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U.S. warns Mosul Dam at risk of collapse.

The Tigris River is the cradle of civilization, the liquid heart of ancient Mesopotamia, which hasn’t been the same since the Babylonians sacked Nineveh in 612 BCE. The river also has the bad fortune of flowing through modern-day Iraq. One unforeseen consequence of its path through a war-torn country is the sad state of the infrastructure designed to keep it at bay. Case in point: The Mosul Dam is in imminent danger of collapsing. Death toll forecast: 500,000.

The Mosul Dam, formerly and unsurprisingly known as Saddam Dam, is the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, providing power to the 1.7 million citizens of Mosul. It is 371 feet tall and 2.1 miles long. Its reservoir is called Lake Dahuk, and it holds 11 billion cubic meters of water.

The Mosul Dam: Spillway functioning normally on the Tigris River. Source:

The Mosul Dam: Spillway functioning normally on the Tigris River. Source:

Unlike the Three Gorges Dam or Hoover Dam, however, the Mosul Dam is anything but a marvel of modern engineering. It is built on a foundation of soluble gypsum, which dissolves in water. Such karst foundations, as they are known, are legendary for forming caves and sinkholes.

Source: BBC.

Source: BBC.

The dam was ordered by Saddam Hussein and construction began in 1981 during the Iran-Iraq War. Time was of the essence, so the German-Italian company hired to build the structure was instructed to skip the step that involved shoring up the seeping, porous rock with a sturdy foundation of grout. The dam was completed and the on switch was thrown on July 7, 1986. Repairs started approximately two minutes later. Continuous grouting with a slurry of cement, a task performed around the clock by twenty-four machines and dozens of people, has been central to the dam’s operation since the beginning. This has done nothing, however, to prevent six sinkholes from forming in the immediate vicinity and the springing of several leaks.

When U.S. forces secured the country in 2003, units were dutifully dispatched to the dam to prevent insurgents from carrying out their plan to blow it up. The U.S. soldiers talked the insurgents out of destroying the dam and brought its own engineers over to assume repair duties. They did their best, but there’s no fooling Mother Nature. A 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report stated that “in terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world.” Furthermore, a collapse of the dam would flood both Mosul and Baghdad, possibly killing up to 500,000 people. That’s twice as many that died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. The following year—2007—another U.S. report stated that the dam’s foundation could give way at any moment.

All was quiet until the summer of 2014, when ISIS fought their way into the region and briefly took control of the dam from Kurdish forces. Fortunately, within two weeks the Kurds and the Iraqis, aided by U.S. airstrikes, wrested control of the dam from ISIS. However, few of the 600 Kurdish and Iraqi workers returned, and the steady supply of cement needed to repair the holes was disrupted due to the factory being in ISIS-controlled territory.

Kurdish fighters guarding the Mosul Dam after retaking it from ISIS in August, 2015. Source:

Kurdish fighters guarding the Mosul Dam after retaking it from ISIS in August, 2015. Source:

Repairs resumed, but with fewer people and a lack of materials. Also, the brief repair hiatus may have weakened the dam considerably. Now officials fear the spring rains and melting winter snow will tax the faulty dam even further. On February 29, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a security message to U.S. citizens in the area titled “Planning for Possible Collapse of the Mosul Dam.” The memo urges people to prepare their own contingency plan and update their documents so they can leave the country quickly if necessary. Meanwhile, according to one Iraqi official quoted by PRI, “The media tends to exaggerate . . . we assure people everything is fine.” Translation: The Iraqi government has not bothered to tell people the dam is in danger of collapse and what to do in the event of an emergency.

That means that few people in Mosul understand that they would have roughly four hours to seek higher ground at least 3.5 miles away from the banks of the river if the dam collapses. Other cities along the path, including Tikrit (population 160,000) and Samarra (population 350,000) would have a bit longer, but no concerted public effort has been made to warn people. People in Baghdad (population 9,000,000) would have a comfortable 24 to 72 hours to get out of the way, and flooding there would be much less severe.




Apart from the actual flood itself and its immediate loss of life, can you image the longer term ramifications of the dam collapse? The country’s agriculture would be nearly obliterated, the power grid would be wiped out, and other infrastructure debilitated. Add to that millions more displaced people on top of the millions of displaced people next door in Syria. The humanitarian crisis would be epic. ISIS still holds much of the territory around the dam, which would further destabilize the country.

The very slim silver lining in all of this is that many people who can influence the situation are aware of it. In early March, Iraqi officials signed a contract with an Italian contractor to reinforce the dam over a period of 18 months. Italy’s prime minister is sending along 850 troops to guard the contractors and the dam during the repair process. In the long run, however, the only sure-fire solution is to build a new dam. In fact, work began on the Badush Dam, about 10 miles downstream, to replace Mosul Dam in the 1988, but the project was abandoned half-finished in 1991 due to sanctions against Iraq.

Iraq’s monument to sanctions: The unfinished Badush Dam, designed to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the event of the collapse of the Mosul Dam. More than twenty years after construction ceased, it is nothing more than an expensive obstacle in the middle of the Tigris River. Source: © EDR GmbH

Iraq’s monument to sanctions: The unfinished Badush Dam, designed to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the event of the collapse of the Mosul Dam. More than twenty years after construction ceased, it is nothing more than an expensive obstacle in the middle of the Tigris River. Source: © EDR GmbH

In a world of increasing natural disasters, let’s hope that this hybrid man-made/natural disaster can be prevented. The people of Iraq have suffered enough.

Posted on: April 22, 2016, 3:21 pm Category: Admin

Environmental Ghost Towns

A recent headline out of Flint, Michigan, stated that only 7 percent of the city’s homes had lead in their water above federal safety levels. While that is certainly a tragedy and requires a thorough investigation, it seems less than the full-scale Armageddon that was initially reported.

Human-caused environmental disasters are nothing new, and yet many people are hard pressed to name any other American cities that have suffered a similar or worse fate than Flint. Those of us of a certain age remember Love Canal, the New York neighborhood near Niagara Falls that was abandoned after children were found to suffer abnormally high cancer rates and other dangerous health problems. While officials dragged their heels in investigating, grassroots activists discovered that the neighborhood had been built on a toxic waste dump. In total, about one third of all residents suffered chromosomal damage that could lead to leukemia. The government was finally forced to relocate 800 families in the early 1980s when public outrage reached critical mass.

Love Canal in the bad old days.

Love Canal in the bad old days.

All students of environmental science should commit the following incidents to memory. If you grew up or live near one of these locations, it may be common knowledge. But, like common sense, common knowledge isn’t so common. One could argue that familiarizing yourself with our country’s environmental history is as important as knowing its “traditional” history.

So zip up your hazmat suit and strap on your respirator. We’re taking a chronological tour of prime U.S. Superfund territory.

Times Beach, Missouri

The Road to Times Beach, Missouri, c. 1983.

The Road to Times Beach, Missouri, c. 1983.












In the 1970s this sleepy, working-class town on the banks of the Meramec River near the Illinois border was home to 2,000 residents who lived in modest houses along dirt roads. To keep the dust levels down, the town hired a waste oil hauler to spray the dirt roads with oil. He got his waste oil from the nearby Independent Petrochemical Corporation. They had gotten it from the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company. It contained tons of deadly dioxins. Over several months in 1971 the waste oil hauler took six truckloads of dioxin waste (18,500 gallons) and mixed it with his other waste oil. It was this mixture that was sprayed on city streets.

In addition to spraying 23 miles of Times Beach’s dirt roads, he sprayed horse stables and arenas in the area. That’s when the first inkling of disaster became clear. He sprayed one arena with 2,000 gallons of the poisonous waste oil, and 62 horses died. A month later, 12 horses at another location died. But the Times Beach officials knew nothing about the dead horses and continued to let their streets be sprayed with a total of 160,000 gallons of dioxin-laced oil.

The EPA did not get wind of the problem until 1979–some eight years after all those horses died. Then they kept it to themselves. (More than a generation later, the EPA did the same thing in Flint). In 1982 the Environmental Defense Fund leaked internal EPA reports discussing the Times Beach contamination. Citizens were rightly outraged. The EPA was forced to complete more exhaustive tests. The town was evacuated; it flooded the next day when the river crested 14 feet above flood level. Nobody was allowed to return home.

Governor John Ashcroft, years before he became Attorney General under President George W. Bush, disincorporated the town in 1985. Clean-up was completed in 1997, and now the town is a state park commemorating U.S. Route 66.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

Lethal gas fumes in abandoned Centralia, Pennsylvania, 2006.

Lethal gas fumes in abandoned Centralia, Pennsylvania, 2006.

Mining of anthracite coal began in Centralia in 1856. By 1890 the town had swelled to 2,761 residents, but it was all downhill from there. Mining ceased by the early 1960s.

In 1962 the town’s firemen allegedly set fire to trash at the city dump. The fire seeped into a nearby opening in an abandoned coal mine and snaked its way through the vast network of tunnels until extinguishing it became impossible. The fire burned for decades. People gave it little thought or didn’t even know about it until 1979 when a gas station owner discovered that the temperature in his underground fuel tanks hovered around 172 degrees. Then a sinkhole nearly swallowed a twelve-year-old boy in 1981. He was saved, but the sinkhole was found to be emitting lethal levels of carbon dioxide. It became evident that the ground beneath Centralia was highly unstable. The government began the long process of seizing properties via eminent domain. All homes were condemned in 1992. Nearby Byrnesville, pop. 75, was also abandoned. Population declined from 1,000 in the 1980s to ten in 2015.

Gilman, Colorado

Ghost truck at the New Jersey Zinc Co., Gilman, Colorado.

Ghost truck at the New Jersey Zinc Co., Gilman, Colorado.











Scenic Gilman, Colorado, was founded in 1886 during the Colorado Silver Boom on a 600-foot cliff overlooking the Eagle River. Once the silver was gone, miners turned to zinc and lead. All was well for the next 98 years. Then the EPA went and closed the mine in 1984 because of toxic contamination. Unlike many towns on this list, Gilman was a wholly owned company mining town, and population never reached beyond a few hundred. By 1912 the town was owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, which left behind 8 million tons of toxic waste that hadn’t moved by the time the area was placed on the Superfund list in 1986.

In 2007 a public referendum passed by a wide margin allowing Ginn Resorts to turn the town and surrounding area into Ginn Resorts’ Battle Mountain Ski and Golf Resort. Ski at your own risk.

Southbend Subdivision, Texas













Southeast of downtown Houston, where the chemical companies thrive along the Gulf of Mexico, the Brio Refinery and Dixie Oil Processing were established in 1957. By 1982 the last vestiges of these companies had filed for bankruptcy, Monsanto owned the land, and the Southbend subdivision was rising along the edges of the desiccated landscape. Construction workers suffered many health problems, but the new home owners were oblivious to the decades worth of pollution buried on the other side of the fence.

The rest of the story follows a distinct pattern: Lots of kids with rare diseases that suddenly weren’t that rare, babies with birth defects, miscarriages, stillborn babies, a lackadaisical EPA. Intrepid reporters at the South Belt–Ellington Leader pursued the issue; tests found methylene chloride, benzene, toluene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, and arsenic at the site. In one area vinyl chloride levels were 22,700,000 parts per billion (ppb); safe levels are 2 ppb. Eventually, a cover-up by Brio was proven, but virulent controversy over the cause of the health crisis remained. The houses were demolished beginning in 1997; the toxic waste was scheduled to be burned via an on-site incinerator until conscious, thinking residents complained. The area was removed from the Superfund National Priorities List in 2006.

Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma and Treece, Kansas

“Let’s dump these mine tailings at the end of the street. No one will mind.” In Picher, Oklahoma, the earth may literally move under your feet. And not in a good way.

“Let’s dump these mine tailings at the end of the street. No one will mind.” In Picher, Oklahoma, the earth may literally move under your feet. And not in a good way.











What happens when you build towns above a bunch of erratically dug lead and zinc mines? You destabilize the ground, that’s what. And you contaminate the groundwater. And you leave mountains of toxic metal mine tailings in people’s backyards. It becomes a textbook case of a place where no one wants to live. But it didn’t start out that way. Back around the turn of the twentieth century, Picher was home to the world’s largest zinc and lead mine. The mining continued right through World War II and until the late 1960s. When the mines closed, all that remained were about 30 “chat” piles around the city, filled with 178 million tons of mine tailings that were polluted with lead, zinc, cadmium, and arsenic. But the kids went four-wheeling on them anyhow. Cases of pneumoconiosis were 2,000 percent higher than in the general population.

A 1996 study found that 34 percent of the Picher, Oklahoma’s children suffered from lead poisoning; that’s way higher than Flint. The EPA and the state of Oklahoma issued a mandatory evacuation for Picher and neighboring Cardin, in the upper right hand corner of Oklahoma, as well as Treece, Kansas, just across the state line.

If lead poisoning isn’t enough (but of course, it is), the town’s buildings were situated on destabilized land and could have crashed through a sink hole to the bottom of a mine shaft at any moment. The Army Corps of Engineers found that 86 percent of all structures could collapse at any moment. And that was before the F4 tornado ripped through town in May, 2008. Just 18 months later, in September 2009 the town was disincorporated; the final high school class had 11 graduates. The population plummeted from a peak of 14,000 in the 1920s to 1,600 in the 2000s to 20 in 2009. Picher, Oklahoma, was officially the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

 The Carlin Hardware Store in Picher, Oklahoma, c. 2009. Source:

The Carlin Hardware Store in Picher, Oklahoma, c. 2009. Source:

Posted on: April 22, 2016, 2:56 pm Category: Admin

The Great Emu War of 1932

Australia has so many things the rest of the world doesn’t. The emu is one of them. About 725,000 of these brown, flightless birds roam the Outback. The only larger bird in the world is the ostrich of Africa. Emus run up to 30 miles per hour and can go for weeks without eating. They will migrate great distances to find food; generally this means they go north in the summer, south in the winter. They travel mostly unimpeded, except for the occasional hungry dingo. Early European settlers killed emus and used their fat for lamp fuel or to stop them from being a nuisance. Except for a few species that were hunted to extinction near the Commonwealth’s European settlements, the modern-day Dromaius novaehollandiae is not endangered in the least.


Aboriginal Australians hunted and ate emu and used the remains for a variety of other purposes, including medicine, string, and clothing. In fact, the emu figures prominently in the Aboriginal creation myth, in which the sun was created by an emu’s egg being thrown into the sky. The emu is appears on Australia’s coat of arms opposite a kangaroo; both animals were chosen because they can only move forward, not backward.

Which leads to the Great Emu War of 1932

The Great Depression hit Western Australia just as hard as the rest of the world. Much like the Dust Bowl in the American Midwest, the land of Western Australia was dry and unfit for farming. Nevertheless, the government had settled many World War I veterans on marginal land outside Perth on the west coast of Australia and promised to support them in becoming wheat farmers. However, the subsidies the government promised never arrived. Wheat prices plummeted; the farmers were close to insolvent. They were angry. And those damn emus weren’t helping.

Food was scarce in the parched Outback when 20,000 migrating emus entered the area in search of something to eat in the spring of 1932. They loved the wheat, what little of it there was. They tore up the dry and pathetic fields, obliterating the fences designed to keep them out. Just ten years earlier the had been reclassified from a protected native species to vermin due to their penchant for ruining crops. The veteran soldiers-turned-farmers shot all they could, but it was a losing battle.

Their imaginations landed upon an ideal solution. Several of the veterans cornered Australia’s Minister of Defence and talked up those new fangled machine guns they’d used in the Great War. What a perfect solution for their bird problem! The minister agreed and arranged for a deployment of Australian military personnel to the emu-infested area. The government would pay for everything except for the soldiers’ food, lodging, and ammunition. It was cheaper than providing the promised wheat subsidies.

The Lewis semi-automatic machine gun used on the emus in the summer of 1932.

Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery rolled into town with two soldiers, two machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. On November 2, 1932, fifty emus were spotted near the town of Campion. The townspeople tried to corral them into an ambush, but the birds simply ran away. Later, the gunners encountered a smaller flock and shot about a dozen.

Two days later the gunners took position near a dam where 1,000 emu were spotted. They opened fire and killed another dozen emu. Then their guns jammed and the rest of the flock ran away. The misadventures continued to pile up. A week later, the soldiers had expended 2,500 rounds of ammunition and had only 50 dead birds.

Here’s how the debacle looked according to ornithologist D. L. Serventy: “The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”

The Minister of Defence withdrew the soldiers and their guns on November 8, comparing the stealthy and hearty birds to Zulu warriors in the process. But emus continued to decimate the crops, and he changed his mind several days later. Meredith and his soldiers returned to the outskirts of Perth with their unreliable weapons. On November 13, about 40 emus were killed. For the next month, Meredith reported much greater success: Nearly 1,000 kills with 10,000 rounds of ammo. Not a bad ratio. Even better, he claimed that an additional 2,500 birds eventually died from their wounds. The mission ended on December 10.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

Murray Johnson, possibly a cynic, possibly gifted with intuition, theorized in the Journal of Australian Studies that the whole military episode was an exercise in propaganda to make the veterans believe the government was doing something to assist them in the face of their economic decline.

But the Great Depression lingered, the farmers in Western Australia continued to struggle, and the emus came back for more wheat. Further requests for military intervention in subsequent years were denied and the region resorted to a much more successful strategy—bounties. In 1934 some 57,000 emus were killed for reward, usually the equivalent of 25 cents per head.

The whole episode was captured for a newsreel. You can see it on YouTube.

Posted on: April 22, 2016, 2:55 pm Category: Admin

The Broken Promises of Masdar: The World’s First Zero-Carbon City

Picture this: A bucolic modern city in the inhospitable desert of Abu Dhabi, a futuristic urban landscape of cutting-edge green technology that serves as an incubator for the people and ideas that will lead us into a sustainable paradise. It will be the world’s first zero-carbon city.

The community will be home to 40,000 forward-thinking people, and the workplace of 60,000 more. Cars will be banned; bicycles will be welcomed—the jury’s still out on hoverboards. Conservation of electricity and water are achieved via motion sensors, and most of the city’s energy is generated by a 54-acre field of 87,000 solar panels. An extensive greywater system conserves precious H2O, rooftop solar water heaters provide hot showers, and interiors are framed with sustainable palmwood. Heat-repelling terracotta walls of intricate arabesque patterns at street level give the city a sense of place and history in addition to reducing the need for air conditioning.

The optimist’s view of Masdar. Source:

The optimist’s view of Masdar. Source:

This was the idea behind Masdar City, designed by the British architectural firm Foster + Partners (Wembley Stadium, Hong Kong International Airport, Apple Campus 2) with capital provided by the government of Abu Dhabi and built by Masdar, a state-owned subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company. Construction began in 2006; the proposed completion date was 2014.

It was to be the eco-conscious urban planner’s dream town: The unbearable daytime heat would be mitigated by an ingenious and ancient system of ventilating chimneys that suck air from the sky and divert it into a breeze through city streets, keeping the walled area about 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Short, narrow streets were designed to keep the sun off your face and push air upward to flush the heat out of city. Architects visited ancient cities in Egypt, Yemen, and Oman to see how such low-tech engineering solutions have kept people living in the desert for so many centuries without feeling the need to relocate to the French Riviera. The city’s structures themselves would be built on a raised platform, to facilitate the whole breezy vibe and clear the way for a subterranean transportation network. Buildings would face northwest to catch the breeze, atria would help bring natural daylight into each building’s interior, reducing the need for artificial lighting.

Check out the housing block:

This residential building is open for business. Only 100 people, mostly MIST students, live here. Source:

This residential building is open for business. Only 100 people, mostly MIST students, live here. Source:

Masdar would also propagate future green technology. It is the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the post-graduate Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST; launched with the help of MIT).

Masdar got off to a good start. Then, if you’ll recall, the world economy took a terrifying nosedive in 2008 and many good intentions went the way of your 401(k) profits. Abu Dhabi was forced to bail out neighboring Dubai to the tune of $59 billion. Funds earmarked for Masdar evaporated., and the project was downsized enormously. Currently, the bigwigs forecast that the city will be finished by 2025. As of 2016 the city’s permanent population is about 4,000. In addition to IRENA and the Masdar Institute, Siemens has built a LEED platinum certified headquarters in the city (uses 45 percent less energy, 50 percent less water than your typical building), built according to an award-winning “box within a box” concept. Also among early residents are General Electric’s Ecomagination Center, Mitsubishi, French-owned Schneider Electric, and the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute.

New LEED-platinum Siemens building in Masdar City.

New LEED-platinum Siemens building in Masdar City.

The Personal Rapid Transit System

The most Jetsons-like part of Masdar was the personal rapid transit (PRT) system. One hundred underground stops throughout the city would ferry people from point A to point B in semi-private splendor. This was like a subway car built for one to four passengers, propelled on a dedicated road and railway system. It was a great idea, until the driverless Uber car became a more economical and viable near-future alternative. The PRT system was only uber expensive, so it went no further than a 2010 prototype before it was replaced by automated electric-powered vehicles manufactured by Mitsubishi. Only two of the planned 100 PRT stations were built. It’s a case study of technology disruption in real time.

Masdar's obsolete PRT station.

Masdar’s obsolete PRT station.

Trouble in Paradise

You know those 87,000 solar panels? In the sandy desert? Turns out they need to be brushed off every day in order to function properly. And it quickly became apparent that the new green energy systems couldn’t provide all the energy the city needed, so Masdar was hooked up to Abu Dhabi’s existing power grid. Dreams of a zero-carbon city evaporated in the desert’s dry heat. The naysayers watched from the sidelines, saying “I told you so.” Many of them believed that rather than building new cities from scratch, we should work on retrofitting existing cities with green energy and carbon-saving devices.

You can’t fault Abu Dhabi for recognizing that their vast oil reserves will someday run dry, but the naysayers point out the hypocrisy of the venture. Pointing to the UAE’s unprecedented building boom, which has created acres of luxury islands and miles of skyscrapers surrounded by vast, sprawling freeway networks, Cornell professor Brian Stilwell told Patrick Kingsley in Wired that “Masdar will be the world’s most sustainable city . . . but it will be surrounded by some of the world’s most unsustainable developments.” Other critics are harsher. Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian says Masdar could be the “world’s first green ghost town.

World-changing green city, or the latest community college campus in Anywhere, U.S.A.?

World-changing green city, or the latest community college campus in Anywhere, U.S.A.? Source:

The 2008 collapse let the air out of the city’s lofty aspirations. Former Masdar director Steve Geiger told Kingsley, “at the beginning of the project, nobody really anticipated how difficult it is to build a city. . . . We promised the world it was going to be the first zero-carbon [city], but it’s just not economically feasible. Now it’s low carbon. We said it was going to be zero-waste. We said it would be car-free. We said it would be built on a nine-metre-high platform — we had to backpedal on all those ideas.” Meanwhile, Masdar the investment corporation, has become sidetracked on other green energy projects, both at home and abroad in London and Germany. These projects are big, but not as big as a city, but they may prove to be more influential in the long term. Its Shams 1 solar plant is the largest in the Middle East, ten times larger than Masdar City’s measley 87,000 solar panels. Its revolutionary system of parabolic troughs and super-heated liquid generates enough electricity for 20,000 homes.

As of 2016, only about 300 people, all students who received free accomodations and tuition, live in Masdar’s residential blocks. This is far below any critical threshold needed to establish a “city.” Restaurants and shops cannot survive on such a low density. Only about 5 percent of the original city plan has been realized. Other than Siemens and GE, no other major corporations have pledged to locate major offices in the development. Start-ups have been especially hard to attract; until recently local law mandated that all companies be locally owned. Once again, the region is well below the critical threshold of brainpower and amenities needed to attract new businesses. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley for a reason. Nevertheless, Masdar’s many stakeholders believe in something akin to success in failure. Simply by attempting the impossible, they have encouraged others to see some method to their madness. In that vein, both Jordan and Morocco are planning their own green energy projects now that they see the economic sense in some of Masdar’s concepts.


Posted on: March 16, 2016, 4:24 pm Category: Admin

A Tale of Two Trees: The Birth of Conservation

This is the story about two trees. One was named Mammoth Tree, the other Mother of the Forest. The year was 1853 and the place was Calaveras County, California—the same one celebrated in Mark Twain’s story about the jumping frog. The trees’ demise was at the hands of a lunkheaded entrepreneur named George Gale and his merry band of gold prospectors. They gazed upon the oldest and largest living creatures on earth, having sprouted from the soil about the time that Sophocles was writing Antigone, and thought to themselves, “Cutting down these trees will prove to everyone just how manly we are.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : in Calaveras County

Tourists inspecting the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The ‘Mother of the Forest’, without its bark, can be seen in the background. Source: Library of Congress.

The two trees were Sequoiadendron giganteums, or giant sequoias, a species of conifer that thrives in a small region along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Gale was one of the first white men to feast his eyes on their glorious spires. Dollar signs flashed before him. This was the heyday of P. T. Barnum; hucksters everywhere were cashing in on the vogue for natural oddities. All Gale needed to do was saw through the 96-foot diameter of the 290-foot-tall Mammoth Tree, and he would have an impressive cross-section as an artifact to haul across the country on a lucrative tour. Here’s how author Paul Hawken recounts the incident in his 2007 book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming:

[Gale’s] quest to fell the sequoia did not go easily. After boring holes through its trunk with long augers, the loggers who had been hired laboriously sawed through the spaces in between. Concerned that a 300-foot-tall sequoia might fall without notice at any time, the men worked cautiously. After being cut all the way through however, the tree remained upright. Wedges were pounded in from all sides, and the crew made a battering ram from nearby lumber to knock it over, but the tree stayed perfectly still. More than three weeks of effort passed, and it finally took a gale to blow it down, which took place in the middle of the night. The noise of its felling woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away. Mud and rock dislodged by the impact flew ten stories into the air, spattering the trunks of neighboring trees. The Big Tree was estimated to be 2,500 years old and remained green for several years because its trunk contained so much water. The promoters removed some of the bark, cut a few cross sections, and left the bulk of the tree where it fell. The trunk was later made smooth and was used as a bowling alley, and the stump became an outdoor dance floor that could comfortably accommodate sixteen couples.

You can still dance on the trunk’s stump today at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It is now known as Discovery Stump.

The Discovery Stump, with original augur holes still visible. Source:

The Discovery Stump, with original augur holes still visible. Source:

Although the felling of the Mammoth Tree was less than a marvel of modern engineering, Gale was just warming up. Another nearby tree in what soon came to be known as Mammoth Tree Grove, was even taller—321 feet. Gale dubbed this beauty the Mother of the Forest. But rather than tussle with a couple millennia’s worth of lumber, he had a better idea. He skinned it!

Workers erected scaffolding to a height of 110 feet and stripped off the 18-inch thick bark around the tree’s circumference. As a traveling trophy, the bark was much easier to pack and ship to various locations around the world than the Mammoth Tree’s room-sized cross-section. Gale shipped the Mother’s bark to New York, where it was reassembled for the amusement of the members of the private and swanky Union Club. A little while later it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean where it was ensconced in Kensington’s Crystal Palace, a building that actually was a marvel of modern engineering. The interior of the bark circle was decorated to look like a drawing room. People were awestruck at man’s dominion over nature. Other people were convinced it was a hoax; no tree was really that big.

"Mother of the Forest," skinned of its bark, 1860. Bancroft Library (Lawrence & Houseworth)

“Mother of the Forest,” skinned of its bark, 1860.
Bancroft Library (Lawrence & Houseworth)

While the Mother of the Forest technically survived the brutal de-barking process, it was left without the means to protect itself from the elements. It hung on for decades, its exposed innards turning white, becoming a major tourist attraction in its own right. However, a forest fire—normally a rejuvenating process for the giant sequoias–swept through the area in 1908 and the defenseless tree succumbed to the flames. A similar fate befell it’s bark-cum-drawing room. It, too, was destroyed in a fire in 1866.

In the 1850s much of California was still the Wild West. There was no one to stop Gale from doing what he did. But he was, perhaps, a victim of his own success. Once news got out about the gargantuan trees being cut down for fun and profit, a few influential people expressed outrage.

One of these people was the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley. He called the actions of Gale and other loggers that flocked to the region “vandalism.” He traveled to the Yosemite Valley to see the its magnificent flora first hand and was amply awestruck. Right then and there he called on the government to protect “the most beautiful trees on earth.”

A 19th century stereoscope of the denuded Mother of the Forest.

A 19th century stereoscope of the denuded Mother of the Forest.

Maturin Ballou, editor of the influential magazine Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, called the destruction of the Mammoth Tree “a perfect desecration. . . . What in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood?”

The New York Tribune published an editorial stating that “the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. . . . it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil.” American exceptionalism is perfectly conveyed by the snarky teenaged attitude of the writers–calling the flora of Europe “stunted shrubbery”–but you can’t argue that they should be protected and preserved.

In 1864 Senator John Conness of California proposed a land grant bill to protect Yosemite Valley and the nearby grove of giant sequoias. The bill passed and Abraham Lincoln diverted his attention from the Civil War just long enough to sign that bad boy into law. Just eight years later Yosemite became the country’s first national park. The conservation movement was off to a fantastic start and a whole new generation of influential people, from Teddy Roosevelt to John Muir to Ansel Adams, soon propelled it to even greater heights.

A 996-year-old giant sequoia that died of natural causes in 1919. Practically a youngster. But instead of becoming a sideshow attraction, it becomes a teachable moment.

This 996-year-old giant sequoia died of natural causes in 1919. Instead of becoming a sideshow attraction, it became a teachable moment.

Posted on: February 22, 2016, 9:59 am Category: Admin