May 16, 2010
The world moves and it swivels and bops
— “The Great Curve.” Talking Heads
Every Saturday, The Plain Dealer runs a column called “EarthWeek” which highlights environmental changes and catastrophes on our planet. Reading this column always leaves me bewildered and slightly crazy. Do these events mean something? Are they intertwined? I could go insane trying to figure out the earth’s behavior.
We all know about the recent oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts say that the spill is “on track to become the worst...in history, surpassing the damage done by the Exxon Valdez.”
Less reported is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii. Covering hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles, it’s an estimated 3.5 million ton swirling soupy mix of mostly small bits of plastic, like billions of pieces of confetti, with visible garbage like light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, derelict fishing nets, popsicle sticks, whole plastic containers, and even stuffed animals from countries all over the world.
A similar dump has been discovered in the Atlantic, sitting hundreds of miles off the North American coast. Both are continually growing.
These are thoroughly depressing man-made disasters, which get filed in a “Stupid and/or Greedy Human Screw-Ups” folder.
Instead, let’s focus on Mother Nature. Assessing her comportment in 2010, she’s been rude, unruly and loudmouthed all over the world. What is she telling us? What the hell is she saying?
Just a little over a week ago, powerful thunderstorms drenched Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, dumping over 13 inches of rain in two days. Creeks, lakes and rivers overflowed their banks, washing away roads. People died. The Cumberland River, which winds through downtown Nashville, crested at 51.9 feet —12 feet above flood stage — spilling into the city and surrounding neighborhoods.
In contrast, the once roaring Jordan River has been reduced to a mere trickle. “Visiting Christians are discouraged from reenacting or conducting baptisms there because of the current level of contamination.” Bill Maher would find this ironic.
During the same time period, three volcanoes in Guatemala began belching gas and ash, restricting air traffic and damaging local crops. Another earthquake hit Haiti. Although a moderate 4.4, it caused people to running screaming into the streets. Who wouldn’t?
The earth burped, bounced and hopped in a lot of places. A 6.2 magnitude quake centered near the Peru-Chile border toppled power poles. Shaking was also felt in neighboring Chile. Two tremblors shook southern California — a 5.0 hit, and about 15 minutes later, an aftershock of magnitude 4.7.
The week of April 30th, a 6.5 quake jolted a long stretch of Taiwan. At least 11 people were killed in mountainous northern Afghanistan by a 5.4 magnitude tremblor. Earlier in April, Nicaragua felt both a 5.0 quake and a 4.1 aftershock. Late March, a 4.7 quake in south-central China cracked buildings. Mid-March, the strongest quake in 36 years rattled Melbourne, Australia. A 4.6er, it was followed by five minor aftershocks. Twelve days later, a quake of the same force happened again.
Around the same time, A 6.4 magnitude tremblor struck the Talaud islands between the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and the southern Philippines. A 7.4 quake hit the same area on February 12th.
The U. S. Geological Survey keeps track: In between April 10th and May 9th, there were 555 earth movements around the world, from Alaska to Greece to Russia to Venezuela, ranging from a 1.9 in Oklahoma to a 6.9 in Southern Quinghai, China.
Are these statistics normal? Has the earth always been this shaky?
Earthquakes weren’t the only rocking and rolling going on. Weren’t we fascinated by the April 13th eruption of Iceland’s volcano, Eyjafjallajokul? The networks jumped all over the grounding of flights throughout Europe when the spewing began, but I doubt they’ll give time to other fliers: Since late April, Scottish bird-watchers have been treated to a rare visit from a gyrfalcon, a bird of prey with a 5-foot wingspan that usually hangs in the Arctic Circle. The bird’s presence is attributed to massive ash clouds driving it from its usual habitat. The ash may have also kept a large number of geese in the Outer Hebrides from being able to migrate to the Arctic. The volcano shows no signs of stopping.
Is Eyjafjallajokul nature’s payback? In 2008, the first polar bear to reach Iceland in at least 15 years managed to swim more than 200 miles in near-freezing waters after ice floes that carried it part of the way from Greenland melted beneath its feet. The male bear was shot on arrival by police in front of sightseers.
Iceland isn’t the only locale out of kilter.
Late March, the 10,200-foot Mount Redoubt volcano southwest of Anchorage shot plumes of ash up to nine miles into the atmosphere. Scientists explained that the the mountain is ”currently in a dome-building phase, making it difficult to warn people about when an eruption is likely to occur.” I bet this makes Alaskans feel real secure.
Mid-March, Southern Japan’s Mount Sakurajima erupted, the second time this year. Early February, the country had two volcanoes go ballistic: Mount Asama rained down on Tokyo and off Kyushu Island, Mount Sakurajima produced seven minor eruptions, throwing up rocks more than a mile into the air.
Mother Earth’s bizarre goings-on aren’t limited to volcanoes (at least 20 will probably be erupting as you read these words). The planet has been rambunctious in other areas in the past few months too.
A tornado with an almost one-mile wide funnel tore through Mississippi on April 24th and left a path of destruction through 12 counties, killing at least 10 people. The twister formed in Louisiana and traveled 150 miles eastward before entering Alabama where it continued its rampage.
A record 16-hour sandstorm collapsed buildings and sparked fires across far western China, leaving three people dead and one missing in late April. Since the start of Angola’s rainy season in January, floods have killed 54 and displaced more than 65,000.
In Kenya, wildfires brought on by drought caused hundreds of thousands of flamingos and thousands of panicked lion, zebra, buffalo, giraffes and antelopes to flee, rushing headlong through villages and across busy roads. Snakes and smaller animals, like rabbits and mongooses, may not have been so lucky.
Earlier this year, caterpillars drove tens of thousands of people from their homes in Liberia after destroying crops and making fresh water supplies undrinkable. Described by the United Nations as the country's worst plague in 30 years, this particular caterpillar is not normally seen on such a large scale. Pesticides were used to kill it.
"White-nose syndrome,” a deadly bat disease that was discovered just two winters ago in the northeastern United States, has now been found deep in a Carbondale, Pennsylvania iron mine, making PA the sixth state to become affected by the mysterious fungal ailment. Hundreds of thousands of the flying mammals are feared to have perished so far in the Northeast.
“The cause for concern is that this is going to race across the country faster than we can come up with a solution,” cautioned a wildlife biologist with New York state's Department of Environmental Conservation.
In a canary in a coal mine scenario, crows were leaving smog-choked Tehran for breathable country air in January. Pigeons and nightingales left three weeks earlier.
Birds in the U.S. are moving too. An Audubon Society analysis of 40 years of bird sightings revealed that around 177 species — more than half of 305 bird species in North America including robins, owls, gulls, and chickadees — are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago. Audubon says the shifts in wintering territory coincides with long-term winter temperature increases.
An analysis of world land and ocean surface temperature records going back to 1880 declared March 2010 the warmest March ever.
For the second year, brown pelicans are dying from a mysterious malady along the west coast from southern Oregon to Mexico's Baja California peninsula. “Hundreds of disoriented birds have turned up wandering along roads and crashing into cars or boats. Still others have been found dead.”
Dozens of dead or dying little blue penguins washed up on New Zealand’s beaches and it appears they may have starved. Members of the community had not encountered so many dead penguins "in quite some time." .
In March, 194 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins beached themselves on an island between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, the site of four mass whale stranding since last November. A representative of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said that is enough to arouse suspicions of a human factor. (Duh, ya think?)
The U. S. has also had a share of suicidal whales these past few months.
A 30-foot long baby humpback suffered for three days in the East Hamptons, until “an official with a rifle pumped several live bullet rounds into the dying mammal.” Two female pilot whales died on a Brevard County, Florida beach late March. A nine-foot pygmy sperm whale beached itself along a stretch of North Litchfield Beach in South Carolina in March; a dead 10-foot pilot whale was discovered farther north in Kitty Hawk in February.
A 37-foot gray whale that died after getting stranded on a West Seattle beach had an amazingly large amount of garbage in its stomach ranging from a pair of sweat pants to a golf ball to more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves. Was the whale grazing in the Pacific Ocean dump?
I could go all new-age Gaia goddess and claim that the earth is only responding to our maltreatment of her. But that would imply that we are living on a sentient being, instead of a ball of dirt, and that would be crazy. Perhaps I’m experiencing information overload. More research and media resources equals more available information equals my heightened, albeit paranoid, awareness.
Still, I wonder: Are these events connected? Is there meaning?
Will we ever understand the deep and ancient language of the earth?