Strange natural phenomena: Mexico’s Cave of the Crystals (Cueva de los Cristales)

Spending day in and day out behind a desk in the centre of London, it is easy to forget what an extraordinary, strange and beautiful place the world is.

in 2000, miners in Mexico, two brothers, were excavating a new tunnel in Naica, Mexico when they stumbled across what is perhaps one of the most beautifully strange places on Earth – the Cave of the Crystals. At first glance, as this great piece on the website Earth says, it wouldn’t look out place on Superman’s Planet Krypton.

Built on an ancient fault line, the cave’s space had once been filled with water, rich in minerals, that had been heated by magma and that maintained a stable temperature for nearly half a million years, allowing gigantic crystals to form.

Since 2000, several other chambers have been found, filled with these crystals, and now accessible due to the mining company constantly keeping the water pumped out.

Looking at this, it makes me wonder what we might find in the earth beneath our feet.

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Strange natural phenomena: sinkholes

We often grumble about the potholes that seem to appear overnight. Water freezes into ice, placing stress on an already cracked pavement or road, and the chunks of surface between the cracks are dislodged. Rain washes away more and more and before long we realise that what was once just a small depression is now a ruddy great hole, in danger of ruining our bikes and cars. (Those – usually Lib Dems – with a greater than normal interest in them can read more about potholes.)

In some parts of the world, however, the potholes that vex County Councils and insurers across the country pale into insignificance. Sinkholes are of a very different order of magnitude. Once again, there is an interaction between water and minerals, but the result is of a wholly different order of magnitude.

One of the most shocking stories in recent years comes from Guatemala. For weeks local residents in Guatemala City had heard rumblings and had no idea what was causing them. Then, suddenly, in February 2007, the ground suddenly fell away 30 stories almost instantly. It is quite breath-taking, both in its geometry and scale, two dying and a thousand being evacuated.

I can’t imagine it. Going to bed one night, everything as you expect it, the next day seeing a hole in your back garden hundreds of feet deep. Somehow, we develop a sense that nature changes slowly. Sinkholes join earthquakes and other “sudden change” phenomena that somehow seem unnatural.

Guatemala City

Guatemala City

In Venezuela, there is a flat-topped mountain which is punctuated with the Sarisariñama holes, four sinkholes that are particularly beautiful to look at. Each is a self-contained eco-system, some supporting species found nowhere else on Earth.

The largest sinkhole is in Egypt, where the mindbogglingly large Qattara Depression is 80km wide by 120 km long. Unlike the Sarisariñama, the Qattara Depression is completely lifeless.

For more information, the Sinkhole Report logs new sinkholes in urban and natural settings. Below is a gallery of these strange, beautiful but terrifying phenomena.

And finally, and judging by its record with Essex potholes, I hope Essex County Council doesn’t have to deal with one of these any time soon.

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Three amazing artists

Some people are just amazingly talented. Here are examples of the work of three artists that took my breath away. They each use our environment in very different ways.

Jessica Drenk was born and grew up in Montana, developing a tremendous affinity for the natural world around her, background that has had a very deep influence on her art.  As reported by arts blog This Is Colossal:

Drenk’s most recent sculptures are a series called Implements, each of which begins with a mass of standard No. 2 pencils that have been tightly glued together. Using an electric sander she then molds the piece into a form that seems more likely to have originated in a dark cave or deep within the ocean than from a school desk. Of her work she says:

“By transforming familiar objects into nature-inspired forms and patterns, I examine how we classify the world around us. Manufactured goods appear as natural objects, something functional becomes something decorative, a simple material is made complex, and the commonplace becomes unique. In changing books into fossilized remnants of our culture, or in arranging elegantly sliced PVC pipes to suggest ripple and wave patterns, I create a connection between the man-made and the natural.”

drenk-3Haroshi is a self-taught artist from Japan. This skull, made from recycled skateboard decks, is just awesome.

haroshi-1Finally, Vadim Zaritsky is a former army office turned artist and entymologist – and uses the wings of dead butterflies, found either beside the road or thrown out from collections. In his own words on Oddity Central:

“Butterfly collectors know that some wings are considered – collectors call it trash,” Zaritsky says. “If the wings are damaged, if they have partially faded, specialists would usually put them aside. It’s a shame to throw them away but you cannot use them either. In time, the bits may become infested with pests and you have to throw everything away anyway.”

Vadim-Zaritsky-butterfly-wings-550x406

The natural world art of Svetlana Ivanchenko

The pictures below blew me away. Blogger Spooky, on the site Oddity Central, gives a brief biography:

Svetlana Ivanchenko is a talented Ukrainian artist who uses overlooked natural materials like sand, seashells, quartz, tree roots and tree bark to create wonderful mosaics that look almost painted by hand.

Born and raised in Yalta, on the shores of the Black Sea, Ivanchenko was always fascinated by the abundance of natural materials that surrounded her. She studied at the Crimean Art School, under the supervision of renowned artist Sergei Bokaeva, and later graduated from the Glukhivskiy Pedagogical Institute. The artist currently based in the city of Dnepropetrovsk uses a variety of sand, shells, quartz and tree parts to create amazing works of art inspired by her place of birth and the warmth of the female body. It’s hard to believe, but every little piece of material used to create the artworks is placed by hand, and no coloring other than that of the composing elements is used.

As Pinar from My Modern Metropolis notes, Svetlana “merges the various textures and colors brilliantly, making it difficult to imagine the frames being made of anything else.” Her natural masterpieces have been exhibited in international galleries, and many of them reside in the private collections of connaisseurs in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Estonia and the Dominican Republic.

Enjoy them.

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Great news from the RSPB – Small birds bounce back

Small birds bounce back

31 March 2011

Over 600,000 people took part in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, a record breaking number watching their garden birds.

And their counts revealed that some of the smaller birds that decreased in numbers last year, bounced back this year.

Sightings of goldcrests, the UK’s smallest birds, doubled, long tailed tits increased by a third and coal tits increased by a quarter.

The long, harsh winter of 2009/2010 hit birds like long-tailed tits, goldcrests and coal tits with all three species dropping significantly in last years’ Big Garden Birdwatch.

Although smaller birds can be particularly badly affected by harsh winters, a good breeding season can help reverse declines, and these new results suggest that may have been the case in 2010.

Thousands of people were also lucky enough to see waxwings.

The striking birds flood to the UK from Scandinavia every few winters and this year saw an influx, known as a ‘waxwing winter.’

Waxwings are bold birds that are comfortable feeding around our towns and cities, and over 7,000 were counted in this year’s survey, in almost 1,000 gardens.

Big Garden Birdwatch Co-ordinator Sarah Kelly says: ‘It’s fantastic that so many people stepped up for nature by taking part. We were really interested to see how the small birds fared, after such a disastrous last year. It appears that many may have had a decent breeding season and have been able to bounce back a little.

‘But we mustn’t be complacent –another hard winter could see numbers back down so it’s important everyone continues to feed their garden birds.’

RSPB Scientist Mark Eaton says: ‘We knew this was going to be a bumper year for waxwings as we’d had so many reports from all over the UK.

‘But the Big Garden Birdwatch is the first indicator of exactly how many were seen in gardens, and we’re pleased that so many people got to enjoy sightings of these beautiful birds.

‘They’d only come into gardens if the right food was available to them. They feed on berries so it shows that lots of people are planting the right things for wildlife and reaping the rewards.’

609,177 people counted 10.2 million birds

A total of 609,177 people counted over 10.2 million birds. Over 70 species were recorded in 300,780 gardens across the UK over the weekend 29-30 January.

Starlings and blackbirds have swapped positions on this year’s leader board, with starlings now at number two and blackbirds at number 3.

Starling sightings have increased by a quarter since last year, but their numbers are still down from when Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979.

The house sparrow retained its top spot for the eight year running with an average of four seen per garden, and has increased by 10 per cent.

Numbers of blue tits increased by 22 per cent and great tit numbers were up by 12 per cent.

Almost 90,000 school children and teachers took part in the schools version of the survey, ‘Big Schools’ Birdwatch.’ The UK-wide survey of wildlife in schools, which celebrated its 10th birthday this year, introduces thousands of children to the wildlife visiting their school environment.

Nearly 3,000 classes from more than 2,000 schools were involved, which was also a record-breaking number for the survey. 87% of schools taking part reported seeing blackbirds, with an average of five being seen at each school, making it the most common visitor to school grounds.

From the RSPB.

World Day for Water, the wonder of PlayPumps and apologies for lateness

In 1992, the United Nations designated March 22nd as the World Day for Water in Resolution 193 of the Forty-seventh Session of the General Assembly.

The World Day for Water was first proposed in Agenda 21 for the 1992 Rio Summit, the meeting that hugely raised awareness of the role of local government and local communities in tackling global environmental and climate issues.

Since 1993 the day has been observed consistently, drawing attention to the plight of the estimated one billion people plus who each year have to rely on dangerous sources of water to survive.

Having travelled a little in India and Africa,  turning on a tap and being able to drink a handful of clean, cold water is still something for which I am profoundly grateful. Whilst it is easy to take it for granted, when I think about it I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to have it.

A year or so ago we had a small taste of what it was like to lose our mains supply for just a few hours. The sense of worry as you wonder when you might be able to wash clothes or make drinks again is out of all proportion to the scale of a relatively small inconvenience. It does, however, cause you to pause and consider how it would be to have to walk miles a day to a potentially polluted stream and draw water you’d be uncomfortable watering the garden with.

The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre reports the stark analysis of the World Health Organization:

Each year more than 1 billion of our fellow human beings have little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. This perpetuates a silent humanitarian crisis that kills some 3900 children every day and thwarts progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The consequences of our collective failure to tackle this problem are the dimmed prospects for the billions of people locked in a cycle of poverty and disease.

The root of this underlying catastrophe lies in these plain, grim facts: 4 of every 10 people in the world do not have access to even a simple pit latrine and nearly 2 in 10 have no source of safe drinking-water.

Thankfully, the appalling situation is not something that the UN/WHO are prepared to see continue:

To help end this appalling state of affairs, the MDGs include a specific target (number 10) to cut in half, by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation. In addition, the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation recently recognized that integrated development and management of water resources are crucial to the success or failure of all the MDGs, as water is central to the livelihood systems of the poor.

Among the more innovative ideas for drawing water to the surface, one particularly caught my attention, marrying the desperate need for fresh water to a completely different and endless resource: the playful, optimistic energy of children.

Water for People provides a very clear explanation of how these amazing inventions work:

  • While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round (1), clean water is pumped (2) from underground (3) into a 2,500-liter tank (4), standing seven meters above the ground.
  • A simple tap (5) makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole (6).
  • The water storage tank (7) provides a rare opportunity to advertise in outlaying communities. All four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, with two sides for consumer advertising and the other two sides for health and educational messages. The revenue generated by this unique model pays for pump maintenance.
  • The design of the PlayPump water system makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical, keeping costs and maintenance to an absolute minimum.
  • Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 meters, it is effective up to a depth of 100 meters.

Innovations such as this, which show the application of creative, lateral thinking, create a real hope that the challenge of providing clean water can be met. Days such as the World Day for Water play a crucial part in alerting all of us to the need to act sooner – not later.

The video below, again from Water for People, is quite uplifting.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Finally, by way of a footnote, I clearly should have written this yesterday – but being tired after a long day I didn’t. So my apologies for lateness (something I seem to do far too often).

Reflections on a Spring morning’s commute

Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

The weekend of the “super moon” in pictures

Sometimes an event defies description. Sometimes only pictures can capture something that touches people in different ways around the world.

Below is a series of pictures taken from different sources showing the drama and beauty of the weekend’s “super moon”.

Credit given wherever information available.

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Boys, Beer, Birds and Bingley: the randomness of a perfect afternoon

The White Lion, Fobbing

I meant to write this some days ago, but I am discovering that work is eating the hours as never before. It’s not only when you are having fun that time flies…

But last Sunday afternoon was perfect for late March. I spent the best of it at The White Lion in Fobbing, drinking jars of ale with my cousin and enjoying bright sunshine, being the only two sitting out in the garden. There was something timeless about enjoying a beer, surrounded by violets, the stone tower of the church behind us and it was impossible not to feel the history.

We were joined on the bench by a craggy wildfowler and the conversation turned to trees and birds, the durability of fence posts hewn from different hard woods and a reassuringly rural challenge to burn chestnut without it spitting (apparently if it is seasoned after a natural dead fall it doesn’t – in any other circumstances it does). So very good to be reminded that there are still folk around who really do understand the way in which our lives are bound up with the countryside – and not in a soppy, sentimental way, but one that recognises the co-dependence of different habitats. It’s not many afternoons that I get to discuss the impact of plastic fascia boards on the nesting potential of houses and their contribution to declining garden bird populations. We left giving merry assurances to investigate the re-siting of owl boxes.

I then went to his parents to collect a book by local historian Randal Bingley. In return for ten pounds I received a copy of Behold The Painful Plough, Country Life in West Tilbury, Essex 1700-1850. (For those interested in obtaining a copy, drop me an email or contact Thurrock Museum Services who singularly fail to promote this brilliant book – which they publish: ISBN 0-9506141-8-1.) I was gobsmacked to arrive and find Randal Bingley there, drinking tea at a picnic bench under an apple tree, and talking about political anscestry with my uncle. We joined them and spent a pleasant hour discussing the value of the written record, the folly of reliance on digital information, East Tilbury’s Bata shoe factory and Sir Peter Scott on Nature Parliament, part of Children’s Hour.

It was wonderful and random.

As life should be.

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Cameron’s Conservative Party, Con-coctions and Torydiddles: Tories dump environment despite pledges [The Fib List No. 3] #toryfail

In June 2008, David Cameron opened a speech with the following words:

“Today, I want to tackle an argument that seems to be as cyclical as the economy. The argument that when times are good, we can indulge ourselves with a bit of environmentalism – but when the economic going gets tough, the green agenda has to be dropped.

“According to this argument, protecting the environment is a luxury rather than a necessity – and it’s a luxury we just can’t afford in an economic downturn. I want this generation to be the one that bucks that trend: to be the generation that finds a way to combine economic, social and environmental progress.”

In what I imagine was a shot at critics who thought that the huskies and the cycling (with his papers in the car behind) were a stunt, he made the following  very firm statement:

“Today I want to make my position on this absolutely clear. We are not going to drop the environmental agenda in an economic downturn.”

At a press conference this morning David Cameron gave a list of ten reasons to vote for the Conservatives.

The environmental agenda did not feature at all.

The green agenda has been dropped. Completely. And, ironically, as Britain continues to teeter along the brink of recession.

Spend a moment looking at those two documents and then tell me Cameron’s long-term critics weren’t right. Cameron’s environmental credentials have been exposed as the cynical exercise in hoodwinking they always were.

This should ring alarm bells across the South East, and particularly in Basildon and Thurrock, where the threat to our green spaces and natural environment is ever-present. With DP World’s recent announcement that they will be deepening the Thames to allow the largest cargo ships in the world to dock at the proposed London Gateway port, voters should now be clear that making sure developments like this – which are important for jobs and regeneration – don’t wreck our environment is not a priority in any way for Conservatives.

Back in October last year, at the Tory conference, Cameron called for more leadership on the environment:

“And to be British is to have an instinctive love of the countryside and the natural world. The dangers of climate change are stark and very real. If we don’t act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster.

Yes, we need to change the way we live. But is that such a bad thing? The insatiable consumption and materialism of the past decade, has it made us happier or more fulfilled?

Yes, we have to put our faith in technologies. But that is not a giant leap. Just around the corner are new green technologies, unimaginable a decade ago, that can change the way we live, travel, work.

And yes, we need global co-operation. But that shouldn’t be difficult. It just takes leadership, and that’s what we need at the Copenhagen summit this December.”

By contrast, a recent survey of Tory PPCs by ConservativeIntelligence (!) revealed what looked like a shocking gulf in thinking between prospective Conservative MPs and David Cameron’s leadership team. Reducing Britain’s carbon footprint was their lowest priority. Even protecting the English countryside from over-development, something Tory councillors have been preaching for years, was way down the list of priorities.

Then, following ‘Climategate’ and the sceptics’ even more outrageous and very public manipulation of scientific evidence (i.e. flatly denying it), public opinion has shifted on global warming. The BBC recently reported a drop of 8% in the numbers believing it is taking place.

Does Cameron show the leadership he demands, attemting to lead public opinion rather than follow it? No, like his candidates, he limps on behind, dropping environmental commitments that might dent his chances.

When it comes to the environment, David Cameron has been playing us for fools for a long, long time. His environmental commitments were just the latest in a long line of rebranding exercises, designed to get votes by saying whatever people want to hear.

The 75% of people who understand global warming is taking place should stop giving him and his party the benefit of the doubt and take a long hard look at the evidence.

Cameron and the Conservatives cannot be trusted on the environment.

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