Sean Fleming: The Water Year in Review

The top five water-related news stories of 2017—and what to expect for 2018

FlemingThe thing about water is that something’s always happening, and the implications of that fact are growing – fast.  What are the top five water-related news stories of 2017?  Read on to see, along with a little context and some implications for next year and beyond.

Oops!  (The Oroville Dam evacuation)

Possibly the most obvious water story of 2017 happened right after the New Year: nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated beneath Oroville Dam as it threatened to fail under record flooding, which in turn ended a historic drought that had cost the state billions of dollars.  Previously of little note to most living outside the region, Oroville is in fact the tallest dam in the US.  It’s located on the Feather River, a headwater basin to the Sacramento River that drains the western slopes of the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the wet, northern part of California.  Oroville Dam is a key component the California State Water Project, shifting water into the California Aqueduct to help irrigate the Central Valley, which produces about 25% of the food consumed in the US, and to transport water to southern Californian urban centers.  Critics charge that in spite of its size and status as a cornerstone of the civil works in a heavily populated but largely arid state where water is everything, dam maintenance and upgrading lagged far behind, setting the stage for problems.  Record rains in February provided the trigger, and the main spillway failed – which might in turn have undermined the dam as a whole, sending the entirety of massive Lake Oroville downstream all at once in a wave of destruction and death.  Disaster was averted, but the costs were tremendous and the risks were real.  For thoughts on improving America’s river infrastructure, see my recent Scientific American post.

Water goes bang on the India-China border

The most exciting, yet perhaps most under-reported water story of 2017 took place on the India-China border.  A military buildup and tense standoff over disputed ownership of a Himalayan frontier area shared by China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India this summer may have cooled off, but India charges that China followed up by using water as a weapon – withholding key data that India needs to manage lethal monsoon flooding on transboundary rivers.  Violent international conflict solely over water is extremely rare because it usually doesn’t work strategically, though it does happen from time to time.  For instance, in 1965, when Syria was building an upstream diversion of a tributary to the River Jordan that would deeply reduce Israel’s water supply – a catastrophe for a desert nation – Israel responded with air strikes against the facility.  And water has been used as a weapon in wars that were being fought for other reasons: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China opened the dikes on the Yellow River in 1938 in an effort to hold back the invading Imperial Japanese army. The action was only partially successful and had a disastrous humanitarian cost.  The soaring mountain ranges wrapping around the Tibetan Plateau – including the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas, spanning China, India, Pakistan, and  several other countries – host one of the world’s largest remaining icefields and are the source of the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Mekong Rivers among others, and thus help provide water to a full quarter of the global human population.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more important for nations to cooperate over water.

Two inter-state water lawsuits go to the US Supreme Court

The volume was turned up in the country’s water wars, with SCOTUS announcing this fall it will hear both Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water rights, and Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over the Apalachicola.  Rivers and aquifers don’t respect borders.  The geophysics of where water comes from and how and where it flows is complex, fascinating, and full of surprises, such as flash floods, alternating drought and flood sequences, and abrupt and catastrophic changes in river channel location.  And those are just the natural aspects – the engineering and management part can be just as complicated for some basins, and a high ratio of demand to supply, as we have in the increasingly heavily populated deserts of the Southwest for instance, exacerbates these issues.  Originating from snowy headwaters in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows south through increasingly arid country and then turns southeastward, forming the US-Mexico border until emptying in the Gulf of Mexico.  Water projects abound on the Rio Grande, and each influences the other in some way.  For example, the San Juan-Chama project diverts water from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande, municipal groundwater pumping in Albuquerque interacts with Rio Grande flows through subterranean geologic pathways, and a series of dams withdraws water from the river for agriculture, reducing what’s left for downstream users.  Water law is complicated.  Texas says New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water; New Mexico says it isn’t.  The potential for disagreement over water will only continue to grow in the Southwest, though there are success stories as well: after some earlier missteps, Las Vegas has invented one of the most advanced and successful water conservation programs around, reportedly reducing its water consumption by almost a quarter over a ten-year period while its population grew by half a million.

Saying goodbye to the Paris Agreement on climate change

Why is climate change important to rivers?  Lots of natural processes and human activities affect how high rivers run and how much water arrives at your tap, and climate variables like precipitation and temperature rank high among these influences.  While the new administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was obviously a setback for action on climate change, it was also a democratic response to widespread sentiment.  And this fact suggests that explaining climate change may be turning into the greatest science communication failure in history.  As scientists, we clearly need to adjust course – but in what direction?  Consider a recent article by a multi-disciplinary team in the respected research journal, Global Environmental Change.  Applying complex network theory (kind of a mathematical formalization of the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon) to social media feeds about climate change, they demonstrated the dominance of so-called echo chambers, and that constructive progress is made only when groups with opposing views actually talk with each other.  Consider also that populism – which is by nature skeptical around the competence and integrity of designated experts – has been growing over the last decade on both the left and right, as evidenced by the mayoralties of Rob Ford in Toronto and Boris Johnson in London, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Brexit, and Bernie and The Donald.  If there is a silver lining to withdrawal from the Paris accords, it’s that it may teach us valuable lessons around communicating about climate change: reach out to people who don’t believe us yet, treat them with respect, and focus on just explaining our science.

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard.  In late August, the fourth largest city in the US, with over 4 million residents counting Harris County, was at the epicenter of what some are saying will be the costliest natural disaster in US history.  Though no hurricane is to be trifled with, why was the flooding so intense in this case?  To be sure, the rainfall generated by this particular storm was unusually heavy.  But risk is, by definition, what you get when you take the probability that something bad will happen (like record rainfall under a hurricane) and multiply it by the impact it will have if it does happen (like flooding and the associated economic cost and human suffering).  In the case of Harvey’s visit to Houston, it had a lot to do with local-scale choices that affected the second part of that equation.  In fact, parts of the greater Houston metropolitan area have seen a spate of floods over the last few years, and they weren’t all associated with huge storms.  The region has experienced an explosion of population growth and urban sprawl.  Lots of residences were built in low-lying, flood-prone areas, which is the single best of way of increasing flood risk.  And urbanization – the conversion of wild or agricultural land to rooftops, parking lots, and roadways – is another powerful flood risk factor.  Soils and wetlands hold on to rainwater for a while, and then gently release it to natural drainage systems like aquifers and rivers.  If you pave and build over these things, their ability to attenuate flooding is removed.  While these effects are particularly noticeable in Houston, and especially so when the city gets hit by a major hurricane, they’re ubiquitous; increased flooding in the UK over the last decade has been attributed to exactly the same causes.

What will 2018 have in store for us?  If we can be sure about one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.  But the larger trends are clear.  Global water demand will increase 55% in the next few decades, urbanization will spread, tens of millions more will congregate in floodplain-located megacities, the climate will subtly but profoundly shift overhead, and cooperation and conflict over water will vie for supremacy.  We can, in short, expect that water stories will make the news with increasing frequency and force.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Browse Our Earth Science 2018 Catalog

Our new Earth Science 2018 catalog ranges from the northernmost reaches of the globe to the unfathomable depths of its oceans, while also covering essential techniques and concepts in the fields of complexity and predictive ecology. 

If you will be attending the American Geophysical Union 2017 meeting in New Orleans this weekend, please stop by booth 730, where you can pick up a copy of the catalog in person and see our full range of books in Earth Science.

In the forthcoming Brave New Arctic, Mark Serreze details the history and the science of the precipitous warming of the Arctic, and its potentially devastating consequences for the planet as a whole. Drawing on his own work, as well as that of pioneering climate scientists, Brave New Arctic is a fascinating account of the not-so-frozen North. 

Brave New Arctic, by Mark Serreze

Eelco Rohling’s The Oceans traces the history of the planet’s oceans from the Earth’s formation to the present day, demonstrating the critical role they play in the Earth’s climate system. Concise but comprehensive, The Oceans is an essential introduction to paleoceanography, from one of AGU’s newest fellows.  

The Oceans, by Eelco Rohling

Drawing on simple computational models, Natural Complexity by Paul Charbonneau analyzes the emergence of complex behaviors and structure in natural phenomena from forest fires to epidemic diseases. Including complete source code in Python, Natural Complexity is a straightforward introduction to complexity in all its forms.

Natural Complexity, by Paul Charbonneau

What is involved in making ecology a more predictive science? In Ecological Forecasting, Michael Dietze covers the cutting-edge techniques that are driving modern ecology, complete with case studies and hands-on examples using R.

Ecological Forecasting, by Michael C. Dietze

 

Eelco J. Rohling on The Oceans: A Deep History

It has often been said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. In fact, we know a great deal more about the oceans than many people realize. Scientists know that our actions today are shaping the oceans and climate of tomorrow—and that if we continue to act recklessly, the consequences will be dire. In this timely and accessible book, Eelco Rohling traces the 4.4 billion-year history of Earth’s oceans while also shedding light on the critical role they play in our planet’s climate system. An invaluable introduction to the cutting-edge science of paleoceanography, The Oceans enables you to make your own informed opinions about the environmental challenges we face as a result of humanity’s unrelenting drive to exploit the world ocean and its vital resources. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Eelco Rohling’s new book.

How/Why did you become a specialist in past ocean and climate change?
When I was a boy, I actually wanted to become a brain surgeon. But I did not pass the lottery to get into medical school when I went to university. So I thought about what else to study for a year before trying again. I ended up doing geology, and never looked back—I pushed on with that instead of trying medical school again. In geology, I developed a fascination with the past environments in which animals and plants lived that we now find as fossils. So after my BSc, I did an MSc with a major in microfossils and palaeo-oceanography/-climatology, supported by minors in sedimentary systems and physical oceanography/climatology. Things started to really come together when I started my PhD project, for which I started to truly integrate these streams in a research context. That’s when my interest in past ocean and climate change became much deeper and more specific.

Why did you choose to write a book about the history of the oceans?
I discussed a few ideas with my editor Eric Henney, and we gradually brought the various ideas together into this book concept. We strongly felt that the vast existing knowledge about the past oceans (and past climate) needed to be better articulated, and placed in context of modern changes in these systems, and in the life that they sustain.

Why do we need to understand the history of the oceans?
The oceans’ past holds many fascinating pieces of information about how the ocean/climate system works, and how it interacts with life and the planet itself. No other field can bring that information to the table. The oceans’ history also holds important clues about how Earth may recover from human impact, and on what timescales such a recovery may be expected. This brings important context to the discussion about modern human impact.

Does the history of the oceans give any relevant information about their future?
Oh, yes. It illustrates the key processes by which carbon-cycle changes have occurred over Earth history, and whet the timescales were for these changes. It also illustrates which processes we might try to accelerate to drive atmospheric carbon-removal on timescales useful to humankind. Moreover, the history of the oceans provides insight into the developments (and extinctions) of life on Earth, which again gives context about the severity and rapidity of current changes on Earth.

Why does a book about the oceans contain so much about climate?
The oceans are an integral part of the climate system. The climate system is a complex beast that spans the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all forms of water), cryosphere (all forms of ice), lithosphere (the rocks), and biosphere (all forms of life, be it living or dead). The oceans are a vital link in all this, and one cannot talk about ocean changes without touching upon climate changes, or the other way around.

The oceans appear to have gone through very large changes in the past. How do the changes cause by humanity compare?
The human-caused changes are large, but not among the largest that have ever happened. But the human-caused changes are unique with respect to the rates of change: modern changes are 10 to 100 times faster than the fastest-ever natural changes any time before humans appeared on the scene. And, also, human-made changes have significant impacts from many different sides: warming, ocean acidification, physical (e.g., plastic) pollution, chemical pollution, eutrophication, overfishing, etc. Natural changes were not that all-encompassing. So modern changes are very scary in relation to the natural changes that have occurred, even when including major extinction events.

Are humans really causing damage to the enormous oceans and the life they contain?
Yes, for sure.Humans have trouble imagining how their (often little) actions can add up over time, and across the massive population numbers. But we’re on this planet with well over 7 billion people, all of whom at least partly rely on the ocean as a key resource for such things as: dumping waste/pollution from plastics to oil and from radioactive materials to chemical waste and fertilizers; transportation (with spillages), food production/fisheries; war-mongering, exploration/mining, energy production, etc. Added up over our massive human population and increasing technical infrastructure, all of these aspects alone have devastating impacts already, but taken together they are heading down a particularly terminal route.

OceansEelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Essential Reading in Natural History

Princeton University Press is excited to have a wide variety of excellent titles in natural history. From the Pacific Ocean, to horses, to moths, our books cover a range of topics both large and small. As summer winds down, take advantage of the last weeks of warm weather by bringing one of our handy guides out into the field to see if you can spot a rare butterfly or spider. To find your next read, check out this list of some of our favorite titles in natural history, and be sure to visit our website for further reading.

Britain’s Mammals by Dominic Couzens, Andy Swash, Robert Still, and Jon Dun is a comprehensive and beautifully designed photographic field guide to all the mammals recorded in the wild in Britain and Ireland in recent times.

Mammals

Horses of the World by Élise Rousseau, with illustrations by Yann Le Bris, is a beautifully illustrated and detailed guide to the world’s horses.

Horses

A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of North America, Second Edition, by Jeffrey Glassberg is a thoroughly revised edition of the most comprehensive and authoritative photographic field guide to North American butterflies.

Butterflies

Big Pacific by Rebecca Tansley is the companion book to PBS’s five-part mini series that breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Pacific

Britain’s Spiders by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford, and Helen Smith is a photographic guide to all 37 of the British families.

Spiders

The second edition of Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar is a revised and updated edition of the most comprehensive guide to common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada.

Cranshaw

Last but not least, Mariposas Nocturnas is a stunning portrait of the nocturnal moths of Central and South America by famed American photographer Emmet Gowin.

Gowin

Anurag Agrawal: Needing and eating the milkweed

AgrawalU.S. agriculture is based on ideas that make me scratch my head. We typically grow plants that are not native to North America, we grow them as annuals, and we usually only care about one product from the crop, like the tomatoes that give us ketchup and pizza.

And we don’t like weeds. Why would we? They take resources away from our crops, reduce yields more than insect pests or disease, they’re hard to get rid of, and they might give you a rash. But there are few plants more useful, easy to cultivate, and environmentally friendly than the milkweed. The milkweed takes its ill name from the sticky rubbery latex that oozes out when you break the leaves, it’s the monarch butterflies only food, and it is a native meadow plant. Milkweed has sometimes received a bad rep, and perhaps for good reason; they can be poisonous to livestock, they are hard to get rid of, and they do reduce crop yields. But what about milkweed as a crop?

AgrawalThomas Edison showed that milkweed’s milky latex could be used to make rubber. The oil pressed from the seed has industrial applications as a lubricant, and even value in the kitchen and as a skin balm. And as a specialty item, acclaimed for its hypoallergenic fibers, milkweed’s seed fluff that carries milkweed seeds in the wind, is being used to stuff pillows and blankets. Perhaps more surprising, the same fluff is highly absorbent of oils, and is now being sold in kits to clean up oil tanker spills. The fibers from milkweed stems make excellent rope and were used by Native Americans for centuries. More than two hundred years ago, the French were using American milkweed fibers Agrawalto make beautiful cloths, said to be more radiant and velvety than fine silk. And chemically, milkweeds were used medicinally by Native Americans since the dawn of civilization, with a potential for use in modern medicine.  This is a diverse plant with a lot to offer.  Why wouldn’t we cultivate this plant, not only for its stem fibers, seed oils, pillowy fluff, rubbery latex, and medicines, but also in support of the dwindling populations of monarch butterflies?

Ever since the four lowest years of monarch butterfly populations between 2012 and 2015, planting milkweeds for monarchs has been on the tips of a lot of tongues. For most insects that eat plants, however, their populations are not limited by the availability of leaves.  Instead, their predators typically keep them in check, or as in the case of monarchs, there may be constraints Agrawalduring other parts of their annual cycle. Monarchs travel through vast expanses from Mexico to Canada, tasting their way as they go. They tolerate poisons in the milkweed plant; indeed, they are dependent on milkweed as their only food source as a caterpillar. Nearly all mating, egg-laying, and milkweed-eating occurs in the United States and Canada. And each autumn monarchs travel to Mexico, some 3,000 miles, fueled only by water and flower nectar.

All parts of the monarch’s unfathomable annual migratory cycle should be observed and studied. My own research has suggested that habitat destruction in the U.S., lack of flower resources, and logging at the overwintering sites in central Mexico are all contributing to the decline of monarch butterflies. Lack of milkweed does not seem to be causing the decline of monarchs. Nonetheless, planting native milkweeds can only help the cause of conserving monarch butterflies, but it is not the only answer. And of course we humans need our corn and soy, and we love our broccoli and strawberries, so is cultivating milkweed really something to consider?

We humans, with our highly sensitive pallets, do the one thing that monarch butterflies don’t do. We cook. And the invention of cooking foods has been deemed one of the greatest advances in human evolution. Cooking certainly reduces the time spent chewing and digesting, and perhaps more importantly, cooking opens up much of the botanical world for human consumption, because heat can break down plant poisons.

AgrawalEuell Gibbons, the famed proponent of wild plant edibles in the 1970s, was a huge advocate of eating milkweed. The shoots of new stems of the eastern “common milkweed” are my personal favorite. I simply pull them up when they are about 6-8 inches tall and eat them like asparagus. Gibbons recommended pouring boiling water over the vegetables in a pot, then heating only to regain the boil, and pouring off the water before sautéing. You can pick several times and the shoots keep coming. With some preparation, the other parts of the milkweed plant can be eaten too, and enjoyed like spinach, broccoli, and okra.

At the end of summer, many insects have enjoyed the benefits of eating milkweed, especially the monarch butterfly. Any boost we could give to the monarch population may help use preserve it in perpetuity. But the real value in cultivating milkweed as a crop is that it has a lot to offer, from medicines to fibers to oils. It is native and perennial, and can be grown locally and abundantly.  Let’s give this weed a chance.

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.

Agrawal

Rebecca Tansley & Craig Meade: The Pacific Ocean as you’ve never seen it before

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before. Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers. In our latest Q&A, author Rebecca Tansley and showrunner Craig Meade ask each other questions about the series, the book, and the majestic Pacific Ocean:

Questions from Rebecca to Craig

There have been a lot of documentaries made about the oceans and the animals that live in them. How did the Big Pacific idea come about and what new perspectives did you think this series could bring?
It started ten years ago in a late night conversation in France with some of Japan’s best wildlife filmmakers.  We realized that after a thousand years of humanity dominated by the Atlantic and its people that the next thousand years would probably be owned by the Pacific. We conjectured that if we inverted the paradigm and considered the Pacific Ocean a continent, it would already hold many of the world’s major cities: Seattle, LA, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Taipei.  So what are the natural values of this new continent, what does it say to us, and what does it mean to us? What are its emotional messages? Let’s put a flag in it, explore it and see what we discover about it. So that night we started looking for the defining stories that we should tell of the Pacific Ocean.

The book sections match the episodes of the Big Pacific show – Passionate, Voracious, Mysterious, Violent. How did you come up with these themes and decide to structure the series around them?

To matter, stories must move us, trill our emotional strings. Usually these kind of words are embedded in the undercurrent of the script. Hinted at. But the Pacific is big and bold and we thought our statements about it should be so too. It’s all those things: passionate, voracious, violent and mysterious, but it’s also many other things. So I don’t believe this journey to capture its multitude of faces is yet over. Please let me do the Ecstatic, Selfish and Uncertain shows one day as well!

I talked to crew members about some of the special moments in the series’ production, but which is the most special Big Pacific moment for you, on screen?

The Yellow eyed penguins in the Passionate episode. Less than 4000 adults remain. They are a species that may have just a decade or two left and the cinematographer captured their cold and lonely existence beautifully. It’s not a story of sorrow but one of the bird’s passionate relationship with its mate and family. Like a black and white waddling hobbit he comes home from work and wanders through the mossy forest to the cave they all share. It’s an idyllic glimpse of natural New Zealand and a rare and wonderful animal few people are ever going to see. If they disappear for good from the wild I’ve no doubt this story is the one they’ll play to teach kids what a Yellow eyed penguin once was like.

The Big Pacific series is highly entertaining but also packed with fascinating information – I learned a lot writing the book! In a world of increasing pressure on our natural environment, what is the role of natural history storytelling?

I think it’s increasingly important we do not sugar-coat the truth. We mustn’t be the blind purveyors of a dream while a nightmare plays out in the natural world. So as filmmakers there’s always a tension in what we do. I actually want to bring you a dream so you know why we must protect what we have left in the wild world – but I mustn’t let that dream lie to you and hypnotize you into believing the dream is entirely real. Because in some cases the dream is already over. Like the Yellow eyed penguin story I mentioned, I find myself handling a story as though I am preserving something already lost; instead of revealing something new I find myself working to faithfully capture the essence of what was.

Questions for Rebecca from Craig

The Pacific Ocean is many things to many people: a place, a home, a source of food, a gulf between land masses. How did writing the Big Pacific book change your sense of what the Pacific is to us?

I grew up with the Pacific literally at my front door and I’ve never been far from it for my entire life. It’s been my playground, my pastime and my place of solace. Because of this, for me as well as millions of other people like me, it’s hard to define just what the Pacific means – it just infuses our lives. This is one of the many reasons I was attracted to this project, because of the way it focuses not just on the Pacific’s natural history but on people’s relationship with it too. I hope that comes through in the book, because you can’t separate the animals or the people from the ocean they live in and around. We are, actually, in many ways defined by our place in or on the Pacific. Writing the book reinforced this view and gave me an opportunity to express it.

There are so many evocative images in the Big Pacific book, is there one that you keep on returning to?One animal that you want to meet?

Oh that’s a tough one, because I’m in love with so many of the animals and the images! I’ve always had a strong interest in whales so I find the images of the rare Blue whale captured by Big Pacific Director of Photography, the late and obviously very talented Bob Cranston, mesmerizing. But in the course of writing the book I discovered many other wonderful members of the Pacific community. Among them are the Wolf eels, whose dedication to their partner and to their brood is totally endearing. I love the images of the Firefly squid because they seem so ethereal and their lives are so fleeting, yet nature has nonetheless equipped them miraculously for their short, spectacular journey. Plus I can’t not mention the Chinese horseshoe crab, because they are such admirable survivors. I hope the whole world wakes up to the beauty and value of all the animals that live in and around not just the Pacific but all the planet’s oceans, and recognizes that they deserve their place in it for the future as much as we do.

Natural history stories at their heart are science stories – but with fur and scales. To be enjoyable and understandable they usually require simplification, but still need to be highly accurate. That sounds like a complicated dance to perform when writing, was it?

I’m a storyteller, not a scientist, but like a scientist I’m curious about the world. The process I used for Big Pacific worked well. First I read the (draft) series scripts and watched the Big Pacific footage. This meant I became intrigued with the animals first and foremost as characters, and was drawn into other aspects of the Pacific’s natural history – such as the Silver Dragon and the Ring of Fire – as stories. When I set about writing I drew on the science that was provided to me by Big Pacific researcher Nigel Dunstone. Then it was a matter of asking myself, what do I find interesting about that animal or story that others might also enjoy? What might people not know? What is dramatic about this story? Of course I also ensured I was covering off important information, such as environmental threats and conservation status, and everything I wrote was checked afterwards by Nigel and the Big Pacific team.

You’ve made some fantastic films between your writing jobs, is it hard to transition from the spoken word to the written?  Are they two different crafts?

Writing and filmmaking are related in terms of both entertaining and organizing information for an intended audience, but they do that in different ways and to a large extent employ different skill-sets. Obviously filmmaking is a collective pursuit that usually requires a team of people, whereas writing is a solitary craft. I enjoy both equally and writing/directing my own films enables me to do this. I was fortunate enough to spend time with the Big Pacific team when I selected the images for the book, and also interviewed others, so in this writing project I did get to collaborate. I would add that when I write I’m very conscious of rhythm – an aspect that’s also important to aspects of filmmaking, such as narration and editing. I’m not really musical, but I like to think that I have that sense of linguistic rhythm and flow. Perhaps that’s why I studied languages for many years!

TansleyA documentary filmmaker herself, Rebecca Tansley has previously worked at the production company that made the Big Pacific series, NHNZ. In addition to writing and directing films she has written two other internationally published books and been a contributor to national magazines and newspapers in her home country of New Zealand. Rebecca has degrees in languages, media production and law.

Craig Meade and the production team at NHNZ are some of the most successful and prolific producers of natural history programs on the planet—more than 50 wildlife shows completed in just the last four years. But after 30 years of writing and directing Craig still doesn’t class himself as a wildlife filmmaker—he’s a science guy that prefers mud, tents and mosquitoes to laboratories. When he’s not making films Craig is a deer hunter and an on-call fire fighter.

Dominic Couzens: The extraordinary (and overlooked) water shrew

water shrewAsk most people whether they have heard of a water shrew and they’ll shake their head. If you tell them that there are 1.9 million water shrews in Britain and that they have a poisonous bite, then those same people are likely to raise their eyebrows, amazed they have never heard of it. The water shrew (not a water vole or a “water rat”) manages to keep a remarkably low profile for the extraordinary creature that it is.

Shrews are the mammals that look superficially like mice—they are small, brown and furry—yet are quite unrelated to them. They are flatter-bodied than mice and don’t hop, and have long snouts that move around in a somewhat robotic, mechanical fashion as they seek food. With small eyes (they are related to the almost-blind moles) and small ears, shrews lack the features that give mice and voles an easy identity to humankind. Shrews don’t live indoors or steal our food, either; they subsist on a diet of insects and other small living things. So shrews aren’t exactly on our doorsteps, asking to be noticed.

But shrews cross our paths alright, even if we aren’t looking. They are among the most abundant of all our mammals. Aside from the water shrew, there are 42 million common shrews and 8.6 million pygmy shrews in Britain; a veritable army of voracious insect- and worm-guzzlers living at our feet. They prefer to live in long grass, dense shrubbery, and other places where it’s easy to hide.

And, of course, they choose the waterside, too. The water shrew, the largest and best-turned out of our three common species, with its smart white underside contrasting with business-suit-black above, is the most aquatic of the three. Although it is perfectly at home in undergrowth away from water, its signature hunting method is to immerse in still or slow-flowing water, diving down to depths of 2m or more for up to 30 seconds, to snap up crustaceans, insect larvae, snails, worms, and small vertebrates such as newts, frogs, and fish. It is the only British mammal adapted to tap into this underwater niche of small freshwater life.

As it happens, the water shrew can also tackle prey larger than itself, by means of its remarkable venomous saliva, which immobilizes frogs or fish. The venom is a neurotoxin, causing paralysis and disorders of the blood and respiratory system. It is toxic enough to be a very unpleasant skin irritatant in humans that may take days to subside.

The water shrew has several adaptations to its preferred aquatic lifestyle. The surface of each foot is fringed with stiff hairs, increasing the area of the limb, like a flipper, allowing this mite to swim efficiently. The tail also has stiff hairs on the underside, making it act like a rudder, for steering. The hairs on the body also trap a layer of air, keeping the shrew warm underwater, even in the middle of winter.

Shrews, although small, don’t hibernate. Instead they must remain active throughout the winter, requiring a meal at least every two hours, day and night. It isn’t easy to sustain, and many shrews don’t survive. In fact, almost every adult dies after a single breeding season, meaning that only the juveniles born during the spring and summer survive to the next season—just another extraordinary aspect of this overlooked animal’s life.

Dominic Couzens is one of Britain’s best-known wildlife writers. His work appears in numerous magazines, including BBC Wildlife and BBC Countryfile, and his books include Secret Lives of Garden Wildlife and Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland.

Celebration of Science: A reading list

This Earth Day 2017, Princeton University Press is celebrating science in all its forms. From ecology to psychology, astronomy to earth sciences, we are proud to publish books at the highest standards of scholarship, bringing the best work of scientists to a global audience. We all benefit when scientists are given the space to conduct their research and push the boundaries of the human store of knowledge further. Read on for a list of essential reading from some of the esteemed scientists who have published with Princeton University Press.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Abraham Flexner and Robbert Dijkgraaf

Use

The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

Carroll

Honeybee Democracy
Thomas D. Seeley

Seeley

Silent Sparks
Sara Lewis

Lewis

Where the River Flows
Sean W. Fleming

Fleming

How to Clone a Mammoth
Beth Shapiro

Shapiro

The Future of the Brain
Gary Marcus & Jeremy Freeman

Brain

Searching for the Oldest Stars
Anna Frebel

Frebel

Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

Climate

Welcome to the Universe
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott

Universe

The New Ecology
Oswald J. Schmitz

Schmitz

Sean W. Fleming on Where the River Flows

Rivers are essential to civilization and even life itself, yet how many of us truly understand how they work? Why do rivers run where they do? Where do their waters actually come from? How can the same river flood one year and then dry up the next? Where the River Flows by Sean W. Fleming is a majestic journey along the planet’s waterways, providing a scientist’s reflections on the vital interconnections that rivers share with the land, the sky, and us. Fleming recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Your book is unique in that it explores the geophysics of rivers: where their waters come from, why their flows vary from day to day and decade to decade, and how math and physics reveal the hidden dynamics of rivers. Why is this important?

SF: Every aspect of our lives ultimately revolves around fresh water. It’s needed to grow food and brew beer, to build cars and computers, to generate hydroelectric power, to go fishing and canoeing, to maintain the ecological web that sustains the world. Floods are the most expensive type of natural disaster in the U.S., and droughts are the most damaging disasters globally. Yet as the margin between water supply and demand grows narrower, and tens of millions more people congregate in megacities often located on floodplains, we become more vulnerable to the geophysical subtleties of the global water cycle. It’s an important part of life that we need to understand if we’re going to make smart choices going forward.

Your book anthropomorphizes a lot. Is this just a way to make the subjects more accessible, or is there a little more to it?

SF: I ask questions like “how do rivers remember?” and “how do clouds talk to fish?” and “can rivers choose where they flow?” It’s a fun way to broach complicated topics about the geophysics of rivers. But posing questions like that also prepares us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about rivers. For instance, modern information theory allows us to quantitatively describe the coupled atmospheric-hydrologic-ecological system as a communications pathway, in which the weather literally transmits data to fish species using the watershed as a communications channel—modulating water levels almost like Morse code. There may be no intent in that communication, but mathematically, we can treat it the same way.

What are the main threats that rivers face? Are these challenges consistent, or do they vary from river to river?

SF: It does vary, but broadly speaking, watersheds face four main threats: pollution, land use change, climate change, and deliberate human modification. Pollution ranges from industrial effluent to fecal contamination to emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals. Converting natural areas to urban land uses increases flooding and erosion and reduces habitat quantity and quality. Climate change is modifying the timing, volume, and dynamics of streamflows. And civil works like dams, flood control structures, and of course water withdrawals and consumption, alter river flows and ecosystems more profoundly than perhaps anything else. The common thread behind all these concerns is that human populations and economies—and therefore water needs, and our direct and indirect impacts on rivers—are growing much faster than our development of sustainable technologies.

How will climate change affect river flows?

SF: Global warming is expected to accelerate the water cycle, increasing both flooding and drought. Other impacts are more regional. Some areas will enjoy larger annual flow volumes, whereas others may suffer reduced water supplies. More precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, and snowpack will melt earlier, changing seasonal flow timing. That may interfere with salmon spawning migration, for example, or render existing water supply infrastructure obsolete. In part due to anthropogenic climate change, mountain glaciers are retreating, effectively shrinking the “water towers” of the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, and Rockies—the headwaters of the great rivers that support much of the global human population, from the Columbia to the Yangtze to the Ganges.

What’s so important about understanding the science of rivers? What does it add to our view of the world?

SF: Just think about floods. Knowing how urbanization or deforestation may affect flooding, or how some kinds of flood control can backfire, or how the flood forecasting behind an evacuation order works, is important for making informed choices. There’s also a philosophical aspect. A dramatic view of a river meandering across a desert landscape of red sand and sagebrush at twilight is made even richer by being able to look deeper and recognize the layers of causality and complexity that contributed to it, from the rise of mountains in the headwaters as a continental plate split apart over millions of years, to the way the river shifts its channel when a thunderstorm descends from the skies to deliver a flash flood.

A consistent theme across the book is the interconnectedness of ideas. Why this emphasis? What’s the significance of those connections?

SF: A fundamental and amazing fact of nature is that not only can so much be so effectively described by math, but the same math describes so many different phenomena. Consider debris flows, a sort of flood-landslide hybrid posing serious dangers from Japan to California to Italy. It turns out we can understand phenomena like debris flows using cellular automata, a peculiar kind of computer simulation originally created to explore artificial life. What’s more, cellular automata also reveal something about the origins of fractal patterns, which occur in everything from tree branches to galaxies to the stock market. Recognizing that ideas from one field can be so powerful in another is important for pushing science forward.

The book seems to present a conflicted view of global water security. It paints an extraordinarily dark picture, but it is also very optimistic. Can you explain?

SF: Grave challenges often drive great achievements. Consider some United Nations numbers. Over a billion people don’t have sufficient water, and deprivation in adequate clean water claims—just through the associated disease—more lives than any war claims through guns. By 2050, global water demand will further increase by a stunning 55%. Little wonder that a former World Bank vice-president predicted the 21st century will see water wars. Yet there’s compelling evidence we can get serious traction on this existential threat. Advances in policy and technology have enabled America to hold its water demand at 1970s levels despite population and economic growth. A focused science investment will allow us to continue that success and replicate it globally.

FlemingSean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Browse Our Earth Science 2017 Catalog

Our new Earth Science catalog features a host of new titles on subjects ranging from the new ecology of the Anthropocene era to the microscopic life forms that inhabit the world’s most extreme environments – browse the full catalog below:

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus expressed his philosophy of perpetual change and flow with the words “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” In Where the River Flows, Sean W. Fleming takes us on a comprehensive scientific tour of rivers, the arteries of planet’s water system. Through the lens of applied physics, Fleming explores the rich interconnections between land, sky and biosphere represented by waterways as grand as the Mississippi and as modest as a backyard creek. No less capable a photographer than a writer, Fleming also provided the photograph of Lake Mead for the cover of the catalog.

Where the River Flows by Sean Fleming

In Deep Life, Tullis C. Onstott turns the spotlight on the extraordinary organisms that have been discovered living deep below the surface of the Earth, in locations where life was previously thought to be impossible. Onstott introduces us to bacteria living encased meters deep in solid rock, and plumbs the depths of subterranean lakes that have been cut off from the surface for millions of years. The burgeoning field of geomicrobiology is broadening our understanding of the limits of organic life and holds significant implications for the search for life on Mars.

Deep Life by Tullis Onstott

The scale of human impact on the ecology of our planet is now so extensive that our era is becoming known as the Anthropocene, the age in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Oswald J. Schmitz’s The New Ecology offers a concise guide to contemporary thinking in ecology, and the possibilities that it offers for responsible stewardship of the planet’s ecosystem for the benefit of future generations.

The New Ecology by Oswald J. Schmitz

Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.


The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

Women in Science: Who are they at Princeton University Press?

Women have made great strides in STEM fields, but there are still far too few women in science—a situation that remains both complex and troubling. Here at Princeton University Press, we are proud to publish numerous important books in the sciences by women, on topics ranging from de-extinction, to primitive stars, to fireflies. If you’re interested in learning more about the lives and ideas of #WomenInScience, DiscovHer—a site dedicated to showcasing these remarkable people—has put together a great list of blogs for you to follow. And check out some of the most fascinating PUP authors and their books here:

Shapiro Jacket Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist
and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, shows how
de-extinction might change the future of
conservation in
How to Clone a Mammoth.
The Cosmic Cocktail What is the universe made of?
Acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese
shares the most cutting edge research aimed at
answering that question in
The Cosmic Cocktail.
Frebel Anna Frebel, who discovered several of the oldest
and most primitive stars, tells the story of the
research behind stellar archeology in
Searching for the Oldest Stars.
Lewis Have you ever been curious about the fireflies
that light up our summer nights? Noted
biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis
answers all your questions and
more in Silent Sparks.
5-9 Fairbairn_Odd Daphne J. Fairbairn, a professor of biology,
shows that the differences between men and
women are negligible when compared with
differences between males and
females in the animal kingdom in
Odd Couples.
Hough

Delve into the fascinating world of
earthquake prediction in
Predicting the Unpredictable by
seismologist Susan Elizabeth Hough.