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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

I stumbled across this video on the Internet. There’s something strangely hypnotic about the way these ants work – and bearing in mind their size it seems all quite incredible.

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It may sound like Day of the Triffids in reverse, but it might just be that mushrooms are about to save the planet.

Bloomberg Business Week reports on the work of Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre and the innovative work on plastic substitutes that they have been doing with mushroom fibres:

It starts with a mash of corn stalks and vegetable husks impregnated with mushroom spores. The fungus eats the plant nutrients, then grows a complex root network that fills the shapes of the molds. The final product is a foam that looks something like a big wafer of nougat candy. It is placed in an oven to stop the spores from growing and to give the material the proper texture, hardness, and elasticity.

“The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact,” says McIntyre. Each mold can be treated to create a material with different qualities. Home insulation must be fire-retardant and energy efficient; cabinets have to be sturdy; a car dashboard or bumper has to be strong but with give.”

And to get rid of it?

Simply throw it on the compost heap and it is gone in weeks.

The reason this is so important?

Polystyrene.

Polystyrene is non-biodegradable and so takes hundreds of years to disappear. The blowing agents that are used to expand it can be highly flammable. Some versions of it are made with hydrofluorocarbons that are over a thousand times more potent in terms of global warming potential than carbon dioxide. It is also regularly excluded from recycling services as it is uneconomical to collect and compact (due to its lack of density versus the space it occupies).

The company behind the mushroom fibre revolution, Ecovative Design, has just signed a deal with the packaging behemoth Sealed Air, the company responsible for Bubble Wrap and Cryovac. Both Dell and Steelcase are already using the material for packaging and it promises a biodegradable revolution in how we ship stuff.

I wonder if this is something that the impressive Centre for Process Innovation should pick up here in the UK? They are the increasingly impressive outfit based in Redcar. In their own words:

“CPI helps companies to prove and scale up processes to manufacture new products and create more sustainable, efficient and economic industries of the future.”

There is some real talent out there in the British economy, particularly in the emerging green and high-tech industries. A UK angle on this would help boost manufacturing, jobs and the wider economy, whilst at the same time helping to tackle the huge waste problem there is with packaging.

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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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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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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

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Over the years, the Metro newspaper has had some great pictures in it. Today’s Metro had another example of brilliant wildlife photography with sea otters snoozing off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Beautiful!

(Picture: Michael Yang/Rex Features)

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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.

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