteristic to the middle Elbe river floodplains and its strong potential for establishing near-nature alluvial forest over a large area. The floodplain between the new dyke and the river has become a mosaic of new flood channels, semi-open meadow countryside and alluvial forest that will eventually grow through natural succession to cover an area of some 300 ha. The new habitat complexes created as a result of the project will benefit species including beaver, fire-bellied toad, tree frog and white-tailed eagle. The area’s ongoing development will be documented in evaluations in 2016 and 2021. During the floods of 2011 and 2013 the dike relocation had beneficial hydraulic effects by reducing peak levels.

The Green Belt and connected projects

But the connectivity aspect has important implications beyond local species migrations.  The German Green Belt is only one part of a larger project, the European Green Belt, which runs further south along the borders which used to make up the Iron Curtain, along the Czech Republic, Austria, the former Yugoslavia, all the way to the Greek and Bulgarian border.  These still function as political borders but there are new initiatives to ensure that the borders also work as wildlife corridors.  Likewise between Finland, Norway and Russia.  This creates a long north-south corridor that spans many ecosystem types, a bit of a counterpart to the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project in North America.  These are seen as vital for enabling wildlife to adapt to climate change.

The idea originated with bird watchers on the western side of the border, who had noticed that otherwise rare species were gathering in the green areas of what was otherwise a death strip.  It wasn’t greeted warmly by everyone, though:

“There were fears that ecologists would turn this thing into a new border, create exclusion zones and forbidden areas, not to serve communism, but environmentalism,” says Leupold. Those fears were unfounded, he adds, but need to be addressed.

The fear of exclusion zones is certainly understandable, when one looks at what used to be there.  Aside from the narrower wall area, with landmines and watchtowers, there was a five kilometer wide strip that “only reliable friends of the regime” could enter or farm.  Villages such as Bardowiek, inconveniently located along the exclusion strip, were simply stripped.  Delving into the wall’s history makes for depressing reading – I prefer to focus on some of the more comical or absurd aspects of it.  For instance, there is a small area of Niedersachsen, Amt Neuhaus, that is on the eastern side of the Elbe River, and it is the only part of the former west Germany with a strip of the wall through it.  This is because the British did not want to build a bridge across the river to link that small strip of right-bank land to the rest of the state; they just gave it to the Russians.  When the wall came down, the locals insisted on rejoining their former state.  Or take the village of Rüterberg in Mecklenburg.  It is located on a broad bend of the Elbe river that was bypassed by the wall, completely cutting off the town from the rest of East Germany – or from West Germany across the river, for that matter.  According to Wikipedia,

From 1988 to 1989, the local residents, led by Hans Rasenberger, raised the idea of creating a free town, with the powers of establishing their own laws, breaking their ties with East Germany. The “Republic” was proclaimed by an assembly of 90 citizens on 8 November 1989, just a day before the fall of the Berlin wall. On 14 July 1991, the secretary of state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern acknowledged the right of the people of Rüterberg to use the title of Dorfrepublik (Village-Republic).

There are several articles (here, here, here, here, and here, for instance) where more information may be found. There is also a short video of a trip made by a pair of tandem-bike riders along the green strip and nearby areas.  But for anyone not familiar with Germany, I recommend this half-hour video from the tourism series Check-in (in English): host Nicole Fröhlich, who grew up in nearby Eschwege on the Western side, explores part of the Green Belt and chats with Elisabeth Langlotz, a resident of Vacha on the east side, who lost access to her family across the river when the wall went up (between 8:00 and 14:00, in particular).

It should be depressing – a story of human cruelty and self-inflicted damage.  Instead, it is a beacon of hope – just the kind of stories I’m a sucker for!

Written by enviropaul

July 19, 2020 at 12:04 pm

Datteln 4: a new German coal plant shows diseconomies of scale

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A new coal-fired power plant opened last month in Datteln, just north of Dortmund in the Ruhr area of Germany.  The news was greeted with howls of indignation.  Greta Thunberg tweeted that the opening of the plant is a shameful day for Europe.  Deutsche Welle reported that protests greeted the opening:

Around 500 climate activists on Saturday gathered outside the new Datteln 4 coal power plant in Germany’s Ruhr region, to protest against its opening. Fridays for Future, Greenpeace, as well as German groups Ende Gelände and the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) were represented at the protests. During the night into Saturday, climate activists graffitied the slogan “Climate crisis, made in Germany” on the side of the tower.

This had followed earlier protests and occupations of the worksite last February.  For Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail, it is an example of the power of the coal industry:

The priority is restoring employment in a hurry – all the better to win elections – not decarbonizing the way we live and create wealth… On May 30, Germany opened the enormous, €1-billion ($1.5-billion) Datteln 4 coal-fired power plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel had vowed last year to close all of the country’s 84 coal-fired plants by 2038. Datteln sneaked in under the wire, revealing the power of the coal lobby has barely waned.

What is going on?  Germany has been held up worldwide as an example of enlightened decision maker when it comes to energy and greenhouse gas emissions.  Is the country changing course?

The truth is complex, and hinted at by Reguly when he mentioned “under the wire.”  Construction of the plant started in 2007, and the planning and authorization process took place even earlier, of course – in another era.  The plant – a living fossil, as it were – provides a nice example of diseconomies of scale: what may be wrong with huge projects.

In the face of it, though, the plant is not a bad one. According to the magazine Power Technology, the plant stands

among the world’s most modern coal-fired power plants under development…with a net efficiency of more than 45%. It will produce district heating in addition to generating power generation. Upon completion, the project will replace the aging Datteln 1-3, and Shamrock (Herne) power plants. [It] will be equipped with an advanced multi-step flue gas purification system, which will eliminate nitrogen oxides, dust and sulphur from the flue gas. Using combined heat and power technology, the Datteln 4 power plant will also produce approximately 1,000GWh of district heating, sufficient to supply for approximately 100,000 houses. It will provide district heating to Castrop-Rauxel and Dortmund-Bodelschwingh areas.

Out of the total electricity produced, 413MW of traction current will be delivered to Deutsche Bahn’s grid for its railway system. The remaining 642MW will be transmitted to the region’s public electricity grid.  The 50Hz power generated by the plant will be converted into 16.7Hz, which is ideal for the train system, by a traction current converter facility to be constructed along the power station. The converted energy will be fed to Deutsche Bahn’s 110kV high-voltage grid.

Fortum, the Finnish plant owner and operator, had this to say:

We understand people’s concerns, and we agree that coal must be phased out, and emissions must be reduced. However, the transition to a low-emission society must be made without compromising the security of supply or an affordable cost of energy, in a socially just manner. This has been the starting point for the comprehensive solution of the German government, which allows the commissioning of Datteln 4 and systematic phasing out of coal by 2038.

The German government is committed to reducing emissions quickly, so old and inefficient power plants will be decommissioned first. As long as coal is needed to ensure the security of supply, it should be used as efficiently as possible.

So, overall, not such a bad project: a very efficient new plant that will replace older plants and produce more energy, electricity and thermal, for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  (And it will power the DB trains – I love trains!) Nonetheless, the project abounds in irony.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the project.  A small local project would likely not have attracted so much attention on both sides of the debate.  As it stands, despite opening, the plant may get mired in lawsuits as well as protests from environmentalists.  Michael Buchsbaum, in the on-line Energy Transition magazine, wrote last December that

as the government embarks on a bizarre sales campaign peddling the idea that Datteln’s advanced technology will somehow help improve the climate, activists are organizing a protest wave that will dwarf previous actions around the embattled Hambach Forest… Given the swelling numbers of activists joining Fridays For Future, Ende Gelände, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups, there will be no shortage of demonstrators.

The project, indeed, seems to be affected by what economies call diseconomies of scale.  That is the opposite, of course, of economies of scale: a bigger company, a bigger manufacture, benefits from its size because it can do things more efficiently – until the increased complexity brings it to its knees.  This is what we’re seeing in a lot of megaprojects, particularly in energy generation.

Wikipedia lists a number of reasons that explain diseconomies of scale: increased communications cost, duplication of effort, office politics, top-heavy management, as well as slow response time and inertia.

Slow response time is key in here.  The project was planned before the German government decided to get out of coal by 2038, and improved efficiency seemed a reasonable justification at the time.  And of course, in the early 2000s, nobody could have predicted how quickly the cost of wind power would have dropped.

Large projects are chronically plagued by cost over-runs.  Muskrat Falls in Labrador is a classic recent Canadian example, to say nothing of the on-going saga of Site C dam in BC.  Researchers Benjamin Sovacool, Daniel Nugent, and Alex Gilbert reported on over 400 energy projects (The Electricity Journal, 27(4), pg112-120, 2014).  They found that large hydro projects had average costs overruns of 70%; nuclear plants, 117%; in contrast, wind (both on-shore and offshore) averaged 7.7% overruns.  The wind farms represented 35 projects for a total capacity of 6200 MW.  Thirty-nine large solar farms (PV or CSP) had a mean overrun of 1.3%, where it did occur; over a quarter of the projects were built below cost.

This illustrates the intrinsic complexity of big projects.  Wind and solar farms are made up of simple components, endlessly multiplied.  In contrast, Datteln 4 is one giant single-block systems.  It was scheduled to come on-line in 2011, but was both over-budget and delayed.  In this particular case, this was largely due to “the continuing curse of T24”, to use the expression of the magazine Modern Power Systems.  T24 is a type of steel alloy that was selected for the boilers at Datteln, but stress corrosion problems forced its replacement with another material, the T123 alloy, at considerable expense and delay.

So it may be a bit unfair to accuse the German government of betrayal.  It had to deal with the result of decisions made two decades ago.  Yes, it could have vetoed the opening and compensated the owner; it chose to mothball two other plants instead, a pragmatic, cheaper strategy, possibly, but an unpopular one with terrible optics.

There is an understandable fascination with large projects.  They incorporate the most recent technology – and offers technical challenges of great appeal to engineers.  To politicians, they may seem to offer silver bullet solutions (electricity supply issues? Gone) as well as irresistible vanity projects (WAC Bennett got his name on a dam – why not me?).  But their complexity usually means cost overruns and delays.  And, delay or not, the time it takes from planning to operation means that they may well be obsolete by the time they are completed.  Datteln 4 should be a reminder that mega-projects have a knack for coming into the scene as costly white elephants.

Yes, Site C, yes, Kitimat LNG, I am talking about you.

Written by enviropaul

June 19, 2020 at 1:59 pm

Jeff Speck on walkability

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In my class on environmental issues I have shown a Ted Talk by Jeff Speck to generate discussion.  A livable, walkable city is better for the environment, so goes the argument.  Here is the talk:

Jeff Speck is indeed a bit of a guru on urban development.  I recently finished his 2018 book Walkable City Rules.  It is a companion to his 2012 book Walkable City.  But while the earlier book is written as an essay, the more recent one is articulated around a set of 101 simple rules.

The idea of a “how-to” book on urban planning may seem a bit ludicrous – the book is written for the general reader in mind, not someone who can single-handedly change a neighbourhood.  But it is at the same time an expression of democracy: the savvier citizens are about urban planning, the more they can provide input to city hall; and municipal politics are the ones where it is easiest for anyone to have a say and even influence a decision process.

But it is also a way to understand the urban fabric and sometimes to put into words something that otherwise may remain a nagging, un-articulated feeling.  For me a small epiphany was learning the expression “beg button”.  These have always annoyed me, irrationally – or so I thought.  But to read about them in Speck’s earlier book was strangely comforting.  Speck writes (pg 184):

Another reliable bellwether [of walkability] is the visible absence of push-button traffic signals.  In my travels, it is almost always the cities with push-button crossings that need the help most…push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile predominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent.  Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

This is repeated in his new book as rule 75: do not install pedestrian push-buttons (“beg buttons”), nor countdown clocks.  Aside from making pedestrians feel second class, they almost encourage people to jaywalk.  Often, they don’t even work (Speck reports that none of the roughly 3000 push-buttons in NYC work, save for 120 of them (4%), for instance).  Some merely extend the crossing duration, like the one recently re-installed at the corner of Glover Road and Duncan Way in Langley, across from where I teach.  This is hardly a major intersection; it’s one across which I commonly jaywalk.  I feel personally insulted by having to wait a full cycle because I pressed a second too late, while cars just go.  As Speck writes, “people driving are automatically ushered through, while people walking have to beg for passage.”  And countdown clocks don’t help, either; they merely “encourage drivers to gun it to beat the light.” (Toronto’s experience with them bares this out: the record on pedestrian safety hasn’t changed, but the number of rear-enders has shot up.)

The above may give an idea of what’s in the book – and there’s a lot.  I’m not going to list the rules; many are somewhat self-evident, such as “sell walkability on climate change” (rule 3), but it is the wealth of evidence that Speck marshals that makes it a delight.  There’s a lot about good public transit, urban fabric, sidewalk width, and stuff like that.  But the main point is never lost in the wealth of specific details; instead, the reader is always thinking about their home city: “is it true here? How do we rate on this metric?” In other words, it’s a lot of fun.

Breaking rules 81 and 63 at once (Starbucks on Hastings at Kaslo)

Take, for instance, rule 81: disallow curb cuts. “Fast-food and bank drive-throughs have no place in walkable districts”.  These cuts mean that cars may cut across the sidewalk at any time, unpredictably, making pedestrians and especially cyclists unsafe.  The only exception should be for parking structures and for hotels that lack access through a lane access.  The McDonald’s drive-thru 41st and West Boulevard in Kerrisdale (Vancouver) is one local instance: when I was part of a Sunday morning jogging group, I witnessed a number of close calls there (joggers would collide into one another because someone had to stop abruptly for a car pulling out). The line-up to get in the Starbucks drive-thru on East Hastings is at times long enough to affect the new bicycle path at the corner of Kaslo.

Vancouver is actually mentioned a couple of times in the book: it is held as a good example of well-coordinated transit and land use (rule 20 – though denizens of Langley may disagree) and has its own rule, rule 85, “build Vancouver urbanism” – skinny towers on pedestal bases that have good street-level appeal.  We may discuss hits and misses, but still it’s nice to see our city earn a mention for pioneering an approach.  Many other rules find applications here, such as rule 82 (introduce parklets: it’s getting there), rule 57 (build bicycle boulevards: not bad, getting better – but only in Vancouver itself), rule 86 (make interesting lighting: well…), and many others.  It becomes a bit of a game; walking around town gets more interesting.

But for a North American like me, it is the “out-there” rules that may be the most interesting, showcasing case-studies from Europe that open up a whole new field of questions and ideas for ways of co-habiting with motor vehicles that are unknown here, especially when it comes to safety.  I’m not talking about simple things like rule 63 (yes, curb parking actually makes sidewalks feel safer).  No, this is about initiatives like rule 33: adopt vision zero.  Speck points out that “when children die at a crosswalk, it is natural and appropriate to investigate the driver.  Rarely do we investigate the cross-walk.”  Zero Vision, an approach started in Stockholm, addresses that by modifying engineering standards including lowering urban speed limits, but encompassing many other changes.  Since its adoption, fatalities in Stockholm have dropped drastically: 6 in 2013, none in 2016.  Compare that to Phoenix, a city of the same size, that registered 167 pedestrian fatalities in 2013.  More details on Vision Zero can be found here and here.

Even more startling, consider rule 77: build naked streets and shared spaces.  This means no more street lights or other signs, no more painted lines and other markings.  It should result in chaos.  But in the small towns where it has been tried, the opposite has happened: not only are pedestrians and cyclists safer but traffic flows smoothly.  Speck gives the example of Poynton in England and recommends watching the YouTube video about it.  I concur; take a look (but remember that in Britain, pavement means sidewalk).  There are more examples here and here.  Enjoy!

Speck, Jeff 2018. Walkable city rules: 101 steps to making better places.  Washington: Island Press.

Speck, Jeff 2012. Walkable city: how downtown can save America, one step at a time.  New York: North Point Press.

Written by enviropaul

June 18, 2020 at 9:26 am

Between terpen and dikes: room for the river

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God made the Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so goes the saying.  Indeed, much of the country is built on reclaimed and drained land, much of it below sea level.  So it comes as a surprise that the latest Dutch initiative, Room for the River, aims to give some of the land back to flooding.

But there’s flooding and flooding.  Allowing the sea back in, the sea that came in a storm surge in 1953 (when 1836 people drowned) to say nothing of historical floods (over 100,000 people may have died in the 1530 flood), is not at all what is under consideration.  But the Netherlands is also home to the Rhine and the Meuse rivers, and these are the rivers that need extra room if they are not going to overtop dikes and cause calamitous flooding.

The Dutch government has created a few videos explaining what that means.  Here are two of them, to give an idea of the strategy followed by the government.

If this is a new strategy brought on by climate change, rising sea levels and more intense storms, some of its components hark back to another, age-old strategy.  Where farm land is to become flood plain, farm buildings – house, barn, etc – are to be protected.  A river flood is temporary; a crop may suffer, and the farmer compensated for the loss, but the as long as the buildings, the equipment, the livestock, and the farmer’s family remain dry, the flood is an inconvenience, not a disaster.  The barn, house and other buildings are to be elevated or relocated on built-up mounds above the surrounding land.  These mounds are called terpen, and they are a throw-back to a practice that is over 2,000 years old.

A modern terp

Terpen developed all over the North Sea coast from Denmark to Belgium, along what is called the Frisian coast. The Frisian coast is particularly dynamic, constantly changing over time.  But mostly, it is sinking: as Scandinavia slowly rebounds up from under the weight of the glaciers, it is tilting the continental plate, a phenomenon called isotactic rebound.  But because of the tilt, as the Scandinavian coast is receding, anything south of Denmark is, instead, sinking.

Early inhabitants of the Frisian coast were dry land farmers.  But as the sea invaded, especially from 500BCE onwards, these farmers retreated to whatever little hillocks they could find, eventually adding soil to them, building them up, so as to support communal farms or villages, barns, houses and gardens.  These mounds are called terpen (also wurten; singular terp).  The Roman writer Pliny was the first to describe them, and he was not impressed:

There this miserable race inhabits raised pieces of ground or platforms, which they have moored by hand above the level of the highest known tide. Living in huts built on the chosen spots, they seem like sailors in ships if water covers the surrounding country, but like shipwrecked people when the tide has withdrawn itself, and around their huts they catch fish which try to escape with the expiring tide.  They braid ropes of sedges and rushes from the marshes with which they make nets to be able to catch fish, and they dig up mud with their hands and dry it more in wind than in the sun, and with [peat] as fuel they heat their food and their own bodies, frozen in northern wind. Their only drink comes from storing rain water in tanks in front of their houses. And these are the races which, if they were now conquered by the Roman nation, say that they will fall into slavery!

But in fact, this amphibian life was not miserable.  The lands would be flooded, but only temporarily.  When this happened, the terpen would become little islands holding humans and their livestock.  All the manure and other waste would be disposed of on the mound, ensuring that the gardens near the buildings remained exceptionally fertile.  After the flood (or the high tide), the animals, cattle and sheep mostly, would return to pasture on the drying bottomlands. Over generations, terpen grew from the accumulation of rubbish as well as from purposeful addition of clay to the mounds.

Indeed, terpen inhabitants were a bit like sailors, using boats to go anywhere at high tide; but their situation was far from the dismal picture Pliny portrayed.  Michael Pye explains that they had access to fish, yes, but also to meat and dairy from their livestock, something that Pliny seemed to have missed.  Even if the surrounding salt marshes could not grow grain, the terpen dwellers ate better than their counterparts on the mainland.  Medieval peasants ate a gruel from the grain they raised, often suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and they were always under the threat of famine should the crop fail. They also owed work and a portion of their harvest to the lords.

Not so the terpen Frisians, who had the extra advantage of being free, owing no lords a fee for their lands.  Petty nobles had experienced what the Romans had first realized: the wetlands made military conquest very difficult.  The lowland Frisians remained free peasants much longer than their dryland counterparts.  From their terpen the Frisians had meat and cheese, fish and game, as well as turnips, broad beans, rapeseed, and barley from their gardens.  In the early medieval era the terpen supported a higher population density than elsewhere in western Europe, and the Frisians had the luxury of having more than half of their calories coming from animal products.

Nor did they live as hermits; sea-borne commerce developed early on.  The terpen dwellers needed wood for their buildings, metal tools, wheat and millstones to make bread; they also wanted wine.  They sold fish, cattle, cheese, butter, parchment from skins, and, most importantly, wool.  Wool was a mainstay of the medieval economy.  For instance, king Richard the Lionheart of England, captive in Palestine, was ransomed not for coin but for 50,000 sacks of wool.  The Frisians took full advantage of their ability to produce and sell wool.  Archaeologists found an ancient farm near modern Wilhelmshaven that raised two types of sheep, producing distinct grades of wool for the luxury markets.  Eventually the area moved on to weaving as well; with its centre in Flanders, the region became one of the wealthiest of Europe through the later middle-ages and renaissance eras.

By that time the Dutch, the Flemish and the Frisians had built a new set of flooding defenses: the dykes, for which they are justly famous.  But they never forgot the lessons in resilience learned from terpen life: co-operation and community are essential, be it to keep dry or to fend off some haughty lord.  They also learned that a flood need not be the enemy: properly managed, the waters can be a source of wealth and identity.  Room for the River is just the latest incarnation of these lessons.

And the rest of the world, faced with the challenges of climate change, is finally listening to the Dutch: learn how to live with the water.

More info:

Pye, Michael 2014. The edge of the world: how the North Sea made us who we are. London: Penguin.

Meier, Dirk 2008The Historical Geography of the German North-Sea Coast: a Changing Landscape.  Die Küste, 74 ICCE, 18-30.

Hoffmann, Richard 2014. An environmental history of medieval Europe.  Cambridge U Press.

van Alphen, Sander 2019. Room for the River: Innovation, or Tradition? The Case of the Noordwaard.

Other “Room for the River” videos at


Written by enviropaul

June 4, 2020 at 4:53 pm

Chicago, part three: an interesting comment

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After I wrote this blog post on Chicago’s waters, I posted it on facebook.  That generated some interesting comments – including this one, reproduced below, from landscape architect Domenico D’Alessandro.

Domenico says that my article is pretty generic – of course it is.  I’m happy that he didn’t notice glaring mistakes; it isn’t an article, it is a mere post of things I come across.  I post things for myself (it makes it easier to remember stuff) but also for the benefit of readers who may want to hear that some aspects of the environment are quite resilient, and that not all news about the environment are by definition bad.  Chicago is a case in point: Chicago River used to be dead.  Now it is alive.

Does that mean that it was revived in the best possible way – best for the environment, best for society? Of course not.  Chicago is amazing, Chicago is bewildering, but an exemplar of a fair, serene and enlightened society it is not.  The cruelty of the stockyards, the manipulative exploitation of the immigrants, the redlining of Bronzeville, it’s still all there in Chicago.

But I like the Chicago River.  I like that it is no longer polluted and stinky.  I even like the cafes along its Riverwalk – though I do question whether it is a smart development.  Indeed, as you’ll read in D’Alessandro’s comments, a better and more resilient design would have been a public space, green – and without commercial shops that get flooded.

Because flooding has already happened, and will happen again, even as TARP gets completed.  Climate change is daunting.  Some urban development designs do not face that fact, no question.  This is why I am reproducing D’Alessandro’s comments in full: we get to benefit from the perspective of a designer, and an insider: someone who knows both the place and the subject well. (His comments were quickly jotted down – I took the liberty of correcting a few typos). I have also added part of D’Alessandro’s LinkedIn biography, below, for context.


This article is pretty generic; when I presented my concept for the Chicago River Fish Hotel in Zaragoza, Spain in 2005 at a SER conference, I had an extensive account of the history of the river I thought the international community were not totally aware of. The TARP project is still the hope the city is clinging [to] to calm the waters. Now we know that climate change will bring about heavier and more frequent storms [and] it may not be enough. I also think that the whole river walk was a gift from Mayor Daley to his supporters. In 2003 while beginning to design the fish hotel, I also proposed a way to redevelop the stretch of the downtown river as a publicly owned and operated space where a variety of activities and shops [that] would rotate to allow many businesses, artists and other enterprises to benefit equally from the river walk. However the solution chosen was to privatize certain areas and lo and behold the first to have a permit was an Irish Pub. In fact, the river walk is no different than any street up above. The city fathers preferred to emulate [the] San Antonio river walk rather than truly service what the downtown core needed.

My vision was to have, the length of the river at water level, a connected ecosystem of floating wetlands that would provide [an] uninterrupted corridor for the aquatic life and form a green belt for canoeing and kayaking. The people would [have been] at the medium level with booths that hosted different vendors on a seasonal basis. This would allow [for high fluctuations] in the river to occur without impinging on the activities and not creat[ing] damages. More recent concepts proposed try to turn the river into an entertainment venue, whereas my concepts try to turn it into a cultural and educational venue.

It seems that private interests still run the show and the riverbanks are just an extension of the streets above. I don’t know if this will change in the future but most of the downtown corridor has been developed and only outlying stretches are actually dedicated to aquatic ecosystems. Now with the flooding the restaurant areas are off limits as are the connections at water level. During the recent storms MWRD was forced to release sewage into the river and lake. So the problems still afflict the city and thus far the solutions proposed and built are only marginally successful. Of course, Chicago being the windy city, everything is painted with boast and pride. There is even a macabre pride in describing the rampant corruption ‘”the Chicago way”. I am still hoping that the new administration can somehow free itself of such a past and truly begin a process of transparency and open access to projects and ideas. Thus far though the old ways prevail; and for people such as myself that are not part of the donor class and not politically connected and do not shy away from voicing their opinions and criticism, participation in city projects remains elusive. If you list the projects you will notice a recurrence of the same firms exercising control of city contracts. I am not against everything the city has done, there are some very good projects among the many mediocre questionable ones.


Domenico D’Alessandro is a regenerative design consultant (MLA in landscape Architecture- University of Guelph) and artist (Fine Arts – Accademia di Belle Arti, Firenze, Italy). He is principal of D’Alessandro & Associates, Inc. based in Algonquin, Illinois. His landscape environmental designs have received US Environmental Protection Agency, Chicago Wilderness, the 2007 Mayor Dailey Greenworks Award and an Integrative Habitat Design Competition 2012 (international)award. He has been a member of Chicago Wilderness Sustainability Team for many years.

Specialties: Integrative Habitat Design – originator of the vertical watershedTM concept and the bioshaft design process(R) for water quality and management, and habitat creation in the urban core.

Written by enviropaul

May 26, 2020 at 4:42 pm