Stone stackers enjoy the practice as a peaceful challenge, but scientists warn that moving small stones has mountainous consequences.
Stacking up the history<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUwNTg1My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjcyOTIzOX0.UtKz33QrDgK5scyJPbikuAQax_4yN2toQjkXyUf4AlM/img.jpg?width=980" id="6294c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5044ba5b984c8e2de74234ee8f590be7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Bates cairn at Acadia National Park. Revived in the '90s by park officials, these cairns mark the park's many interlocking trails.
Eroding our natural heritage<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUwNTg1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEwNDIxN30.0zMFQ-3YDlkJFRw453NfSO-Vg3pfK311a8usC1WRm0w/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C88%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="c8e70" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9cd939f4081d342a425d1738f616be74" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Rock cairns marking a trail at Hawai'i Volcanoes National park. These official cairns can easily be mistaken for personal rock stacks.
A problem of scale<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUwNTg2Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDAyMzIyMn0.RVpaBb7HR7oj8SYl4AT0ycxK29rWMw0cq-Y6BTJLZV8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C59%2C0%2C60&height=700" id="98a76" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="eff63ccecc069c1f658f705f9b4c3800" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A collection of rock stacks on Angels Landing summit plateau at Zion National Park that shows the "contagious effect" of such stacks.
(Photo: Mike Young / National Park Service)<p>Of course, any one stone stack isn't much of a concern; the problem is one of scale. While ancestral cairns were produced at a more artisan pace, today's stone stacking has practically become industrial, driven by an economy of clicks and likes.</p><p>"Social media has kind of popularized stone stacking as meditative, and you used to have a handful of people doing it, but it has really escalated over the past few years on public lands," Wesley Trimble, the program-outreach and communications manager for the American Hiking Society, <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/culture/rabbit-holes/people-are-stacking-too-many-stones" target="_blank">told the New Yorker</a><u>.</u></p><p>Acadia National Park, for example, is one of the most visited national parks in the U.S., hosting more than 3.5 million visitors per year. It's also relatively small—<a href="https://www.nps.gov/acad/learn/management/statistics.htm#:~:text=Acadia%20National%20Park%20protects%20more,by%20the%20National%20Park%20Service" target="_blank">47,000 acres</a> compared to <a href="https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/management/statistics.htm" target="_blank">Yosemite's</a> 760,000 or <a href="https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkfacts.htm" target="_blank">Yellowstone's</a> more than 2 million. With such a density of human activity, even minute damages have the potential to devastate Acadia's ecology if performed by enough people.</p><p>As Christie Anastasia, Acadia's public affairs specialist, told Big Think in an interview, in 2016 and 2017 park volunteers deconstructed nearly 3,500 illicit stone stacks on just two mountains—the influence of potentially less than one percent of visitors. Luckily for park visitors, Acadia's rangers and generous volunteers have been trained to dismantle illicit stacks and replace the stones in a way that limits repercussions. But that initial displacement still damages the landscape and leaves creatures homeless during the interim.</p><p>That's just Acadia. In total, U.S. national parks hosted more than 328 million visitors in 2019, a number that clarifies the exponential damage small stone stacks can cause if even just one percent of visitors take up the hobby.</p><p>"People come to national parks for lots of different reasons, but our parks have been set aside as historic and cultural resources in an unaltered state. When people come across these stone stacks, that can hurt their experience," she said.</p>
Leave no trace<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUwNTg2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTQzODgwNn0.XUvxWRdnB6eXCsj4mL6bBmjw8lzcxqgZHhrLOLZuF9A/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C59%2C0%2C60&height=700" id="786e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e38180145474afafedb584ac6fc15031" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Angels Landing summit plateau after being restored by park rangers and volunteers.
(Photo: Mike Young / National Park Service)<p>When it comes to nature and our national parks, writers, conservationist, and scientists all agree on one unassailable rule: Leave no trace. When it comes to obvious human influences, such as plastics, dog scat, or forest fires, few would disagree.</p><p>But for many, stone stacks are beguilingly innocent in this regard. The materials come from the land and seem perfectly attune with nature. They blend our dual loves of artistry and the environment, and when these projects step outside of time and pass down to us from our ancestors, they crown some of our most cherished historical sites.</p><p>So, it's not a question of whether stone stacking is or is not an acceptable pastime. "It's a question of where the activity belongs," Anastasia said. "At the end of the day, stone stacking is not an activity that belongs in national parks." Though she stresses that it isn't a value judgment; it is simply a question of where an activity can and should be enjoyed.</p><p>If you want to stack stones, you can do so without fault in your backyard or interurban park or man-made beach. Leave your mark there and proudly share your creations on social media. But when it comes to nature, our actions add up to a social whole we must be conscious of. We can leave our mark in both what we create and what we leave untouched.</p>
Animals are adapting all the time these days to stay out of our way.
- Evolution is something that happens over time, but animals (humans included) are always mutating and adapting.
- Thanks to human presence and interference, animals are experiencing what has been referred to as "human-guided evolution."
- More animals are becoming night owls. Pollution determines which moths dominate the tree trunks of the U.K. Are these short-term changes, or is humanity doing lasting damage?
We often think of evolution as taking place over extended periods of time as mutations prove themselves advantageous, or not. Mutations, though, are not rare things: They happen all the time. Scientists estimate that there were 37 trillion of them in your own body just over the last 24 hours. (It's amazing more things don't go wrong, right?) The characteristics we see in ourselves and other organisms are merely the latest winners in a wild and woolly mutation free-for-all competition, in which nature, or random chance, tries out many wonderful, bizarre, and ridiculous traits as things settle out over the long term.
Adaptations in response to changing environmental factors occur all the time, too: An attribute that may have been meaningless before may suddenly become very helpful. Here in the Anthropocene, animals are adapting to all sort of habitat changes we've imposed on them. While not yet long-term changes, necessarily, these characteristics suggest we may be having a considerable impact on the ongoing process of evolution in the world's organisms.
Image source: Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock
Before the Industrial Revolution got up and running in the U.K., light-colored peppered moths, Biston betularia morpha typica, were a common sight. However, by about 1864, they'd been essentially replaced by a darker peppered-moth cousin, Biston betularia morpha carbonaria. Why?
Pollutants — mostly coal soot —covered the British countryside, darkening its trees. Worse, sulfur dioxide emissions wiped out many of the trees' lichen and moss coverings. Against these darkened backdrops, light-colored peppered moths became far too easy to spot by predators. Better suited were the darker peppered moths, which soon came to dominate the habitat — by 1895, some 95 percent of peppered moths spotted were the darker variety.
Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution days passed, with dirty factories over time being replaced by cleaner alternatives, and today, the light-colored peppered moths are back on top.
The story is a pretty fast-paced and dramatic example of how extreme our impact can be, and also — and there's a hopeful feeling to this — how short-lived it can be if we fix what we've broken.
Urban vs. rural red fox skull measurements
Image source: K.J. Parsons, et al
Researchers published in June a really interesting study regarding a surprising way in which foxes are adapting to life in human-dominated urban environments.
An examination of 111 red fox skulls from London, UK, revealed "urban individuals tending to have shorter and wider muzzles relative to rural individuals." Essentially, the more urban a fox's environment is, the shorter its snout was likely to be. The change may be considered an example of Darwin's "domestication syndrome," as Big Think previously reported.
The study suggests it's all about the biomechanics benefits imparted by such a change:
"Firstly, a shorter snout, as found in urban foxes, should confer a higher mechanical advantage but with reduced closing speed of the jaw. This may be advantageous in an urban habitat where resources are more likely to be accessed as stationary patches of discarded human foods. Furthermore, in some cases, these foods may require a greater force to access them, explaining the expanded sagittal crest in skulls of urban foxes."
If these traits make an individual fox better suited to its city life, it's that much more likely to survive and reproduce than a longer-snouted competitor.
Nighttime on human Earth
Image source: Viktor Grishchenko/Shutterstock
Habitat loss is the single most destructive thing we're doing to animals. It can lead to utter displacement and death, and it can also change the way animals go about doing the things they need to do to survive.
In many cases, animals dealing with fresh human encroachment bend before they break, and some are trying to carry on around us, so to speak. A 2018 study in the journal Science finds, for example, that animals are becoming more nocturnal to get out of the bipeds' way.
The authors of the study analyzed data from 76 other reports to learn how 62 species on six continents were trying to adapt to our intrusive presence. The data was sourced from all sorts of devices such as cameras to GPS trackers, and ran the gamut from 'possums to pachyderms.
What the researchers found was that animals known to split their activities between day and night were overwhelmingly becoming busier after dark. There was a 68 percent increase in nighttime activity among such animals.
If this habitat pressure continues, will we start to see individuals with, for example, better night vision, come to dominate as competitors for scarce resources? It'll be interesting to see.
When people say, "Such and such animal has this trait because it allows them to…" what they're really saying is that "Of all the crazy mutations that nature tried out, individuals with this mutation fared better than others did." Whether it's effective camouflage, the ditching of a trunk, or becoming a night owl — except for owls who already… never mind — temporary adaptations become fixed evolutionary traits when the conditions in which they are beneficial remain in place long enough. In the case of the pressure we're continually imposing on other life forms, it bears saying that only the ones lucky enough to survive humankind's challenging influence in the first place will get that chance to change.
A European start-up uses satellite data to pinpoint individual sources of abnormal methane concentration.
- Just 100 sources of methane emit 20 megatons each year.
- Thanks to satellite data, individual culprits can now be found.
- The new tech could be used to police 'abnormal' methane emissions.
Significant contributor to global warming<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI0MTQ0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1ODA5OTcxMn0.OrIWGP1I_K6xKhF5LYLt9C98i1ZeSSFOvr8owIOf2Vc/img.jpg?width=980" id="8ca1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="57de847a9981a381ef8550b85d604497" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bNodding donkey in Midland, Texas. The oil and gas industry is a major emitter of methane." />
Nodding donkey in Midland, Texas. The oil and gas industry is a major emitter of methane.
Image: Eric Kounce TexasRaiser, public domain<p>Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas (after CO2), and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing at around 1% each year. Because it absorbs the sun's heat even more efficiently than CO2, it's a significant contributor to global warming. </p><p>The first step to fight the rise in methane emissions is to track who's doing it. That's just become a lot easier. Paris-based tech start-up Kayrros can now find individual sources of abnormal methane emissions, all across the world. That's a first, and it's made possible by data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite.</p><p>Developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and launched in 2017, the British-built Sentinel-5 Precursor (<a href="https://earth.esa.int/web/guest/missions/esa-eo-missions/sentinel-5p" target="_blank">Sentinel-5P</a>) is the first satellite of the Copernicus program dedicated to monitoring air pollution, thanks to a spectrometer called <a href="http://www.tropomi.eu/" target="_blank">Tropomi </a>(short for Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument).</p><p>With a resolution of about 50 km<sup>2</sup>, this Dutch-built instrument can monitor atmospheric levels of aerosols, sulphur dioxide (SO<sub>2</sub>), nitrogen dioxide (NO<sub>2</sub>), carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde (CH<sub>2</sub>O), ozone (O<sub>3</sub>) and methane (CH<sub>4</sub>). <span></span></p>
High-volume methane leaks<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI0MTQzOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjQ4MDU4Mn0.eyWaywl5TPljlpaJfA6bi7vzOdBjE42r0uVf1kfQCNQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="beadd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d9064ebea1b44796ecde5892f91edfc3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bAbnormal methane concentrations in 2019 \u2013 often found in regions of the world producing or procesing oil and gas. Data provided by the Copernicus program, processed by Kayrros." />
Abnormal methane concentrations in 2019 – often found in regions of the world producing or processing oil and gas. Data provided by the Copernicus program, processed by Kayrros.
Image: Kayrros<p>You may not have heard of Tropomi yet, but it's likely you've already seen its work. Earlier this year, Copernicus Sentinel-5P produced the images that showed substantially reduced NO<sub>2</sub> levels across China, due to the coronavirus lockdown. </p><p>Tropomi also offers the most detailed monitoring of methane emissions presently available. Combining that data with other input from older-model Copernicus satellites Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, and from other sources (including ground sensors, position tracking and even social media), Kayrros scientists can identify the size, potency, and location of abnormal methane leaks around the world. </p><p>According to Kayrros, there are around <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-05-methane-emissions-global-scale.html" target="_blank">100 high-volume methane leaks</a> active around the world at any given time. Together, they release about 20 megatons of methane per year. About half of that volume is associated with mining for oil, gas or coal, or other heavy industries. Together, that amount of methane per annum is equivalent to CO<sub>2</sub> emissions of France and Germany combined.<br></p><p>So, how precise is the Kayrros method? Here's a recent case study. </p>
Plume over the Permian Basin<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI0MTQzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTM5NjgwOH0.bXMZKKhhiQzi-7cYcwiomr7H2ohUEL-Y0HOxjRv6sZ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="90e74" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b50fe434cb6e34abdf2fccead19aafe" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image: Kayrros<p>In December last year, Kayrros used data from Copernicus-5P to identify the source of a methane plume over the Permian Basin, which covers western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Sitting on top of a part of the Mid-Continent Oil Field, the Basin's surface is dotted with hundreds of oil wells. Yet with a little help from Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, Copernicus-5P managed to find the exact location, and the individual culprit. <br></p><p>For the first time, Kayrros tech and Copernicus-5P data make it possible to detect abnormal methane emissions in real time. Not only will this increase the precision of methane emission estimates, it will also allow regulators to find and fine the exact culprits, and if necessary, shut down their operations. </p>
Found: the culprit<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI0MTQyNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTczNTIxM30.JwY44VqYaWDEH7VtsoexxZS30Bp6Nz36prCNbFTSenY/img.jpg?width=980" id="74329" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="311f2c45db616fee626a540c4c735c8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Because they didn't have a space program.
- Space exploration is more than just the ultimate adventure, our study and investigation of space yields great scientific rewards, says astronaut Garrett Reisman.
- Earth is wonderful, but it won't last forever, so it's important that we maintain a big picture view to ensure the survival of the human species.
- Exploring space is our ticket to "the ultimate plan B," according to Reisman. If there were to occur a mass extinction event on Earth, the humans that inhabit another planet in our solar system will be the only hope of human survival.
Dr. Kate Biberdorf explains why boiling water makes it safer and how water molecules are unusual and cool.
- University of Texas professor and science entertainer Kate the Chemist joined Big Think to talk about water molecules and to answer two interesting and important questions: Why does boiling water make it safe to drink, and what happens to water when you boil or freeze it?
- According to Kate, when water is heated to a certain temperature (100°C/ 212°F) the hydrogen bonds break and it goes from a liquid to a gas state. Boiling for a minimum of 5 minutes kills any viruses and bacteria that were in the water.
- "Water is a freak and so it is one of my favorite molecules ever," Kate says. "It has these unique properties and we are surrounded by it constantly. We also are made of water. We have to drink water to survive...It's a really, really fun molecule to investigate."