Way Down Below The Ocean

February 24th, 2011

The other day we were discussing the elusive Narwhal in class. I used to think this creature was ‘mythical’ too until I saw a silly cartoon about them online and became more interested in the funny looking creature. After our class discussion I decided it would be interesting to learn more about the threatened Narwhal.

The Narwhal lives in the Arctic all year, with the highest population concentrated around the Canadian/Greenland areas. The Narwhal has only three main predators, the Orca, Polar Bears and of course humans. Inuits hunt the Narwhal and have incorporated it into local legend. They travel in pods of 10-100, making them quite social creatures.

These whales are 13-16 feet long and can live to be 50 years old. They are generally slow moving unless chased by a predator. The Narwhal is sometimes referred to as the ‘sea unicorn’ because of its prominent 7-10 ft. spiral tusk. Male Narwhals have much larger tusks than females. Occasionally, a Narwhal will grow double tusks. It is uncertain exactly what purpose the tusk serves, but is probably a secondary sexual characteristic, similar to a peacock’s feathers. The tusk is actually a tooth that grows from the upper jaw. Narwhals gives birth to one calf at a time after a lengthy 16 month gestation period. So obviously, their population is quite slow growing. They love to eat cod, but also dine on squid, shrimp, and other types of fish.

The Narwhal is listed as Near Threatened and it is illegal for humans to poach these whales. The Inuit are an exception to this ban and are still allowed to hunt the animal, as it is an important nutrient source in their diet. However, Climate Change is going to be the biggest threat to Narwhal populations. The current populated is estimated around 50,000-75,000 individuals.

“Their habitual nature, small numbers, and limited range and diet make them extremely sensitive to climate change, says a study in Ecological Applications. Global warming is already affecting the sea ice narwhals are adapted to, and will likely increase their exposure to such events as ice entrapments—phenomena caused by sudden weather changes that quickly seal cracks in dense ice, which can suffocate cetaceans. A warming ocean could have an even bigger impact on narwhals by disrupting their finely tuned ecosystems and, thus, their food source.” – WWF

The Narwhal is certainly a unique creature and it would be very unfortunate to lose this species due to climate change. If the Narwhal’s habitat continues to deteriorate, do you think the Inuit should still be allowed to hunt these whales?

Narwhal Video!! – NarwhalsNatGeo

Narwhal facts and information:

Defenders Of Wildlife

National Geographic


As The River Flows

February 17th, 2011

When I first came to UMW I heard a lot of talk about the local Rappahannock river and how it was an important focus for conservation in the state. The Rappahannock always reminded me a lot about my own state river in New Hampshire, the Merrimack, often lovingly referred to as the Mighty Merrimack by locals. The Merrimack river stretches down the center of New Hampshire into Massachusetts and effects a huge area of the watershed in my small state.

The Merrimack is a very important feature to NH, as it helped power the Mill industries that once dominated and shaped the state in the 1800s. Many dams and canals were installed to harness the water’s power. Today there are several hydropower facilities. However, with the massive growth of industry right along the riverside, the Merrimack quickly became overrun with pollution from trash dumping and factory runoff. Growing population did not help this matter, as many citizens and farmers would carelessly throw their waste into the water. The river was also used as a sewage dump for large towns in the state, making the water particularly foul. The Clean Water Act of 1972 set into motion events to clean up the Merrimack. Cleanup was slow, Manchester (the largest town in NH) didn’t stop dumping sewage until 1992. However, activism for this cause has gained momentum in more recent years and the river is much cleaner than it has been since the 1800s.

Growing up as a child I recall my parents telling me that the river was ‘dirty’ and that I should not swim in it. We had to drive upstate to the mountains where pristine rivers flowed. There was always a stigma against swimming in the Merrimack or many of its feeder rivers. Many people would say that it was only safe to boat on the water. My parents told me that they took a small boat down the river once in the 80s, after only a few hours the hull was covered with a toxic sludge that permanently stained the craft. It’s no wonder they didn’t want me swimming in it. Although the river is much cleaner in recent years, the water quality is still questionable in many places. Many people do swim in the polluted waters, and simply choose to ignore the dirtiness.

Despite the pollution, the riverside is still one of my favorite places. The Suncook river (one of the feeders to the Merrimack) runs through my town. The flood of 2006 caused the Suncook to flood its banks and reroute itself through part of the town. The new course flows through an old sandpit, creating a unique new habitat. We lovingly call this spot the ‘avulsion’, which is a technical term for a rerouted river. The river exposed lots of clay deposits that are pure enough to mold and set to bake in the sun on a hot summer day. I hope that the Merrimack cleanup will continue until the river is as close to its original state as possible.

The Avuslion

Here is an informative blog about the Merrimack in case anyone wants to learn more about the river! A Look At The Merrimack

The Lawrence Dam on the Merrimack


To Modify Or Not To Modify

February 2nd, 2011

We recently talked about the push for desert agriculture and how it is ruining the Aral sea. The simplest solution would of course be to stop farming in the desert, stop diverting the rivers. But the area had quickly become dependent on the influx of food and profits. It seems that once an area starts producing more than average, it would be problematic if it ever produced less. The same story goes for our own country.

The other day I was watching TV and saw a commercial praising the American farmer. Wholesome shots of men in plaid shirts standing in fields of wheat seemed nice enough. But at the end I saw the sponsor: Monstano. I was familiar with this name and it immediately put a bad taste in my mouth.  Monsanto is the mastermind behind the infamous pesticide RoundUp, and also behind genetically engineered seedlings that can withstand this particular poison. RoundUp is probably one of the worst things one can spray, as it kills anything green, unless the plant is specially modified. Monsanto has used genetic engineering in many different ways, including using antibiotic markers on DNA sequences. This type of genetic modification has unknown health effects, but there have been some troubling cases and effects reported. The only successful way of really monitoring the effects of modified foods is for them all to be labeled.

It seems to me that a company like Monsanto would be entirely focused on production and profit, while ignoring environmental and health problems that arise from their work. This sounds like the same mindset of the farming around the Aral sea. We have become reliant on unnaturally large yields due to genetic engineering and pesticide use in this country. It would be interesting to see if we could grow enough food to feed our nation if everything was grown organically, free of GMs. Our bioengineering is similar to the rerouting of rivers. It opens exciting new doors, but it is easy to lose sight of consequences, especially when it becomes too late to fix.

How do you feel about Genetic Modification of your food? Would you be less inclined to buy something that you knew what genetically modified?

The The Future Of Food is a very informative documentary that goes quite in-depth on genetic modification, just some food for thought.