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Rachel Atherton Goes Big (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Downhill mountain bikes weren’t designed to go up. They’re heavy as hell and have the wrong gear ratio, and the best that you can hope for is a ride on a chairlift or in the back of a truck. Failing that, you’re pushing. Which, for most of us, is no fun.

Than again, most of us aren’t Rachel Atherton. It’s early October, and she’s on the side of a grassy slope in northern England, rolling her powder-blue Trek alongside her as though it’s filled with helium. Her full-face helmet hangs from her handlebars, and her frizzy blonde hair is twisted into a bun. Atherton, 29, has a smile on her face, the kind of contented smile that comes when you’re the world’s top female downhiller and have just wrapped up a perfect season.

And today, she just gets to ride. It’s the warm-up for the Red Bull Foxhunt, a mass-start race where 220 women will set off down a track as Atherton tries to overtake them from behind. “I’m amazed by how the women all feed off each other,” Atherton says. “The main thing I want to get across is how confident it makes you feel to tackle a whole mountain on a bike.”

At the base of the hill, many of the competitors have boyfriends or husbands in tow, schlepping baby carriages and fetching energy bars from the base. Amelia Taylor, a 36-year-old mother and amateur racer, points to her 15-month-old daughter, Phoebe. “She’s been coming to bike events since she was five weeks old.”

Signing up for the Foxhunt is like getting a backstage pass to Atherton. Everywhere she goes, competitors pull her aside for selfies, to which she unfailing responds with a “Yes, please!” At a slippery off-camber section of the course, where the racers are sliding into one another in three-bike pileups, Atherton pauses to hold court. “Drop your outside foot, and then this foot is in the air or dabbing along and you can lean in loads,” she says. A few seconds later, a rider comes flying down. “Nice! Nice, nice! Holy mother! Yeah, woo!” she hollers.

Read the rest at Outside

Going underground: inside the world of the mole-catchers (The Guardian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A bitter battle is raging within the mole-catching community over the kindest way to carry out their deadly work

Roger Page purchased his home in East Bilney, a Norfolk farming community, about 25 years ago. For the better part of those 25 years, he bore no ill will toward the moles. He was fond of wildlife, or at least what little of it remained in the country. A family of deer foraged in the backyard. Foxes lolled in the road at dusk. Moles were a rarity.

Page worked as a commercial pilot and when the occasional molehill erupted on his lawn, he would pat it down before departing again to New York or Hong Kong. They seemed to have an understanding, he and the moles. They mostly kept to the woods, while Page mostly kept to the garden.

But after he retired five years ago, Page expanded his back lawn and the moles became more persistent. As more and more molehills sprung up, Page came to feel as if their labours were engineered to produce in him the maximum anguish. He purchased traps at the garden centre, but they would often remain unsprung or – worse – sprung and empty.

He decided to escalate his counter-assault. During a stopover in Amsterdam, he bought a pungent bag of flower bulbs advertised as a natural mole deterrent. (The moles didn’t mind.) Next, he installed a solar-powered mole repeller, a torpedo-shaped device that emits vibrations that are supposed to keep the moles away. (The moles carried on.) He tried flooding them out with a water hose. (Moles are strong swimmers.) Finally, he tried suffocating them with the exhaust of his lawnmower. (Moles can survive in low‑oxygen environments.)

Read the rest at the Guardian

The Crazy Hard Boulder Problem that Took Four Years to Send (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

In the fall of 2013, Finnish climber Nalle Hukkataival took a trip out to Lappnor, Finland, a new bouldering area about an hour east of Helsinki on the country's forested southern coastline. When he arrived, his old friend, Marko Siivinen, pointed out a nameless hunk of rock the size of a bus that looked like it was about to topple over.

With just a few obvious holds on the flat face, Hukkataival, 30 could see the line to the top immediately. It looked like a V14 problem—expert-level but not impossible. He stepped up to the wall and gripped two vertical ridges, compressing them as though he was closing a sliding door. But the moment he dabbed his right foot onto the wall, he plopped onto the padded mat beneath. It was the first sign that this project wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought. “If it looked as hard as it is, I wouldn’t have even tried,” Hukkataival says.

Over the next four years, Hukkataival would make an estimated 4,000 attempts on the bouldering project before finally conquering it last October. “I thought he was going crazy at some point,” Siivinen, 36, says. “I was feeling guilty that I showed it to him.”

Hukkataival has given it a V17 grade, which—if given the nod by future climbers—would make it the hardest bouldering problem in the world. As a self-professed guardian of the integrity of the grading system, it’s not a claim he makes lightly, and top climbers who have visited the boulder agree it has potential. “I’ve been traveling for 12 years non-stop,” Hukkataival told Outside. “The whole time I’ve been looking for something with the perfect level of difficulty.” (So far, no other top climber has repeated the ascent, which is the next step in corroborating the V17 rating.) 

To put things in perspective, a V0 bouldering problem is like climbing a ladder. Problems in the V4 to V5 range have skimpier handholds and require the technique and finger strength of a dedicated amateur. V9 and above are pro-level, the kind of problems featured in climbing competitions. Currently, the number of climbers in the world who have scaled a V15 is fewer than 100. A V16? Just five.

This boulder—which Hukkataival christened Burden of Dreams after a 1982 documentary about director Werner Herzog’s monomaniacal quest to move a steamship over a mountain in the Amazon—stands alone. It is like Yosemite’s Dawn Wall writ small, an exercise in frustration that Hukkataival documents in a short film called the Lappnor Project, which will be out February 8. The problem consists of just five or six hand movements to the top with funky moves like a piano match, where Hukkataival has to lift his index finger from a crimp to fit his other hand on securely. The footwork may be even more critical. In the beginning, Hukkataival couldn’t even do some of the individual moves, let alone string them together. In total, the climb is a combination of precise, dynamic lunges to sloping holds and powerful body-tensioning static moves. 

Read the rest at Outside

Last Trial of the Codfather (Hakai Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

It’s another quiet July day at the fish auction in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When I arrive at dawn before the bidding begins, three men are seated at folding tables, waiting for a darkened television screen to flicker on. The drone and dribble of a Keurig coffee machine is the only sound interrupting the silence. It promises to be another wistful day in a long series of wistful days.

Last night, just nine fishing boats pulled up to the dock behind the building, far fewer than the hundreds of boats lining up for the old city auction on Pier 3 in the 1980s. Back then, boats would haul in as much as 500 tonnes of cod, haddock, flounder, and other species of groundfish from the icy depths of the North Atlantic. Today’s groundfish catch is 4.3 tonnes. Most of the money keeping the port afloat is in scallops.

I start to pull out a chair to take a seat when I hear a voice behind me. “I don’t think you want to do that,” says a lanky, gray-haired man reading a magazine. “The guy who normally sits in that chair will choke you to death.”

“Choke you to death on cigarette smoke!” cracks a black guy with a patch on his beret that reads, “I’m Cape Verdean.”

After I move to the back row, a big-bellied, bald man in a plaid shirt pushes past the No Smoking sign on the front door and walks into the room. He takes his seat and lights up a Winston cigarette. He spits out a few words about a dissatisfied fish buyer to the auction owner in raspy Portuguese. Then, he switches to English. “Tell him he can go fuck himself, the fish is fine,” he growls. “I saw every fucking one, it’s his fucking problem.” It doesn’t take me long to realize that this is Carlos Rafael, otherwise known as The Codfather, who was out of jail on a US $2-million bond. Under the table, an electronic monitoring bracelet is beaming his location to federal authorities who are making sure he gets back to his house every night by 8:30 p.m.

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

Antibiotic Resistance (Avaunt Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The antibiotic era began with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in London in 1928. Fleming had witnessed first-hand the terrible effects of infectious disease while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War I, watching helplessly as wounded men died of sepsis – a reaction of the immune system to infection, damaging tissues and organs – and he became interested in developing a better treatment to replace the often ineffective antiseptics used at the time.

Fleming had been growing colonies of staphylococcus – a type of bacterium that is ubiquitous on human skin and can easily infect wounds – in Petri dishes, when he noticed an unexpected development. On one dish, which had been left open by mistake while Fleming was on holiday, there was a spot of green mould that was inhibiting the growth of the bacteria. Following some experimentation Fleming discovered that an extract from the mould, Penicillium notatum, was able to kill a wide variety of bacteria.

Read an excerpt of my story from Avaunt Issue 4

Bugs on Ice (Biographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Sean Schoville slips an elastic loop around his waist, securing a square piece of foam to his backside. “It’s a trick I learned from an entomologist in Siberia,” he says casually. “It helps you stay warm when you’re sitting on cold rocks all the time.” It may be June, but it’s frosty here at Summit Lake, the highest pass along the Alaska Highway in far northern British Columbia. Standing before us, the 1,905-meter (6,250-foot) Mount St. Paul looks like a scoop of stracciatella gelato, with dark slivers of limestone slicing through the pillowy white snow.

We’re here to hunt for an elusive and unassuming group of insects utterly unperturbed by the cold weather. In fact, they love it. Less than an inch long, these creatures—ice crawlers—look a little like an earwig that hasn’t been getting enough sun. They are wingless, have six legs, and a pale, segmented body that ends with two tail-like appendages known as cerci. When the Canadian entomologist Edmund Walker discovered them in Banff, Alberta, in 1913, he was so dumbfounded by their appearance that he gave the group the scientific nameGrylloblatta, which roughly translates to “cricket-roach.” Entomologists aren’t known for their media savvy, but that name certainly landed with a thud. “It’s not particularly flattering,” Schoville sighs. “It doesn’t sound great, and it doesn’t help you understand the group.”

But ice crawlers, as their common name suggests, have a thermal superpower, which allows them to flourish at the edges of glaciers. After the sun sets, they emerge from their hideouts deep within rock crevices to scavenge decaying plant matter along with comatose moths, flies, and other insects that have blown onto the snow. The genus Grylloblatta includes almost 40 described species in the western U.S., Canada, Russia, and the Far East. Highly adapted to their frigid environments, ice crawlers remain active at temperatures in the 20s—the same temperatures that cause other insects, including their prey, to shut down or freeze solid. Hold an ice crawler in the sweaty palm of your hand for too long, however, and they’ll go belly-up. One species has been found at 9,000 feet on Washington’s Mount Rainier. Others spend their lives at lower elevations, albeit in the cool crevices of talus piles or inside ice-filled caves.

Read the rest at Biographic

Physics on Two Wheels (Nature)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Seven bikes lean against the wall of Jim Papadopoulos's basement in Boston, Massachusetts. Their paint is scratched, their tyres flat. The handmade frame that he got as a wedding present is coated in fine dust. “I got rid of most of my research bikes when I moved,” he says. The bicycles that he kept are those that mean something to him. “These are the ones I rode.”

Papadopoulos, who is 62, has spent much of his life fascinated by bikes, often to the exclusion of everything else. He competed in amateur races while a teenager and at university, but his obsession ran deeper. He could never ride a bike without pondering the mathematical mysteries that it contained. Chief among them: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedalling? Why must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider?

He studied these questions intensely as a young engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But he failed to publish most of his ideas — and eventually drifted out of academia. By the late 1990s, he was working for a company that makes the machines that manufacture toilet paper. “In the end, if no one ever finds your work, then it was pointless,” he says.

But then someone did find his work. In 2003, his old friend and collaborator from Cornell, engineer Andy Ruina, called him up. A scientist from the Netherlands, Arend Schwab, had come to his lab to resurrect the team's research on bicycle stability.

“Jim, you need to be a part of this,” Ruina told him.

Read the rest at Nature

Havana: Some Assembly Required (Hakai Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A communist city struggles to lure foreign money and rebuild its failing infrastructure without sacrificing its revolutionary roots.

If a place could be described as bitterly hot, it’s here on a street along Havana’s waterfront. A century-old custom house sprawls the length of three soccer fields, blocking the sea’s cooling embrace. The building is an affront—a dilapidated fortress with broken windows and gaping holes in its terra cotta roof—that I deeply resent right now.

I’m on a walking tour with two dozen international architects and urban designers, as we imagine a theoretical future for Havana. The walk is part of a charrette—an exercise that gives professionals and community members a voice on urban development when there is no formal mechanism to do so, as has been the case in crumbling Havana. At this moment, however, under the searing sun, it’s our imaginations that are crumbling and the water that’s theoretical. Every so often, the scent of sunscreen permeates the air as someone slathers it on their glistening pink face. “Agua?” we inquire, as we poke our heads into doorways on a fruitless search for bottled water.

As relentless as the heat on this “death march”—to quote the mutterings of the design contingent—is our leader: Cuban-born architect Julio Cesar Perez, clad in a heavy blue blazer and exuding a kind of reptilian comfort. His taut, olive skin is radiant under the tropical sun. Like a lizard animated by the heat, he whirls around, pointing this way and that way, and expounding on the failings of this once great city—the largest metropolis in the Caribbean, with a population of over two million. Havana is Perez’s birthplace, his stomping grounds, and his part-time home when he’s not in Miami, Florida.

Unlike the rest of us sun-numbed dolts, his brain gallops around the problem of the behemoth blocking views of the sea and its cooling breeze. Perez barks out a solution: hollow out the ground floor of the custom house, tear off the exterior walls, and liberate its bones, the structural supports. I can almost feel the rush of fresh air. “The bay is Havana’s most important geographic feature,” Perez booms. “Geography is what allows cities to be born!”

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

The Husband-and-Wife Team Behind the Internet’s Most Infuriating Outdoor Retailer (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Illustration by Neil Webb

It’s hard to believe a Colorado gear shop could outrage so many customers in the age of crowdsourced review sites and marketplaces like Amazon. But 123Mountain, owned and operated by European couple Olivier and Anna Sofia Goumas, has been fending off lawsuits for years. Has their luck finally run out?

Read the story at Outside magazine

The Emerald Edge (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

LAND AND WATER: (left) Conservancy staffer and commercial fisherman Michael Kampnich is among those working to ensure that Southeast Alaska’s forests and streams remain healthy and full of the region’s lifeblood—salmon. (right) Local herbs flavor small-batch liquors made at Heather Shade and Sean Copeland ‘s Port Chilkoot Distillery. They were among the winners of a grant contest the Conservancy helped develop to support the growth ofsustainable small businesses. © Chris Crisman

LAND AND WATER: (left) Conservancy staffer and commercial fisherman Michael Kampnich is among those working to ensure that Southeast Alaska’s forests and streams remain healthy and full of the region’s lifeblood—salmon. (right) Local herbs flavor small-batch liquors made at Heather Shade and Sean Copeland ‘s Port Chilkoot Distillery. They were among the winners of a grant contest the Conservancy helped develop to support the growth ofsustainable small businesses. © Chris Crisman

From the February/March issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine

A 47,000-pound steel claw painted fire-engine red hunches on the edge of Thorne Bay, looking like something that fell from a spaceship into this remote, forested cove on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. But locals don’t blink when they drive past “The Claw,” once one of the largest logging grapples in the world. They remember when its massive pincers hoisted bundles of 5-ton logs into the water like so many matchsticks. During the logging boom from the late 1950s through the ’90s, Sitka spruce that had towered over the island’s salmon streams since long before Europeans arrived on the continent were shredded in Ketchikan and dissolved into paper pulp.

Prince of Wales is part of the Tongass National Forest, which stretches across the 500-mile ribbon of land and maze of islands that constitute the Alaskan panhandle. It’s a wild, magical place, where glacier-fed waterfalls splash into fogshrouded fjords frequented by humpback whales and orcas. Black bears and coastal brown bears feast on five species of salmon, including king, sockeye and coho. Bald eagles seem as common here as pigeons in New York City, and the endangered marbled murrelet, an adorably chubby little seabird, builds its mossy nests in the oldest, largest trees.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Tongass, named after a Tlingit Indian clan and established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, was too isolated and undeveloped to be worth logging on a large scale. But after World War II, Congress jump-started the timber industry with the Tongass Timber Act, which helped establish pulp mills and subsidized the building of roads and other infrastructure. The Forest Service surveyed and sold off tracts of timber to the highest bidder, even though that frequently meant selling at a dramatic loss. By 2004, a few years after The Nature Conservancy launched its Southeast Alaska program, some 40 percent of the most ecologically valuable old-growth habitat in the Tongass had been logged.

Greg Boyd, now 60, moved out here in 1983 in search of adventure. He had worked as a logger in northern Michigan and dreamed of doing the same in Alaska. But, he says, “I wimped out as soon as I got up here and saw what the deal was: the size of the trees, the topography.” Instead of taking up the risky work of logging trees that can reach heights over 180 feet, he decided to get into the insurance business.

It was a smart move. Old-growth timber was getting scarce and clear-cutting regulations had grown stricter, which meant the profit margins were slimmer. The Claw was retired in 1994, and the pulp mill shut down a few years later. The slender, second-growth trees that grew back in the forest gaps had little value, and without thinning, these stands often grew so dark and dense that the understory became as ecologically barren as a cave.

But Boyd never forgot what drew him to Alaska in the first place, and in 2012, he became co-owner of one of the last sawmills on the island. Good Faith Lumber, just up the road from Thorne Bay, was a small mill with a big advantage: two kilns. Kiln-dried wood can be cut with precision, enabling the mill to manufacture high-value retail products like beveled cedar siding. It also had a four-sided planer to cut wood into rounded D-log siding—the kind used to build cabins—and into tongue-and-groove boards used for interior paneling.

From the Conservancy’s perspective, small sawmills like Good Faith point the way to the next chapter for Tongass. Developing new, high-value products out of second-growth timber could keep people employed in the industry and help restore forests by thinning dense stands—all while reducing economic pressure to log old-growth, says David Albert, the Conservancy’s Alaska chapter director for conservation science. “We want to protect the last, best remaining temperate rainforest watersheds on Earth but also provide economic stability to communities,” he says. Wholesale logging is no longer the backbone of communities like Thorne Bay, and new, greener enterprises are emerging with the Conservancy’s help.

Read the rest here

A Flower and a Way of Life in Peril (Sapiens)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Prized—and increasingly rare—bouquets of an enchanting flower from Brazil’s mountainous heartland pit collectors against conservationists.

Read the rest at Sapiens.org

The 680-mile-long Serra do Espinhaço mountain range rises from the Brazilian lowlands like the fossilized backbone of a fallen dinosaur. Sandwiched between the Atlantic rainforest and the country’s savanna heartland, the meadows and scrubby forests that run along this rocky spine are home to tapirs, maned wolves, giant anteaters, and more than 4,000 species of plants.

One of the most alluring and valuable of these plants is a flower found nowhere else on Earth. It has a straw-like stem and a white head the size of a peanut. Lacking the gaudiness of a greenhouse rose or the steamy sensuality of an orchid, these flowers—individually—seem unremarkable. They achieve their beauty through multiplication, when dozens of them are dried and bound into a mesmerizing bouquet in the palette of an eternal autumn. Up to 10 years after their harvest, a drop of water will cause the delicate buds to close their petals. When they dry out again, they open as if they are still alive, which is why this species and its close relatives are called sempre-vivas, Portuguese for “everlasting” flowers.

Read the rest at Sapiens.org

Indoor Climbing has a new Corporate Giant (Fortune)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

bri10_a.jpg

 

The controversy brewing in rock climbing.

At the Cliffs climbing gym in Long Island City, laid-back couples in tank tops are roped up and scaling plastic handholds in a tangerine canyon. The Cliffs is a bespoke creation, and it employs a creative team of route setters to keep climbs fresh and unique.

But there’s controversy afoot in this bohemian business of belaying. Bulgarian company Walltopia, the industry leader that built the wall at the Cliffs, will debut a new product next fall that will standardize climbing routes using giant mass-produced panels, making it possible for gyms to revamp walls without hiring pricey workers to plot out unique courses. “If you have the same canvas, you can paint the same painting,” says the lead designer, Vasil Sharlanov.

The new walls will enhance the $150-million-a-year climbing industry’s ability to, ahem, scale. But not everyone loves Walltopia, which is set to open swanky new headquarters in Sofia and just signed a $50 million contract to build 30 to 50 walls in China.

While its innovations may make the sport more accessible, hard-core climbers bemoan its McDonaldization. Jeremy Ho, who designs rock courses in California for a living, says the new walls have all the originality of prefab Ikea cabinets. But, he adds, “I’m probably pretty biased because it’s my career on the line.”

A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “Can climbing gyms be commodified?”

 

How the World's Hardest Bouldering Problems Get Made (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

World cup setter Max Zolotukhin

World cup setter Max Zolotukhin

The route setters who put up the bouldering problems at climbing gyms and competitions are an elite tribe of fiendishly clever puzzle-masters who delight in the contortions that their crimps and jugs force climbers to make.

From the October 2015 issue of Outside Magazine

The route setter studied the blank gray surface. 

His section—part of an array of climbing walls set up outdoors under a huge tent—was 16 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and it loomed above the chalk-dusted mat at a forward-facing 40-degree angle. His eyes darted from one position to the next, dancing along a grid of bolt holes that were laid out every six inches, like a sheet of graph paper. Strewn around the stage were thousands of Crayon-colored climbing handholds, a wicked assortment of crimps and jugs and pinches and pockets that he would use to fill this void. After a moment of reflection, he unholstered his cordless drill and affixed a bright blue hold to the wall with a whir and a screech. The hold had an intricate, primal-looking pattern etched into it, along with a pocket that could fit (barely) two flexed fingers.

It was a Tuesday in early June, and the setter, Max Zolotukhin, was part of an elite six-man team planning 36 routes, or problems, for the Bouldering World Cup in Vail, Colorado. The best climbers in the sport would be arriving that weekend, including Jan Hojer, the six-foot-one German powerhouse, and Adam Ondra, the Czech bean sprout with sinewy arms and a mop of curly hair. The setters would provide the challenges that would separate their performances.

Read the rest at Outside Magazine


Two new stories in Retraction Watch

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Crime journal's meteoric rise due to questionable self-citation (September 22)

Should it be a crime for editors to cite work in their own journal?

Last year, the Journal of Criminal Justice became the top-ranked journal in the field of criminology, but critics say that its meteoric rise is due in part to the editor’s penchant for self-citation.

 

NSF Investigation of high-profile plant retractions (September 2)

A nearly ten-year-long series of investigations into a pair of plant physiologists who received millions in funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation has resulted in debarments of less than two years for each of the researchers.

The NSF Office of Inspector General recently posted its close-out report on its decision and a review of the University’s investigation, which had recommended a total of eight retractions or corrections. Although the investigator’s names have been redacted, the text of retractions and corrections quoted in the report corresponds to papers by Jorge Vivanco and his then-postdoc Harsh Bais at Colorado State University.

Eradicating the One Percent (Hakai magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The swamps and subdivisions of southern Florida are overrun with invasive reptiles, including Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards. The only way to eliminate every last one of them is to follow the DNA trail they leave behind.

Tim and Patty O’Hara were looking forward to living out their golden years in the tropical city of Cape Coral on southern Florida’s Gulf Coast. Cape Coral is known as the Waterfront Wonderland because it has over 600 kilometers of canals—more than any other city in the world—and the city boasts that it has an average of 355 days of sunshine per year. When the community was carved out of the mosquito-infested mangroves and salt marshes back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developers brought in celebrities like Bob Hope and Anita Bryant to give it a touch of wholesome glamour.

In September 2013, the O’Haras moved from Gig Harbor, Washington, to a neighborhood off Skyline Boulevard. Their retirement home was painted the color of rosé wine and had a neatly trimmed front lawn and a backyard pool. And like many of the city’s 165,831 residents, the O’Haras had a freshwater canal running behind their house, with the occasional boat floating past.

“We just wanted to goof off all the time,” Tim says. “To swim and play golf.” Tim’s sister and brother-in-law were avid birdwatchers, and the first time they visited they were blown away by all the nature around them, not only birds, but manatees, otters, and Florida redbelly turtles. A colony of burrowing owls—a protected species in Florida—had taken up residence on the empty lot next door. “They think that’s cool,” Tim says. He did, too.

It wasn’t long before the O’Haras started hearing about another animal in the area: the Nile monitor lizard. “Everybody talks about them,” Tim says. He’d seen a strange lizard around but didn’t know what it was.

About a year ago, their landscaper pointed to the corner of their yard. “There’s one right there,” he said. It was huge. It could easily have swallowed a family of owls and still have had room for a poodle.

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

The Urban Water Crisis (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

In the late afternoon of November 5, 1913, a crowd of flag-waving Angelenos gathered to watch the christening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a network of canals, pipes and tunnels that would quench the thirst of their parched and growing city. The chief engineer of the aqueduct—a mustachioed man named William Mulholland—stood in the glaring California sun and gave a historic address. “This rude platform is an altar,” he began, “and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children—for all time.” Then, he leaned over the railing and gestured to the wall of water cascading down the concrete culvert. “There it is,” he said. “Take it.”

The crystalline waters before him had traveled some 230 miles from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Built over the previous fi ve years, the aqueduct would carry 260 million gallons of water a day from the Owens River across the Mojave Desert and through the San Gabriel Mountains, where it entered the city’s water system.

Today, the city draws more water from outside its natural watershed than any other in the world. To safeguard its water, Los Angeles owns about 315,000 acres in the Sierra watershed, yet with warmer temperatures, more frequent forest fi res and decreased snowfall, the supply is in jeopardy. The region is in a state of “water stress”: It uses more than 40 percent of the water available to it.

Los Angeles represents an extreme case of how fresh water forms a bond between the concrete jungle and the natural world. When we turn taps on, we take for granted that clean water will flow out. But accomplishing this feat takes a lot of infrastructure: Cities move about 130 billion gallons of water per day a distance of nearly 17,000 miles. About 41 percent of Earth’s land area acts as a funnel for urban regions, gathering rainfall and directing it toward the 3.9 billion people who live in cities. These lifelines will be under intense pressure. The United Nations Population Division predicts that the world’s urban population will expand by 2.5 billion by 2050. Much of this growth will occur in cash-starved developing countries in Africa and Asia that can’t just build their way out of scarcity, as Los Angeles did.

Read the rest at Nature Conservancy

Island in a Storm (Roads & Kingdom / Slate)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

LAGOA DA CONFUSÃO, BRAZIL -- It was noon, and we were driving west as drab fields of parched soybean and scrub rushed past. Our goal was to find a local with a skiff who could take us across a river and into a national park that does or does not exist, depending on whom you ask.

There was a metallic click as my companion, Raoni Japiassu Merisse, the very real boss of this paper park, slid the ammunition cartridge into his black semiautomatic pistol engraved with the initials of his employer, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. Japiassu had never fired a single shot outside of his training, but he was prepared to. “Our leaders believe we are at war with the indigenous,” he said with a mixture of duty and resignation.

Just 30 years old, Japiassu was the man caught in the middle of what he called “an impossible situation.” On federal maps, Araguaia National Park still encompasses the northern third of Bananal Island, a 200-mile long river island in north central Brazil that is shaped like a crude arrowhead pointing north. The place was once considered Brazil’s answer to Yellowstone, but 13 years ago, the Javaé and Karajá tribes who live on the island took one of Japiassu’s predecessors hostage, commandeered boats and vehicles, and set fire to the park headquarters.

Read the rest at Roads & Kingdoms 

Or Read it at Slate