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On the Wild Edge in Iceland | Center for Humans & Nature
"Picture a country hanging from the Arctic Circle, where at least 80 percent of the people leave room in their minds for the existence of elves, “Huldu-folk” (hidden people), or other netherworldly creatures; where wild means vast stretches of grayness: gray, craggy mountain peaks, gray gravel, and gray ash from yesteryear’s volcanoes."

"As an ecologist, I was painfully aware of the stresses that ecosystems worldwide experience from grazing, climate change, and other human-imposed factors. What I wanted to know was this: Does a forest with a history of higher levels of disturbance have a more difficult time responding to additional stress than a forest with a lesser history of disturbance?

There was one way to find out. I would impose a disturbance on three woodland sites and observe the response. My three sites were strikingly similar birch woodlands, but they had a few important differences in their disturbance histories. My Site 1 (the forest in the valley in eastern Iceland that had me believing in elves) had not seen any serious sheep grazing for about a century. My Site 2, in a valley adjoining Site 1, was remarkably similar in all respects to Site 1, except that it had never been protected from grazing. My Site 3 was farther north—a harsher climate, a shorter growing season—and, like Site 2, it had never been protected from sheep grazing. These sites were on a gradient of stress from the least stress (at Site 1) to the most stress (at Site 3). Knowing how important nitrogen is to plant survival at high altitudes (and latitudes), I would track foliar nitrogen as my clue, using it as my insight into how the woodlands were handling stress.

I didn’t know at the time that some of the ecological models concerning disturbance, ecosystem shifts, resilience (or lack thereof), and crossing of ecological thresholds were based on psychological models of human psychic breaks and breakdowns. But now it makes sense. At what point does the accumulation of disturbances become so profound that a person—or a forest—is no longer able to function?

It is important to note that the prospect of disturbing the woodland sites was not an easy one for me. I was conflicted. I was studying forests because I loved them. Was it ethical to stress my subject and push it closer to the edge, even if my long-term goal was to understand (and even promote) ecosystem resilience? My advisor, Kristiina Vogt, comforted me: the forest disturbance would be minor and temporary. The ecosystems would bounce back.

With that reassurance, I bought a lot of sugar (actually, almost half a metric ton) for my disturbance experiment. While ecologist and forest service colleagues in Iceland questioned whether I was embarking on a homemade liquor and bootlegging project, the truth was that my unusually large sugar purchase had everything to do with nitrogen. A story from one of my fellow doctoral students, Michael Booth, can help me explain how.

Michael used to begin his forest ecology presentations with a picture of a forest upside down. The roots of the trees were featured on top and the leaves down below. His point? Much of what is running the show in a forest is under our feet. In any given handful of dirt, there are millions to billions of bacteria. And these microbes can be the tail that wags the forest dog, especially when it comes to nitrogen. While these bacteria play a key role in making nitrogen available to trees and plants in their preferred form, bacteria also need nitrogen for their own survival. Can you guess what happens to nitrogen in a handful of soil when there is a significant increase in the bacterial population? The answer: The microbes take the bulk of the nitrogen for themselves, leaving less nitrogen available for plants.

I wonder if a happy, healthy forest is one that has just the right number of microbes (whether that number would be in the millions or billions, I have no idea), such that the microbial community gets the nitrogen it needs while giving the trees and other vegetation the nitrogen they need. While notions of “balance” in nature are very out of fashion, to say the least, the concept seems applicable here. Too few or too many microbes would be a problem—from the perspective of the Icelandic woodlands, anyway. At both ends of the spectrum, there would not be enough nitrogen for the plants and trees."

"At the grazed sites, perhaps the warmer soil temperatures allowed for expansion of the birch woodland into higher altitudes. While the warmer soils may have allowed the birch to exist at higher altitudes, the trees at the grazed sites are also at a higher risk for nitrogen competition (from microbes enjoying the warmer soils) and grazing (from the aforementioned sheep). In other words, the birches at grazed tree lines exist higher up on the mountainside, but at the same time, they live closer to their edge. While this may not be the safest route for the birches, it is perhaps worth the risk because the upside is pretty big: the chance at life.

It sounds familiar. Given the choice, I would rather be on the edge of human experience, certainly on the edge of human knowledge, and even tolerate the edge of emotional comfort, if it meant life. And does not history (our own and others’) show that experiences on the edge can offer important insights into both what it means to be human and what it means to be one human in particular? For me, “living on the edge” is part of the daring—and the learning—that is central to the evolution of life.

There are many expressions of Iceland’s wildness, and all these expressions depend on the presence or absence of sheep. Perhaps the most common depiction of the Icelandic wild involves Iceland’s gray moonscapes, with sheep—and not trees. However, these starkly beautiful landscapes have crossed over an ecological threshold beyond which it is very hard to return. These landscapes are wild and wooly, but if you do not know how they came to be as they are, you may not be able to put your finger on the sadness that you might sense in the haunting gray vistas.

One could argue that the lush, protected woodlands are Iceland’s most wild places, despite the fact that they are enclosed by human-made fences. These sheepless woodlands offer wild green memories seemingly borrowed from the time of the Vikings and carried into the present day by their human—and elf—protectors. On the other hand, in some places, Icelanders ask the Icelandic Forest Service not to plant more trees. The chief of the Icelandic Forest Service, Þröstur Eysteinsson, told me that in such cases he hears the complaint that trees will “ruin the view.” “They are optimists,” Eysteinsson retorts, because it is, of course, no small task to restore a whole forest ecosystem anywhere, much less in such a harsh climate.

If I were to show you what I believe to be the wildest places in Iceland, however, I would take you to the forest limit, to a birch woodland populated with a good number of sheep and enough moss to satisfy the average elf. Mind you, this place would not have too many sheep, nor too many soil microbes, for that matter. I would take you to a place where birches breathe life into a landscape shared with sheep and their people, a place where the story told by both the sagas and the landscape itself is a story of life taking a chance—on the edge."
iceland  trees  forests  brookeparryhecht  2018  elves  sheep  fences  humans  anthropocene  edges  seams  ecology 
2 days ago by robertogreco
Environmental collapse makes for terrifying nightmares, and compelling art | The Outline
A review of new books by Richard Powers and William T. Vollman, as well as Paul Schraeder's film "First Reformed," thinking about how art can confront the anthropocene.
anthropocene  environment  climate  art  review 
4 days ago by johnmfrench
As California’s largest lake dries up, it threatens nearby communities with clouds of toxic dust - The Verge
On the drying of the Salton Sea, and the problems with toxic dust that result. An ironic aspect of this story is that the Sea was artificial to begin with, created by an accident, but once it was there whole ecologies and economies developed around it. It's an example of the fact that, once you've made big change, trying to go back to "the way things were" isn't a restoration or a return to "balance," it's just another big change.
water  environment  anthropocene  salton_sea 
4 days ago by johnmfrench
Governing in the Anthropocene: Contributions from Systems Thinking in Practice? - Ison - 2016 - Systems Research and Behavioral Science - Wiley Online Library
In his recent book ‘Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Reflections on the End of Civilization’ Roy Scranton (2015) concludes with the observation ‘we [humans] can practice and cultivate understanding the intimate, necessary connection of all things to each other’ (p. 117). This reflection speaks to a systemic sensibility that is available to all humans, but which unfortunately seems absent in the understandings and actions of many (Figure 1). The extent of this absence and the degree to which it is cultural is an open question. The good news, based on over 40 years of experience in offering systems education at The Open University (UK), is that despite our culture and institutions (norms, or rules of the ‘human game’) a certain percentage of us retain a systemic sensibility—something which we may have been born with, or which developed in childhood. What is missing, however, are the contexts for a systemic sensibility to flourish, to be recovered and/or fostered. Investment in building systems literacy and then system thinking in practice capability (Figure 1) is missing in education as well as organizational life. The shift from sensibility to capability is needed if purposeful action is to be pursued with some prospect of altering the current and anticipated human condition, our co‐evolutionary trajectory with the biophysical world, with other species and with each other. This is the challenge of ‘Governing in the Anthropocene’ which, as a profoundly existential crisis, is also the greatest challenge for systems thinking in practice, or those who would argue that part of the trajectory altering action is greater investment in thinking and acting systemically.
climatechange  anthropocene 
6 days ago by josephaleo
Antarctica loses three trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years
Glaciologists usually talk of three distinct regions because they behave slightly differently from each other. In West Antarctica, which is dominated by those marine-terminating glaciers, the assessed losses have climbed from 53 billion to 159 billion tonnes per year over the full period from 1992 to 2017.

On the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that points up to South America, the losses have risen from seven billion to 33 billion tonnes annually. This is largely, say scientists, because the floating ice platforms sitting in front of some glaciers have collapsed, allowing the ice behind to flow faster.

East Antarctica, the greater part of the continent, is the only region to have shown some growth. Much of this region essentially sits out of the ocean and collects its snows over time and is not subject to the same melting forces seen elsewhere. But the gains are likely quite small, running at about five billion tonnes per year.

And the Imbie team stresses that the growth cannot counterbalance what is happening in the West and on the Peninsula. Indeed, it is probable that an unusually big dump of snow in the East just before the last assessment in 2012 made Antarctica as a whole look less negative than the reality.

Globally, sea levels are rising by about 3mm a year. This figure is driven by several factors, including the expansion of the oceans as they warm. But what is clear from the latest Imbie assessment is that Antarctica is becoming a significant player.

"A three-fold increase now puts Antarctica in the frame as one of the largest contributors to sea-level rise," said Prof Shepherd, who is affiliated to Leeds University, UK.

"The last time we looked at the polar ice sheets, Greenland was the dominant contributor. That's no longer the case."

In total, Antarctica has shed some 2.7 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992, corresponding to an increase in global sea level of more than 7.5mm.
ocean  Anthropocene  Antarctica  ice  sea-level-rise  climate  climate-change  2018  1992 
9 days ago by zzkt
Plastic plankton, the Anthropocene’s emblematic “microorganism” – We Make Money Not Art
Mandy Barker, Ophelia medustica. Specimen collected from Glounthaune shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Pram wheel), 2015. Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015 In 1816, John Vaughan Thompson was posted to Cork in Ireland as an army Surgeon.
additivism  anthropocene  nature  ocean  plankton  plastic  pollution  stream 
11 days ago by therourke
Colonialism did not just create slavery: it changed geology | Science | The Guardian
It brought riches to Britain and many other European nations; played a major role in enslaving more than 10 million Africans; and created the first global markets in cotton, tobacco and sugar. But now colonialism has been accused of having an even greater influence.
additivism  anthropocene  colonialism  environment  geology  history  stream 
11 days ago by therourke

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