The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.
The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”
The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.
Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”
As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.
With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.
Walter Hood Digs Deep – Architectural Digest, 11/18/19 “The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”
Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19 “Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”
2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s founding in the city of Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The legacy of the Bauhaus has been felt throughout nearly every design discipline, in part because of the towering stature of its faculty and their many game-changing works of architecture, design, and art, but perhaps more deeply because of the body of theory produced, practiced, refined, and extolled at the school.
The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle is a new edition of the 1991 collection of essays edited by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller that uses text, images, and experimental graphic compositions to explain Bauhaus art and design theory. “Triangle Square Circle” is derived from a theory that artist Wassily Kandinsky put forth about the intrinsic properties of the three shapes and their association with a primary color. As Lupton and Miller state in the introduction: “This is a book about theory. A theory is a principle that attempts to explain diverse phenomena, a concise concept capable of shedding light on countless situations.”
Bauhaus theorists saw simple geometric forms as the essence of natural, organic shapes. The bookend essays, Elementary School by J. Abbott Miller gives insight into how Bauhaus theorists reduced landscape and natural forms to simple geometric ones, and Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry by theoretical physicist Alan Wolf explains how Bauhaus thinkers tried but ultimately failed to acknowledge nature’s complexity in their theories on geometry.
In 1925, Gropius designed a new complex for the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, moving the campus from Weimar. The architecture designed in the international style became the emblem of Bauhaus architecture and thought, despite architecture not being taught at the school until 1927. The building is the centerpiece, a sculpture among a sea of rectilinear patches of grass, with ankle-high fencing to prevent people from walking on the green spaces. The landscape of the Bauhaus campus is a formal exercise, a decoration of the plinth the building sits on.
In Elementary School, J. Abbott Miller focuses on the development of the core principles of the Bauhaus through the creation of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten (or child garden).
As Miller explains, the name was “metaphorical as well as literal: early in his career as a teacher, Froebel discovered the importance of play in education and made gardening a central part of his pedagogy.” While gardening was lost in the Bauhaus school, playing with shapes and composition was fundamental to Bauhaus teachings.
The focus of Frobel’s teaching were a series of “Gifts and Occupations” comprised of geometric blocks (gifts) and basic craft activities (occupations). The gifts increased in complexity as the child progressed through the educational system, culminating in enough complexity to construct representations of their world with the blocks. The children began to see the world as a construction of basic elements, a theme continued and propagated by Bauhaus teachings.
Distilling the complexities of the world to their intrinsic properties became a central tenet of the Bauhaus. For Kandinsky, these often resulted in complex representations comprised of basic shapes and lines.
The practice of geometric simplification began in early education and continued through the university for those studying at the Bauhaus.
It is no wonder then that the complexities of natural forms were represented by rectilinear green shapes in the landscape of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. They didn’t have the geometric language to represent the complexities of natural forms; fractal geometry wasn’t discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot until 1975.
In Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry, Alan Wolf explains the mathematical principles of fractals as an abstraction of natural geometries that cannot be expressed through an intrinsic or simple geometry, only through an increasingly complex internal relationship between its parts.
Bauhaus’ attempts to distill all natural elements to their essences doesn’t work in a chaotic world. Today, complexity is central to our contemporary understanding of how natural and cultural systems work. For example, landscape and ecological processes, rather than formal qualities, guide projects like Fresh Kills Park by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.
The Bauhaus’ use of geometry to represent the world still holds, but the geometry we use to represent it has evolved alongside our updated conception of nature as an interwoven set of systems interacting in increasingly complex ways.
As Alan Wolf writes: “since the discovery of fractal geometry in 1975, it is no longer possible to represent nature with a starter Lego set limited to such simple forms as triangle, square, and circle. Now we know that we need an advanced set of building blocks, which includes fractal forms of various types.”
In the global scramble to reduce carbon emissions, planting more trees is always near the top of the list of solutions. Pegged as a low-cost, natural, and scalable approach, projects like the Great Green Wall in North Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and New York City’s Million Tree Program raise the bar for this climate change mitigation strategy. While a new scientific study found there is untapped potential for carbon sequestration through planetary reforestation, other researchers are concerned about how growing new forests could reduce the focus on preserving existing old growth forests or negatively impact the water supply in developing countries.
The recent study published in Science, led by Thomas W. Crowther at ETH-Zürich, posits that an increase in 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new forests, an amount that would cover about 14 percent of habitable land, could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. This means a forest roughly the size of the United States or China could sequester more than five times the annual carbon output of the planet.
Under current climate conditions, the Earth could support a maximum of 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 billion acres) of forests. Approximately 2.8 billion hectares (6.9 billion acres) are currently forested. This leaves 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) were additional forest could be planted. The research team removed land used for crop-based agriculture or cities,”which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population,” leaving 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) available for forest restoration.
Across the lifetime of these proposed new forests, the trees would sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. For reference, we have released 1,510 gigatons of carbon to date (as of 2015), and some 55 percent of that has been sequestered by oceans and plants.
A sequestration strategy of this magnitude would make a sizable dent in the total carbon released into the atmosphere, but needs to be matched with reductions in fossil fuel use and other major forms of greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 37.1 gigatons of carbon were released in 2018 alone. At this rate, more carbon will be released than can be captured by the new forests during the 50-100 years it will take for the trees to mature.
The research team is correct in asserting that global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date,” but some researchers fear that addressing one warning light may turn on others.
For example, focusing on planting new forests instead of preserving old growth trees can have negative impacts. Large, old trees, which support greater biodiversity and sequester more carbon than younger trees, are “declining in forests of all latitudes,” according to a 2012 study. Old growth forests are able to sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts because they are still rapidly growing and increasing their carbon storage capacity. Preserving older forests while implementing massive reforestation efforts would yield the greatest potential for carbon capture and forest ecosystem health.
Protecting large old trees is an important part of the climate mitigation effort, and something that landscape architects working at a variety of scales can support. Every reforestation effort, even in an urban park, should take into account existing trees and the role they play in ecosystems.
Trees need water to thrive. The renewed call for mass reforestation across the globe has some researchers worried about the effect this will have on local water supplies.
In a recent study published in Nature, Jaivime Evaristo and Jeffery J. McDonnell examine the impact of forest management practices, such as deforestation, conversion into agricultural land, regrowth, and afforestation (growing new forests), on the availability of water in watersheds. The study develops a vegetation-to-bedrock model, which considers the geology of a given region in relation to its capacity to store water.
The researchers found that deforestation and conversion of forests into agricultural land increases the volume of water present in almost all watersheds, while regrowth of forests and afforestation reduced the volume of water. “The vast majority of the water loss in afforested and reforested areas is from evapotranspiration, which is a combination of evaporation from soil and other surfaces and transpiration from plants.”
Afforestation and deforestation have the largest impacts on streamflow in watersheds. Deforestation can cause flash floods, but reforestation can lead to droughts.
The data also shows the percentage change in tree cover is correlated to the socio-economic status of a country. Developing and least developed countries lose the most tree cover while developed and emerging countries lose the least. The researchers think this correlation between tree-cover change and economic status “suggests that countries that have infrastructure in place for capturing and storing water may be least vulnerable to possible water supply shortages associated with planting schemes.”
Furthermore, the research team concludes the magnitude of a forest management technique is correlated with the water-yield response. Reforesting nearly 14 percent of the landmass is a massive change, one that would surely have consequences for local communities and ecosystems.
The researchers recognize their streamflow analysis could be used most prudently “for re-calibrating the cost-benefit matrix of climate change mitigation schemes (for example, planting and removal) in different geo-climate regions around the world.”
High above Innsbruck, Austria, the experience of walking a two-mile-long trail has been greatly enriched, thanks to a set of 10 viewing platforms designed by Norwegian multidisciplinary firm Snøhetta. Made of simple materials — Corten steel and Larch wood — the platforms either cantilever out into the air, creating exhilarating moments, or more subtly slip into the landscape, providing a place to sit and take in the vast expanses. Called Perspektivenweg, or the Path of Perspectives, Snøhetta has enhanced the experience of the valley without marring the beauty of the natural landscape.
According to ArchDaily, the Path of Perspectives is found in the Nordkette, a mountain chain of the Karwendel, the largest mountain range of the Northern Limestone Alps, just north of Innsbruck. Two cable car lines bring visitors from the city center to the Seegrube cable car station, found some 1,905 meters above sea level, where they can embark on the path. The station, and three others along the Hungerburg funicular, were designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
With the exception of the cantilevered platform found at the end of the trail, Snøhetta mostly went for “small gestures” that appear to “grow out of the landscape,” explained Patrick Lüth, managing director of Snøhetta’s Innsbruck office, in Dezeen. These include simple timber-lined viewing platforms and benches.
The structures themselves are adapted out of methods used to create avalanche barriers, which are also made of Corten (and seen on the hillside in the image below).
But Snøhetta added another layer to this material, inscribing them with quotes of the writings of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The firm explains that “the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape.”
Fast Company reports that Snøhetta worked with Innsbruck-based Professor Allan Janik to identify quotes such as:
The concept of ‘seeing’ makes a tangled impression. Now that’s the way it is. I look into the landscape; my glance wanders, I see all sorts of clear and unclear movement; this leaves its mark on me clearly, that only fully blurred. What we see can seem to be completely torn to bits.
Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers said the goal with the project was to create a dialogue with the surrounding environment. “Some people mischaracterize our work as always trying to merge with the landscape or trying to set ourselves aside from the landscape. We’re just interested in having a dialogue.”
The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession'” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.
The book features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. A handy paper ruler is included to help readers better understand the full breadth of these beauties. Each tree is depicted with and without foilage, showing summer and winter forms. The shape of each tree’s shadows and the hues of their seasonal color are also vividly conveyed.
According to an introduction to the new edition by Andrea Cavani and Guilio Orsini, curators of the Cesare Leonardi archive, Leonardi studied at the University of Florence, which encouraged a “liberal interpretation of the discipline of architecture, an interpretation that abandoned schematic rationalism and instead was open to visual art, design, landscape, graphic design, communications, philosophy, and sociology.”
In Florence, Leonardi interacted with trees he didn’t recognize. “Their sizes and shapes impressed him, and he felt ‘more drawn to them than to architectural forms.'” While creating a landscape design for a new city park in Modena, he realized that “it would be impossible to design a park without a deep understanding of its elements, meaning trees.”
But he found that just reading about trees wouldn’t cut it; he needed to more deeply understand them. In the areas surrounding Florence and Modena, he “studied specimens, photographed them, and took note of their names and dimensions; and, then, with an eye to using them in his plans, he drew the trees in India ink on transparent film, using photographs for guidance and working on a scale of 1:100.”
Drawing, Cavani and Orsini argue, enabled Leonardi to isolate the tree from its surroundings, focus on its architectural elements, and clearly depict the features that make a species unique. Over time, Leonardi found that climate, exposure, and soil conditions impacted the growth rate and character of specimens, so he accommodated for those differences, too.
Cavani and Orsini note that The Architecture of Trees wasn’t just a result of tree appreciation, but used to support a series of landscape projects in Italy, including Parco della Resistenza in Modena, swimming pool complexes created in Vignola and Mirandola, and a study for the expansion of the Modena cemetery.
The tree studies were also brought to the design of Parco Amendola in Modena, which opened in 1982. Leonardi and Stagi chose trees based on their “size, shape, shadow, and their changing colors over the course of the year.” A 40-meter (131-foot)-tall sundial tower was designed to “illuminate the center of the park at night with a multiple rotating projector that completed one full turn every hour, creating shadows that morphed continuously.”
Those shade studies are included in the beginning of the book, followed by a color analysis, and the drawings of the trees themselves, which are organized by botanical families, genera, and species. At the end, detailed drawings of tree elements — branches and leaves — are included with relevant notes about how the trees change over their lifespan, their fruit, their smells, and planting notes.
While the publisher honors the original edition’s organization, moving back and forth between the color analysis, drawings, and detailed drawing notes simply using plate numbers and trees’ Latin names can be a chore. It takes some digging to find the English or common names as well.
In the forward, Laura Conti writes that trees are increasingly critical to making cities more humane and resilient to climate change. And urban leaders need to adopt policies and regulations to enhance the quality of green spaces.
But to actually design and build beautiful and functional urban green spaces, landscape architects and designers must first understand the form and nature of trees, which are inherently malleable. “If man is going to ask trees to help him survive in this prison he has constructed, he cannot simply rely on that plasticity, but must acquire information about the characteristics that each tree inherently assumes in an area’s climate.”
“Competent” landscape architects then naturally take into account “a tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of leaves in different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers.”
These timeless botanical drawings help us see the aesthetic value of trees themselves — complex, living objects that define the quality and character of any designed landscape.
The Great Lakes, the largest fresh bodies of water in the world, face dire environmental problems. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off from farms has led to destructive algae blooms that kill off lake life. Stormwater runoff from nearby communities has polluted the lakes with the chemicals that slick streets. And invasive species, like the Asian carp and zebra mussels, have wrecked havoc on native Great Lakes ecosystems. The governors of the states that border the lakes called for greater federal action, particularly in highly-contaminated “areas of concern.” The result has been the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which brings together some 16 federal agencies and has spent $2.4 billion on 4,700 projects designed to restore the lakes to environmental health.
Some $12.5 million is available for projects in these categories:
• Riparian restoration to reduce runoff to the Maumee River
• Green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff
• Manure management to reduce nutrient runoff from farms
• Accelerating adoption of nutrient management through farmer-led outreach and education
EPA Region 5 Administrator/Great Lakes National Program Manager Cathy Stepp said: “Reducing stormwater and nutrient runoff is a critical part of restoring the Great Lakes.”
And the EPA has made some $1.5 million available for four innovative water quality trading projects that promote “cost-effective and market-based approaches” to reduce excess nutrients and stormwater runoff hitting the lakes.
According to the EPA, “non-federal governmental entities, including state agencies; interstate agencies; federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal organizations, local governments, institutions of higher learning (i.e., colleges and universities); and non-profit organizations” can apply. Learn more.
San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.
According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the sagebrush steppe; prickly pear shrubland; coastal sage scrub; chaparral; juniper-pine woodland; upper montane-subalpine, alpine, riparian, cypress, mixed evergreen, Douglas fir, sequoia, and redwood forests; coastal dunes and salt marshes.
In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.
Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.
The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.
The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.
At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bruno Mountain. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.
Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.
Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”
For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by remaining habitats and use those to push for reincorporating nature into more of the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”
The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.
For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) There is one important reason to support their removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”
Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.
Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.
As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.
Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”
Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”
Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”
Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”
The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.
Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.
Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.
It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.
Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”
This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.
This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.
The International Space Station circles our planet 15.5 times per day at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. Through a compilation of high-resolution time lapse video taken by NASA astronauts on the station, Philadelphia-based videographer Bruce W. Berry Jr. has created a mesmerizing tour of the Earth.
Rivers spread like veins through the landscape. Weather patterns churn with visceral power over snow-covered mountains. As night falls on the surface, tightly-packed cities light up like beacons. Above, aurorae dance across the stratosphere.
At the end of the video, the thin yellow line demarking the outer edge of the Earth’s atmosphere — which is actually “light emissions caused by chemical reactions of oxygen, sodium, ozone, and nitrogen” — slides into view.
With the help of an epic soundtrack — a piece called Journey to the Line by Hans Zimmer — Berry has created a dramatic journey over the surface of our planet, which appears like a single living organism. An Earthrisefor the video age.
If you are interested in knowing what landscapes were filmed, Berry provides a list of places captured from the space station.