Chilly in Chattanooga

30 January 2014

Chattanooga from the mountain lookout (Photo: John Potgieter)

Chattanooga from the mountain lookout (Photos: John Potgieter)

Chattanooga (Tennessee) is one of those places in the US where snow is uncommon.  The past couple of days have come as something of a shock to locals as Wednesday January 29th became a “snow day”, people stayed at home and some school kids slept in their snow-trapped busses the night before.  The nett effect was quite picturesque!

DSC03830But in case anyone is losing any sleep over this, rest assured help is at hand!


Algae and Motor Neuron Disease: Diatoms complicate the picture

30 January 2014

Diatoms - a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Diatoms – a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Until now we have believed that the production of beta-methyl amino alanine (BMAA), thought to be implicated with neurodegenerative brain disorders (ALS-PDC), was limited to the blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria). Since 2004 we have learnt that all species of cyanobacteria, or almost all, produce this toxic amino acid.  This finding, backed by some early research, suggested that environmental exposure to lakes or reservoirs containing cyanobacteria, or drinking water derived therefrom, may be a cause for this debilitating complex of diseases.

That was until this month (January 2014).

Beta-methyl amino alanine

Beta-methyl amino alanine

A group of researchers have demonstrated that various species of diatoms, the most prolific group of algae on the planet, also produce BMAA.  If the production of BMAA is more widely spread across the diatom genera then this finding significantly alters the level of risk of exposure thereto.  The work also demonstrates that higher organisms, eukaryotes, can produce BMAA.

Jiang and co-authors conclude, inter alia,  that:

Taken together, the data reported here give a clear answer supported by solid evidence that BMAA is not exclusively produced by cyanobacteria. As diatoms are a major bloom- forming phytoplankton in aquatic environments, the impact of this discovery suggests new bioaccumulation routes and that the risk of human exposure may have increased tremendously. 

(search this blog for several other articles on BMAA)

Floating islands part of Val de Vie success

23 January 2014

Val de Vie before the makeover!  (Photo: Bill Harding).

Val de Vie before the makeover! (Photo: Bill Harding).

The Val de Vie Lifstyle Estate outside Paarl (Western Province, South Africa) is described in the latest edition of Environmental Management (Dec/Jan 2013/14, Vol 8, pg 16 et seq) as an ‘environmental benchmark.  When I first surveyed the site, ten years ago, it was a harsh, alien infested area where clay and sand were being mined.  Today its quite different and is the locale that is now described as a benchmark for environmental rehabilitation.  It is certainly very hard to view what is there now against what was there back in 2004. Read more »

Mini water wars: People who make decisions are often not the ones affected by water quality problems

19 January 2014

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

Many have speculated that future conflicts will be fought over water availability – for example as argued by Marq de Villiers in his book aptly titled “Water Wars: Is the World’s Water Running Out?” (Phoenix Press 1999).  Similar arguments are evident in Sandra Postel’s “Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last” (WorldWatch, 1999) or in Patrick Bond’s “Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest” (Merlin, 2002).  In the latter Bond correctly notes that “Water management offers [the] South African government and society possibly the most serious contemporary challenge“.  In 1997 the UN Comprehensive Assessment of Freshwater Resources concluded that “The world faces a worsening series of local and regional water quantity and quality [my emphasis] problems.  Water resource constraints and water degradation are weakening one of the resources bases  on which human society is built“.  All of these texts were published more than a decade ago, and similar postulates pre-date them.

Read more »

Birds of Greyton’s Common

12 January 2014


Sue and Barry Schultz removing entrapped birds from their nets (Photo: Bill Harding)

Sue and Barry Schultz removing entrapped birds from their survey nets (Photo: Bill Harding)

This morning saw the appearance of a small fleet of bird nets on the Greyton Common.  Volunteer birders Sue and Barry Schultz, who hail from Cape Town, were passing through the town on their way home – and a reconnoitre the previous afternoon revealed the Qobos River edge of the Common to be a good site.  They identify, weigh and ring each bird they catch and then release it again.

Drat!  (Photo: Bill Harding)

Drat! (Photo: Bill Harding)

The work done by volunteer monitors of all scientific disciplines is invaluable in today’s world!  Without this continuous stream of information from a variety of locations, our understanding of ecosystem complexity, services and threats would not be as robust as it is.

All safe now.  Just the ring to be added and I'll be off again (Bill Harding)

All safe now. Just the ring to be added and I’ll be off again (Bill Harding)

The Greyton Common is a threatened environment, encapsulating a vegetation type that is Critically Endangered.  Should it not be conserved, yet another fragment of irreplaceable ecosystem will be lost forever.

Greyton approaches 200mm rain in 48 hours, reaches almost 300 mm by week end

7 January 2014

IMG_0914It started raining in Greyton at 16:15 on Sunday, January 5th.  By 08:00 this morning (January 7th) a total of 191 mm had been measured.  The rivers and streams rose significantly overnight on the back of steady unbroken rainfall.  More rain is forecast for today, with thunderstorms to liven things up a bit!

Just a trickle yesterday!

Just a trickle yesterday!

UPDATE:  By the time it stopped raining, on 10 January 2014,  a total of 275 mm had been recorded !  (more than 10x the monthly average).  Combined with the storm on 14/15 November (164mm), this amounts to 439 mm in less than two months!  What some readers may have missed in all this is that this is our “dry season”.

IMG_0937Of course as the storm moved slowly eastward, we heard the reports of flooding in Laingsburg and of the devastation caused to crops in the Western Province, some areas so mauled as to now be being considered for disaster relief.

“The climates, they are a’changing”

2014 off to a wet start, at least in Greyton

6 January 2014

IMG_0901It’s only the 6th day of 2014 and already this January month is the wettest in 30 years!  Greyton, about 100 km east of Cape Town, had by 17:00 today logged 115 mm since the rain started falling yesterday afternoon!  January typically averages around 23-25 mm, the last big total (Somerset West) being 107 mm in 2002 and nothing more than 50 mm in the other 28 years!

Still a couple more days of rain to come so January may yet breach the 200 mm mark.  Not that anyone is moaning, mind you, after many consecutive days of 35 deg C cookers!

How green is my beach? Marine seaweed blooms increasing

2 January 2014

Blooms like this are increasing.

Blooms like this are increasing. Come on in, the water’s lovely! (If you can find it!)


Droplets readers will recall the problems that befell the Olympics in China when the offshore sailing course developed a substantial bloom of the macroalga Enteromorpha.  Problems like this started to occur around 2007 in Qingdao, China and have continued to this day.  Similar problems occur on US, European and African beaches.  A paper published in the December 5th edition of Nature indicates that mass beachings of algal mats, termed “green tides” may be on the increase, fuelled by increasing eutrophication (food for algae) and hydrodynamic processes offshore that bulk up the algal biomass. Read more »