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July 24 2013

Ep. 308: Climate Change

When it comes to carbon dioxide, just a little goes a long way to warming the planet. Unfortunately, we’ve been dumping vast amounts into the atmosphere, recently passing 400 parts per million. Let’s look at the science of the greenhouse effect, and how it’s impacting our global climate.

July 18 2013

TERRA 815: WildFIRE PIRE: The Core of the Problem

WildFIRE PIRE is a National Science Foundation five-year project that is an international partnership coordinated by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University that focuses on the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present, and future. Scientists from research universities and agencies in the United States, Tasmania, and New Zealand have combined efforts to compare how past fire occurrences have influenced climate change and what these patterns can tell us about the future. With the primary areas of study in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Australia’s Tasmanian conservation areas, New Zealand’s forests, and Patagonia’s wild places, the project is exploring how wildfires, which are often devastating, are related to climate change. What is the fire history of New Zealand's unique landscape? Fire scientists from around the globe converge on New Zealand's many lakes extracting sediment cores that tell the story of New Zealand before and after the arrival of Maori and European settlers.

May 10 2013

TERRA 810: WildFIRE PIRE: A Ring of Fire

WildFIRE PIRE is a National Science Foundation five-year project that is an international partnership coordinated by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University that focuses on the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present, and future. Scientists from research universities and agencies in the United States, Tasmania, and New Zealand have combined efforts to compare how past fire occurrences have influenced climate change and what these patterns can tell us about the future. With the primary areas of study in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Australia’s Tasmanian conservation areas, New Zealand’s forests, and Patagonia’s wild places, the project is exploring how wildfires, which are often devastating, are related to climate change. Produced by: WildFIRE PIRE

April 12 2013

TERRA 808: TRUST Massachusetts

Eshe is an 18-year old French horn playing, basketball playing, systems thinker that just started her freshman year at Yale so she can continue to learn how to solve complex problems with comprehensive and feasible solutions. She is also one of the many youth from across the United States who is taking legal action to compel comprehensive, science-based, government action on climate change as part of the TRUST Campaign. Produced by: WITNESS

March 29 2013

TERRA 807: Inches of Snow and Tide

The Olympic Peninsula is a land of snowy mountains, rocky tidepools, and crashing waves. Explore one small patch of coastline at low tide and you can find tiny sea stars, camouflaged fish, and eighty-year-old anemones. Fantastic seaweeds cling to wave battered rocks, and carnivorous sea stars stalk mussels and unsuspecting clams. These areas also serve as a rich natural resource for the four local tribes of Native Americans. Climate change could change all of that. Measuring snow depths on Hurricane Ridge and ocean temperatures in the intertidal zone, scientists share their hopes and concerns for the future of a rugged and incredibly diverse ecosystem.

February 01 2013

TERRA 803: WildFIRE PIRE: A World On Fire

WildFIRE PIRE is a National Science Foundation five-year project that is an international partnership coordinated by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University that focuses on the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present, and future. Scientists from research universities and agencies in the United States, Tasmania, and New Zealand have combined efforts to compare how past fire occurrences have influenced climate change and what these patterns can tell us about the future. With the primary areas of study in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Australia’s Tasmanian conservation areas, New Zealand’s forests, and Patagonia’s wild places, the project is exploring how wildfires, which are often devastating, are related to climate change.

December 07 2012

TERRA 723: TRUST Oregon

TRUST Oregon features Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, a 16-year-old from Eugene, who is passionate about preserving this beautiful Earth. Kelsey's identity is directly tied to the various elements of Oregon's biodiversity. She was born in a 1-room cabin in Fall Creek amidst the old-growth trees of the Cascades. She was named after Kelsey Creek - a crystal-clear river that flows out of an ancient forest grove, and Rose signifies the wild rose that grew abundantly near the cabin where she was born. Kelsey knows that she is not old enough to vote, but she has also learned that she can raise her voice by speaking out. Although it shouldn't be the responsibility of her generation to take on the burden of learning how to adapt in the face of global climate change, Kelsey knows that Mother Earth does not have the time to wait for politicians to debate about whether climate change will affect our future.

October 24 2012

Industrial Internet links: NYC Data Week sensors, industrial Internet in transportation, and more

By mayoral proclamation this is NYC Data Week, featuring lots of events that bring together innovators who work with data in any capacity. To see the industrial Internet as it’s being approached by entrepreneurs and hackers, be sure to stop by the free Data Sensing Lab in the Rhinelander North room at the Hilton hotel at 6th Avenue and 53rd Street. Participants in the lab work on networked devices–some of which they’re using to measure the environment at the O’Reilly Strata Conference + Hadoop World. They’ll report on what their sensors discovered at the end of the week.

The Internet of Things Moving Us Forward (Digi) — The transportation sector is where just about every American interacts with big machines, whether by driving a car, riding on an airplane or waiting safely at a grade crossing while a train passes by. And it’s in transportation that the typical consumer will feel the first benefits of the industrial Internet. Digi, which provides a pay-per-transaction cloud platform for controlling devices, here takes a look at a handful of ways that connected vehicles are starting to improve the way we get around.

Kaspersky Lab developing its own operating system? (Eugene Kaspersky) — Networked industrial devices have become common enough to get the attention of Kaspersky Lab, Russia’s security giant, which confirmed last week that it’s developing an operating system for industrial control systems. The system is still under development and, as Kaspersky himself notes, will only take final form after it goes through lots of application-specific development. Kaspersky will have plenty of competition from established producers of industrial-control software with large installation bases, so his move seems to anticipate lots of total retrofits of industrial systems in the next several years.

Natural Fuse — Carbon sequestration usually works at a very large scale: you pay for an acre of forest to be planted in Hungary in order to offset your airplane trip. This social experiment renders it small and immediate through a network of plants that absorb CO2 and appliances–lamps, fans and radios–whose usage produces CO2. Natural Fuse members can use their plant’s carbon allowance directly or give it to others in the network in real-time. Run your appliance too much without offsetting its emissions, and you could kill someone else’s plant. The system runs on Cosm, a platform for linking networked devices.

The industrial Internet series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

October 12 2012

TERRA 719: TRUST Pennsylvania

Ashley Funk is an 18-year old from western Pennsylvania. Ashley is many things. She is an identical twin, the founder of Pollution Patrol, a volunteer at the local care home, and she loves to sing with her friends around campfires. Ashley is asking our leaders to recognize that environmental destruction is the destruction of human health and in turn, realize that we have the potential for change. Ashley has done extensive research in preparation for a career as an environmental engineer and policy maker and she knows that we are not stuck in a society where we must rely on destructive fossil fuels to power our energy needs. We have the technology to move beyond this. Ashley is asking the government to come up with a climate recovery plan that does not destroy our single most essential resource...the atmosphere.

July 20 2012

TERRA 713: TRUST Colorado

In this episode of the TRUST series, meet Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an 11-year-old boy from Boulder, Colorado. Xiuhtezcatl shares why he joined youth from across the country asking the courts to hear their lawsuit (Alec L., et al., v. Lisa P. Jackson, et al.), which is based on one of the most fundamental principles of civilized society: TRUST. Xiuhtezcatl asks that our atmosphere be protected, because he loves playing in Colorado’s mountains, forests, lakes, and streams and fears that the resources he most enjoys will not be there for his generation if we continue emitting carbon dioxide at current rates. Xiuhtezcatl shares, “The proof of climate change is everywhere I look. In my lifetime, the amount of forest killed by pine beetles has expanded. The number of acres burned has intensified. My generation is losing our forests. We are losing our homes. It’s not too late to ensure my generation has a livable future. But we need to listen to the science and act now.” Over a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that our federal government has an absolute legal duty to protect our essential common natural resources – such as our air and our water - for present and future generations. Our youth are simply asking our third branch of government to compel the legislative and executive branches to do their jobs. For more information about the lawsuits and other TRUST youth, please visit: www.ourchildrenstrust.org and www.witness.org

June 27 2012

Alison Stolwood's best photograph

'As humans, we would once have been fearful of such places. Now we want to explore them'

This was taken in the Lake District for a project about the impact ice has had on landscapes. I called it Phase Transitions. Nature is constantly changing but it's generally too slow for us to notice: the only way we can see it is by comparing photographs. I'm interested in how we now want to explore these sublime, overpowering vistas, where once we would have been fearful of them. There's also all the uncertainty about what melting ice will mean for us and the planet.

I started exploring these themes by researching places shaped by ice: carved valleys, boulders, marks in rock. Then I went on field trips to Wales, the French and Swiss Alps, and the Lake District. I had to do everything on a tight budget, camping and staying with friends en route. The weather was a problem, too: whenever it rained, I had to put my large-format back 5inx4in field camera in the car.

I shot this on a sunny day in 2009 in the Great Langdale valley. I was heading up a mountain and went past Copt Howe, a substantial boulder that dropped out of a melting glacier into what is now a farmer's field. It has many circular bronze-age carvings in it, as well as natural faultlines. Then this scene caught my eye. Despite my unwieldy equipment, I always try to set up quickly. On this occasion, leaning over a gate, I only managed to get a single shot while the conditions lasted. I couldn't tell at the time, but the heads of the cow and the calf were caught at just the right moment, as if they were about to look round to see what I was doing.

I like the juxtaposition: the natural wilderness of the mountains in the distance, and the cultivated farmland in the foreground where the livestock are lazing. Although it's not my most technically accomplished shot, it was a turning point for me in that it captured a moment of stillness that seemed to say a lot about cycles of change, perhaps best embodied by the fact that the two animals represent the young and the old. Landscapes can look so natural but, in one way or another, they have often been shaped by us.

CV

Born: 1983, Colchester

Studied: Falmouth College of Arts, University of Brighton

Influences: Caspar David Friedrich, Katie Paterson, Andreas Gursky, David Attenborough

High point: Taking part in the show Still Outside (or Unexplained), exploring the interaction between people and the environment

Low point: The cost of photography

Top tip: Shoot lots – it takes time to develop the way you work


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May 18 2012

Flash floods are on the rise, while the budget to tackle them sinks | Bob Ward

The Environment Agency has warned the UK to expect more floods but its advice seems to be falling on deaf ears

A moving new exhibition of photographs at Somerset House shows the human impact of flooding around the world over the past five years and provides an insight into how climate change may already be disrupting lives and livelihoods.

The images from major flooding events in the UK, Pakistan, Australia and Thailand feature victims and survivors as they cope with the inundation of their homes and the aftermath. The photographer, Gideon Mendel, says his intention is "to depict them as individuals, not as nameless statistics". He adds: "Coming from disparate parts of the world, their faces show us their linked vulnerability despite the vast differences in their lives and circumstances."

One of the most striking exhibits shows Margaret Clegg standing knee-deep in water in the living room of her house in Toll Bar, Doncaster, which was flooded when the River Don overtopped its banks in June 2007, following a record downpour.

It is not clear to what extent, if any, climate change contributed to the occurrence or intensity of the summer 2007 floods in England and Northern Ireland, which cost the UK economy more than £3bn. A single extreme weather event cannot be definitely attributed to climate change, the influence of which can only be detected and measured through the analysis of statistical trends looking back over many decades. That means we will not be certain for many years to come about how flood risk is being affected.

We know from basic physics that a warmer atmosphere can become more humid and holds more water vapour, theoretically increasing by about 7% for every extra centigrade degree. As a result climate change is expected to increase the intensity of the water cycle in many parts of the world, causing both more droughts and more floods.

An analysis of UK weather trends between 1961 and 2006, during which the average temperature increased by about one centigrade degree, indicated that although our winters have not become significantly wetter, the number and severity of heavy rainfall events has increased. Meanwhile, summers have become drier and heavy summer downpours have decreased in all parts of the UK, except in north-east England, where some of the 2007 flooding occurred, and north Scotland.

Climate change is expected to increase the risk of flooding in many parts of the UK. Projections published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2009 suggested that, under a "medium emissions scenario", overall winter precipitation should be higher in the 2080s, while summer rainfall should generally be lower, particularly in the south.

The UK climate change risk assessment, published by Defra earlier this year, calculated that these potential trends mean the annual damage from coastal and river flooding in England and Wales could increase from about £1.2bn today to as much as £12bn in the worst case scenario over the next 80 years.

Such an increase in the risk of damage would have major consequences, not least in terms of the affordability and availability of flood insurance for homes and businesses. Indeed, a crisis is already approaching, with insurers warning that from next year they may not continue to offer cover for 200,000 high-risk properties, exposed to a greater than 1 in 75 annual risk of flooding.

Under an arrangement dating from 2000, insurance companies have subsidised flood cover for those in high-risk properties in return for greater government investment in coastal and river defences.

At present, the Environment Agency is responsible for building and maintaining these defences. The agency has told the government it needs to increase its annual flood risk management budget by 9% by 2014-15. However, the House of Commons public accounts committee has highlighted government plans to reduce the agency's flood risk funding by 10% over this period, and to shift more responsibility on to local authorities, even though their overall budgets are shrinking.

Perhaps even more worrying is the neglect of the risk of flash flooding, caused by heavy downpours from often very localised storms that can inundate poorly drained areas, particularly in cities. Of the six million properties in the UK that are currently exposed to some degree of flood risk, four million are threatened by surface water flooding.

Yet when the climate change risk assessment, upon which the government is basing its national adaptation plan, was published earlier this year, scientists warned that it was flawed because it had neglected possible future changes in flash flooding and other important threats.

The assessment stated: "Whilst the number of properties at risk from surface water flooding is similar to the number at risk from tidal and river flooding, suitable information for analysis were not available at the time of writing this report."

In his official review of the assessment, Prof Martin Parry of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College expressed "concern that the risks identified do not necessarily represent the full range of potential risks, and the metrics were selected not on the basis of importance but on the availability of evidence". However, Defra ignored his advice, surprisingly admitting that "the risks provided in this report are not intended to be a full range of risks".

This lack of attention to flash flooding could make it much more difficult to implement an important part of the government's national planning policy framework, which states that local plans "should apply a sequential, risk-based approach to the location of development to avoid where possible flood risk to people and property and manage any residual risk, taking account of the impacts of climate change".

The likely increase in the risk of flooding is just one of the many ways in which unmitigated climate change will significantly affect homes and businesses, and will create larger societal and economic costs for the UK. These serious long-term impacts are often overlooked by those who complain about the cost of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to limit the future impacts of climate change, yet they are just as important.

• Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Drowning World exhibition is showing at Somerset House until 5 June.


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April 28 2012

TERRA 707: TRUST Arizona

In this episode of the TRUST Series, meet Jaime Lynn Butler, an 11-year-old Navajo artist, who recognizes the extreme difficulty this administration faces dealing with the current political climate crisis. On January 24, 2012, during the State of the Union address, President Obama recognized that, “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.” However, Jaime also recognizes the guaranteed consequences of climate change if America fails to do more than what is politically feasible. According to leading climate scientists, the Earth is in “imminent peril.” Should we fail to make a massive assault on CO2 pollution, the entire life-support system of our civilization and our species will begin to unravel. Because Jaime knows that human-induced climate change is a matter of carbon math, not carbon politics, Jaime is not only writing to President Obama and asking for assistance, she is also sharing her story with others so that we can visualize the urgent and unstoppable nature of human-induced climate change.

February 19 2012

January 31 2012

Little Ice Age was caused by volcanism

Some of the iconic winter landscapes by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are more than just fine examples of sixteenth-century Dutch art. Paintings such as Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow (1565) also serve as vivid evidence for the ‘Little Ice Age’, a period of cold climate conditions and glacier advances in Europe and elsewhere that lasted from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.

There has been quite some debate over the years about the precise onset and the physical causes of this extended cold spell, with one school of thought favouring low solar activity during the ‘Maunder Minimum’ and another the cooling effect of big volcanic eruptions.

A paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters may put the solar-trigger hypothesis at rest. Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado in Boulder and his colleagues suggest that the Little Ice Age began abruptly between 1275 and 1300 AD following four large sulfur-rich explosive eruptions, most likely in the tropics, over a mere 50-year period.

Sulfate particles hurled high up into the atmosphere by the massive eruptions would have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the ground and caused a series of cold summers. The found that ice-growth records from Baffin Island and Iceland indicate that glaciers and Arctic sea ice did advance abruptly at the time.  The resulting climate feedbacks seem to have maintained cold conditions for centuries.

“What is new in this study is that the authors have data on the growth of small icecaps in Canada and Iceland, showing a rapid increase in ice volume at the end of the thirteenth and close to the middle of the fifteenth century,” says Georg Feulner, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany.

“These periods coincide with phases of strong volcanic eruptions, but a mechanism is required to produce cooling on longer timescales as the temperature drop after volcanic eruptions typically last only for a few years. In climate model simulations, the authors find that the persistent cooling observed in the climate records can be explained by expanded sea ice resulting in cooling by the ice-albedo feedback mechanism, and cooling in large parts of the North Atlantic by sea-ice export from the Arctic.”

Over at the New York Times DotEarth blog, Jennifer Francis, a climate and sea-ice researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, comments on the importance of the findings:

During the past several decades we have seen the enhanced warming of the Arctic owing to a variety of feedbacks involving snow, sea ice, and water vapor, but Arctic Amplification also works in the reverse direction, as in the case of the little ice age.

If a similar series of strong volcanic eruptions were to happen in the next few decades, we would likely experience global cooling with an amplified response at high latitudes. As long as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, however, the cooling can only be temporary.

Reposted fromSigalontech Sigalontech

January 21 2012

TERRA 620: TRUST Series #2

TRUST is a 10-part series about a perfect trifecta. The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal doctrine enshrined in the laws of every civilized government and holds governments accountable to protect the resources we share in common and depend on for our very survival. The principle of inter-generational justice is enshrined in international human rights law ? simply put, it means that the adults can't have a party on the planet and leave it a mess for the kids. Combine the Public Trust Doctrine with the principles of intergenerational justice and passionate youth, who are fighting for their future in the courts and on the streets, and we have the perfect trifecta. Why? Because youth across the country are bringing legal actions - based on trust - against the federal and state governments, so we will open our eyes and protect our atmosphere and our futures with smart strategies rooted in science. In Part 2 of the TRUST Series, meet Nelson Kanuk, a 17-year old who learned how climate change was affecting his community and felt he could best help by sharing his story. In this 8-minute film, Nelson explains that the main problem facing the northern parts of the world is that winter is coming later and later. This results in increased erosion due to permafrost melt, increased flooding due to warmer temperatures, and intensified storms because the sea ice forms later in the season and is unable to provide a natural barrier for our coastal communities. This, in turn, leads in the loss of homes, communities, cultures, and a way of life. Go to http://ourchildrenstrust.org/ to learn more about the campaign.

December 15 2011

My favourite film: Koyaanisqatsi

In the latest of our writers' favourite film series, Leo Hickman is bowled over by the elemental force of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass's 1982 environmental masterpiece

Want to set the world to rights? Have your say in the comments section below – or write your own review

It's a film without any characters, plot or narrative structure. And its title is notoriously hard to pronounce. What's not to love about Koyaanisqatsi?

I came to Godfrey Reggio's 1982 masterpiece very late. It was actually during a Google search a few years back when looking for timelapse footage of urban traffic (for work rather than pleasure!) that I came across a "cult film", as some online reviewers were calling it. This meant I first watched it as all its loyal fans say not to: on DVD, on a small screen. If ever a film was destined for watching in a cinema, this is it. But, even without the luxury of full immersion, I was still truly captivated by it and, without any exaggeration, I still think about it every day.

Koyaanisqatsi's formula is simple: combine the epic, remarkable cinematography of Ron Fricke with the swelling intensity and repeating motifs of Philip Glass's celebrated original score. There's your mood bomb, right there. But Reggio's directorial vision is key, too. He was the one who drove the project for six years on a small budget as he travelled with Fricke across the US in the mid-to-late 1970s, filming its natural and urban wonders with such originality.

Personally, I view the film as the quintessential environmental movie – a transformative meditation on the current imbalance between humans and the wider world that supports them (in the Hopi language, "Koyanaanis" means turmoil and "qatsi" means life). But Reggio has rightly refused to define the film's specific meaning; he even fought unsuccessfully with the distributor for the film to have no title. (Incidentally, it was only Francis Ford Coppola's last-minute support that helped push it into mainstream cinemas.)

"It's meant to offer an experience, rather than an idea," said Reggio in a 2002 interview (included with the DVD as a special feature). "For some people, it's an environmental film. For some, it's an ode to technology. For some people, it's a piece of shit. Or it moves people deeply. It depends on who you ask. It is the journey that is the objective."

It's the sort of answer you might expect from someone who was a resident member of the Christian Brothers teaching order from the age of 14 to 28. He also cites Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados as one of his most moving spiritual experiences. But it was his time spent making shorts for the Institute for Regional Education in the early 70s that sparked Koyaanisqatsi. The New Mexico-based institute provided $40,000 of funding after he made them a series of campaign films aimed at raising public awareness about how technology and surveillance were being used to "control behaviour".

The first section of Koyaanisqatsi begins with long, aerial shots of the natural world – cloudscapes, ocean waves, the desert scenery of Monument Valley made so famous by 1950s westerns. Slowly, the presence of mankind drips into the film: we see power lines, mines and atomic explosions. Then, after half an hour or so – yes, this film demands commitment, concentration and utter capitulation – the pace and visual intensity picks up, as some transfixing footage of derelict housing estates being demolished feeds into urban scenes of traffic, shown in either slow motion or rapid timelapse. We see hotdogs and Twinkies being made in a food factory, people spilling out and on to trains and elevators, and jumbo jets taxiing at LAX. And then it climaxes perfectly with archive footage of a Nasa test rocket exploding during takeoff in 1962, with the camera tracking the final flaming piece of debris as it falls back to earth.

It may look hackneyed now, as we've become so used to Koyaanisqatsi's much-imitated techniques – Madonna's Ray of Light video, high-definition slow-motion footage of sport, Adam Curtis documentaries. Our minds have been seared by images of the Twin Towers falling and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles exploding – both prophetically foreshadowed in the film. But still, 30 years on, Koyaanisqatsi can connect with us, perhaps more than ever. And you can't overstate how much Glass's score sets the tone and rhythm for the film's rolling, relentless cycle of imagery.

"I didn't want to show the obviousness of injustice, social deprivation, war, etc," said Reggio. "I wanted to show that which we're most proud of: our shining beast, our way of life. So [the film] is about the beauty of this beast." He clearly thought he might partially disguise his concerns about the direction of mankind within the film. But other statements reveal his true feelings:

"What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those who live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers and the obviousness of conflict, social injustice, the market, the welling up of culture. But for me, the greatest and most important event of perhaps our entire history has fundamentally gone unnoticed: the transiting from old nature – or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation – into a technological milieu, into mass technology, as the environment of life."

The New York Times, in its original 1982 review, was somewhat ambivalent about the film: "Koyaanisqatsi is an oddball and – if one is willing to put up with a certain amount of solemn picturesqueness – entertaining trip." But the film, which is actually the first part of a (long-delayed and, in my view, far less successful) trilogy, has since been added to the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress due to it being "culturally, historically and aesthetically" significant.

My one regret with the film is that I have yet to see it on the big screen. I missed it last year at the Brighton festival – where the Philip Glass Ensemble played the soundtrack live – and again at Edinburgh earlier this year. I am determined not to waste such a chance again.


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September 28 2011

TERRA 612: Peak to Peak

Researcher Jack Hogg has studied bighorn sheep for over 30 years. In that time, he has come to know the species like few other people ever will. Follow Jack on a delightful journey watch baby bighorn lambs at play, as he discusses what a changing climate might mean for the animals.

September 22 2011

Olympic Arctic art project Nowhereisland deserves to sink | Leo Hickman

Spending £500,000 – and considerable energy – on Nowhereisland to drag six tonnes of Arctic rock to the UK for the Olympics is wrong


It's not that often that you will find me squaring up in support behind the likes of the Daily Mail, the TaxPayers' Alliance and the more reactionary elements of the Conservative party. But on this particular issue, they have called it correct.

Just what was the Arts Council thinking when it agreed back in 2009 to hand over £500,000 to the artist Alex Hartley in order for him and 18 volunteers to create Nowhereisland?

The creative idea itself is actually rather captivating: find an Arctic island that has recently been exposed by melting ice and then break off some rocks to form a new "island nation" which can then be transported to the waters off the UK in time for the 2012 Olympics.

During its conception, Hartley billed it as a "travelling embassy" intended to highlight issues such as climate change and land ownership. Here's how his website explains it:

In 2004, artist Alex Hartley discovered an island in the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, whilst on the Cape Farewell expedition. The island revealed itself from within the melting ice of a retreating glacier and Alex was the first human to ever stand on it and with the help of the Norwegian Polar Institute, the island, named Nyskjaeret, is now officially recognised and included on all maps and charts subsequent to its discovery. In September 2011, Alex returns to the Arctic to retrieve the island territory. Once in international waters, Alex will declare Nowhereisland a new nation.

I "get" its artistic merit. It's just the cost and contradictions associated with the project that I have a problem with.

Nowhereisland is one of 12 "Artist Taking the Lead" projects commissioned for the Culture Olympiad next year. The Treasury provided £6m, with a further £950,000 coming from National Lottery coffers.

There's a hearty debate to be had about whether those sorts of sums are justified in these austere times. We are constantly being told that every penny of public money counts, so £7m is not to be sniffed at. We could all probably think of more urgent ways to spend that sort of money. Wouldn't a corporate sponsor be more applicable when it comes to funding this sort of large-scale arts project? If we are going to spend £500,000 of public money on regional art – Nowhereisland will represent the South-West during the Cultural Olympiad – wouldn't it be wiser to spread it across the dozens of arts projects in desperate need of funding, rather than hand it to one lucky recipient?

Phil Gibby, head of Arts Council England in the South West, has responded to critics, telling the BBC:

It is absolutely vital to invest in vibrant arts projects in Devon, but we could not have spent this money on them. It is a remarkable visual sculpture and we reckon more than a quarter of a million people will engage with it. So for everyone getting engaged with it, it is about £2 or less.

But my bigger gripe is that there appears to be a contradictory vein running through the rocks that now form Nowhereisland. For a project that claims to be driven by environmental concerns, where is the logic in digging up six tonnes of rock from a pristine environment and then towing it by barge hundreds of miles away for display?

And wasn't it entirely obvious to the Arts Council that the core message behind the project would be drowned out by the completely predictable outcry over its huge cost and environmentally unsympathetic construction? If the aim of the project was to raise awareness about the urgency of climate change then, sadly, it seems to have already failed.


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May 12 2011

Disappearing world

Rising seas, melting glaciers and deforestation threaten unique regions. Leo Hickman is mesmerised by photographs of Earth on the brink



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