Caterpillars and Carbon Monoxide

Against a background of the terrible and sad news from Toulouse, the March sunshine has brought with it a choking smog that has covered Paris for more than a week.   Some rain or wind would be welcome to blow away the air pollution that has passed the European safety level 28 times since the beginning of the year.

To try and escape to some fresh air, last weekend we caught the train to Fontainebleau, for a walk in the forest.  No sooner had we started into the forest, we were confronted by a swarm of one of the most dangerous animals in France, advancing down the path towards us…

The Pine Processionary Caterpillar is a remarkable animal. Springtime is the period during which these gregarious caterpillars descend from the nests they build in pine trees, and march across the forest floor in single file, looking for a hole in the ground in which to pupate.  These “processions” are spectacular – the one we saw in Fontainebleau was 3 metres long, and we estimated it contained more than 100 individual caterpillars.

Apparently, caution must be taken when approaching these caterpillars, because their spines can detach, and if inhaled or in contact with skin, can cause violent allergic reactions in humans and domestic pets.  We got close enough to take some photos, but not close enough to be poisoned.

Luckily, no other dangerous beasts crossed our path.  The forest was still wearing its brown winter coat, but signs of spring were everywhere – finches were nibbling on buds on trees, and magnolias were just beginning to burst into flower. We’re still waiting for a storm to blow away the pollution over Paris, but this walk in woods was a welcome respite.


Hot Air, Cold Air, Compressed Air

I commend this 4-minute soundbite to you – it’s journalist Bill McKibben putting our current climate change in the context of the history of human civilisation.

Source: Speaking of Faith (NPR)

Clive James points out this week that the exact science behind climate change theories might be up for debate (or perhaps has been scandalously misreported by the media).

However politicians and individuals have to make decisions based on the best evidence available at the time: right now, majority international scientific opinion tells us that the planet’s climate is changing, that it’s likely that human activity is causing it, atmospheric carbon levels are off the chart and if we do nothing, the consequences will be disastrous.

On this basis alone, postponing global action to change our would be highly irresponsible, and probably immoral. Maybe 10, 20, 100 years from now, our current climate science will be proved wrong. Maybe future generations will laugh at us, but at least they won’t be able to accuse us of inaction in the face of the science that we do have.

US Sea Level Trends, 1900-2000 (Data Source: NOAA/US EPA)

Elsewhere in the podcastsphere this week, George Kenney’s been talking to coastal geologist Professor Orrin Pilkey about sea level rise – an interesting hour’s conversation covering the scientific evidence for rising oceans and the policy challenges facing those who are trying to convince governments to tackle the problem.

In any case, moving away from a carbon-based economy promises enormous political and environmental benefits – decentralising power generation, reducing reliance for energy on politically unstable regions of the world, diversifying economies and offering new, cheaper energy technologies to developing countries. The meeting in Copenhagen this week is a great chance to start moving towards a low-carbon future. We’d be stupid not to grab it.

And if you’re a little jaded by all the political and science talk we’re hearing at the moment, check this out: a car that runs on compressed air.

Invented by a French engineer, the MDI engine produces ZERO pollution while running. The concept model may suffer a little from inimitably French design, but the underlying technology looks very promising. Tata has invested in the company, and there are plans to begin commercial production in 2010. The revolution is here, and it looks like a plastic snail.