Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Peril of Perishing Pollinators Part II

Fellow Food Forum Members:

I just got back from the grocery store. It took me four hours to move through the gate check; the Produce Police were being more thorough than usual after the bombing attempt at the Pittsburgh Costco last week. I was only able to get one recyclable sack of fruit and vegetables. I thought I had enough in my wallet, since I was carrying $500, but the prices have gone up another fifteen percent since last month. A lot of good that Obama's price caps are doing. Between the price inflation we've been experiencing lately, thanks to the FED last decade, and the scarcity of food, money sure doesn't seem to buy what it used to.

Doesn't it seem like everytime you go to the grocery store, the prices have risen again? Where will it all stop? I can barely afford to put food on the table now. The scarcity of fruits and vegetables - since the United States had to switch to hand-pollination - is truly insane. I can't remember what an almond tasted like. The prices aren't even the worst part. I worked hard all my life, and due to wise investments, consider myself fairly well off. I used to say "well, at least I'm not going to starve." I'm not so sure that's true anymore. What's the use of being wealthy if all the food is being rationed?

Anyway, I thought you'd like to know. No apples again. The sign was still there from last month "Washington Delicious Apples, $9 apiece, compare and save!" It hasn't even been two full years since the complete disappearance of the bees in 2010, and they still haven't found a better way to pollinate the apple blossoms than the migrant American farm workers. But even the fastest among them can only work about twenty trees a day. The apple crop fell 91%. What's left doesn't make it far off the West Coast, what with gas and diesel in double digits now. Mike, I heard you guys in Florida were trying to train the preying mantis to pollinate. How's that working out?

When Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, completes the vanishing act that it began in earnest in 2006, it may very well become common to intercept messages like this on the Internet. Early in 2007, scientists mobilized to form task forces to study the perplexing disappearances, and labeled the malady Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD is identified when it manifests a simultaneous syndrome of symptoms which, as we learn from Wikipedia include: "Complete absence of adult bees in colonies, with little or no build-up of dead bees in or around the colonies. Presence of capped brood in colonies. Bees normally will not abandon a hive until the capped brood have all hatched.

Presence of food stores - both honey and bee pollen - which are not immediately robbed by other bees and which, when attacked by hive pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle, the attack is noticeably delayed. Precursor symptoms that may arise before the final colony collapse are: Insufficient workforce to maintain the brood that is present; the workforce seems to be made up of young adult bees; the Queen is present, and colony members are reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement." End quote.

What is causing the bees to abandon their hives? There seem to be as many theories as there are researchers, and they are slow to reach a consensus. Early research would seem to indicate one likely cause, then be refuted. Scientists and beekeepers have put forth diverse ideas -ranging from cell phones and their towers negatively affecting the bees ability to navigate - to a host of natural mites and predators. There are viruses, stress, and immune system compromise - possibly exacerbated by pesticide usage - to consider as well. Finally, global warming and exposure to genetically modified crops have been proffered as theories.

Each theory offers at least a modicum of plausibility, but detractors soon find fault, questioning the validity of the claims. An issue of The Independent, a British periodical that was published April 15, 2007, proposed in their Nature section that mobile phones could be the problem. They wonder - after encountering a study done by Dr. Jochen Kuhn of Landau University - whether radiation emitted by mobile phones and other high-tech gadgets could be hampering the bees capability to navigate. Does such radiation destroy their sense of direction, resulting in their inability to return to their hive?

The preliminary findings, based on a limited study conducted by the German scientist, demonstrated that bees will not return to their hive if a cell phone is placed nearby, but the doctor admitted only that it "provides a hint" to a possible cause. An Indian researcher in the southern state of Kerala - Dr. Sainudden Pattazhy, Dean of Zoology at Sree Naranyala College in Punalur - attempted to replicate the experiments and expand upon them. He discovered that high power transmission lines that crossed the bee habitat had a deleterious effect upon them.

He noted that placing a cell phone - which emit radiation in the 900 - 1800MHZ range - nearby, was enough to cause the bees to avoid returning to the hive. Subsequently, the hive would perish within ten days. "The electromagnetic waves emitted by the towers crippled the 'navigational skills' of the worker bees that go out to collect nectar from flowers to sustain bee colonies," avers Pattazhy. "If towers and mobile phones further increase, honey bees might be wiped out in 10 years." High power transmission lines are known to impact the migratory patterns of birds, so it is possible that this theory has some validity.

Early suspicion turned towards Varroa destructor, the mites that are known to have devastated bee stocks in the late 80's and 90's. But some studies concluded only a very few colonies in each group had high Varroa levels. The brood patterns did not present characteristic bee parasitic mite syndrome (BPMS) symptoms. Varroa mites continue to be a threat and surely some losses this year have been as a result of high mite levels. Varroa mites levels do not explain the sudden loss of adult bees in these colonies.

There are even proponents who feel that, if indeed, bees are suffering their own form of AIDS, be it in this case Avian Immune Deficiency Syndrome, then possibly the way to overcome this weakness would be to cross-breed the honeybee with other bee strains. But if you were to conduct gene splicing of Apis mellifera scutellata Lepeletier - the African Honeybee - into the genome structure of Apis mellifera in hopes of toughening them up, the same problem that afflicts the bees right now could reassert itself. And as there are pros to any proposal, there are cons as well. Honey production would be negatively impacted.

Overall, product quality and taste might actually increase. Can't you just imagine pouring a dollop of glistening golden hybridized bee honey onto your warm fluffy biscuit - just kissed by a delicious pat of melting butter - as you took your first savory bite and thought to yourself, "Now, that's some killer honey!" But, I digress. I have a better idea. Why take half measures? If the premise of enhancing the resistance of the honeybee is actually plausible, why don't we take it all the way? Let's consult the entomologists and determine the denizens of the insect realm that manifest the traits that could best augment our beleagured bees.

Just off the top of my head, I can nominate some candidates? How about locusts, cockroaches, fire ants, and Giant Stag Beetles? Locusts certainly have enhanced abilities to proliferate, as witness multiple anecdotal accounts of plagues - numbering billions of the little critters - in Africa as well as the history of the Mormons and in the Bible. Cockroaches have to be the toughest buggers around. Nothing seems to kill them, and it's been said that they might be the only species to survive nuclear holocaust. Nobody - Varroa mites or anyone else - picks on fire ants, not if they want to avoid a burning-like-acid retaliatory bite.

Giant Stag Beetles have so much tough-as-titanium chitin in their protective carapaces, as well as wielding a pair of intimidating mandibles - capable of wielding crushing force with the strength of a Jaws of Life firefighting extrication tool - that they resemble an Abrams M1 tank with special attachments. Just imagine the potential of the new Apis frankensteinis mellifera. Such an exotic mutant might be better suited to James Cameron's movie Avatar, which envisions a multiplicity of lethal alien flora and fauna inhabiting Pandora, a moon of planet Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Maybe the Na'vi could implore Eywa to intervene, and have her persuade the new assassin bees to coordinate in battalion formation and attack, testing their strength against the formidable AMP's (Amplified Mobility Platform) Marine-ensconced robotic security forces that guard The Corporation's facility? Oh darn, I just gave away the plot for Avatar, the Sequel. But just think of the potential of such a genetically modified insect. It would laugh in the face of nosema ceranus and varroa mites, mock cell tower radiation, and shrug off stress with indifference. Perhaps, someday, a swarm of these hybrids could pay a visit to the pesticide manufacturers, pouring down the HVAC ducts of their compounds. And then, with stinging rebuke, they could exact payback, furiously buzzing in bee dialect "Say hello to my little friends."

Part Two of Three

The Peril of Perishing Pollinators

In the 2008 movie The Happening, Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher. In one classroom scene - as if director M. Night Shyamalan were toying with the audience - a tantalizing glimpse of a blackboard in the background may be seen at times. Scrawled upon that slate surface is an enigmatic and prophetic warning from Albert Einstein. It warns us of calamitous consequences in the future, if anything dire ever threatens the common bee. "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."

Einstein said that? Holy Crap, Batman! Since the news has been covering this story for some time, detailing just such an occurrence, it is a sobering sentiment to consider. And, wait a minute. Four years? This movie came out in 2008? Uhhh, wouldn't that make it 2012? How many coprolytes have to hit the fan blades before we wake up? Some really bad stuff is looking like it might coincide that year which, incidentally, is the Year of the Dragon on the Chinese calendar. Pigs, rats, oxen, tigers, rabbits, snakes, horses, sheep, monkeys, roosters, and dogs. Those I can deal with. Dragons? How much more evocative can we get? My imagination goes into hyperdrive.

In my mind I envision the form of an obsidian cumulus thunderhead, suggestive of the livid face of some wrathful Supernal Being, who bellows sardonically in stentorian fashion, "Hey, Earthlings, how would you like a nice little Dragon's Breath solar flare to go with your polar shift? Oh, and don't forget. The Mayans ordered 'Take Out' for you. It just hasn't been delivered yet. They got you the family special, which includes tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and even a carton of planetary smackdown by a brown dwarf sumo named Nibiru. Want some seasoning? We'll throw in climate change, flooding, and famine, no extra charge. Plenty of fortune cookies too. They all say the same thing, though. 'Eat fast.' "

Well, it turns out that Einstein never made this quote. At least not according to David Mikkelson, who runs the urban myth-debunking Web site He conducted an investigation, and was satisfied enough by the results to declare it a false attribution. My take on his conclusion? Although the "quote" might have some validity, it was likely associated with Einstein in the hopes that some of his gravitas would rub off, endowing those cautionary words with his imprimatur. For the purposes of this piece, though, it doesn't matter if PeeWee Herman said it. It's enough that it was merely brought to our attention.

There are some genuinely far-reaching repercussions that could result if the annihilation of the bee population continues. About one third of the close to 240,000 flowering plants in North America depend upon the honeybee for pollination. That number increases to 75% when you include birds, bats, or other insects necessary to ensure their propagation. According to Wikipedia, pollination by insects is called entomophily. Entomophily is a form of pollination whereby pollen is distributed - from the stamen of a plant to its stigma, or to that of another - by insects, particularly bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and beetles.

The FDA estimates that nearly $15 billion of US crops - primarily nearly all berries and nuts, most fruit, and also many vegetables - are dependent upon pollination by the honeybee. Over ninety diverse crops worldwide - one out of every three bites of the food we consume - rely on Apis mellifera for pollination. Name a few? How about "apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash and cucumbers. And lots of the really sweet and tart stuff, too, including citrus fruits, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and other melons."

What first appears as a problem of limited scope, grows in magnitude the more you consider it. It's not just that Granola would be more expensive. We could grudgingly accept more limited availability of the affected products. But with higher prices, consuming a well-rounded diet would become harder. Nutritional deficiencies would manifest among individuals who couldn't afford vitamin supplements. And what if the ramifications of the bees disappearance were much worse than that? In some ecosystems, the honeybee is considered a keystone species, meaning the loss of the bee could prove to be not only debilitating, but induce the disintegration of those structures.

If the bees were to vanish, it could lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems. Plants that were dependent upon the bee for pollination would decline, eventually to disappear. Their loss would eliminate a food source for species that fed upon them, threatening their existence as well. Predators would be affected by the loss of prey. The loss of crops, such as alfalfa, would rob cattle of forage. The Domino Effect could occur and, one after another, species begin to topple. A snowball rolling downhill gathers momentum as it accelerates. Predicting its direction, the size of its eventual effect, or the force of its impact are impossible.

There are other insects which share the workload. But in many cases they do not pollinate as efficiently, nor on as widespread a basis, as the honeybee. This would impose a limitation on the size of commercial operations. Worldwide, 3/4 of the crops we depend on for food require pollination, and the threat of diminishing numbers of insect pollinators is not limited to the honeybees alone. Other species, endangered by loss of habitat, insecticides, pesticides, and specific threats peculiar to theirselves, are rapidly diminishing in number as well. Are we soon to be left to rely on wind pollination? Our food supplies would be severely limited, should that ensue. Anyone want another bowl of gruel?

So, what happened? When did it start? Reports of vanishing bees and die-offs have happened before. There were reports of disappearances that date back to 1869, with recurrences in 1923, 1965, and during the Seventies. When the Varroa destructor mite first made an appearance in the States in 1986, it wrought carnage, lethally devastating bees. Some areas experienced hive mortality of nearly fifty percent. Again, in 2004, stories began to surface in some eastern states of bees dying under mysterious circumstances. But it wasn't until November of 2006, when a Pennsylvania beekeeper began inspecting the hives in his wintering quarters in Tampa Bay, Florida, that vanishing bees gained notoriety, and they became Big News.

David Hackenberg, an apiarist from West Milton, Pennsylvania, was astonished to discover that most of his bees had gone missing. His hive counts were down 90%. Queens might be present, along with capped brood, but there was a complete absence of workers, with no bodies of dead bees near the colony. Appalled, unable to make sense of this decimation, he reported his loss to someone he hoped could help. He contacted the US Department of Agriculture. And then he spoke with Diana Cox-Foster, Phd, at Penn State University. Cox-Foster is one of the foremost experts on bee diseases in the country, having spent years exhaustively investigating the maladies that can afflict them.

Dr. Cox-Foster consulted with other researchers, those who were like-minded, as well as other experts in human diseases. She convinced them to help. A cadre of scientific peers was quickly assembled to form a working group, assisting in the investigation of what was soon to be labeled Colony Collapse Disorder. That group broadened to include additional representatives from the Department of Agriculture, delegates from state beekeeping organizations, and researchers from five states. A task force now operates under the acronym MAAREC, the Mid-Atlantic Apiary Research and Extension Consortium.

The search for answers continues under MAAREC's aegis, augmented by research from disparate global sites. It's critical to the agriculture industry to find answers because, to date, estimates of total bee losses are approaching 45%. That's about 1.1 million hives. Colony Collapse Disorder - the criteria for which call for that 50% or more of beekeeper's dead colonies are found without bees and/or with very few dead bees in the hive or apiary - has been discovered to have affected at least twenty-four states and parts of Canada. And the problem of the bees disappearance is not limited to the United States.It is overseas as well. The bee population in Europe has suffered devastating losses.

Wikepedia states: "Since the beginning of the 1990s, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Slovenia and the Netherlands have been affected by honey bee disappearances, though it is far from certain that all or any of these reported non-U.S. cases are indeed CCD." Nevertheless, whatever label is assigned to categorize the vanishing of our bees, the result is the same. They are dying. We need to determine the cause, and develop a cure, if that is possible. Otherwise, the loss of these pollinators could result in an irreversible decline in our food sources. And if that happens, their fate could become ours.

Part One of Three

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Third Time's The Charnel

Everywhere you turn, it seems, conversations are abuzz with the idea that something bad could happen in 2012. Maybe, like Ray Bradbury wrote, "something wicked this way comes?" Maybe Gaia is stressed out, her resources swiftly depleting. She's inervated by our remorseless species -suckling like tiny vampires at Mother Earth's teats, devouring her milk till she's just about drained dry - and a little less than three more years is all that she can take? Do planets go postal - erupting in earth-shattering fury from frustration pent-up over millenia - and finally just explode? Can someone go and ask Ceres?

That 590 mile diameter asteroid could be the largest remnant left of a former planet that used to circle between Mars and Jupiter, just before her Mom had a nervous breakdown. Why don't we dub this hypothetical planet Opis, until someone comes up with a better name? Opis, which means plenty in Latin, was an earth goddess - who in Roman mythology of Sabine origin - was worshipped as a fertility deity. Coupling with her brother Saturn, they produced offspring Pluto, Juno, Jupiter, Neptune, Ceres, and Vesta.

Vesta was discovered in 1807 by German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. He deferred the honor of naming it to prominent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. This second largest nomad of the asteroid belt is an approximately 362 mile diameter slow-tumbling rock. An enormous 290 mile wide impact crater, nearly 80% of its width, indicates that Vesta was struck nearly a billion years ago, losing up to one percent of her volume during that occurence. Ummm, how can they gauge this with such precision? Were our astral alien ancestors parked in nearby UFO's conducting observation? "Oooh weeh oooh," the Twilight Zone music plays.

3 Juno is another asteroid, and the Juno clump refers to an asteroid family in the proximity of 3 Juno. Thus, we can see that all the offspring of the mythological pairing of Opis with Saturn resulted in awarding the names of the big brothers to planets, and their siblings to asteroids. Apparently, the German's - at least their astronomers and mathematicians - retain a droll sense of humor as demonstrated by their taxonomic designations of names for the asteroids. I think Opis is perfectly appropriate as a name then, and I plan on filing a Missing Persons Report on this planet with the Astronomy Police.

What did cause all those fragments circling Sol, in orbit between the fourth and fifth planets? Did a planet once exist there? Enough residual rounding remnants remain that if things ever got really boring up there on Mount Olympus, if an inebriated Zeus and his plastered boys Apollo and Ares - like a wine-swilling male trio bonding on a Family Night bacchanale - could assemble them like a gigantic 9,350,000 piece Ravensburger puzzle entitled "Planetary Migraine, My Head is About to Explode" they would only form a planetoid less than 1/3 to 1/2 the diameter of the moon. But I digress.

There are a couple of theories tossed around by debating scientists that could account for the presence of the asteroids. One theorizes that what we see now, orbitting 251,000,000 miles - or 2.7 AU (astronomical units), the distance from Earth to the Sun - is the remains of a planet. The Titius–Bode law is a hypothesis which puts forth that bodies in some solar systems orbit at predictable distances from the sun, which can be determined as an exponential function of planetary sequence. Sixteenth century mathematicians, working without the advanced telescopy available today, predicted the presence of a planetary mass at 2.8 AU, even though none of the smaller asteroids had been discovered at that time.

Dr Tom Van Flandern is an American astronomer who has - since the late-1970's - amassed an impressive body of evidence, the compilation of which continues to contribute momentum to convince skeptics of his claim that a planet once existed in this orbital plane. His brainchild was initially repudiated by academia, as it controverted mainstream scientific orthodoxy of that era, but since which time its plausibility has leant considerably to its credence. He has written several analytical expositories propounding the Exploding Planet Hypothesis, and his publications may be found in scientific annals. He is also the author of the book Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets.

The major proponent of EPH, researcher Van Flandern postulates that there may well have been a planet that ruptured. Evidence of just that is to be found on Mars, which may once have been a moon of Opis. Van Flandern states, "If a massive planet had blown up nearby, it would blast the facing hemisphere with craters, and leave the shielded hemisphere relatively unscathed. Especially significant in this regard is the fact that half of Mars is saturated with craters, and half is only sparsely cratered."

Astrophysicist John Chambers, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, declares the size distribution of craters on the Moon better match asteroids from the Asteroid Belt, located beyond the orbit of Mars. He thinks the misbehaviour of a long-lost, fifth rocky planet called 'Planet V' was the trigger that upset the gravitational balance of the belt and ejected some of its inhabitants. Planet V's orbit was between that of Mars and the Asteroid Belt, Chambers predicts, and it may have been smaller than Mars but larger than our Moon.

The viewpoint of the oppositional camp, held by most planetary astronomers, is the belief that "the planets of the Solar System formed from a nebula of gas and dust that coalesced into a disk of dust grains around the developing Sun. Within the disk, tiny dust grains coagulated into larger and larger bodies called planetesimals, many of which eventually accreted into planets over a period as long as a 100 million years. However, beyond the orbit of Mars, gravitational interference from Jupiter's huge mass prevented protoplanetary bodies from growing larger than about 620 miles."

They also like to refute EPH by insisting it relies on specious logic. They support this by adding that the problem with the Asteroid Belt being the remnants of a destroyed planet is that its total mass is very small, very much less than the mass of the Moon. It has been estimated that the total mass of the Main Asteroid Belt may total less than 1/1000th of the mass of the Earth. So where did the rest of it disappear? Dr. Dan Durda suggests an answer that, if lacking the correct context, provides forensic support for either party. Durda is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO. His friends jokingly refer to him as an astronomy evangelist who sermonizes about asteroid impacts and extinction events.

"The Main Asteroid Belt is only a small remnant of the material that once resided in the region between Mars and Jupiter, but once may have contained between two to 10 Earth masses of material. However, T-Tauri-type Solar winds from a very young Sun, gravitational perturbations from Jupiter developing nearby, and dynamic interactions with other large planetesimals and protoplanets during the first 100 million years, and continuing collisional grinding over the following 4.5 billion years after the formation of the planets, interfered with the formation of a substantial, single planet and caused most of the mass to be lost to the rest of the Solar System and interstellar space." (Dan Durda, "Ask Astro," Astronomy, December 2000).

I prefer Van Flandern's theory, even if he does neglect to utilize the appellation Opis. He says exploding planets have happened before, not just once but at least twice in the history of our solar system. He points to evidence that another asteroid belt, possibly two, circle the sun in orbit beyond Neptune. Could this happen again? To Mars, or Venus? Look what happened the last time, when Opis exploded. The biosphere of the Earth was pummelled with huge fragmentary cinders. One was large enough - estimated at six miles in diameter - to leave a 110 mile wide impact crater where it struck at Chicxulub, Mexico in the Yucatan peninsula.

This happened 65,000,000 years ago, during the K-T boundary. From Wikipedia we learn: "The K–T boundary is a geological signature, usually a thin band, dated to (65.5 ± 0.3) Ma (megaanum, or million years ago). K is the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous period, and T is the abbreviation for the Tertiary period. The boundary marks the end of the Mesozoic era and the beginning of the Cenozoic era, and is associated with the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, a mass extinction." No more Triceratops, Stegasaurus, or Brontosaurus.

What gives scientists confidence that an impact event caused the extinction? K-T boundary sedimentary rock layers around the world have been found to contain iridium concentrations much higher than is normal for geological formations. Iridium is an extremely rare element, and the levels found at this demarcation are 30 to 130% more than would be expected. Meteorites and asteroids are known to contain iridium levels as much as fifteen hundred times greater than terrestrial strata. So they're pretty sure the damage resulted from a rock the size of Manhattan clobbering us. The impact would have had the force of 100 trillion tons of TNT, about 2 million times more powerful than the biggest nuke ever tested.

So what happened the one time Chicken Little, clucking "the sky is falling, the sky is falling" was right? No one knows for sure, but scientists imagine three possible scenarios: Some think the impact threw massive quantities of dust into the atmosphere which blocked the sun and arrested plant growth. Others believe sulfur released by the impact lead to global sulfuric acid clouds that blocked the sun and also fell as acid rain. Another possibility is that red-hot debris from the falling asteroid or comet triggered global wildfires. Or it could be some combination of each.

Could our solar system experience the complete destruction of a planet for the third time? Could there be some type of extinction level event, threatening to obliterate our species, approaching in 2012? Are all of these fearmongering rumor spreaders right? Or are they just pitiable scared homonids running about, aping what others have said? If they're right, come 2013, homo sapiens will no longer be the only extant species of the family Hominidae. We could be joining the other homos, the upright bipedal primates like habilis, floresiensis, and neanderthalensis, who like australopithecus before them took their curtain call and became extinct. Come midnight on December 21, 2012, we could all be exiting stage left as we share the sentiment "Man, it's been real, but I'm outta here."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ground Meatier

I don't subscribe to the newspaper, so sometimes I'm a little out of the loop. But last night being New Year's Eve, I had to run out to Ding Ho's, my favorite Chinese food restaraunt - not to be confused with Dang Ho's the exotic oriental cuisine eatery with lax dress codes that allows holes in one's socks - that Tiger Woods is rumored to be considering. However, on the advice of those closest to him, he is not certain he will be taking a position in Dang Ho's for the near future, his spokesman stated for reporters today.

I like Ding Ho's for their excellent orange chicken, but also because they provide a copy of our local rag The Fresno Bee. In the Nation & World section, I noticed a headline that I skimmed while waiting for my food. "Russia keeps eye on asteroid," the large font header read with the smaller print subtext following which noted "Space agency floats idea of mission to knock it off course." Ummm, what am I missing here? Are we about to be smacked by a malevolent siderite spitwad emanating from the Big Bang that holds a grudge against Terraneans? I decided I better look into this.

Our government doesn't always inform us of everything an inquiring mind would like to know. Media control. Something about keeping us from panicking? Heck, a lot of people don't even read at a fifth grade level, so that would preclude them from learning anything from newsprint. But I digress. At first glance, the title brought to mind the 1998 Michael Bay extravaganza Armageddon, in which an asteroid the size of Texas is approaching Earth with the intent of pulverizing homo sapiens in the same fashion that Tyrannosaurus Rex was obliterated.

In that movie, it's up to Bruce Willis, playing Harry Stamper -the best deep core driller in the world - to train astronauts who will go to the asteroid, drill 800 feet into the center and detonate a nuclear device. But the velocity with which the asteroid is approaching to play planetary "whack-a-mole" leaves only eighteen days before the lethal collision. That just isn't enough time! So Harry decides to train his team to be astronauts, instead of the other way around. Will his ultimate sacrifice to detonate the nuke himself save the planet from disaster? In Hollywood, viewers like to see happy endings.

So worldwide destruction is averted in the end. This is not quite the same as the fate shared by Morgan Freeman and Tea Leoni in Deep Impact. In that 1998 film Leoni stars as Jenny Lerner, a reporter for MSNBC in Washington, DC. She inadvertently uncovers government awareness of an extinction level event that is imminent. Her investigatory persistence leads President Beck, played by Morgan Freeman, to conclude that "it's time to tell the public." A seven mile wide comet is about to strike the Earth. A spacecraft named Messiah is readied to address the crisis.

After an abortive effort to destroy the comet, one large fragment does make deep impact (remember 3rd grade summer school, and Billy "Fatso" Whittaker, doing the Cannonball?) in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach and Cape Hatteras, creating a mega-tsunami about 1,000 to 3,500 ft high. Jenny and her father perish, along with millions of others on America's east coast, Europe, and Africa. But a larger portion of the comet - dubbed "Wolf," after the astronomer who confirmed its existence - is still on a collision course with Western Canada. When it strikes it will create a sun-obscuring dust cloud that will linger for years, resulting in starvation for any survivors.

Hollywood arrives again, just in time with a happy ending, albeit one not completely unmarked by tragic loss of life. The comet is blasted to smithereens by the couragious actions of the fearless crew (so that the minnows would not be lost) of the Messiah , a spaceship constructed by the bilateral efforts of the governments of the United States and Russia. The fragment residue falls harmlessly to Earth, where it burns up on entry through the atmosphere. Humanity is saved. Both of these movies capitalized on a hysteria that would prove as real as that portrayed, if such an event were about to occur.

Is this likely to happen? Is it even remotely possible? What do scientists, not scriptwriters, have to say on the subject? From Wikipedia we learn an impact event is the collision of a large meteorite, asteroid, or comet with the Earth. Asteroids with a 1 km diameter strike the Earth every 500,000 years on average. Larger collisions - with five kilometer objects - happen approximately once every ten million years. The last known impact of an object of 10 km or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65 million years ago. In layman's terms, that's when the dinosaurs got creamed.

We've all seen the displays of meteor showers. So we know that gravel-sized pebbles of nickel/iron ore do roam the galaxy, if only to provide spectacular visual spectacle as they incinerate in incandescent display as they enter planetary atmospheres. A schedule of these annual light shows is available at: This link informs us that on August 12 and 13, 2010 we will be able to view the Perseids. The parent comet, 109P/Swift-Tuttle, produces about 60 meteors per hour, and its performance is fairly consistent from year to year.

Skyscraper's Inc., is maintained by The Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island. They are an educational, non-profit organization with the purpose of educating the general public and membership on matters pertaining to astronomy. This site also informs us that we will be able to view the Geminids on December 13, and 14, 2010. Issuing from parent comet 3200 Phaethon, the Geminids are characterized by their multi-colored display--65% being white, 26% yellow, and the remaining 9% blue, red and green, and are considered the most reliable meteor shower of the year.

So we witness evidence all about us of astronomical phenomena that could impact the Earth. The smaller stuff? Aw, who cares? But what about collisions with objects that could really endanger our species? Back to Wikipedia. "Asteroids with diameters of 5-10 meters enter the Earth's atmosphere approximately once per year, with as much energy as Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, approximately 15 kilotonnes of TNT. These ordinarily explode in the upper atmosphere and most or all of the solids are vaporized." But would you like to be at Ground Zero when one made it through?

"Objects of diameters of over 50 meters strike the Earth approximately once every thousand years, producing explosions comparable to the one observed at Tunguska on June 30, 1908. Although the cause of the explosion is the subject of debate, it is commonly believed to have been caused by the air burst of a large meteoroid or cometary fragment at an altitude of 5–10 kilometres above the Earth's surface. Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 to as high as 30 megatons of TNT, about 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan." And this explosion didn't even occur directly on the ground!

Have you seen the pictures of the destruction that was wreaked by this blast? "The explosion knocked over an estimated 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi). It is estimated that the shockwave from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. An explosion of this magnitude would be capable of destroying a large metropolitan area. This possibility has helped to spark discussion of asteroid deflection strategies.
The Tunguska event is the largest impact event over land in Earth's recent history."

We know that the Earth has been struck before, with immense destructive force, because of the evidence one can still see at Meteor Crater. About 4,000 feet in diameter, it is some 570 feet deep. It is surrounded by a rim that rises 150 feet above the surrounding plains. Located about 43 miles east of Flagstaff, it is near Winslow, in the northern Arizona desert of the United States. Scientists generally refer to it as Barringer Crater, in honor of Daniel Barringer, who was first to suggest that it was produced by meteorite impact. In 1960, later research by Eugene Shoemaker confirmed that hypothesis.

What focused the Russian's attention in the first place, resulting in this news item, was the approach of near-Earth asteroid 2004 MN4, now referred to as Apophis. Relying again on Wikipedia we learn that Apophis is the Greek name of the Ancient Egyptian enemy of Ra: Apep, the Uncreator, a serpent that dwells in the eternal darkness of the Duat (earth's middle) and tries to swallow Ra during His nightly passage. Apep is held at bay by Set, the Ancient Egyptian god of Chaos. Apophis was initially projected to have a 2.7% chance of striking Earth in 2029.

The Torino Scale is a method for categorizing the impact hazard associated with near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets. It is intended as a tool for astronomers and the public to assess the seriousness of collision predictions, by combining probability statistics and known kinetic damage potentials into a single threat value. It has since been determined that the original calculations were faulty, and the asteroid is given an impact probability of only 1 in 250,000 chance in 2036. This recalculation of the trajectory of the asteroid caused it to be downgraded from a 4 to a zero on the Torino Scale.

So do the Russians know something we don't? Or is it that their mathematicians just don't trust ours? Is there a massive program underway in the Southern Siberian steppes even now, to hollow out cavernous enclaves suitable to sustain the Muskovy elite in the event of a meteor impact? Is the lack of concern by our media a gigantic government coverup to prevent panic? Are we being told the truth? Whatever the case may be, truth may be stranger than fiction. If the Russians figure they can defuse any future threat by launching a spacecraft to knock Apophis off course, then they've been watching too many American movies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pet Food

Have you ever taken the time to consider what could happen if - someday, for whatever reason - the shit hits the fan (hereinafter referred to as TSHTF)? Maybe peak oil has struck, forcing those road-hogging smoke-spewing diesel-snorting behemoths that transport our food to have to sit idled in truckstops?

Maybe a virulent pandemic like bird flu, or swine flu or even a more lethal hybrid like avian/swine flu (yeah, that'll happen... when pigs fly) has caused widespread panic catalyzing people to freak out and flee fervently in frantic frenzy to their nearby Winco in an adrenaline-induced state of sudden overpowering terror only to find every damned shelf in the whole mammoth mega-store stripped more naked then a Playboy centerfold? You could look, but you wouldn't even be able to find basic staples.

What would happen then? Well, I'll just betcha, about that time, a little light would go off in your head triggering the thought "hey, I know where some Mormons live!" And then you would pay them a visit, approaching respectfully along the front walkway to ring the doorbell, where you would wait demurely with hands clasped innocently behind your back. When they opened the door you could respectfully inquire "Kind Sir, would you mind terribly if I borrowed a cube of bullion to feed my starving children?"

And then, as is their wont, as they are a good-natured generous God-fearing lot, as they turned to fetch the aforementioned cube you could with great stealth sneak up behind them and then with sinister malice whip into a full Tiger Woods backswing and absolutely let em have it across their noggin with your rolled-up sock of quarters - silver of course, clad is for peons - causing them to reel backwards howling in agony and clutching the egg-sized rapidly-turning-purple hematoma on their occiput as they exclaimed "Jumpin Jehosephat, why in tarnations didya do that for?"

At this point, you could flash your most winsome Son of Sam smile and emulating Jack Nicholson's sinister leer and gravelly voice in The Shining reply "Cuz I'm hungry, Fred," just before moving in to finish knocking the bejesus out of him. This is like one of those cinematic sequences where the director tricks you - the devious bastard - by making you think things are real until a moment later you realize it was all merely a fantasy of the protagonist, a cheap device to stretch a too-thin plot.

In real life, friend, if TSHTF I'm sorry to tell you, but the Mormon's won't be such easy pushovers because they've already considered this possibility, anticipating that they might have nefarious neighbors just like you. So they have contingency plans, Dude.

You know how many members of the NRA there are living in Utah? The state where they have lots and lots, I mean actual mammalian herds of hamburger-on-the-hoof? Deer, elk, moose, mountain goats for the fair-play "hey-let-me-just-drop-your-furry-little-ass-with-a-thirty-ought-six-shot-through-the-heart" for the hunter with a sense of ethics, and penned dairy cows for the mean-spirited?

I don't think the Mormon Militia will have any trouble defending the stashes buried in their barricaded local wards spread conveniently throughout Salt Lake City. All those missionaries will be recalled and pressed into vigilant service riding their Schwinn mountain bikes in tandem in two-minute circumferential patrols while toting Uzi's, patrolling the perimeter of their fortified compound, following the narrow jogging track just outside the nine-foot high electrified fences topped with concertina razor wire.

So where does this leave you, Oh slothful Sluggard, who never prepared for this eventuality? The one who the talking heads on CNBC refer to with derisive contempt when they chant in unison "one who fails to plan, plans to fail?" Well, I'll tell you. Your options are rather limited at this point.

I don't think you want to end up like Harold Donner, who along with his obnoxious wife Maude and their five sniveling snot-nosed brats found themselves stuck in a cabin where the atmosphere - already rife with tension - just continued worsening as the ravenous clan just would not stop with their incessant exhortations "Mumma, Papa, we're hungry, feed us, we're hungry, feed us," until - red-eyed and crazed - habitually hungry Maude harried her hounded husband one fateful time too many until he'd finally had enough.

Whirling on her, challenging her mocking gaze with livid face fervent he blurted vociferously "Oh Maude, you know what? Just eat me!" Wrong move Harold; the little buggers leapt on him like a pack of piranhas on a portly Peruvian. I don't think any of my readers want to repeat that experience, do they?

So, once more, where does that leave you? Umm, I think its time we better start talking about pet food. And I don't mean getting out the can opener and cracking open a container of Alpo, or that perennial feline favorite Fancy Feast. I'm talking more along the lines of Fido and Fluffy, whichever one you can coax into your clutches first. Shocked? Sure, the idea is grisly, the entire concept macabre but, hey, they do call them Chow in China, now don't they? Perhaps those wily Orientals know something we don't?

So, if TSHTF, can we expect to see motley ques of disheveled skeletal figures dumpster-diving at the SPCA? Can we anticipate overhearing avowals that would take on an entirely new meaning? "Boy, I feel like a King today!" Makes you think, doesn't it? If it did ever really happen - TSHTF - how far would you go to feed your starving family? What would you do to survive? I know what I would do.

"Here kitty, kitty, kitty!"

The author is just joking about devouring domesticated felis or canis which irrefutably reflects his abysmally poor, despicable and reprehensible sense of humor. No actual Rex or Princess (names changed to protect the innocent) were harmed in the posting of this commentary. The author, now chagrined with shame and disgrace, hopes that the reader has prepared for this bleak stygian future by buying silver and gold, and guns and groceries. Lots of em.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The End Of The World As We Know It?

I don't know about you, but it seems like some pretty scary things are coming up on the horizon. On December 21, 2012, to be precise. There's a lot of speculation regarding that date on the Internet, some scientific predictions purporting to what could occur in that time frame, and you may even overhear conversations among your friends as to what might happen in 2012.

I hadn't heard any of this speculation prior to discovering that Roland Emmerich was producing a new movie, an epic CGI-enhanced (computer graphics interface) thriller that shows the destruction of Earth's civilization that occurs on December 21, 2012, the same date that the Mayan calendar suddenly comes to a final end.

Since I loved a few of his earlier films, namely The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day (can you tell I love big-budget special effects movies?) I was excited to learn this film would be coming out this year, particularly after watching the initial trailer released last year, which can be viewed on Youtube.

That trailer shows an eagle's eye view of Tibet, as a Buddhist monk runs as fast as he can along a trail poised precariously along a mountain ridge in the Himalayas. You first focus on running feet, then see his orange saffron robe. Finally he reaches the stone hut atop the peak and begins to swing a large wooden log to strike a huge bell warning others of impending danger.

As he does so you can begin to see an immense tsunami wash over the crest of Mt. Everest in the background. Holy moly, if that didn't send chills down my spine the first time I saw it. Of course, I had to excitedly show all my friends while exclaiming how cool it would all be. It was just a movie, after all. Nothing like this could ever come true, right?

Well, that's what I thought at the time. The closing screen of that trailer implies that the government knows alot more about what could be a cataclysmic event (polar shift, solar flares, planet X colliding with the Earth) approaching in that year then they are letting on. The parting message urges the watcher to google 2012 "to learn the truth." Um, what the heck are they talking about?

I'd been working so hard the last ten years, my nose buried in the grindstone attempting to build financial security for my pending retirement years that I was utterly - and I mean completely clueless - of this entire phenomena. I guess most people have been talking somewhat dismissively of the whole thing, not giving it much credence (except for the few paranoid nut-jobs who take it quite seriously) for years, but this was the first I'd heard of it.

So, I had a lot of catching up to do. No one wants to be totally unaware of what seems to be becoming a cultural movement. So I dove into the google searches and was surprised at the amount of information out there, all allegedly addressing the various questions I had. And I had alot, because once I started to get into it, I realized that the "end of the world" concept seemed to strike a chord within me, in harmony with some of my own thoughts I had recently been dredging over.

Doesn't it seem to you like events are accelerating? That there are more bizarre and heinous crimes being committed every day? Are we just more aware of these reprehensible acts, or are the news media just more focused on reporting, or is it a combination of both? It seems to me like there is a convergence of some sort of all kinds of bad news that seems to be pointing to some type of culmination in the near future.

People are consumed with worry about the economy and fear losing their jobs (or already have), bankruptcies are on the rise, foreclosures are going through the roof, real estate prices are reeling, deadly epidemics are spreading, global warming is melting the polar caps. You get the point, I could go on and on with loads of examples.

It just seems like things are getting worse by the day, so that on some subconscious level the idea that the world as we know it might be changing drastically in the near future didn't surprise me. I found resonance in the thoughts expressed by James Howard Kuntsler in the piece he did a few years ago on peak oil entitled The Long Emergency.

Look into it, and you'll uncover a sobering assessment of what Kuntsler feels lays in our future once our carbon-based society is forced to find alternative energy sources, as well as the bleak vision he holds for America. The changes he foresees are inconceivable to anyone accustomed to our current standard of living. Prepare yourself to become a third-world country, with all the attendant benefits accorded peasantry.

So, for a long time I had been wondering if all these "happenings" that I allude to were portents of worse things to come. I'd been thinking, "are we in the End Times predicted in the Bible?" One thing that I'd always found curious was that, in the Book of Revelations, there seems to be no mention of the United States!

It doesn't take much imagination to read between the lines and interpret scripture. Having done so, one might easily deduce that Russia and China will someday battle for supremacy. That war, described in the Bible as Armageddon, will take place in the Middle East. So many times, reading current events, I've wondered "is this the start of WWIII?" Iran's sabre-rattling could be the final straw that could ignite a nuclear holocaust.

Forgive me, it's easy to go off on a tangent, so let me retrace my steps. Let's go back to my discussion of Revelations. What could cause the lack of the presence in John's visions of a power resembling America? We were once the strongest nation in the world, and can still wield the mightiest military force. What could take us out of the picture in the blink of an eye, such that we wouldn't even be a participant in the final apocalypse? I'll tell you what I think might do that, and the conclusion I reached might cause you to be as startled as I was.

The only thing that I think could cripple us as a world power would be a complete and total financial collapse, one of such ruinous destructive magnitude that our economy would be devastated and our ability to be the world's policemen utterly quashed. And guess what? That's happening right now!

This country is rapidly sliding into an inescapable morass of gargantuan debt and accelerating inflation. The dollar is becoming worth less and less daily, and will soon be worthless. We, my friends, are headed for hyperinflation, so I hope you've prepared by taking measures to survive that scenario. It's not too late to buy silver, buy gold, stockpile food, and provide yourself with a means of defense. And it might not hurt to get out that Bible and start reading it, I do believe.

The world may not be coming to an end, but we are most definitely living in some interesting times.