Stephen Bolwell is a photographer, painter and writer. His blog - 'Take a Picture - Save the Planet' deals with both serious and light hearted environmental issues; he has a background in wildlife documentary filmmaking for television and posts short wildlife clips on YouTube.
For many years I travelled to interesting places to film wildlife, and would usually pointed my camera in the direction that would achieve the most agreeable results, because if I turned in the opposite direction it was often impossible to hide the impact of human activity: sometimes there would be plastic flapping in the wind on a barbed-wire fence; or a forest with its under-storey eaten bare by livestock, perhaps even a forest being felled. My job it seemed was to give a positive spin to the way the natural world looked, even when things weren’t quite right.
As time passes, getting agreeable results when filming wildlife has become increasingly difficult with many natural environments now so degraded they can no longer support complex ecosystems. This unfortunate situation suggests that it’s time to tell things the way they are, even when the audience doesn’t want to hear bad news. It seems there always has to be a positive spin to keep people watching, but rescuing a handful of orangutans will not make a meaningful difference to their impending extinction. There is no doubt that our minds are like little story boxes that prefer the dishonest comfort of happy endings rather than the truth, even when reality runs against our beliefs.
I live not far from a park which is close to a Canadian city centre, but despite this, it still manages to look fairly natural, although everything that surrounds the park has been developed. I say looks fairly natural, but the truth is, all the old growth forests was logged out by the 1930s; but the environment still appears agreeable when viewed uncritically, because the damp, temperate local conditions encourage the growth of fungi, mosses, lichens and ferns, which make the place look quite photogenic, despite there being no original forest left standing. The parks present appearance fools most people into thinking that it is useful natural environment, when in reality the young secondary forest lacks the diversity of the once expansive virgin forest that covered the region less than 150 years ago. Our preference though is to remain ignorant of information that makes us feel uncomfortable: the logging caused the destruction of a complex habitat over a very short period of time; and for very short term ‘profit’. Most of us accept this as ‘progress’, but there is an environmental cost that many of us fail to recognize.
One might expect this small remnant of woodland to be much appreciated, but it is not respected by all who enter. The question is: should we be surprised, with today, so many North Americans losing contact with both the natural world and with reality; although in Canada, people manage to do it very politely.
The increasingly poor state of natural environments is a warning sign: when we fail to respect the natural world it inevitably bites back. Presently, the spread of COVID-19 is the most pressing problem we face, with infection rates once again rising, but a few miles to the south, across the border in the USA, things are very much worse.
In the US the leader of the free world has just been beaten in an election by a Democrat, but he remains holed up in the White House in denial. Two weeks after polling, the President has still been claiming victory, venturing out only to play golf and with nothing much else on the to-do list; this at a time when COVID-19 has totalled a loss of 240,000 lives, and with ever increasing rates of infection, people have been dying in record numbers. It would not be unfair to say that President Trump has not been especially proactive in responding to the epidemic anymore than he has in dealing with environmental issues, and yet he has still managed to achieved almost 74 million votes, that’s close to 7 million more than he achieved when first elected to office in 2016. There is something odd about all of this though, because many of his supporters would traditionally be expected to vote for a Democrat, but many feel let down by recent Liberal priorities, and have gone with what they consider an outsider to politics. Certainly Trump supporters are disappointed that he has lost the election; but it is odd that so many found it necessary to stand outside of polling stations in militaristic dress, carrying automatic weapons as if they were living in a banana republic, rather than what they consider to be the greatest country in the world.
The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is President Elect having achieved close to 80 million votes in the recent 2020 election — more than any other president in US history, but he is having trouble gaining co-operation from the present incumbent. Historically after most elections the change of power has progressed through a transition period in a smooth and civilised manner, but not this time. There is talk of civil war, but dissent is both fragmented and disorganized and hopefully it won’t come to that.
Despite the enormous political divide, after the election Joe Biden attempted a unifying speech in Delaware and referred to important issues being guided by science, particularly COVID-19 for which he is setting up a task force. However, Biden only managed to speak for around 5 minutes before quoting the Bible, and over the course of a 15 minute speech made more than half a dozen references to the supernatural; including angels, an uplifting hymn and various blessings from God. The American Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention God, and it is therefore surprising that a supernatural being is featured in all the individual state constitutions; and many Americans do not find it incongruous that their politicians frequently refer to science and religion in the same breath, given that one discipline is based on rational thought and the other isn’t; but then I’ve spent most of my formative years in Britain where any mention of God by a politician is usually considered political suicide.
Essentially the disease is not being effectively dealt with in a great many countries, and the recent news that three vaccines are to be made available next year (one claimed more than 90% effective, the other two 95%), has offered as a ray of hope to what has become a truly depressing run of the disease. Despite the good news it has been suggested that 25% of people in developed countries may decline the vaccine because they prioritise conspiracy theories over science, despite the latter providing most of the improvements achieved in health and living standards over the last 120 years.
The point is, that if this is the way things are with a global pandemic, what hope is there for species loss and climate change, both of which are presently very much on the back burner. The question is: will we ever overcome our superstious natures and innate tribalism to work together more co-operatively on troubling global issues; or are we destined to stumble along plagued by superstition with so many of us searcing out ‘alternative facts’ of which there of course none. Sadly if the prevailing stupidity continues we might be destined to go the same way as my local forest, which is certainly not as it should be and in consequence may have limited long-term viability.
It could be that humans are not programmed for planning ahead on a global scale, with our powers of destruction outstripping our ability to think rationally. So, perhaps it would be better for my state of mind, if I continued to look the other way, just as I once did when filming nature, and ignore the obvious problems around me. The trouble is, as with palm oil plantations, there are increasingly fewer directions to look for a positive view, and so it is necessary to start making excuses not only for all the crap that’s happening in the natural world, but also all the crap that’s going on inside our heads, because very little appears to be changing for the better.
The secret of remaining sane in these troubled times, is to think delusionally… no problem,I can make this change straight away as I assess the trip I recently made with my wife to the local woodland I referred to earlier, where we spent a pleasant afternoon walking around taking pictures of all the things that weren’t quite right.
Into the woods:
Once in the forest, our walk seemed to lack a diversity of colour; we noticed a lot of unnecessary dun browns with altogether too many shades of green, when what was really required was the complimentary colour red (from the opposite side of the colour wheel), to set things off nicely. A painter might easily add a traveller wearing a red jacket to his landscape, but for the photographer in the woods, red is not always forthcoming, unless there are berries… but only if they are red berries.
Then I saw my opportunity.
Many years ago the British naturalist William Gilpin extolled the wonder of a tree, by pointing out how each is formed by circumstances of environment and weather into a unique individuals — no two are ever the same; but these observations were made long before plastic was invented and had Gilpin the good fortune to be confronted by the many varied forms of the plastic bag.
Liberated into the wild they are carried by wind and water to wherever fortune takes them, travelling in their millions to every part of the globe, raising our spirits as an international symbol of freedom. You can’t help but admire the wild bag o’ the forest — it fits right in.
It was also a delight to discover a discarded umbrella — if it could talk what stories an old umbrella might tell. This one has become so much part of the landscape. it might be considered as nothing short of a work of art.
We were fortunate enough to also see a woodland bird, a varied thrush, which we don’t see as often as we did when we arrived on the Lower Mainland 10 years ago. This is because during that time, woodland areas have been reduced; but I’m not sure it matters. There’s a good deal more colouful plastic to look at now than there used to be, and the thrush’s plumage can’t compete; if the bird should disappear, there will be no shortage of colourful plastic on the forest floor to replace it.
Colourful plastic, or dull old varied thrush? I know which one I’d choose.
This looks like one of those back packs that can be used as a small child carrier; left on a bridge post it added yet another beautiful blue to the forest landscape. But why would such a thing have been left by a woodland stream — I can only think that by some miracle, a child was carried in and then suddenly developed the ability to walk and toddled cheerfully out of the forest to the delight of its parents.
Jen stops to take a picture of a group of toadstools growing on a log by the path, and it occurs to me how colourful her jacket of Perfluorocarbons appears in a woodland setting, and I at once make a suggestion.
Back in the world where we don’t need to put a positive spin on just about everything, it occurs to me that if we aren’t that bothered about the dumping of plastics in the only natural space close to the city, then something as urgent as climate change; the destruction of natural ecosystems, and the threat of COVID-19, might prove us to be really too stupid to save ourselves.
Certainly it’s easier to look the other way, than fight the large scale indifference many of us have adopted. After all, who wants to face up to bad news and put a lot of effort into making things better when all we need is ignorance and a positive attitude. Let’s all go for a walk in the woods and in the face of what might now be insurmountable problems, go down indifferent but smiling.
October in the New Forestin Southern England is the time of the fallow deer rut and I thought this might be a good time to consider an unusual event that I witnessed exactly 20 years ago today in the early hours of the 19th October 2000.
It was shaping up to be an almost perfect New Forest morning; dawn was approaching, birds were singing and there wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb the air. Ideal conditions for sound recording I though, but still I picked up my camera bag from the back of the vehicle, doing my best to ignore the tape recorder: sound is frequently of secondary importance to cameramen — maybe it’s brain defect. I looked through the trees towards the horizon and instinctively knew the sun was coming up, but not in a meaningful way — a black bruise of cloud was moodily attempting to eliminate daytime altogether, and it seemed unlikely this was going to be the perfect day I was hoping for. For some time there wouldn’t be enough light to film anything, especially under the trees. Reluctantly I switched to the sound kit, but grabbed a stills camera as a comforter — stuffing it into my jacket.
Form many years I had been filming the fallow deer rut on the Forest, rising early through October in an attempt to get footage of the competing males followed by successful individuals mating with attendant does (mature females) these gathered close by the stand while the bucks battle for supremacy. When the bucks are evenly matched the event is quite a spectacle; and the sound of clashing antlers resonating across the forest as the sun comes up is spine tingling experience; and on this particular ‘lights out’ morning sound recording seemed my best option. It would also be a break from filming the activity which in the New Forest can be quite challenging.
Had I been working on this day with the benefit of a modern digital camera I would have certainly managed an exposure even in poor light, but back then film speeds were unforgiving; and to be honest the bracken was so tall on the site I was working, I could hardly see the fallow bucks when their heads were down and locked in battle.
Usually the biggest, strongest buck on a stand will win the opportunity to father offspring, and the most impressive bucks will usually hold the largest entourage of does as they come into season. When we use the term survival of the fittest, this kind of scenario is what we imagine, but natural selection has many faces, and it is difficult not to think of this fight for male dominance in terms of a brutal victory or defeat.
However, closer observation reveals that this really isn’t about damaging the competition, it is about demonstrating greater fitness, which encourage less well equipped bucks to stand down and live to fight another day when they might perhaps become better equipped to challenge as the dominant male. Usually a buck that is losing ground to an opponent will break away and leave the field of play. This is all very interesting to watch, but on rare occasions things can go wrong, with one buck inadvertently causing the death of another, but such events are very unusual and I’ve witnessed it only once.
Open oak woodland is easier to film in than under the pines.
Wildlife disturbance was a serious problem across the Forest even 20 years ago, especially for deer. I was once sat quietly by a stand when two dogs came rushing through, scattering the fallow in every direction. Two minutes later and older lady came down the ride on a fine horse. I walked out onto the ride and asked if she once had owned two dogs; she admitted that the dogs were hers and I pointed out where they had run through the deer and seriously disturbed them. “What deer?” she said. “There are no deer here”… And you bloody photographers are an absolute nuisance.” I found it hard to disagree and with her final comment Lady Marjorie Brain-Dead kicked her horse hard in the flanks and sped away into the distance.
On the day of the unusual event, to my great good fortune, there were no early morning dog walkers, and as I settled into the bracken, a buck immediately started to roar — although the noise is are more a series of deep resonant belches than a roar and can be quite unnerving if you’ve never heard it before. Then, a sudden sharp clatter of antlers to my left revealed a large pair of bucks, with their heads down and legs braced like two opposing teams in a rugby scrum, engaged is a serious game of push and shove; churning up the mud they were evenly matched and appeared to be getting nowhere. Occasionally they would break off to take stock of one another; then, dropping their heads again, they’d smash their antlers together with explosive force. Even in poor light I could see taut muscles straining across their shoulders and hind-quarters as they put every ounce of their strength into the battle. Then, suddenly, another couple of bucks started up behind me.
I had never witnessed two pairs of bucks battling in close proximity before, but today it happened — obvious because for once, I’d gone out into the natural world without my cine camera — but never mind — I had been in place for half an hour and there was still no light to speak of. A third equally impressive contest then started up way over under the pines in woodland 100 yards to my right; and t first I wasn’t much interested because this was a stand that I’d looked at before, and the bucks there had been young and very half-hearted about things. In any case my preference was to watching fallow beneath stands of oak trees where the forest had opened out a little and there was more light. This couple were in any case deep in the bracken and didn’t gain my full attention for about twenty minutes, until they eventually arrived where I was, and almost ran over me. I had realised there was something odd about them from the start, and I began to make sense of it: not once had they raised their heads to assess one another, and it was clear their antlers were locked: instead of attempting to gain advantage they were simply trying to break free, bouncing and whirling like energised toys equipped with those special batteries that never run down.
The the poor animal that went down as if by misfortune he’d been given the cheaper batteries that always let you down in a crisis. Neither buck had been aware of me, and so I moved closer, just in time to see the stricken buck rise up and slam against a tree; but this was now a puppet show, the fallen individual had no life of his own and was moving entirely under the control of his opponents strength, the dead dragged along by the living buck’s immense power. Then the standing buck saw me… more to the point he saw how close I was. I thought my presence might change the dynamic enough to startle the living animal into breaking free — bat stayed a fallow deer body length from the action (for obvious reasons). With a Herculean effort the big buck pulled his head up and to one side and then down, pivoting on his front legs he brought his whole body in an arc across his dead adversary and with that the antlers detached and the stricken body lay like a sack of dead meat on the ground, which is exactly what it had become. Despite the still poor light, I snapped a moody picture of the pair just as this occurred. The less artistic amongst us would describe the image as blurred… But I’d would call it atmospheric. The detached buck once free disappeared into the forest in an instant and I was left at the side of the ride with a corpse at my feet.
I suspected the dead buck had a broken neck, but I wasn’t sure; and I’ll admit my first thought wasn’t, ‘Does this meat belong to the queen’, but rather: “How can I get this animal into the back of my estate” parked as it was 50 metres back along the drive Then I suddenly remembered Woody Allen’s comic piece about shooting a moose in the woods after which he tied the body to his fender and drives home. The moose of course wakes up. Imagine then what might happen if a full sized fallow buck woke up inside rather than outside of your vehicle — probably not quite so funny when you’re driving along the M27. But it was never going to happen: I could just about lift the bucks head by his antlers – without a winch there was no chance that I could get the dead animal into my estate… So, there was a sudden change of plan.
So, I went off to visit the keeper who’s beat this was. He knew I was filming nearby, and this was his day off, but he was still pleased to see me… Until I told him my story and said that I really needed him to come and winch the dead buck into his vehicle. We could then take it back to his place, do an autopsy and try and work out exactly what had caused the buck to conk out under the stress he had suffered: fallow bucks don’t eat much, if they eat anything at all during the rut and their physical condition quite naturally deteriorates over a two or three week period, but seldom do they die. It was a long shot to find out and my friend was less than excited about the prospect of cutting up a dead animal on his day off, but he agreed and we took the buck back to one of his outbuildings to take a look at his insides.
The first thing we noticed was an external mark low on the buck’s thorax — this area was badly bruised, but the skin wasn’t pierced; most likely this injury was the result of a sharp prod from the point of an opponents antler. As a zoology student I had become interested in dissecting any dead animal that I happened to find, but through most of my adult life I’ve resisted the temptation to pick up every thing I come across that isn’t road kill, just to find out why it died — The ‘why’ of things has always interested me. This would be the largest animal I had worked on… And as I haven’t since stumbled across a recently deceased elephant… it still is — but there’s always time.
We cut intothe thorax very carefully, avoiding nerves and blood vessels and discovered the lungs to be intact and undamaged; but there was a bloody mark on the inside wall of the chest that lined up with the external mark that we had already noted and both marks lined up fairly well with what appeared to be minor damage to the lower tip of the heart.
It is impossible to say for certain, but it seemed likely that the blow the buck had suffered, might have been survivable, had he not locked into a prolonged tussle with another male. The match had gone on too long and most likely the unfortunate creatures heart had given out, and in that sense it might be considered to be a rare battle to the death.
Somewhere in the woods, the champion of this match might have been mating with does that this buck had paid the ultimate price for. There is perhaps a romantic notion that if he had not received a fatal injury, then he might have been the one carrying on his genetic line, but the temptation to say that he had died of a broken heart, even for the anthropomorphically minded, might prove to be a literal step too far.
The writer Lawrence Durrell once told his younger brother Gerald, that an interesting experience should never be wasted and should always find its way into his work; and the advice proved useful because Gerald Durrell would become one of the most popular writers of his generation. Certainly, he knew how to tell a good story, which encouraged me at an early age to read his travel books. Years later though there would be disappointment when I heard him say that what he had written had only been loosely based upon the truth. Naively I had thought that if a book was supposed to be factual then it should glide as close as is possible to the truth, otherwise we might just as well all be reading novels.
Nevertheless, as a child, Durrell’s descriptions of exotic places was inspirational, and pretty soon I began considering that maybe I too might become a naturalist, travelling to interesting places to watch interesting plants and animals do interesting things. But that was little more than wishful thinking, because I couldn’t imagine ever being able to raise enough money to fulfil such lofty ambitions. If I was going to get there I’d need to think creatively, because I knew it wouldn’t be easy to persuade other people to pay for my lifestyle choices. Whatever I did, it should at least look like a job. Given my interests, perhaps the most obvious approach was to work overseas as a wildlife film-maker and get television companies not only to pay for my experiences, but also to take care of the necessary expenses… But that would be easier said than done, and a completely different story.
My career as a wildlife film-maker was slow to start, but eventually things began to fall into place; and it wasn’t long before I began waking up in hotel rooms wondering quite literally, where on Earth I was. Then it occurred to me that to do this job properly I’d most likely have to get up very early and most likely miss breakfast – a desperate state of affairs. Then, later in the day, if plants and animals started doing interesting things I’d have to focus lenses and press camera buttons. It was devastating – I was quickly learning that not only was breakfast looking sketchy, but there was also no such thing as a free lunch.
When filming for the BBC everything I shot belonged to the Corporation, but my contracts arrived so late I hardly ever signed them, so maybe everything I filmed still belongs to me, even the stuff that has long since gone to the tip. Certainly, I owned all of the still photographs that were taken at the time, but these were usually grabbed and secondary to the filming – I had no illusions about my priorities.
As a freelancer I owned all my own gear, along with all the accumulated experiences that the job had to offer, and looking back, some were more extraordinary than I had realised at the time; unlike many other jobs the same thing rarely happened twice, and events were often difficult to predict. Retrospectively, apart from getting paid there was nothing about my working life that seemed normal, and in consequence I ended up with a great many of pictures and almost as many stories, but for years remained far too busy to put the two together.
My stills pictures were often requested for inclusion in books that related to whatever series I was working on at the time, but as the published work was separate from the filming I wasn’t obliged to offer up any of my stills; and as I never came across a publisher willing to pay a fair price for reproducing my images, I didn’t waste too much time searching out whatever they were asking for. But when I did relent, and send off transparencies (as the format was back then) they would usually get lost, or at the very least damaged – one was even returned to me cut in half and all were reproduced by being laid onto a sticky roller, so that if by some freak of circumstance any did get returned, they were invariably covered in goo. Nevertheless, I did search out a picture for the book based on the Durrell T.V. series ‘Ourselves and Other Animals’, because given how much Gerald Durrell’s early work had shaped my childhood it would have been churlish not to have given up a single picture.
As soon as I got my first stills camera, holding onto it became second nature – I rarely put the thing down. For some people photography is like a disease that never goes away: a bit like malaria: you get over it for a while but it keeps coming back. And now I’m discovering images that I barely glanced at when they first came back from the laboratory: most were immediately stacked away in boxes, and many have remained unseen from the day they were put away, in some cases decades ago. They are history now, but each one reminds me of an event that relates to a particular story.
And just as I was thinking about this I came to a box that said ‘Potoo in Brazil’ and as I began going through the various colour slides, the story and the pictures suddenly came together:
I was in South Brazil carrying my gear across a wide expanse of cerrado (natural grassland) just as the sun was coming up; which was nice because it had been cold: there where termite mounds dotting the landscape away into the distance and I was making my way towards them. Then up ahead, I saw something odd sitting on a weedy old broken stump – the only bit of wood for miles. Most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but I could see that the top of this broken off tree was sharp and lacking the decrepit woodiness of the weathered base below, it looked altogether rather odd.
I made my way towards what had once been a small tree that had probably been struck by lightening some years before, and was close before realising quite what I was looking at. On the top was an unusual bird doing a great impression of being something other than a potoo, which is the rather odd name this strange animal has been given.
I’d never seen one before, but by its general form it was clear this was a primitive looking creature related to birds called frog mouths, and also to nightjars, birds that I would occasionally see on ‘the New Forest’ heaths, close to my home when living in England – they would fly low at dusk to catch insects… but that was almost half a world away from where I was standing now.
The potoo is in the family Nyctibiidae, but this bird didn’t know it had a proper name and would have been just as much at home in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ doing absolutely nothing, whilst trying to appear more vegetable than animal; and the way the head was pointing vertically up, it was clear that this strange bird was taking being the top of a dead tree stump very seriously indeed.
Clearly the first thing I needed to do was to photograph it, because the bird’s cryptic form was obviously a behavioural adaptation that allowed it to avoid being seen by both predators and prey. That in itself was interesting, but not really the stuff of movies. It occurred to me the potoo was totally confident that I couldn’t see it and was determined to sit tight, at least for the time being. So, I decided that the next thing to do was run the camera and walk straight up to the tree stump and see what it would do next. In no other circumstance would I walk straight up to a wild bird – to do so would certainly cause a disturbance, but this was a potoo and its behaviour suggested that it might just sit tight rather than take flight… and as it turned out, moving was the very last thing on its mind.
I was fairly steady back then and could hand-hold a camera without jiggling it about, the secret is to relax and keep everything moving and once close to your subject, avoid stepping forward, or over compensating for any instability – you should just lean in; but when a camera has a wide angle lens up front, it is surprising how much of a bird’s head will remain in frame when you do. I ended up very close, but kept looking through the view finder… and still the bird didn’t react. This was a bit of an anti-climax; clearly something would need to change if things were going to become interesting; presently, as a movie shot it was totally pointless – I should perhaps have though this through more thoroughly. There was nothing here that would make this work unless the bird reacted, and in one sense I was pleased the bird hadn’t been disturbed, but way out in the middle of nowhere, this potoo probably wasn’t going to see another human being for months, and if it did decide to fly to another perch I doubted it would be a tremendous drain on its resources. Probably the bird would simply glide a short distance to a termite mound and sit tight again, but the potoo wasn’t about to do that, and now I was almost touching it….
I was aware the potoo knew I was there, because even with its eyes closed the lids allowed enough light through for the bird to see – it was important for the creature to keep its eyes hidden because once revealed they were all too obvious.
And just when I thought I might be about to break the most important rule of wildlife film-making, and bump into a bird, the potoo finally reacted, turning it’s broad head towards me and quite suddenly flashing open the two delicate lids to reveal a pair of starling greenish-yellow eyes; then it gaped its beak as wide as it could manage to display a startling pinkish-purple mouth interior, which even through the viewfinder appeared quite shocking. For a moment the whole lens seemed to be going down the bird’s throat as the potoo held its beak at maximum aperture for what seemed an eternity. Then having exhausted the full shock value of doing this, it suddenly snapped its bill shut – and did so without scratching the front element of my camera lens, or catching my fingers. This was a bonus to what had been a wonderful display. I gently pulled back and the potoo returned to invisible mode, once again certain that I could not see it.
Now, I’d managed this startling shot, it occurred to me I didn’t have the faintest idea how it might be used. I’d already done some wide shots, but hadn’t established any context to tell a story – there was no natural reason for the bird to behave in this way. If I was to play a predator instigating a second line of defence, how could this be used successfully in a natural history film if in terms of the story telling, I wasn’t supposed to be there and there was no obvious predator. The shot was just a curiosity that would never make it into a programme…. and as I carried on doing the many other things I had to do, this interesting event dropped to the back my mind. But, when much later the producer and editor saw the shot, they weren’t expecting the gape any more than I was, and were determined to use it… the only way to do this, was in a ‘making of the series’ programme: it would become a ‘See what happened to our cameraman moment, when he approached this odd looking stick’ in David Attenborough’s ‘The Making of the Living Planet’ which was transmitted at the end of the ‘Living Planet’ series. I didn’t need to appear on screen because the story was all in the telling of the bird’s odd behaviour from the perspective of the viewer. As for the potoo… The bird had become famous for 15 seconds, but wouldn’t have known anything about it, and I got the feeling that if it had, this strange creature wouldn’t have been the least bit bothered. Potoos just do what potoos have to do – no more, no less. They’re fabulous when they’re doing absolutely nothing, then suddenly extraordinary when doing quite a lot more – and usually when you’re least expecting it.
Dedicated to John Gordon who takes lovely pictures of birds.
I’d like to think that the most democratic countries have been the best at controlling COVID-19, but this would not be true, although there is no doubt that China did a great job at under reporting the severity of its outbreak, claiming that any suggestion that this was a problem originating out of China as racist. There was little about the way China reported on its outbreak that would help other countries to prepare.
In the U.K. by 8th April over 60,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 7,000 deaths as a result of the virus. At the peak of the problem the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care, and the good news is that he is showing signs of improvement. It is a little over a couple of months since the first confirmed case in Britain and today alone there have been 938 hospital deaths with 5,492 new cases announced; although there is a claim that infection numbers have increased because more people are now being tested… and a fair response to that would be: testing? Not before time.
This is a very different world from the one where we were wishing our friends a happy 2020 back in January. For many of us, staying at home has so far been voluntary, but last weekend it was sunny and springlike in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere and against official advice quite a numbers of people were out and about with a minority of Brits refusing to conform to anything that felt like an intrusion of personal freedoms. They knew that if they went out for a wander, nobody was going to shoot them – which is a pity: and I’ll leave that sentence as it is… ambiguous. Unfortunately, some things don’t change – there will always be people who don’t have the discipline to act appropriately, and potentially set back the slowing of COVID-19 infections.
France, has a similar problem: on the 7th of April the lockdown became more severe – the first case in France occurred a little over 10 weeks ago, but by the 7th April the death toll had passed 10,000. That was the figure for Italy almost a week ago and there are claims that the French figures have been distorted, with numbers far higher than official figures. France is now one of the hardest hit European countries. Spain’s death toll has passed 14,000, although both Italy and Spain appear to be at the point where infections are beginning to slow.
But how did South Korea, one of the earliest countries to be hit by the virus, manage the disease so much better than many of the Europe countries, limiting the disease so far, to less than 10,500 infections and 200 deaths. This might well have been aided by experiencing an outbreak of the MERS virus in 2018, but more likely it is down to the way things are organised in South Korea. The country has a very good healthcare infrastructure which isa plus; and there is a centralised control of decision making and that has been key to getting things done. The country tracked infected citizens in an authorised manner by monitoring locations for cell phones and credit cards. We are told in the west that such a thing would be impossible, unless of course somebody is trying to sell us something, but when done for public health reasons it is an infringement of personal liberties.
Obviously, the South Korean approach would not work everywhere, and in the long term the disease will re-emerge because so few people have so far been infected – you can’t have it all ways; but if anything is to be learnt from this method, it is that a TEST, TRACE and QUARANTINE policy really does work, although many other countries have failed to do this effectively. The best part of the story is that when things started to go badly wrong, South Korea put scientists in charge, and once clear on what needed to be done they acted swiftly, without any kick back from members of the public advocating all the various alternatives to science based decision making. Alternatives to common sense might be absorbed under normal circumstance, but when thousands of people’s lives depend upon governments making reliable decisions on a daily basis, there’s no time for nonsense; and any fool that refuses to make minor short term lifestyle changes to allow others to stay alive, demonstrates about as much discriminatory ability as the virus that the authorities are trying to contain.
In many places in the world, you might think that things can’t get worse, but not if you live in the U.S.A.. It is difficult to find a better example of what dithering can achieve when dealing with a rapidly spreading viral infection; a problem largely ignored during the early stages of the outbreak. In the U.S. there are necessary checks and balances to ensure democracy, but when decisions have to be made at both Federal and State level, results often lack a co-ordinated approach, and during a rapidly moving emergency as is the case with COVID-19, things don’t always go smoothly. Lacking almost any form of control, the virus sensed its freedom and quickly took off. It didn’t have a green card, but moving so fast, easily avoided apprehension. The virus just wasn’t tested and in consequence the U.S. is on the same trajectory for the infection as Italy was a few weeks ago, and will certainly pass it, which to say the least is unfortunate.
The U.S. has experienced a broad range of criticism over its dealings with the pandemic. Florida disease expert Dr. Dena Grayson made the point that the first case of Covid-19 in South Korea occurred on exactly the same day as the first case in the U.S. Jan 20th 2020. While South Korea had its first tests for the disease approved in a week, the U.S. spent most of February wasting time. Countries that have got onto testing early and in high numbers, have been winning the battle because they have a handle on what they are dealing with: knowing who is infected, the rate of infection, and where it is occurring allows the disease to be targeted. Acting without testing is like stumbling around in the dark; worse than that, it is like stumbling around in the dark in the Dark Ages… Getting testing up and running in the U.S. has been slow, and contributed to the spread and general lack of control of the virus in many parts of the country. But more recently President Trump started talking less about the economy and getting people back to work, and more about dealing with the virus, when previously he had down played the problems – hopefully this won’t have come too late to make a difference.
Certainly things are fairly dire with 10,000 deaths by 6th April. On 8th April 8th the daily figure for deaths in New York state alone hit 799, with almost 2,000 Americans across the country dying on a single day… The same day President Trump swung back to his old approach as he made further comments about opening up the country for business, His advisers said that it was far too soon to loosen up restrictions, and are waiting to see what the President will say next; and it probably isn’t unfair to say that his message on the COVID-19 crisis has become increasingly erratic.
The U.K. like many other places around the world has gone for the personal distancing and isolation for those who are vulnerable or display symptoms, but early on, there was a more relaxed approach. The suggestion was that if enough people were to become infected, ‘herd immunity’ would slow the rate of infection and with less people available to infect, and the infection would drop away; but it soon became clear that with more people getting ill, the health service was likely to become overwhelmed. Britain already had the example if Italy, which was well ahead of other European contries with its stage of infection; and at home intensive care really did mean intensive and often prolonged care, which would become unsustainable as the number of cases increased. It was apparent that some countries had too few respirators and difficult decisions were being made on who lived, and who died. This didn’t go unnoticed by British politicians and there was a sudden change of policy. Maybe there really was an awareness that once an infection rate starts to climb the steep end of an exponential growth curve, ‘things fall apart’ but the decision making might have been more complicated than that, although if they just followed the science it probably didn’t need to be.
The virus was a little slower getting to some parts of the world; and this was the case for Nigeria, where preparations were being made long before it arrived; especially in Lagos, which has around 20 million inhabitants, and is the most populated city in Africa.
In the capital city, one in three households live in poverty which makes dealing with any contagious disease difficult. This is true for any country that has large numbers of people living in close proximity to one another with poor sanitation, problems with clean water, and otherwise difficult conditions. In such places COVID-19 could prove devastating as local infrastructures prove inadequate when dealing with such a virulent disease. There is also a high probability that such locations could become reservoirs for COVID-19, with outbreaks continuing for years into the future.
We learn from every viral infection that has gone before. In 2009, a new flu virus emerged and was given the name (H1N1)pdm09, it would became a pandemic. This flu variation showed up in a form quite different from the H1N1 virus that had been circulating previously, but despite the differences older people appeared to have some immunity to it, perhaps because of previous exposure to the H1N1 virus earlier in their lives, and the disease would primarily infect younger people who had not had the same exposure to the H1N1 virus. Retrospectively, we can see trends with most viral diseases, but when a new one crops up, or returns in a slightly different form, it can be difficult to predict outcomes. One of the options is to closely watch a disease in its early stages, and extrapolate the numbers that the course of infection throws up and act accordingly.
Flattening the Curve.
With infections of COVID-19 doubling every three days both in the U.K. and elsewhere it became clear that if the virus was allowed to run its course without resistance it would overwhelm health services and make dealing with the virus impossible. The solution was to flatten the curve. i.e. to spread the number of infections over a longer period of time to avoid losing control. The policy required people to wash their hands, keep a distance from one other, and for the most vulnerable and the infected to self-isolate for several weeks, thus starving off opportunities for the infection to reach a new hosts. In Figure 1 an individual works away to flatten the curve. Above the red line, high numbers of infections will overwhelm the health service in a short period of time and put hard pressed health workers at greater risk of infection.
If the number of infections can be spread, keeping the curve below the red line as in Figure 2, the load will be reduced and make dealing with the disease more manageable.
On 20/3/20 bars and restaurants were closed in Britain encouraging people to keep their distance from one another – stay at home was the message. But around the world not everybody was listening to government advice. On the other side of the world large numbers of people were out and about in close proximity, enjoying themselves on Bondi beach. Perhaps embarrassed by the publicity, the New South Wales authoritie -, within a few hours of the story emerging – closed beach access. Then came the news that the day after tighter restrictions in the U.K., people had responded by going out in Bank Holiday numbers to beaches all around Britain, with Brighton, Bridlington and Skegness especially busy. People were also travelling from heavily populated areas to remote locations such as the Highlands of Scotland in an attempt to escape the virus, potentially bringing the disease with them. Initially the message wasn’t getting through – clearly some people weren’t taking the crisis seriously and valuable days were lost while government went about trying to provide a clearer message on why in the short term a lifestyle change was necessary. By the beginning of April a sunny weekend became irresistible for some, and ‘the rules’ might need to be more rigorously enforced in future, especially at Easter, when the continued efforts of the majority could so easily be compromised.
Maybe there’s a simple way to explain why we all have to modify our behaviours to combat COVID-19, because when simple arithmetic begins to look like maths, nobody wants to know, although in the U.S. it’s math, which makes it even more singularly dull. So, consider a hypothetical viral disease similar to COVID-19: the number of people infected by the disease doubles every three and a half days and it is most infective during the first week after entering a new host, where it gets busy shedding rapidly to optimise the chances of entering other hosts. Under these circumstances a person infected by the disease will infect two other people over the course of a week, and those two people will each infect two others during the second week, and so on as the disease progresses.
For no better reason than vulnerable people in Britain have been advised to isolate themselves for three months, let’s run the course of the disease over the same period and assume a vulnerable person comes out of isolation on week 13. If I was superstitious I’d describe this as the unlucky week, especially if the vulnerable person was to meet up with a ‘couldn’t care less infected individual running in a direct line of transmission from the original source.
Here’s how it goes: Harry is a bit of a twit and doesn’t like following rules; against government advice he’ll take his chances of getting infected. Harry is out and about and he doesn’t care: on the beach one day, in the park another, and drinking with friends in social gatherings. He has the virus in his system but shows no symptoms – the surprise is he infects only two people during his first week of carrying the disease and that’s how things start.
Over the course of twelve weeks Harry’s indifferent behaviour sets off a a progression of infections for which he is the only source; the infection of other individuals progresses week by week starting from the initial 2 infections in the first week, which creates 4 infections the second week, and so on. 4 becomes 8, 8 becomes 16 then 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, and by the unlucky 13th week, Harry has been responsible for 8,192 infections. Fortunately, the death rate is only at 1% of those infected – I have been generous because The World Heath Organisation gives a figure of 3.4% for COVID-19, but I’m thinking it might not be that high because there must be a lot of people infected who are not aware, due to a general lack of testing in so many places; and there must be a good numbers of people walking around who never get to a hospital. So, with the theoretical disease Harry has killed only 80 people and that’s well above what most serial killers will manage. Infact you’d probably have to go to war to kill that many people and get away with it. If it was as high as 3.4% Harry would be responsible for the deaths of 272 people
What if you were as irresponsible as Harry but you infected 3 people in a week rather than two, and things went on at that rate, tripling up rather than doubling up – a transmission rate that by some estimates would be low for Covid-19. The series would run: 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, 288, 864, 2,592, 7776, 23,328, 69,984, 209,952 and if things went on another week, that would push the figure up to nearly half a million. With a death rate of 1% over just the 13 weeks there would be over 2000 people dead. What if 4 people were infected each week?… Perhaps it does make sense to avoid other people for a while…
I will admit to a hole in this model. There will be people not going out in an effort to avoid Harry and other people like him, and so the more people who are behaving responsibly the less contacts Harry will make, but nevertheless amongst Harry’s friends, it isn’t too difficult to infect 2 people over the course of a week. Nevertheless, people distancing themselves from others will starve the disease and the number of people catching the virus will drop significantly. This is the reason models come in for so much criticism, they appear to be all over the place, with the predictive number of infections varying from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands, this not because the model is wrong, but because figures can change dramatically when small changes are made early in the progression of the disease. If we don’t get our behaviours right, the number of infections possible are sobering and demonstrates that simply doing the right thing can make a huge difference; and my figures might be regarded as low – to keep things simple I’ve only considered the number of new infections at the end of the 13 week period and not added in all the previous infections as the process moved along ( i.e. the overall total infection number). The same is also the case for the number of deaths.
We could get bogged down with many other aspects of the disease, but for our purposes, all we essentially need to know is the rate of infection, which to some degree depends on how infective the virus is and how we might reduce its spread by our good behaviours. It would obviously be useful to know exactly who is infected and what percentage of the infected are dying, but beyond knowing how many people are behaving irresponsibly, most of the figures are out there, and it’s up to our governments to assess them and implement effective policies to reduce the number of infections and deaths as effectively as possible. We essentially are just the fuel in the equation – numbers on the graph – and need to stay off of the page if we possibly can.
Test, test, test has been the mantra of the World Heath Organisation, and some governments have been hopelessly ineffective at doing so (Ontario has the highest number of cases of COVID-19 and the lowest testing rates of all the Provinces in Canada…. Is that a coincidence?). In so many countries, as individuals, we need to stay out of circulation for a while – it’s the very least we can do for medical staff who’s lives we put at risk when failing to do so. Staying indoors for most of the day is inconvenient, but it’s better than being dead or causing the death of others.
Saving the Economy Versus Slowing the Disease – Let’s Look at It Another Way.
There’s a pilot with a dilemma. He has taken a small party of people to do business in a remote area of jungle and has to fly them home in a light aircraft. The plane takes off with everybody on board, but pretty soon the aircraft’s engine begins to misfire and the pilot wonders if he should perhaps land on one of the occasional small airstrips still available below and fix the engine; but he knows the businessmen need to get back, and so he flies on. Suddenly the engine begins to misfire very badly and the pilot reconsiders what he should do because the airfields are beginning to thin out now; but he thinks first and foremost of the businessmen knowing he must get them back to their busy lives of doing business and he flies on. But, he hasn’t flown much further when he begins to notice that there are now fewer airfields below just as the engine suddenly catches fire and begins to fail. By great good fortune the pilot sees one last airfield up ahead… he knows exactly what he must do…… he flies on.
For those entrusted with saving the economy it should be apparent that when dealing with an exponentially growing threat, the best policy is to fight that threat as early as possible, never underestimating the power that could be unleashed if you don’t, because when that happens, the price can be very high.
And maybe it’s worth remembering that money isn’t real, it’s value depends on whatever we convince ourselves it’s worth, whereas death isn’t negotiable. It might be that we have to adjust our economies to line up with the natural circumstances we are all living through, instead of allowing the majority to suffer when the loan sharks decide that it’s payback time. Once through the pandemic we might be forced to live in ways that are less damaging to the environment, even though history demonstrates that major disasters do not in the long term halt our Carbon emissions; and there is no guarantee that the future will demonstrate that we have learnt anything useful from the problems we are now facing.
I appreciate the hardship caused to people who have been prohibited from working, but in part this situation is the fault of the many governments that have let things ride, hoping they could get away with it. They pushed their luck and they failed.
In fairness, COVID-19 is new to us and nobody can be absolutely sure at which point we might have done better as we were passed through it; but the figures should have provided at least an inkling, and at times it seems as if many minds have been busy elsewhere.
We haven’t been dealing with some abstract existentialist threat: just like the world’s airlines, this has been a grounded event – an exponentially growing disaster with nothing hidden from view. If only more politicians had recognised the danger signs earlier than they have, because many of the answers were sitting there quietly in the arithmetic – just waiting to be discovered.
Although most of us now have some idea of how to behave in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, few of us understand how ‘the thing’ really operates, but we can still glean information from the freely available daily figures. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of politicians who don’t understand the virus very well either, despite having access to expert advice and a lot more information. One wonders if perhaps they had spoken more regularly to immunologist rather than economist, whether things would be different now, standing as we are on the pandemic side of the infection – somewhere quite different from that ‘nothing to worry about’ place that many of us were sleepwalking through all those days ago… way back in February!
Facing the lack of political direction some countries are experiencing, it is no bad thing to take an analytical approach rather than just adopting an opinion. Opinions can be interesting, but everything makes more sense when approached from an evidence based perspective.
There have been three ways to go with the COVID-19 pandemic and the approach has varied from country to country.
1: Herd Immunity: Let people get infected and when a large percentage of the population has developed immunity the disease will drop away.
Several countries started out with this approach but abandoned it when rates of infection began to rise and put health services in danger of being overwhelmed. Sweden has held on to one version, but it’s less a ‘herd immunity’ policy, than a watered down version of self distancing, with children still at school, small businesses operating, and no travel restrictions. It might have worked out because Sweden has a low population, but there could be other reasons – perhaps even the cool Scandinavian approach to greeting one another has played its part; but as infections begin to rise, there is pressure building for a more rigorous approach to dealing with the virus.
2. Personal distancing, isolation of the most vulnerable, and in extreme cases a total lock down: people will still get the disease, but the infection rate will slow enough to allow medical services to cope. Britain started with 1. found it difficult to hold infection rates to manageable levels and switched to 2.
3. The South Korean and Taiwanese approach has been to combine technology with contact tracing, and use and aggressive strategy to limit the number of infections – this works well where people can be relied upon to follow instructions, but it doesn’t work everywhere. The danger is that the population will not get a high percentage immunity and the disease will returns from outside at a later date.
Only time will tell which approach gives the best results, but there is an indication that, in the end, all will lead to a similar outcome: rates of infection will vary, and the results come at different times. As yet, nobody knows what will happen, and there’s always a chance the disease could just run out of steam and disappear entirely, but as yet, shows no signs of doing so.
Things we should know when thinking ourselves through the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is helpful to know what is sometimes termed ‘the percentages’ to get a better understanding of how an infection runs. Although it doesn’t apply to all contagious diseases, a basic plan of fifths is a model applicable to many, and appears to work for COVID-19. The general rule for those infected is that four fifths will show trivial symptoms but still be contagious; one fifth will show more severe symptoms and one fifth of those with more severe symptoms will be in a serious life threatening situation.
Viral load doesn’t have so much arithmetic about it, but it is relevant, especially to medical workers. With other infective disease, it has been noticed that the first person in a family to contract a contagious disease will sometimes show less severe symptoms than others members of the family who later become infected. The suggestion is that the level of a virus contracted can increase the severity of an infection. If this story proves to be more than just anecdotal, it might explain why health workers are at such great risk, especially when intubating patients (inserting and removing a tube into the trachea to aid breathing). At such times they are subjected to high levels of the virus. This merits a mention because so many health workers have been poorly provisioned with adequate protective clothing which is entirely unacceptable, considering how long some authorities have had to prepare.
Go back a few generations and consider the affects on our world of such activities as burning coal, oil use and rapidly increasing human population – they all looked very different when our ancestors were standing lower on the curve, well before the steep climb that typifies exponential. Back then many might have rejected ominous predictions about the future based upon the way things were looking, but somebody reading the figures correctly could have accurately predicted the problems that we are now facing. The same might be said for COVID-19, as the spread of the disease has been growing exponentially, but when the virus started out, it didn’t sit on the lower slopes for very long, but immunologist were still able to predict from a very early stage where things were heading, while many a less well informed individual, didn’t anticipate any problems.
One of the graphs above, shows the U.S. death rate from COVID-19 through March 2020, and another, the release of C02 into the atmosphere between 1800 to 2020: both look exactly the same but they have nothing in common, other than being examples of exponential growth. With the CO2 graph I’ve ignored figures prior to 1800, to make the similarity clearer, but we shouldn’t make a habit of ignoring data, because cherry picking is a frequent misuse of statistical analysis to re-enforce selective points of view. Here it has been done only to demonstrate the shape of a curve with no intention to deceive.
Because COVID-19 kicked off with a vengeance from absolutely nothing and there is consequently no gentle rise of the lower slope of the curve for the U.S. Covid 19 figures, I have added ‘A STANDARD EXPONENTIAL’ curve which is often called the hockey stick curve. This indicates a calmer foothills slope, where the signs of exponential growth can still be read and what lies ahead is easily predictable. The question is whether the problem gets picked up and recognised as the get out of jail card it can sometimes be.
Sadly, by the time of writing (around 5th April), deaths in Britain caused by COVID-19 began to show a progression that looks exactly like most other exponential growth curves. Go back to the 22nd March when the figures were far lower and you might not predict what was to come. Unless they were reading the numbers, and might have been surprised by the steep rise to follow. 30th March: 180/ 31st:38/ 1st April: 563/ 2nd: 569/ 4th: 708/ 5th: 621. The way things have run elsewhere that have shown similar infection rates, the likelihood is that infections and deaths will slow over the next week or so, the numbers are about to plateau but exactly when will to some degree depend on public behaviour. If people continue to stay at home and bring down infection numbers it will certainly make a longterm difference – longterm being only a couple of weeks now as we live through the new reality of virus time.
Any of us can get daily figures on this disease for almost anywhere in the world; the death rate in particular is difficult to misrepresent – although when people die outside of hospital they are not always recorded as a COVID-19 case. Certainly in the U.K. there hasn’t been widespread testing of the general population, and without that it is difficult to assess who is infected; and it skews the percentages in relation to the number of people dying (the death rate is what it is, but the infection rate is probably higher than reported); and this general lack of essential knowledge about the disease is disconcerting.
Nevertheless, predictions for the rate of COVID-19 infections have been easy to make by simply interpreting the day to day figures we do have, as any error in the records will remain constant and make it possible to extrapolate the graphs appropriately. Sadly, many elected officials ignored the finer details of the growth rate and were slow to take action, and this had an affect on the infection rate at a later stage of the disease. Either, they didn’t understand the horrors that an exponential curve represents, or they were wishful thinkers, hoping for better outcomes.
Even the most optimistic amongst us must at some stage face reality: with infection numbers doubling every three to four days it should have been obvious that infection rates would get out of hand unless there was a rapid response: which might include social distancing, self isolation, some form of treatment or a vaccine, although the latter two options are presently unavailable. It is difficult not to feel that in both the U.K. and to a greater extent the U.S., authorities were slow to recognise the exponential nature of the disease, even when they had a clear model of what was likely to occur by observing countries like Italy that were already going through a later stage of the infection. The U.S. had at least a two week jump on some of the countries in Europe, but whatever the case, many countries did not prepare adequately .
There are many examples of exponential growth that are important to us, in particular those relating to the environment, there wouldn’t be a problem if space and resources were unlimited; certainly we run our economies as if this were the case, ignoring the absolute reality that we are living in a finite world. Now we are troubled by the steep ends of so many exponential curves, with doubling times arriving so quickly and numbers so massive, the likelihood that if we can continue the way we are drastic changes with be forced upon us, and some are already suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic is a sombre reminder of how vulnerable we are.
In the natural world biological systems often run in cycles with a complex web of feed back mechanisms to limit any one thing from throwing the system out of balance. Since the development of our various technologies, humans have to varying degrees been living outside of the general rules imposed by natural systems; but we can’t control everything – there are chinks in the armour of our existence and it won’t be the last time we come under attack from a micro-organisms such as COVID-19. Viruses are reasserting nature’s influence and we’re learning lessons from a simple parasitic organism we cannot see, that is benefiting enormously from our close social interactions and high population numbers, and with deadly consequences.
Immunologists have been waiting for the inevitable, and now it has arrived we should be taking advice from those who saw it coming. This we are told is a hundred year event, but immunologists know better – our lifestyles are very different from the way they were a hundred years ago. Our population, relentless consumption, and ability to travel almost anywhere in the World have combined to make us vulnerable, and if a novel virus had hands we’d be playing right into them. It should be no surprise that we are battling a pandemic; with this perhaps an indicator of the kind of wars we will be fighting in the future.
The last pandemic occurred in 1918, it was caused by a bird related H1N1 virus incorrectly named Spanish flu – and it was never cured, never seen – there were no electron-microscopes back then. This was like no flu ever experienced. In a worst case scenario, a person might feel unwell at breakfast and be dead before their evening meal, but despite its virulent nature the disease eventually burnt itself out, having infected some 500 million people, and caused some 50 million deaths. Every viral infection has its own signature: this one carried off the most youthful and healthy wherever they gathered together, with young men fighting together during the 1st World War especially vulnerable; but this terrible toll on humanity was soon to pass from collective memory. When I was a child, remembering Two World Wars was an oppressive part of life in Britain, but there was never any mention of the virulent and deadly influenza that killed many more people than had died in the First and Second World Wars put together. From an American perspective it killed more U.S. citizens than all of the wars fought by the United States through the entire 20th Century and yet we have chosen to ignore it.
A novel disease like COVID-19 can start from a single infection, and because the new host (in this case, us) has no developed resistance, the infection rate can increase exponentially. How much slower the rate of growth would be if the virus reproduced over the same time period as we do – say 25 years per generation. If we had that kind of time we’d undoubtedly defeat such a disease in its early stages, but viruses work on a different schedule: they have places to be and a natural ability to get there shockingly fast – so we need to move fast to.
Once Inside the human body, infective viruses are usually in a rush to double their numbers by dividing, and this leads to our next point of arithmetic interest – infection rates, which are measures of how frequently the virus can be successfully transmitted to other individuals. With COVID-19 infections double up every three or four days, in the U.K.. It took 13 days to go from 1 death to 100. 10 days to go from 100 to 1,000. There are only 5 numbers here; usually far too few to come to a conclusion about anything, but these numbers tell us an awful lot. I could complicate the issue by claiming that after another 4 days COVID-19 had infected another 1,000 people… but that’s predictable… so I won’t bother.
The Ro Value
is the Basic Reproduction Number (or Ratio). Such numbers are usually based on models and often quite specific in their use. We might think of the Ro Number as a general measure of infection, but that’s not quite right; the Ro number cannot for example be modified by vaccines, and is mostly used as a way to ascertain if a disease is developing in a population. If the Ro value is less than 1, the disease will not be spreading because it is in decline, but above 1 the infection will be growing, and the larger the Ro value, the more difficult the disease will be to control. There are other factors when considering how fast a disease can spread, the numbers of people in a population that are vulnerable, there are many factors, but none of them stop an Ro value from being a useful indication of how an infection is spreading.
If we see an Ro figure of 2 then it is rather like watching cell division in a petri dish i.e the growth is doubling up in an exponential manner and after less than a dozen doubling ups the numbers begin to get quite large and the disease may become difficult to control. Whether or not a disease becomes a problem depends on many things, the most obvious being how a disease is spread and how frequently that occurs. Ebola had an Ro of 2 and I’ve considered this disease in a previous article. The Ro for Covid-19 has been given during its history as having values that range from 2 to 3, sometimes 4 and quite a lot in between. All we need to know is that the higher the value the bigger the problem and that ascertaining an Ro number early on is important when estimating a diseases progress.
Dispelling the ‘Don’t Worry It’s Just Like Flu’ Myth.
The death rate of seasonal flu we know is typically around 0.1%. but during the early stages of the infection in mainland China the death rate for COVID-19 was estimated at anything between 0.4 to 2.9%; and as the virus could infect between 50 to 80% of a population very quickly, and there was no vaccine or cure, the situation was potentially very serious.
On 24th March a worried Governor Andrew Cuomo said that it was coming across the U.S. like a bullet train as N.Y. cases topped 25,000 with 200 deaths – he didn’t use the term exponential growth, but did say the rate of infection was doubling every 3 days. New York was Ill prepared for the onslaught and the Governor was understandably worried. You don’t need to be an epidemiologist to know the difference between seasonal flu and COVID-19, the former doesn’t put your health service into total breakdown but COVID-19 can do so in a matter of days, particularly when the infection rate is climbing the steep part of that exponential curve – and you don’t have to dither very long before experienceing the full force of the disease.
It’s a Matter of Life or Death:
This has been a time when Governments needed to interpret available information, make decisions and then act very quickly, but they haven’t always done so. Computer simulations have been of great importance in the process, but many indicators of the path that should be taken have been ignored. In the U.K. ex-government minister Phillip Lee has spoken about a computer simulation of a pandemic undertaken a few years ago in order to inform government strategy, utilising an outbreak of a virus similar to SARS. One of the results of the exercise was that it indicated, even when there were both treatments and a vaccine available, there would not be enough ventilators for the predicted number of patients. The obvious question is: why the government didn’t react to this important information? Most likely there was a belief that the chances of a SARS like pandemic was low, but when COVID-19 kicked off, why wasn’t there a more rapid reaction to the emergency? Certainly it has been shameful that very basic supplies of protective masks, goggles and clothing have been in short supply and very limited testing even of medical staff for the virus. This to most people is unacceptable; health workers on the front line need more than just a round of applause. Having witnessed the outbreak in Italy, and even earlier when the virus became a problem in China, there was time to react, but preparations for the spread of the virus were unacceptably slow.
In Britain there was further criticism because testing is essential for monitoring the spread of the disease and it has failed to do this adequately, even when the disease was running up the steep end of the exponential curve. Some countries have been more efficient in their dealings with the threat. Germany for example was setting up testing labs fairly early on, but Britain did not react as quickly, and put all their efforts into a single dedicated lab – this to ensure standardisation of testing, in preference to using university and other laboratories around the country that had volunteered help. The government project then had problems accessing chemical reagents required for their tests because these weren’t purchased early enough. In consequence the system hasn’t been moving fast enough to deal with even the most basic number of tests – they soon might though, as help has now been accepted from some of those other labs, but it could all be coming rather too late.
Both of these stories came out on the same day that Britain reported 563 deaths from Covid-19. It was April 1st All Fools Day – unfortunately the virus moved with great speed, but of course governments are not usually so good at doing that and the result almost certainly will be be a greater loss of life. A thoughtful person might be wondering how we will look back on this predictable situation that got very much out of hand. Maybe it just hasn’t been a fair fight – the virus has been efficient and has moved very fast, while governments in general… Well, perhaps not so much.
Now is not the time to draw too many conclusions, but at some stage, after we’ve worked out exit strategies from the present pandemic (and that’s a whole other story in itself), there will have to be questions asked. The next time a pandemic occurs, which if nothing much changes is a certainty, we must be better prepared for the fight. We owe that much at the very least to all of those who have so far lost their battle with this deadly enemy.
Next: COVID-19. Simple Arithmetic and the ‘Economy First’ Delusion. PART 2.
The Chinese have an insatiable desire for pangolin scales, with the creature’s meat a delicacy. Years ago a Chinese friend joked that if it moved, the Chinese will eat it, which sounded racist even back in 1985, but I couldn’t help myself and said, ‘Just like the French.” We both laughed, but not as loudly as the Belgian standing next to us. We were beneath the shade of a big old tree in Central Africa, with there was nobody around to get offended on somebody else’s behalf. I was trying to buy the python my Chinese friend was fattening up in a sack under his house – he said it would make good soup, but I’m fond of snakes and was doing my best to keep the creature alive. The reptile had grown large and my friend had decided to present it to me just before I flew out on a light aircraft – with a pilot who was extremely concerned, but he needn’t have worried, the reptile escaped without my help. Had I taken the creature on board I might have claimed this the inspiration for ‘Snakes on a Plane’, but there was no chance of that now we’d escaped a potential disaster… It was quite the reverse from how things are today with the recently emerged coronavirus getting on a planes and proving itself infinitely more deadly than any reptile, travelling as it would in the respiratory systems of passengers, almost unnoticed – apart from a few raised temperatures and irritating coughs. This enterprising virus would get to almost any location that a human might decide to travel, and do so very quickly. Persistent and infectious this mutant coronavirus would make any snake related disaster imaginable seem like a minor inconvenience.
The new infection would soon to be taken seriously enough to be given its own name, COVID-19, officially known as ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2‘, or SARS-CoV-2 because it is related to the first SARS virus – an outbreak of which occurred in 2003. Initial reports suggested that it had originated from a cobra, but snakes are not closely related to our species making them an unlikely source for a human variant; far more likely that it came from a mammal.
When a coronavirus crossed over to become Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS CoV) in 2002-2003, it produced a severe form of pneumonia which probably originated from a live animal market in Guangdong – the bat population from which the syndrome was thought to originate was however only about 1 kilometre from the nearest village and the virus also remains viable for a time in bat droppings and with transmission to other mammals the route it took to enter a human host is still open to question. Nevertheless it rapidly became a problem because humans do not have any developed resistance to new infections that arise from mutated forms that suddenly adopt us as a host.
The SARS virus was found to be present in Rhinolophus bats, the Asian palm civet and a variety of other small mammals – and because of its association with the virus the civet was soon to become persecuted. But wild animals carrying viruses that might cross over to us are not really to blame, especially when they are captured and brought into primitive markets where basic standards of hygiene are a low priority. Here a variety of creatures are brought together in high numbers in cages stacked one upon another bringing together animals, both wild and domestic, that would not usually meet, making it a high probability that COVID-19 originated under these circumstances. China hopes that other nations will not play the blame game, but if novel viral infections are proven to originate from such animal markets and these continue to operate, attitudes to how global trade and travel is conducted must significantly change.
SARS is closely related to COVID-19, but it was contained and died out before a vaccine could be developed. Iin 2012 another Coronavirus showed up in humans – Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) which once again was thought to be transmitted by bats. Scientists compared the virus surface spikes of MERS-CoV to a related bat coronavirus HKU4 which cannot mediate entry into a human, but only two mutations (on the MERS-CoV spike) were required to enable it to do so, thus enabling the virus to enter a human cell.
The reason relates directly to the evolution of flight in the order of mammals (Chiroptera). A flying bat has a metabolic rate two and a half to three times the requirements of an active non-flying mammal of similar size. Essentially, flight should be detrimental to a bat’s health – the oxidative stress of a high metabolic rate inducing the release of free radicals which damage DNA. To overcome the toxicity, bats have evolved mechanisms to minimise the problem and also repair damaged DNA; in the process the gene variants involved provide protection by boosting the immune system, allowing bats to carry viruses without serious consequences, which makes them ideal hosts for coronaviruses to inhabit.
The next question is how does coronavirus get into a human in the first place – what is the physics and chemistry of the process: certainly the spiky surface of the organism is an important part of the story. The virus must firstly get into the respiratory tract of a human, once there it has to enter a cell and this is achieved when the oily layer coating a spike manages to combine with the membrane on a cells surface. If fusion occurs the virus may then enter the cell and mutations of the proteins contained on the spike’s surface are important factors in transmissibility – if everything falls into place the coronavirus will infect its new host.
Knowing this to be a basic mechanism of transmission, the advice we have been given to inhibit the infection now running through the human populations makes sense: washing our hands properly with soap and water along with the use of alcohol wipes and sprays helps reduce COVID-19’s progress by disrupting the oily protein layer on the spikes of the virus and greatly reduces the chances of the organism entering a human respiratory system cell, and in a best case scenario will dissolve the virus membrane rendering it inactive.
Finally, there is the question of how frequently mutations occur: coronavirus has a proof reading enzyme which stops too many mistakes from being made during reproduction, reducing the number of mutations of the relevant protein on the surface of the spike. Because mutations are less frequent it has been difficult for scientists to follow the course of the infection, because it is changes in the virus’s make up that provides markers to indicate where the infection has come from. Not being able to ascertain the route has to some degree hindered attempts to contain the infection; but there is also an up side – unlike flu this viruses does not change regularly which at least makes it predictable and important in the development of a treatment.
Covid-19 is thought to have started in a similar manner to SARS, but in this case originating in a wet market in Hubei province and once established in a human host the new viral disease would soon begin its rapid journey around the world. The first recorded case from China was on the 17th November 2019, and by the 11th March 2020, 122,000 cases had been recorded in 121 different countries. The clever thing about viral infections is that they don’t stay in one place for very long, and unless dealt with in the emergent stage, will sometimes become unstoppable.
If when the disease emerged China had clamped down, the virus might have been contained, but the initial decisions were taken at a local level, and it wasn’t until decisions were made further up the chain of command that the disease was dealt with effectively. With a virus spreading exponentially a day missed can result in thousands of infections. Unfortunately, before the government clampdown in the region where the outbreak started, people were moving off to visit family and friends on their Chinese New Year holidays and initially there were no movement or quarantine restrictions – it was a bad start. For a month very little was done to curtail the disease, and by the time more stringent measures were in place, it was far too late, the disease had taken off and moving elsewhere – the problem no longer containable.
In fairness to China, after a poor start, the country has shown an unrelenting commitment to eradicate the virus, and with impressive results. Back in February it was a different story. On 12th. Hubei reported nearly 15,000 cases of infection, with 242 deaths in a single day – figures were being reassessed, officials were being sacked. On 13th there were 5,000 more cases and another 116 people had died. It was disturbing, and by 18th the total number of infections in Hubei totalled 61,682, with the death toll reaching 1,921.
At this stage it was difficult to image that things were going to get better, but a month later on 18th March 2020 it was announce that homeland infections in China had been reduced to zero, which is astonishing given the virulence of COVID-19. If the official figures given for the outbreak were considered on the low side, then this only serves to make the present situation all the more impressive. With restrictions becoming less strict in Hubei, the world now waits to see if the virus will make a comeback, and if it does, how it will be dealt with.
As the cradle of the disease China presented an early example of how the disease might progress and South Korea which I mention later, wasn’t far behind and it was important for other countries to watch and learn from these early dealings with the disease.
For some inexplicable reason, many Europe countries and the United States dithered. China and South Korea were far away – maybe it wouldn’t be such a big problem. In the U.S. in particular it was business as usual no matter the warning signs, few preparations were made for what was about to happen and valuable time was wasted.
On 31st Jan 2020. two Chinese tourists tested positive for COVID-19 in Rome; a week later an Italian man returning from Wuhan in China was taken into hospital and became the third case in Italy. Then things took off. The Lombardy region was hit particularly hard and pretty soon growth in the disease would reach an exponential growth rate. Soon there were too many cases for hospitals to deal with; intensive care units were overwhelmed, and the only products being manufactured were coffins.
To list the figures for the next 19 days isn’t necessary. It is a distressing story, a novel disease would produce something more terrible than a work of fiction and by 19th March 2020 Italy surpassed China with 3,400 deaths from Covid-19, with 40,000 recorded cases, 5,322 of them on this one day. The outbreak in Italy put the frighteners on the rest of Europe, and pretty soon things began to look bad in France, German, Britain and especially in Spain.
Almost a week before the COVID-19 was declared a ‘Global Heath Emergency’ a group of news correspondents in the U.K. complacently suggested that the situation was mostly under control, which begs the question: how much do these people really know, or more to the point – how much of what they think they know is wishful thinking? Wherever we are in the world we know these people – they are the same ones that told us Donald Trump was unelectable and Brexit would never happen. People who find it easy to run off at the mouth despite being incapable of critical analysis – they are prepared to offer their thoughts on just about anything without due consideration for their ignorance; in this case, an immunological problem about which they knew absolutely nothing.
Then there are the politicians who’s priorities it seems has been to keep world economies stable, making this a priority over the health of the people who elected them into office. Of course, it would be naive to suggest that economies are not enormously consequential to us all, but the truth about what we are all likely to experience should not be coming in a poor third to financial gain and political self interest. It is of course necessary to reduce the likelihood of panic, but underplaying the science, which so clearly indicates that COVID-19 will most likely become a pandemic requiring a rapid and appropriately reaction is unforgivable. (Obviously, things have moved along since I wrote this. So has there been an appropriate reaction. In many places around the World the answer has to be no).
Clearly the smooth running of our economies is important, but like wars, less important to most individuals than staying alive. If politicians can’t grasp the magnitude of the situation and the disease’s potential because they are incapable of understanding the science and the basic maths that goes along with it, they should listen more closely to what their scientific advisors tell them, even when this is based on models of likely outcomes, as data based decision making is much better than simply guessing, or those other favourites – ‘being hopeful’ and ‘maybe we’ll get lucky’.
There was a point in the disease when many believed that this was just another bout of the flu, so why bother with it? – nature was just clearing out her old sock drawer, but thinking that way was a mistake. The disease is more infectious than flu, moving faster and increasing exponentially over a very short period of time – in some cases doubling every three days – and without a vaccine it could, if unchecked, create total chaos as health services become overwhelmed with patients they will not be able to treat, and with large numbers dying unnecessarily. In many countries there has been inadequate testing for the virus, in consequence knowing exactly how many people are carrying the disease is impossible to estimate because some people show no symptoms. We will of course be aware of the number of people infected in hospitals and the numbers dying because such things are hard to miss; but increasingly it isn’t just the old and vulnerable who are in danger, as younger people are now dying from the infection; and who can say for certain that the virus won’t suddenly mutate and start taking out healthy young economists, the same way it is taking out health workers.
The situation in the USA was sketchy from very early on. On February 26th President Trump was at first dismissive – ‘there were a low number of cases, the people who were ill were getting better and in a couple of days the numbers would be down to zero’. Then on the 28th he said – about those working on the virus – that ‘they’d done an incredible job, and like a miracle it would disappear’. On March 6th he clarified that, ‘anybody who needed a test would get a test and the tests were beautiful’… and they may well have been, but they certainly weren’t available to everybody who needed one.
On a more personal note the air travel announcement came a couple of hours after I’d seen my wife off from Vancouver airport to attend her mother’s funeral in the U.K. she had booked to travel via the USA before the virus went global, and her return flight was cancelled; she then had trouble booking a flight back to Canada. Everything was suddenly moving too quickly for most of us to keep up with. U.S. airports had already been closed to travellers from Europe (understandably so because on that very same day Italy had 250 deaths in 24 hours). Now US air travel was being closed to Britain where the death rate still remained low, but nevertheless doubled on the 14th March. There were then 1,100 confirmed cases of infection in the U.K. but the real figure was estimated to be nearer 10 times that figure. Without testing the general population, it was impossible to say and by 26th March no testing outside of hospitals was still the official policy – probably because there simply aren’t enough kits to facilitate doing so.
South Korea is one of a few exceptions to the general trend, and were able to provide reliable figures fairly early on because they were testing thousands of people. By 11th March the USA had tested 11,000 people, while South Korea was testing 10,000 a day for free, with some reports suggesting this figure was nearer 20,000 a day. Five days later it was reported that South Korea had tested some 250,000 people while the USA had managed only 20,000 in total; which is ironic because on the same day The World Health Organisation (WHO) said, ‘You can’t fight a fire blindfolded. Test, test, test’. The clear implication, being that it is impossible to judge the scope of the problem until you know how many people are infected, and when you have done as many tests as possible, it makes sense to identify all contacts from two days prior to the infected persons first signs of illness and test those people as well. However, the increasing number of infections in many countries was by this time, likely to have passed the point where this could be done successfully; certainly this was the case for the U.S.A. because so few had been tested under a public health service that was poorly funded making the number of infected people difficult to ascertain.
The USA had opted to produce its own testing kits, but there simply weren’t enough of them, and many didn’t work very well. It was as if the U.S. wasn’t serious about dealing with the problem. President Trump seemed preoccupied with protecting the economy and appeared to be saying almost anything to divert attention from the problems that a potential pandemic might have on the money markets, and so the country didn’t react when it should have done. Stock exchange values began to tumble and realising the U.S. was not going to escape fiscal pain the President surprised everybody with a U-turn and on 13th March declared a national emergency.
In Britain as of 25th of March people were not being tested unless they were in hospital, and neither were the medical staff who were treating them (although by the 27th there were promises to do so, as health workers were quite reasonably, showing concern). But those who though they had the virus were still being told to go home and self isolate and were unable to get tested by a doctor. To say Britain has been ill prepared for this emergency is an understatement. On 26th March Mayor Giorgio Gori of Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy said that Britain had got it wrong – with infection rate two weeks behind Italy, it had been too slow to react which might cost many lives.
In the USA critics considered the administrations reaction to COVID-19 to be all over the place and the markets continued to be volatile. It was Jo Biden (the most likely candidate to stand against President Trump in the Presidential election of November 2020) who on 12th March steadied the ship, with a speech that probably should have been made by the president; and you have to wonder if the electorate will remember the disorganised nature of the current administration’s handling of this national emergency when it comes to November… if the election still happens. On 26th March President Trump was still hopeful of getting people back to work – a couple of days previously he had suggested that could be by Easter, but set against the news on 26th March, that the USA had 83,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, overtaking all other countries to become the epicentre of the pandemic, getting back to work seemed the least of its problems. By the 28th New York was pleading with the government to get started on making respirators as they needed them urgently. The president thought that such provisions were better coming from private industry, but N.Y. needed them urgently…and I wonder how many political turning points you can have as this will to come back to haunt the president if there are people dying through lack of respirators.
The country had plenty of time to consider the seriousness of the developing situation, but still appeared woefully ill prepared. Looking beyond COVID-19, we might ask whether many of our leaders will persist with exactly the same approach to global climate change, and continue with the usual resistance to scientific evidence, inhibiting our ability to react appropriately, and we find ourselves in yet another dire situation of a different making.
COVID-19 has demonstrated clearly, that we might be incapable of reacting quickly any big problems that occur on a global scale; as by the time we do, they are out of our control. Just as with climate change, we are too often simply hoping for the best, while our leaders react too slowly to scientific evidence available, in deference to short term economic gain; and if that continues, such actions will not save our economies, but inevitably lead us to a far more precarious future.
I am aware the COVID-19 pandemic has caused suffering in a great many countries and I regret that I have not been able to follow all of them; certainly I should have given more attention to Spain where the virus has taken hold. As I finish writing on 27th March, although the infection rate in Spain has slowed, the number of deaths today totalled 769. Unfortunately the country did not lock down quickly enough and testing for the virus was not adequate.
Around the world the COVID-19 story is changing by the hour, with India now coming into the story: this country has the second highest population in the world – and with people living in close proximity to one another, self distancing is difficult to achieve. Dealing with the virus under such circumstances is a monumental task; nevertheless on 24th March Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the country on lockdown for 21 days in an effort to get to grips with the virus at a relatively early stage when infection rates might still be manageable. It remains to be seen whether India can succeed where other countries have failed. Whatever the case, the World must now act together in solidarity because for the first time in living memory, we are all in this together. On the evening of 28th March Prime Minister Boris Johnson who the previous evening had tested positive for the virus (as was the case for his Health Secretary and Chief Medical Officer), announced a lockdown in Britain; and critics of policies that had previously seemed too vague for many Britains to follow were saying, ‘better late than never’.
On the 40th Anniversary of the first World Climate Change Conference (Geneva 1979), a statement was published in the Journal of Bioscience, signed by 11,000 scientists advocating a curb on population growth, a halt to forest destruction, a change of attitudes to meat production, and a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels: all with the intention of combating the climate emergency.
By 2016 studies indicated that 90-100% of scientists believed that climate change was real, and if climate deniers wanted confirmation of their beliefs it would be best to consult amongst the doubting 10% and avoid those better informed where the census was up around 97%.
Those with a vested interest in climate change, and politicians wishing to maintain support amongst deniers have regularly consulted with those who have the least expertise in an effort to elicit doubt.
By 2016 various papers had been published on ‘Scientific Consensus’ in relation to ‘Knowledge’
and an interpretation of some of them is shown in the graph below. At a glance, the base line looks dodgy: running from POOR to GOOD isn’t a precise way to measure anything, and must be considered unreliable.
Nevertheless, the top end of the graph is supported by other research projects that indicate a high degree of consensus amongst the most knowledgeable – nothing seems wrong here; but at the bottom end where scientific knowledge is poor, precision of measurement becomes more difficult because it all depends on how knowledge is being measured and who is being asked.
With this in mind the graph could start almost anywhere, but despite this there is clear evidence that the closer scientists work to climate change, the more likely they are to agree that it is happening: something in the science must be influencing their conclusions, whilst the less well informed demonstrate a greater bias, or they just don’t know enough to draw reliable conclusions. The abstract Consensus on Consensus. 2016. John Cook et al. looks at the relationship more closely.
If we want to confirm our beliefs in really stupid things, the World Wide Web maximizes our chances of doing so; it can even put us in contact with like minded people… Despite this, the internet is not the enemy of rational thinking, but an unfortunate quirk of the way the system operates causes it to search for information in a way that scientists don’t, which reinforces bias. Science works hard to avoid such a thing; prioritising facts over opinions it accumulates knowledge and opens up possibilities. The internet can be equally informative, but used uncritically it quickly reinforces our preconceptions, narrows our thinking and sometimes leads us away from the truth – not that a mistaken or surrealist thought is always a bad thing, it’s just isn’t the best way to deal with global warming – we need to keep it real.
If we fail to confirm our beliefs amongst the scientific community, and can’t find what we need on the internet (which seems unlikely), there are any number of fake scientists and conspiracy theorists who can supply us with alternative views on evidence based information; but those who want to stay closer to the truth, it is best to consult studies that are recognised by others accredited in the field. Over the last four years the percentage of scientists who believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening, has been rising and is now at around 99%.
Quite possibly, we are living through one of the most challenging centuries humanity will face – twenty years in, the likelihood that 11,000 scientists are wrong about the climate emergency is unlikely.
What we know:
Carbon release into the atmosphere is increasing and human activity is the cause. Agriculture, forestry and industry are factors and the burning of fossil fuels is especially consequential and causing the Planet to warm.
2. The process is being monitored by scientists, and efforts are being made to convince politicians to act responsibly, limiting Carbon release to moderate the warming effect.
3. This must happen soon, because there are potential turning points beyond which it will be impossible to recover.
4. What needs to be done is clearly understood, but progress in combating climate change has been slow and there is cause for concern.
5. Some of us seem complacently smug about making small personal changes without fully appreciating the magnitude of the situation – small changes in lifestyle will not be enough.
If governments are to combat climate change, they must take action soon:
many world leaders and their governments have so far avoided coming into line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement – the first worldwide legally binding accord on climate; adopted at ‘The Paris Climate Conference’ (COP21) in December 2015 it set a framework to reduce Carbon emissions by limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a target increase of not more than 1.5°C by the end of the Century.
The most recent Conference of Parties (COP25) recently took place in Madrid, and there was a pervasive sense of frustration amongst delegates because many governments fell short of prescribed temperature rise targets, and in some cases delayed meeting them altogether.
Unfortunately, there has been a mismatch between what scientists know and how politicians behave in light of the facts. Climate scientists tend to be pessimistic about the current trend in rising global temperatures whilst politicians are more optimistic – in part because, when they take time to consult scientific research (which is by no means a given), they reach conclusions in a way that scientists don’t, cherrypicking the evidence that best suits their policies. The reality is, their goals are very different.
Science is a rigorous process with the fine details being continuously refined; it never stands still and those working in different disciplines may not have enough expertise to make value judgements outside of their field. So, what chance do the rest of us have? Well, not a lot, but if the science under consideration derives from a prestigious scientific journal such as ‘Science’ or ‘Nature’, we can be fairly confident of the veracity of the published work, everything will have been vigorously peer reviewed, and we should pay attention to the conclusions because science is not a matter of opinion to be countered by ‘alternative facts’. There is in any case usually no need to get sniffy about less prestigious publications, as most are peer reviewed journals and in consequence reliable, although it is wise to be discerning. ‘The Journal of Little Green Men’, probably doesn’t need to be on your reading list unless all your research is being done on social media.
The result of Britain’s December 2019 general election was interesting because Parties with strong environmental policies (such as the Green Party) did not make inroads into votes going to more traditional parties. This raises the question as to how the electorate can be persuaded to vote for politicians prioritizing environmental issues over other concerns, because If this can’t be done, the traditional parties will have to be pushed into do doing far more to combat climate change.
Motivating individuals to react proactively to the climate crisis has been difficult; a great many people will happily admit to the problem, but so far, few have been inclined to vote for change. Tell people that it is necessary to keep global temperature increase down to 1.5°C over a century and they show very little interest – probably because the information is presented with no sense of urgency and it doesn’t spur individuals on to demand action from their leaders. Recently, Brexit split Britain with clear opinions for and against and there was a clear understanding that this was an important issue; but compared to rapid species loss, declining natural environments and climate change, it might prove in the longterm to be far less consequential.
Ian Bateman of Exeter University has authored a new study published in Nature – Food, and spoken about the effect of the warming climate on agriculture in Britain. He says that a standard rise of 2°C of global temperature over an average lifetime might initially benefit agriculture, as past warmer years have usually benefited food production; but if conditions should become too dry, it would be necessary to pipe water to the eastern side of the country from the north and west – these regions of higher rainfall; the cost of doing this would most likely eliminate any profit from the increased production; and if temperatures kept rising the benefits would be short term.
The scenario could be even more worrying if global warming proved to be more extreme, say a 3°C rise in temperature resulting in a more rapid melting of the Arctic ice and Greenland ice sheets which might turn off the Gulf Stream bringing warm water up from the Caribbean to flow around Britain. The Gulf Stream presently provides a warmer temperate climate than Britain could reasonably expect from its northern geographical position. If the stream just flowed (as it might) from west to east across the Atlantic and never reached Britain the results would be catastrophic.
With the Gulf Stream off, Britain’s food production would be reduced by a third or worse. The Islands rely on food imports from other countries and if a reduction in food production is widespread, feeding Britain’s ever increasing population would in retrospect make Brexit seem trivial: unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to visualise ahead of time which are ‘the most important’ of ‘the most important things’ to worry about.
There is however some good news: a change of emphasis has occurred in the way science and the media deal with environmental issues and climate change. In the past scientists never expected their many years of research to lead to the public interpreting the findings and acting appropriately, or expect politicians to act quickly on issues related by their work. The interpretation of science has always been the job of the media – with varying degrees of success – but with the present immediacy of environmental issues scientists have become more inclined to speak out, and the current mood of the media is to provide them a platform to do so.
Twenty years ago it was difficult to find scientists capable of engaging public interest; those that could, would often transition to the media where they were more likely to be listened to and the money was better; but things are changing – why would scientists allow their ideas to be re-jigged by media personalities if they are able to speak effectively for themselves?
I fly from Vancouver to London Heathrow in early spring to visit my father in Southern England. Airlines usually take the most direct route flying north east over the white wilderness of Canada; then over the Labrador Sea before reaching the extensive permafrost and ice sheets of Greenland – these northern landmasses keep you thinking the great white north will never end. But in the most literal sense, it seems they will, with things now changing more rapidly than expected.
The Arctic is melting faster than was the case 25 years ago when snowfall was countering ice sheet and glacier melts into the ocean. Since 1992 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice has disappeared from Greenland, with water flowing into the Ocean causing a rise in sea levels of 10.6 millimetres – this might not seem a lot, but for every centimetre rise, around 6 million people are put at risk and likely to experience at least one flooding event each year. Inevitably, without action, this can only get worse.
Greenland is losing ice 7 times faster than was the case in the 1990s and if the warming continues many millions of people will be exposed to coastal flooding by the end of the century. A current IPCC projection demonstrates that if the situation continues at the present rate the melt from Greenland could push sea levels to rise by 8 or 9 centimetres by the end of the century. If it were just 7 centimetres which is a conservative estimate, the results would still be devastating for coastal areas and low lying communities around the world.
The Annual Arctic Report Card 2019 shows the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate, and much faster than scientists had previously anticipated. Without immediate action melting permafrost could soon release 600 million tonnes of Carbon (C) and Methane (CH4) into the atmosphere.
None of this is speculation – monitoring ice sheets by comparing satellite images over time provides compelling evidence of the problem. Perhaps we should think about this in the same way we consider a close relative dying – there is never a convenient moment, but it has to be dealt with appropriately.
In the Antarctic scientists are now workingon ‘The Doomsday Glacier’ which is falling into the sea at a rate of two miles a year. Thwaites Glacier sits on a vast basin of ice with a front that measures almost 100 miles across. At the point where the glacier approaches the sea the landmass forms a ridge that dips back under the base of the glacier and favours water flowing back landward; and this contact with water is hastening ice melt. It is startling to think that around 90% of the worlds fresh water is locked up in Antarctic ice with Thwaites Glacier presently containing half a meter of potential sea level rise. If the Western Arctic ice sheet should also melt which is possible, the loss will be equivalent to an astonishing 3 metres sea level rise .
If emissions of global warming gases were cut significantly the impact on reducing rising sea levels would be significant, but if temperatures continue to go up things will only get worse. There is still time to react, but as yet not enough is being done to hit global Carbon emission targets. In the end, the necessary changes might be driven by concerns over the dire economic consequences of doing nothing, rather than any loss of life or unfavourable changes to natural environments. As odd as it might seem it might be business interests that push politicians towards better outcomes.
We are now close to reaching critical turning points which would lead to irreversible changes to the way global systems operate. Scientist might disagree on exactly when these changes will occur, and some changes might not occur all at once, they could perhaps move by degrees; and if we adapt our behaviours to changing conditions we might stave off imminent disaster; but abrupt switching points beyond which there are no returns remain frightening possibilities.
There have already been climate changes directly related to human behaviour and such events can no longer be ignored. Making predictions about almost anything has a degree of variability, and not knowing exactly when irreversible changes will occur, plays into the hands of those wishing to demonstrate that climate change isn’t really happening. Ironically, there is nothing worse than reaching a turning point, only to discover that ‘you’re not quite there yet’, although anything that buys time for leaders to react proactively must be a good thing, but with climate change happening more quickly that anticipated, there isn’ the luxury of too much time.
It is difficult to convince people that things will go wrong before they happen, and often a disaster must occur to precipitate a reaction. On occasions, big companies behave cynical: recognising a potential problem that might prove hazardous, they plough on without making changes, in the hope that profitability will exceed future insurance claims. However, when it comes to the climate emergency, refusing to act proactively is not a realistic option: if there are turning points beyond which we can no longer achieve stability we must act quickly; many children seem aware of the urgency – politicians… not so much.
With such huge profits being made from fossil fuels it is easy to understand why producers are reticent to give them up.
There has always been an unwillingness to factor in the millions of years of chemical and physical reactions that go into forming high energy fossil fuels, and the problems associated with the release of huge amounts of stored natural energy in such a short space of time has been largely ignored.
It seems we are best at solving immediate short term problems – our brain’s evolutionary course has left it inadequately wired to deal with uncomfortable situations that unfold over longer periods, and it might be necessary to start compensating for our ‘fallibility of thinking’. However, now that climate change is unfolding so rapidly, we might begin to see things more clearly. Run away ice melts in polar regions are just one of many signs of serious change and reinforce the view that 11,000 scientists are unlikely to be wrong about climate change. We must accept the evidence and push our politicians to act appropriately… and most important of all, they must do it soon.
When my children were young, we took them on a road trip to California, driving the Pacific Highway from Los Angles to San Francisco before going east to visit Yosemite National Park. We then returned cross country to L.A. to visit Disneyland, this a thank you to the children for the terrible imposition of having to do interesting things. Although all of the information here, historical or otherwise, is written from the perspective of the present day, many of the pictures were taken during our trip.
John Muir was the first to witness and comment on the environmental problems facing Yosemite after it became a protected area. He made his first visit in 1868, and wrote extensively on a variety of issues that bothered him: the number of livestock grazing in natural meadows was troubling, particularly in the fragile upland areas; and there was extensive deforestation due to commercial logging in places where legal protection had been assured.
As has often been the case when attempting to protect natural habitats, it was a pen that brought effective conservation to the region. Muir wrote stories that focused effectively on environmental issues – and this worked as well back then as it does today – if a problem is clearly identified, whether it involves endangered animal species, or native trees standing in an exceptional landscape, a targeted approach will usually increase awareness and sway public opinion in a positive way.
With the help of Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, John Muir continued to push for greater protection and the pair were persistently critical of the poor state of conservation management in the area. Their views would eventually prove instrumental in bringing about change with the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia granted National Park status in 1890.
Muir and Johnson also advocated protection for other regions, in particular forested areas where giant sequoia were growing further into the Sierra Nevada. Eventually a number of these sites were selected for conservation, and Sequoia National Park was the result.
Unfortunately, greater legal protection didn’t solve the kind of problems that Muir had noticed and it wasn’t until he brought President Roosevelt for a visit in 1906 that things began to improve. Roosevelt, recognised the need for change and reacted quickly, taking back control of the region from the State of California in an effort to secure better protection, and the end result. ‘Yosemite National Park’… Nicely sorted and no further issues!?
Well, not exactly…
Unfortunately, in recent years old trees in Yosemite have been dying in greater numbers than usual, and why has this grabbed the headlines? Because such trees have become dangerous to visitors, and knowing how litigious North Americans have become is an understandable concern. However, in wild places this is perhaps not the first problem that should spring to mind, because in wilderness areas trees left to nature will at some stage fall over, and management will always require a different approach from a city park.
The priority should be to ask why trees are dying in such large numbers in a national park, because if there’s a problem here, what chance is there of conserving trees that do not receive such stringent protection? Certainly it should not be assumed that trees standing outside national park boundaries only have value in terms of their worth to the timber industry.
The continuous whittling away of unprotected habitats has become a worldwide issue, because there is a misconception that the loss of natural forests can be easily remedied by simply planting more trees, but it’s not that simple; man cannot easily recreate ecosystems of the same complexity as those developed naturally over long periods of time. Much has been lost over the years with serious declines which makes it all the more important to pro-actively conserve all remaining environments of ecological significance. Just planting more trees is not the answer, better to allow natural forests to just get on with it which of course takes time. Trees should be allowed to seed and compete for their place in the future life of the forest, otherwise all we are creating is a botanical garden and not a natural habitat.
There is a simple fix for the present rate of habitat loss and that is to halt the destruction; if we are to win the battle against species loss and global climate change it will require a significant shift in attitude to turn the tide. The state of our oceans should be the first priority, but conserving old growth forests runs a close second, and acting appropriately should be beyond the meddling of politicians who think they know better, with any attempt to curtail the necessary actions required to combat global warming beyond their remit as the situation has moved beyond the point where we can allow important decisions to made by idiots. Children get it, but politicians do not; they will always put economic considerations before the environment because that’s what gets them votes; but this prioritisation will quite evidently need to be reversed if we are to remain a successful part of the system.
Today, many plant and animal species have become stressed to their limits by environmental pressures, and Yosemite’s ponderosa pines are no exception; these trees are frequently infected by a tiny beetle, but years of co-evolution has allowed them to produce a defence in the form of a pitch that seals the beetles out. Unfortunately, there are other stresses weakening the pines’ ability to protect themselves; in particular five years of drought, this the likely reason so many Ponderosa Pines are losing their battle for life. As the trees defence mechanisms break down, natural resistance becomes compromised, and under the prevailing dry conditions, not if, but when a fire sweeps through, trees that might once have survived an intense burn, will no longer make it through.
Yosemite is one of the world’s great natural wonders, but when a single species goes into decline others living in association must surely follow. Such events are warnings that something is wrong – in this case a sudden change in climate which we ignore at our peril. Rarely in the natural world does anything decline in isolation; there is always a knock on effect, and you can’t help feeling that the dominoes are now being lined up in some of the World’s most beautiful places. We are now just waiting for the first one to go over.
The Coast Redwood and Giant Sequoia
North America contains many natural wonders, but wilderness areas to the west of the Rockies are amongst the most spectacular, and perhaps even more in need of protection today than they were in Muir’s time, because over the last 150 years so much has been lost or seriously degraded.
Much of the lands to the south and west had originally been Mexican territory, but in 1848 this land was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. Accepting the extensive prairies of the mid-west, there was a general trend of deforestation in line with the wave of settlement, although going west in the early days didn’t necessarily mean coming over the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the coast.
Environmental problems could usually be linked to this flow of people from the east, in particular after the American Civil War which ended in 1865. Many were granted free land to the west, which had been stolen by government from native Americans and re-assigned to the new arrivals; this in part to defuse the possibility of more trouble between opposing factions on the opposite side of the country, where many people had not entirely accepted the war as over.
As people flooded in, everything that they came across became either real estate or a golden opportunity for asset strippers, and always to the detriment of natural resources. This was the starting point for ‘The American Dream’ – to go west and make something of yourself – which was usually an environmentally destructive process, because people busy trying to make it in sometimes difficult circumstances, often failed to recognise the real treasures standing before them – although not for long. To the eyes of the new arrivals magnificent trees were regarded as lumber just waiting to be converted into something far more useful – $$$$$$$$$s. It’s the American way. The truth is that conserving wild places is a relatively new idea, because people didn’t start appreciating natural environments until they had both the leisure time to do so and the means to travel.
In the face of climate change and environmental collapse some people are now beginning to wonder if this $ value approach to just about everything is paying off… but not all, many still chase the tantalising dream of trouncing nature for personal gain without the least concern for environmental consequences; but as even the stupidest amongst us are beginning to learn, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The less discerning might eat for free, before moving on, but somebody will have to pick up a very expensive tab. The fact is (and this is an actual fact rather than a made up one, for those who think facts are a matter of opinion), it is far cheaper to deal with environmental issues before they get out of hand than after, and there’s always the possibility that beyond a certain point there is no going back in any case.
It is sometimes easier to spark enthusiasm for natural environments by favouring a key species rather than the ecosystems they are part of. Without doubt most of us appreciate that natural systems exist as complex webs of life; but our minds work better if we don’t complicate the issues; and there is no doubt that concentrating attention on a single plant or animal species works really well when it comes to raising awareness. Usually an animal will be selected to grab our attention, but once in a while an exceptional plant will do just as well, and when it comes to trees it is usually their magnitude and splendour that provides the wow factor, and the awe and majesty of the giant redwoods of the Western United States seldom fails to impress.
Old growth Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoias are so impressive they have become great ambassadors for the ecosystems they are part of. Their names are often used interchangeably, but despite certain similarities of size and appearance, these are botanically distinct species.
Redwoods were once widespread in North America but today are represented by only two species, each restricted to their own particular ecological niches in northern California. Plants however are not respecters of unnatural borders and redwoods may also be found in Washington State and Oregon, although outside of California they are found in lower numbers and are not naturally occurring.
There is however a third representative, the dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostrobides, and although fossil records demonstrate that this species was once widely distributed, and until recently thought to be long extinct, living examples were discovered in the Sichuan Province of China during the mid-1940s and suddenly they were back from the dead. This is interesting, but the Dawn Redwood is a long way, both in size and location from the species under consideration here: the ‘coast’ or ‘California redwood’ Sequoia sempervirens; and the ‘giant sequoia’ Sequoiadendron giganteum, are both referred to as Redwoods, and both are quite spectacular, with each contained within a very limited range.
A mature California or Coast Redwood will grow taller than a giant sequoia, but they are slimmer and less bulky in form and grow naturally only in one type of habitat: the moist, humid coastal regions of Northern California where sea fogs provide the damp conditions and moderate climate they require. These Redwoods tend to grow in bands rather than stands and do not occur naturally more than 50 miles inland.
Although most of the old growth forests are long gone, young trees now seem to be doing well, perhaps because in recent years there has been less fog, which hasn’t been entirely detrimental: with more sunlight getting to the trees there are greater opportunities for photosynthesis. But as with most living things, survival depends upon a range of circumstances: if say the climate continues to change and the mists become much less a feature of this region, the Coast Redwood might at some stage begin to suffer. It is clear that we change the climate at our peril and can never be absolutely certain of the consequences.
The Giant Sequoia is the only remaining species still living from the Subfamily Sequoioidae, it requires higher elevations than the Coast Redwood and grows along a comparatively narrow band on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Living at an altitude of between 5 and 7 thousand feet these trees rely heavily on snow melt for water, and in summer, the dry heat of the region triggers the cones, mostly at the top of the tree, to open.
Giant Sequoia grow to more than 300 feet and in doing so will attain a considerable bulk. The General Sherman, the largest tree presently standing in the world can be found in Sequoia National Park, although it is not the tallest tree living on the Planet. The General contains more than 52 thousand cubic feet of wood and weights around 2.7 millions pounds, but typically, this is a species that does not reach the dizzy heights of the coastal redwoods which can reach around 375 feet, making them the tallest trees standing anywhere on Earth.
If you happen to be in San Francisco, coast redwoods are not far away, and if you travel east for about 170 miles to Yosemite National Park it is possible view the impressive Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which allows for a comparison of both native redwood species in a single day, although if you aren’t in a tourist inflamed rush it is perhaps better to take your time.
The bad news for redwood forests, is the same as it is for any other old growth forest that still exists along North America’s western seaboard. 95% of everything that was once standing here has been felled, and it has happened comparatively recently and over a very short period of time. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the continued influx of settlers from the East was enormously consequential as vast swathes of forest were steadily brought down, and ecologically significant trees still being felled to the present day.
San Francisco was originally built from the timber of local redwoods, and although resins make the trees less susceptible to insect attack, the wood has a reputation for being brittle and some now consider processing them quite wasteful, claiming that it makes more sense to utilise other species more useful to forestry.
The loss of so much old growth forest is depressing, especially because giant old trees lock up such large amounts of carbon, and continue to do so even after they have fallen. Given that a coast redwood can live for 2,000 years and a Giant Sequoia for around 3,500, there’s not only a considerable amount of carbon locked up in a redwood forest, but it remains locked up for a very long time.
This is perhaps one of the best reasons for protecting ancient redwoods wherever they remain; and if many of the younger trees were left to grow to their full potential they might also act as valuable Carbon sinks and their presence have a moderating effect on climate. For these reasons alone it is difficult to argue against the conservation of giant redwoods wherever they are growing naturally.
It usually isn’t a good idea to plant a tree in the wrong place, but there are exceptions, and I will admit to having planted specimen coastal redwoods on the property we once owned on the North Island of New Zealand where the climate very much suits them.
Having specimens trees of different species gathered together in botanical gardens is of great value, not only to make direct comparisons, but also to preserve genetic diversity if wild populations should collapse, which is a real possibility; but it is wrong to plant trees that are invasive with seedlings growing to compete with native flora.
When in the U.K. this spring I took time to visit giant redwoods, red cedars and Douglas fir, all native to the west coast of North America where we now live. Most of the significant specimen trees along the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive in the New Forest – Southern England, were planted in 1859 and still have quite a bit of growing to do, but despite this, the two tallest trees in the New Forest are a pair of giant redwoods that stand majestically on either side of a grassy ride. There are many examples of giant redwoods outside of California, as they grow well wherever conditions suit them. Seedlings of both species are readily available from commercial growers, but it is worth thinking to the future, and accepting that these are trees not ideally suited to a suburban garden.
When working for the B.B.C. a television producer once suggested that I might put headphones on and using a tape recorder play my favourite music in the hope of releasing some deeply hidden artistic potential as I filmed amongst the mighty sequoias, but I never did that… Experiencing Bach’s music in a magnificent forest is agreeable, but nothing can compare to listening to the wind blowing through the canopy – it sounds as if the trees are whispering. A romantic notion perhaps, but maybe the old redwoods are trying to tell us something about conserving the old growth forests of the west, but if that’s the case, we haven’t heard them over the buzz of the saw, or it might just be that we still aren’t listening.
Take care in Yosemite especially when trying to get a better picture, there have recently been several accidental falls and fatalities – it’s a wild place without unsightly barriers – so, please think safe.
It is commonplace for leaders in tropical regions to receive criticism for their inability to conserve natural forests, but in northern temperate regions politicians have not been made so directly accountable, and the felling of swathes of grand old trees has passed largely without comment.
West of the Rockies in the Pacific North West, there is a particular problem, especially in coastal regions where old growth forests have been felled without much concern for environmental consequences. The timber trade has played an important role in local economies since the arrival of Europeans and the resultant destruction of virgin forest has continued without pause for over 150 years, with a startling increase at the beginning of the 20th Century, as forests to the east were by then pretty much decimated.
However, the forests’ of the North West are important in a way that moves their significance far beyond making a fast buck, because the old growth forest here lock up more carbon than a comparable area of Amazon rainforest and this makes their rapid loss especially disturbing.
On the 23rd May 2019 Jen and I were in for a treat, visiting a group old trees in the Hidden Grove on the Sechelt Peninsula: at over 700 years of age, some of the Douglas Firs to be found here are impressive; today, few trees of this stature can be found without travelling some distance from our home on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
We started by visiting a lonesome tree that had somehow managed to avoid the saw, and still stands in the forest not far from the town of Sechelt. Our journey was undertaken mid-week and off season and things were agreeably quiet. Admittedly, going to gawk at a single tree seemed a little odd, and reminded me of a cartoon I saw in the 1970s featuring a queue of people waiting to see the last tree standing on Earth – it didn’t seem funny then, and is even less funny now – particularly in a temperate region of the developed world where people consider themselves well informed about environmental issues. Something is not quite right with old growth forest, because despite huge losses, old native trees remain inadequately protected.
Most of us will get upset when a large mammal species is threatened, but old trees growing in places other than tropical rainforest, don’t arouse the same concern, even when, as is the case for the Pacific North West, native trees are amongst the largest organisms existing on Earth. There are of course activists who tie themselves to significant trees to prevent felling, but few of us behave quite so proactively – we risk being labelled ‘tree huggers’, and that’s not a good look. Whatever our reactions, nothing can alter the fact that trees many hundreds of years old that were once an important part of human experience, are no longer standing in great numbers.
The indiscriminate felling blossomed in plain sight, a tragedy that either happened because people failed to notice, or felt powerless to do anything about it. The losses were certainly noticed in the early 1900s when there was concern throughout the North West over clear cutting without restraint; but a precedent had been set some 50 years earlier when railroad barons were gifted huge tracts of forested land to incentivise railroad building, putting much of the old growth forest into private ownership and with no legal protection the trees began to disappear.
Now, we clearly understand the importance of old growth forests to natural environments and their usefulness in locking up Carbon (some recent research suggests that older bigger trees capture more Carbon than do smaller trees); so why are big old trees still being felled? To be honest… I have no idea why anybody would do something so stupid, but the general indifference of the public at least, may be down to a general inability to distinguish between old growth and secondary forest, especially when viewed from a distance.
For most of us, trees are just trees, but in ecological terms their age has significance: old growth forest provide more environmental complexity than any secondary forest can achieve, unless the latter can remain standing for hundreds of years, which isn’t the way things usually go, as most trees are now harvested in cycles that run considerably less than a hundred years.
When areas re-seed naturally, they will one day become forest, but if planted selectively by man, things usually get worse before they get better, because it takes time for trees (acted upon by natural forces) to compete and eventually sort out which will ultimately become successful. When trees are planted for commercial purposes alone their ecological value drops significantly… yet we still keep thinking – there’s no shortage of trees, and in some cases that’s true, but many of the wooded hillside we admire are destined to have a short term existence: they’re entirely unnatural, lack diversity and create poor environments for other species.
To those who are not much interested in environmental issues it is important to say that this is not a rant about saving every last tree in the forest; the logging of secondary forest planted specifically for cropping is necessary, and done properly it should allow the remaining old growth forest to be more easily conserved; but unfortunately, this isn’t happening and if we continue to lose old growth at the present rate, it is with the knowledge that once gone such areas cannot be easily re-created and as each disappears, so do the many organism associated with them.
Once the old trees have been felled close to places where we live – which mostly has already happened – but logging continues in out of the way places and less easily observed. Most of us remain clueless about the activity, with the losses having consequences to both ourselves and the natural world. If we were better informed, perhaps we would question the situation more thoroughly.
Any time a road comes near a natural forest, big trees that have commercial value will usually be targeted; clear cutting is usually the most economical way of getting them out, and this results in the complete destruction of viable ecosystems.
This disregard for nature has resulted in the loss of many great forests in a comparatively short time, causing widespread soil erosion, problems with water quality, and changing climates not just regionally, but across the Planet; and we’ve come to accept the situation without complaint or very much thought.
Visiting The Sechelt Heritage Hidden Groves. is for Jen and I like travelling back through time. Here a handful of ancient Douglas-fir still stand along with red cedar amongst a secondary growth of much younger trees. when left alone these species will achieve considerable age and reach an impressive girth and height. In short these are trees with the potential to grow as Donald Trump might say’ big league’, or is it ‘bigly,’ because ‘bigly’ really is a word that along with our moral judgements on big old trees, has fallen out of use.
Beneath the canopy where we are walking the understory is lush with ferns, mosses and lichens. Close by, a maple wetland adds diversity and all is set amongst impressive rocky outcrops, but it is our arrival at a scattered stand of ancient trees that raises most interest, not just because they are majestic, but because their survival has been tenuous, and tenuous has become an all too familiar story.
In 2002 a local resident visiting the grove noticed coloured tapes in place, indicating preparations for the felling of what is now ‘The Hidden Grove’. A logging company was about to clear cut the few trees that remained here, destroying the last vestige of original native forest in the area, and at the beginning of the 21st Century this seemed extraordinary. There followed a protracted battle during which a group of local people worked diligently to keep the trees standing, involving thousands of hours of fund raising and voluntary work; but the persistent conservation effort paid off; and we are indebted to a small group of proactive people who suddenly came to the rescue, because without their efforts this majestic group of trees would no longer be standing.
This small grove of old growth Douglas Firs is comparatively small; and a resident of Sechelt told me they had survived only because the area had been too waterlogged to allow felling. I can’t find any definitive evidence that this is the case, but it does seem a reasonable explanation.
There are other stands of trees in the Sechelt area that have grown to an impressive size and those in the Hidden Forest are certainly impressive, but there are even bigger Douglas-firs in existence with girths that are nothing short of jaw dropping; however trees like this are few and far between and we must now make do with far younger trees, inferior in scale to those known to our ancestors… It is as if our destructive habits have steadily moved into line with our downgraded notions of awesome.
When an old growth forest is cut there is always a hope that the companies involved might leave a stand of old trees to maintain the integrity of at least a small area of original forest; but this rarely happens because any tree left standing would be considered a waste of valuable timber – essentially it is a question of perspective.
I have met commercial foresters who think that any tree left to grow old and fall over is a waste, whilst others regard a rotting tree as a valuable part of the ecosystem. Opinions aside, it’s worth remembering that estimates of tree cover are mostly done by those involved in felling them, and consequently figures are often skewed to demonstrate how much first growth forest remains. Large areas of bogland that contain stunted little trees are often incorporated into the figures; certainly these areas will not have been cut, but it is disingenuous to consider ‘bonsai trees’ first growth forest.
There is a lot of potential profit tied up in any tree that makes durable wood and grows to enormous size, especially when such a tree has been standing for five hundred years or more, locking up considerable volumes of heartwood, which greatly increases their value. Unfortunately, as the number of big old trees is reduced, quality timber becomes scarcer and increasingly sought after, and inevitably most will and be felled unless we put the long term environmental impact over short term financial gain.
Few places in the world allow the felling of 600 hundred year old trees as a matter of course – such trees are clearly not a renewable resource in the short term. Now most of the old forests have gone from British Columbia, the new growth will not remain standing beyond a felling cycle of 60 or 70 years, a tenth of the time that would be required for a red cedar or Douglas fir to reach its full potential.
It understandable that some people will gain pleasure from seeing old tree, and certainly this was the case on April 20th 2013 when Jen and I crossed The Strait of Georgia to see an impressive grove that stands against the odds on Vancouver Island.
I had imagined Vancouver Island would have extensive virgin forests of giant Red Cedar and Douglas Fir; and prior to European settlement this was the case. But really, what must I have been thinking… bar a few remnants the grand old forests are gone. Only 20% of old growth forest are now thought to remain and why these are not protected isn’t clear, because forestry might easily be sustained from the 80% of productive secondary forest that remains. The fact that the old growth forest can still be cut is scandalous to some; because if this continues it is difficult to imagine how the remaining old forests can be preserved, with less than 10% existing under the protection of National Parks.
The most recent challenge to the Grove came at the turn of the Century when a section of surrounding forest was logged: this might have been expected at the end of the 19th Century when old growth forests were being felled at an extraordinary rate, but these trees were felled at the end of the 20th Century which in more enlightened times seems almost unbelievable.
When I first came to live in B.C. I assumed Vancouver Island’s old growth forests far too consequential to have been logged out, but that was silly, because ‘logging out’ is more or less the way things have been heading since European’s settled – it seems to have been regarded as a fundamental right to chop down almost any big tree regardless of the environmental consequences. Ken Wu Executive Director of The Endangered Ecosystems Alliance states that since 1993 more than 250,000 hectares of old growth forest has been logged on Vancouver Island – an area more than 20 times the size of the City of Vancouver.
There is however some hope, but legislation would be required to bring change, based upon the research of a group at The University of Victoria which is calling for the greater protection of British Columbia’s naturally growing trees.The recommendation is that that 30% of the Provinces old growth forests should be protected; although deciding where to start measuring from is tricky: should it be 30% of the whole island’s remaining cover, or 30% of the natural cover that was present before European’s arrived. 170 years ago most of the land in the Pacific North West was almost entirely covered by forest; if it is 30% of what now remains, then once again it will be slim pickings for the natural world. Personally, at the rate of loss so far experienced we might consider ourselves lucky to get anything at all. The report however is unambiguous, it recommends that 30% of the original old growth forest should be conserved despite much of it having already been felled; it sounds like something from our wildest dreams, because to regrow what was originally present would require a project that runs successfully for hundreds of years. Nevertheless it is impressive that a science based group is sticking their necks out, by saying that it is necessary and should be attempted.
‘Beautiful British Columbia’ is what a lot of us have written on or number plates which demonstrates a certain unwitting hypocrisy because most of the Provinces ancient native trees are afforded no protection outside of National Parks. The first Douglas-fir Pseudotsuga menziesii ever recorded was discovered on Vancouver Island by Archibald Menzies in 1791, but it was his rival David Douglas who recognised the tree’s potential as a timber resource, although the popular name is wrong – it isn’t a fir, or a spruce, or even a pine, it is a false hemlock. This is the tree that many of us will use as a Christmas tree, but when fully grown the coastal variety is the second largest tree species in North America after the giant redwoods found further south and perhaps best represented in California. An entire industry was built on felling the virgin forests West of the Rockies and sheltered coastal areas like Vancouver City grew to prominence distributing this valuable resource.
I have heard older people who have made their living from felling these incredible trees, say that if they hadn’t chopped them down, we’d all be walking around in the dark interior of a forest… but age isn’t always a measure of wisdom… because of course we wouldn’t. Certainly a lot of trees would have been cut for commercial purposes, but there was never any obligation, or entitlement to destroy a whole natural ecosystem just to keep us out of the shade. Undoubtedly, it is more about pocketing money and less about a fear of the forest that has driven the industry to fell so much of the original forest. An unfortunate combination of greed and ignorance has brought us to this unacceptable situation and we’ve labelled it progress – who would want to get in the way of that?
If we are thinking straight it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that the preservation of old forests has enormous value because the losses have put natural ecosystems under threat, and that’s before we start worrying about the water table and climate stability – all of which are essential to our continued existence. If we continue to view the natural world as something to be destroyed purely for economic gain, then we are in for a hiding. You don’t need to be very clever to exploit natural resources to make money, but when they run out and you’ve screwed nature into the bargain, something has to change.
In future big countries with enormous resources, without exception will need to find more inventive ways to run their economies. People who make their livings by directly exploiting whatever the land has to offer are not inclined to change their approach, but this is lazy thinking and they are going to have to. Before we start considering about all the different technical ways we might lock up Carbon we should first consider the Carbon scrubbers that nature has already provided, they’re called trees and the present rate of Worldwide clearance makes no sense. People who wish to continue to mercilessly take advantage of the environment in the present climate (quite literally) have not yet touched base with the present reality. In the case of Canada (given as an example only because this is where I presently live), one future industry that continues to develop is tourism, and it seems counter productive to continue destroying the very environment that people come to see that’s moose, beavers, bears and big old trees.
On our return to the Lower Mainland, the lack of anything that resembles old growth forest is jarring, because none remain standing – the last having been cut within living memory.
This coastal strip has a generally fertile soil and as Europeans settled in greater numbers, forests were quickly cleared for agriculture; and more recently much of this has been covered by urban development.
It seems ironic that some of the biggest trees ever to grow in British Columbia once did so on the Lower Mainland, where no old forests can be found today. But here, in the small areas of secondary forest that have been left for their ‘amenity value’ (a euphemism for ‘somewhere to smoke cannabis and empty the dog), the occasional big old rotting stump is a stark reminder of a recently lost majesty that once ran from the mountains to the sea.
We all have an idea of what an old growth forest should look like, but few of us have the opportunity of such an experience, because opportunities are now so few and far between.
Should you come to the North West Coast, you might be lucky enough to stand in a remnant of virgin forest, or perhaps just get to see a very old native tree… If you do, then please take a photograph as a reminder of how things used to be, because outside of National Parks there is no guarantee that the next time somebody visits, that wonderful old tree will still be standing.
Please take a look at this link:The great bear loophole. Why Old Growth is Stil Logged. We are often led to believe that forests are being protected when they are not. This problem occurring in many places around the world and it is important that we are aware of the situation; because our futures may be in jeopardy if we don’t halt the felling of old growth forests – especially in protected areas.
I can’t remember exactly how many smuggler’s coves I’ve visited, but it’s a lot –
their appeal is irresistible. In the Caribbean they are perhaps at their most romantic; whilst in the Britain they’re the sort of places you might expect to see on an episode of Poldark. Along England’s south west coast, where men in tricorne hats once shot unreliably at one other with flintlock pistols, smuggler’s coves are two a penny.
My favourite cove is Lulworth in Dorset, it is amongst the most beautiful of any to be found in Britain and part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. There’s even a cave close by – what could be more perfect for smugglers?
Every old cove has history, and Lulworth is no exception. On its eastern side are the remains of a fossil forest: the stumps of 140 million year old conifers (gymnosperms) named Protocupressionoxylon purbeckensis which make up perhaps the most complete fosilised forest so far recorded.
Britain’s shores are invariably beautiful and display many geological wonders,especially along the Dorset coastline, producing bays and coves that have formed over millions of years to eventually become hiding places of importance for smugglers during ‘the golden age’ of smuggling – running from the late 1600s through into the 1700s when smuggling and piracy were at their peak. Such events are viewed today in a romantic way and also retrospectively, with the actuality more disturbing than many of us could imagine: those involved were often desperate, violent men who thought nothing of murdering anybody who might threaten their illicit activities or reveal their identities. Back then life could be desperately harsh and for those living on the coastline, smuggling was a serious option as a part-time job especially for those worn down by poverty.
Twenty four years later Jen and I would visit another smuggler’s cove, this time –without the children, as they are now able to feed themselves.
This ‘Smuggler’s Cove’ is on the Sechelt Peninsula in British Columbia and it carries that name. When ‘the golden age” was at its peak in the Atlantic region, smuggling wasn’t happening along Canada’s Pacific coast, not because of any shortage of locations – Canada has the most extensive coastline of any country in the world – but because back in the 1700s the indigenous people of the region had better things to do than tax imported goods. European settlers were in short supply and it was a while before this new wave of immigrants would sweep through bringing with them authoritarian habits, and placing taxes on anything they could get away with.
We were to visit on 21st May 2019 a place that is noted for more recent smuggling events – such activities didn’t become consequential here until after the American Civil War. In the 1880s the cove was used to move Chinese railroad workers short of work in Canada, into the United States; they would pay for the privilege in the hopes of a better chance of employment. The one question that troubles me about recorded events is: did ‘King of the Smugglers’ Larry Kelly, really incorporate his version of ‘Chinese whispers’ into proceedings by tying railroad workers on a line of rope which he attacked to a block of pig iron, then threatened to push it over the side if there was any chance of discovery by U.S. customs officials – was this a bluff or did he intend to do it? Later, during the 1920s and early 30s, rum running provided further opportunities for smugglers looking to make a different sort of killing, by running moonshine during prohibition.
Arriving at the cove by sea involves coming in through the north end of Welcome Pass, but walking in is the option that most people take. Our visit involved a drive out of Sechelt on Brooks Road to arrive at Smuggler’s Cove Marine Provincial Park in about 15 minutes. Once there we walked through three distinct habitats. Initially, shaded by trees, we passed through a small section of forest, which soon opened out onto an extensive freshwater wetland which we crossed by means of a boardwalk: without this it would have been impossible because the water level is well maintained, most likely by beavers. To be honest, I’ve seldom encountered a more impressive example unless in Maine on the opposite side of the continent. Finally we ascended into a wooded coastal area where it was possible to walk around the cove as far as it’s entrance, along the way gaining spectacular views out to sea.
This wetland supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, there was a lot to see and we toke our time. Insect bites weren’t too much of a problem which is different from the way things usually are in such places, especially over on the East Coast where at certain times of the year you can expect to be eaten alive by black fly and mosquito.
This is a colourful place, even at noon with the sun at its highest, the sky held its azure blue intensity and good landscape pictures were easy to achieve; usually, morning and evening light will provide the most interesting photographic images, but with the surrounding forest creating heavy foreground shadow when the sun was low, the middle of the day provided the best opportunity for taking pictures.
Birds are certainly less active, during the heat of the day, with insects such as butterflies and dragonflies more easily captured in full sunlight. The only problem is that the warmer it gets the more active they become and most won’t hang around long enough to have their portraits taken, although dragonflies will usually return to a favoured perch.
When we come to the end of the boardwalk, the track rises through a forested region which brings us steadily closer to the rocky coastline; the path twists through dappled sunlight until eventually we arrive at a sudden reveal of Smuggler’s Cove which is down a wooded slope to our right, sheltered and surrounded almost completely on all sides by rocky outcrops. The entrance point is very narrow making this an ideal place for clandestine activities and unless you are aware of this hidden place, it is not so easily noticed from the seaward side.
We have become used now to the rugged nature of many beaches along the BC. coastline, where there are good opportunities to look into rock-pools, and the surrounding sea-life is amongst the most diverse to be found anywhere in the world. However walking barefoot, or just sitting on the beach is not a pleasant experience; not only are the rocks jagged, but the barnacles are razor sharp and certainly this is not a beach where you can appreciate the freedom of the sand between your toes.
There isn’t very much shade down in the cove at this time of day, it has become an amphitheatre of heat which is probably unusual so early in the year. We eat our lunch and then Jen quickly moves off to find somewhere more comfortable to sit, she selects a shady area overlooking the cove. I wander further on around the headland and under the trees, once the open sea is visible, a gentle breeze blows in which is very agreeable after the stifling heat down in the cove.
We leave this coastal area during early evening and walk back along the boardwalk and cross back across the wetland. I wasn’t expecting to see a beaver so early, but suddenly I notice one clear of the water in startling evening sunlight and unprepared for the moment I didn’t manage to grab a picture before the animal slipped quietly away into the water.
We waited and watched, but the creature had done a favourite beaver trick, disappearing beneath the water and was unlikely to emerge again until well out of site, so we moved on. We hadn’t travelled more than a hundred metres before I noticed a second: this one in the water gathering water lily buds and anything else within arms reach – it moved slowly forward cramming any floating vegetable material that it encountered into its mouth .
Sensing our presence the creature became still and remained in this state for a couple of minutes: it was one of those moments that you often get with vegetarians; deer for example will freeze in an attempt to assess danger before deciding what to do next; sometimes they will look up and stare directly at you, and if you are the sort of person who is bothered by insects and begin to windmill your arms, all will be lost; but if you refrain from moving a muscle, it is possible to be in full view of such an animal and get away with it. There is no need for camouflage clothing – I never kill anything and what I wear never smells of death which is important when observing animals that have a good sense of smell – and beavers do. I am thinking about such things as we continue through our beaver imposed age of immobility. Then, as if bored by keeping still, or perhaps, having forgotten why it had become frozen in the first place, the beaver was once again aware of the boundless, irresistibly lush, freshly washed salad that floated around it and began feeding again, this marking a change of behaviour – as it was now seemed disinclined to stop for anything.
An older man and woman who had arrived by boat came walking along from the direction of the cove, they could see I was photographing something and stopped several metres short of where we were, then, after a short wait, walked slowly past. By then I’d taken rather more pictures of the rodent than was necessary and I thought it polite to point the creature out to them. The minor disturbance of another two people faffing about on the boardwalk didn’t appear to bother the beaver unduly, as the animal was long past the point now where it was bothered by our unthreatening presence, and continued to relentlessly drag food into its mouth with both forepaws.
‘I’ve never seen a beaver before’ said the man, ‘it’s most unusual’. ‘We’ve seen two this evening’ I replied, which was a polite way of making the point that not seeing an animal isn’t necessarily an indication of scarcity – it may be that you just don’t notice what’s going on around you. Many people behave as if they are congenitally unobservant, and in doing so are gifted with a series of sudden interesting discoveries of the obvious – and soon the process becomes a regular feature of their lives. It’s a bit like being religious, and by no means a bad thing… Living in a state of continual enlightenment can be very rewarding.
Apart from a couple of robins and a red winged blackbird; this was a day when most feathered forms were avoiding the heat and remained inactive.
What you see always depends upon the prevailing conditions, but it would be difficult to come to such a delightful place without noticing something of interest no matter what the weather was like. We had visited on a wickedly hot, blue sky day with intense colours and sparkling waters, but not an especially good one for viewing wildlife, although the privilege of being in such a beautiful place should be enough in itself, and with climates everywhere becoming increasingly unpredictable, we might in future just have to make do with that, unless of course we all suddenly wake up and start doing something about it.
Pictures don't just tell stories – they change the world