The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

My Favorite Science and Nature Stories of 2014

Posted by | December 26, 2014

The Strummer snail

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 12/28/2014.

I sat in the tire shop the day before Christmas, waiting for the technician to switch my summer tires for winter ones, and scrutinized my fingers. I’d recently read an article about new biological research that pointed to a possible explanation for one of the great mysteries that has bedeviled mankind for millennia: why DO our fingers get wrinkly in the bath?

It’s not because they plump up from the water, which is the common explanation. No, it turns out that wrinkly fingers, in wet conditions, are just like snow tires: they channel water away from the opposing surfaces and help us grip objects better. Long ago, “pruny” fingers gave our monkey ancestors a survival advantage, possibly allowing them to catch more submerged food. Now, unless we’ve sustained nerve damage in our hands, our fingers wrinkle when they’re wet for longer than a couple minutes. And now we know why, thanks to science.

I read a lot about science and nature, partly for my job at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, but mostly because I really love science and nature. Here are some of my favorite stories from the past year.

It was a year of good news. In 2013-14, our civilization added more solar energy capacity than in the past 30 years combined. That pace may drop off now that oil’s down to $60 a barrel, but then again, kicking the fossil fuel habit can be mighty liberating. After all, Governor Cuomo of New York is willing to bet on alternatives to natural gas drilling in his state, despite the wrath of the fracking industry and his struggling rural counties.

Far above the surface of Earth, instead of below it, we have a little rover tootling around the surface of Mars and sending back tantalizing clues about the possibility of life on another planet. And even that’s not the most impressive news from the year in space, which is that the European Space Agency launched a probe 10 years ago that traveled 4 billion miles, landed within a quarter mile of where it needed to on the surface of a comet speeding along at 40,000 miles per hour, and is still sending back signals. If we can do that, we can do anything.

Or maybe we can’t? Science’s explanations comfort us, bring us great technologies, but it also reveal our limitations. Though the media desperately tried to terrify us, the Ebola virus landed in the U.S. and did NOT decimate the country. (In fact, it’s likely that more Americans died trying to wrestle a soda out of a vending machine than died from Ebola.) But make no mistake: Ebola is definitely still bad news for a few African countries, where it’s nowhere near contained.

Maybe this virus is Mother Nature’s attempt to exact a little revenge on us, because, after all, our activities are still chopping away at the tree of life and sending a dozen species to the extinction list every day. Aside from the rare rebound story like the Pacific blue whales or the little brown bats in Vermont, “lower” animals are not benefiting from sharing the planet with us.

That is, as always, the theme of the year’s bad news. As the dominant species on the planet, we’re still mucking things up in a dominating way. Our effects are local and global. I hope they’re reversible.

Our littering is a problem, to put it midly. Scientists estimate that five trillion pieces of plastic float through our seas; trillions more might be locked in the rapidly melting North Pole sea ice. A chemical spill into a river in West Virginia poisoned a city; and (holy Toledo) Lake Erie turned green with algae fed by runoff and warmer temperatures.

Yes, global warming. Better to call it “climate change,” since not everywhere is warming at the same rate. Best to call it “climate disruption,” since everywhere is going haywire. While the once-in-1,200-year-drought in California probably isn’t caused by climate change, it may be exacerbated by it. (The rivers are so low out there that even the migrating salmon had to take the bus.) It was a quiet hurricane season in the Atlantic, but super typhoons barreled through the Pacific, causing billions of dollars in damages. The Gulf of Maine is turning more sour and warming up faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. 2014 will likely go down in weather history as the warmest year in the last 130 years, or even 500 (in Europe) – most people would consider that bad news, I think?

Science doesn’t care so much about good or bad, just advancing its knowledge of how the Universe works. What we do with that knowledge is up to us. Learning why tornadoes hit trailer parks more often may change how we develop Midwestern cities, or it may not. Personally, I’m inspired by the US/China climate deal, but the proof will be in the policies still to come, not the science that led to them.

One can hope. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading. Deep in the ocean marine biologists found a spiky-shelled snail that they named after the front man for the rock band The Clash. And LEGO™ kits that feature female scientists are selling out all over the world, which is great for a number of reasons.

What lies ahead? Likely more bad news, but also good. 2015 may be the last year in history we aren’t followed everywhere by airborne drones, but it also may be the last year that ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, afflicts the population. After all, a year ago who knew that the cure for that mysterious disease lay within simple buckets of ice?

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, hypothesis and antithesis. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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