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Vol. 6(1), pp. 4-10The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalJanuary 2005

Outlooks: Past, Present, and Future

R J Ferry

The ordinary orchid grower has very personal reasons to watch the weather. During the delightful days of spring and fall, one can still worry about plant leaves getting sunburned, whether the local rainfall is sufficient, or whether to fertilize or not fertilize. In the hot days of the dead of summer, there's still leaf burn to consider and plant drying-out to give cause for concern. Wintertime is that worst-of-all nightmare! Will the plants be brought inside in time, or will there be a rush to transport everything inside as darkness falls on that first "it's finally here" cold snap? Will the heating system fail? Will a sudden warm spell heat up the greenhouse and burn or dry out everything, or will the humidity in the encapsuled plant environment reach such levels that fungeal growths proliferate? Will this winter season be a warmer-than-normal one or a colder-than-normal one? What, in fact, is a "normal" winter season?

Whether winters are warmer or colder than those of years ago may have something to do with a person's age. Locally, as one ages, it's easy to remember the great freeze that hit southern Texas in the early 1980's, or guage all hurricanes by Beulah. A few older ones among us can hark back to trudging to elementary school classes when the thermometer stayed at -30 to -35° C. (-20 to 25° F.!) for three and four weeks at a time. Memory recalls winters in central Washington State when -30 and -35° F. were not uncommon, and of times north of Nome, Alaska when those temperatures would be classed as a heat wave! As one reminisces, the underlying themes emerge that "it was a lot worse in the old days;" and that "we were a tough bunch who endured great hardships." The objectives of such reminiscing are obvious: they're designed to obtain all the admiration and awe an older person can milk from anybody a few years younger! However, even though ego trips are about the only trips one might take after a certain age, ramblings about past weather phenomena doesn't answer present-day concerns about how cold it's going to be tonight, tomorrow night, or the night hours of next week! Will this winter's greenhouse (and home) heating bills be more or less than last years? Is there a trend, and--if so--what is it?

In recent months--indeed the last few years--there's been a deluge of verbage about global warming. The general tenor of these arguments is designed to make humanity worry that enough warm river water will eventually reach the polar ice masses and cause melting rates to increase, and so on. The eventual doomsday scenario has ocean levels rising, world harbors being flooded, and global warming accelerated with catastrophic effects on modern civilization. The underlying evil in this scenario is, of course, the presumed excessive use of fossil fuels by the "developed nations." Seeing this, personal crusades get launched against modern sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), and hybrid-fuel vehicles are touted as planet-saving devices. Actually, the vast majority of humans do nothing, but at least they worry,...and express global warning worries at cocktail parties, school meetings, and the like.

One popular (but absurd) way to conclude whether global warming is actually upon us is to approach the problem from a democratic point: get a group together and vote on it! This may sound absurd, and it really is, but humans are humans, and even scientists fall into elementary human-frailty traps! It doesn't take much of a review of history to see that the matter of the scientific consensus is an old and rather hallowed way of arriving at conclusions that make the majority happy,...with each other and their individual conclusions. A few centuries ago, a group of monks were deciding how many teeth were in a horse's mouth by consulting the old writings and conducting lengthy deliberations. One young monk, suggested actually looking in the mouth of a horse and counting the teeth, and was severely castigated as an upstart! The monks finally settled the matter by voting on it. Whether this method actually properly answered the question of how many teeth a horse has, or whether global warming is actually in its early stages is immaterial: the important thing in this system is to convince by consensus! By the way, humans still do this with trials by a "jury of one's peers," and one historically graphic example of how justice was thus served is that Socrates was condemed to death by a majority vote in a wonderfully democratic manner! Conclusions in science, however, are to be drawn based on the preponderance of dispassionate logical reasoning derived from factual evidence,..not by voting, but--even within the scientific community--it still goes on!

A recent article in the magazine Science (Oreskes, 2004) discussed "The scientific consensus on climate change." The article deals with a review of 928 scientific papers published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the international Science Index (ISI) database with the key words "climate change." The papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view. The remaining papers dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on anthropogenic climate change. The sentence immediately following the foregoing erudite mouthfull above is a telling one. "Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position."

The implication of that last sentence leaves a door open that no disagreement might just imply some sort of tacit agreement with the consensus. Thus we are asked to believe that 696 scientists (75% of the 928) surveyed represent a significant majority of intelligence about whether global warming is upon us or not. At this point, one can only wonder how many scientists there are in the world, and whether this number actually represents a bona fide scientific majority. Implicit in all of this is whether the "scientific majority" is--in the end--actually right about global warmning in the first place! After all, there was a time when the majority approach was that the sun moved around the earth, and that the human body was such a sacred temple of the Almighty that Michaelangelo would have been burned at the stake had it been found out he was actually dissecting cadavers to determine muscular structure and relate this to the beauty of form and function now admired on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome!

Our referenced article in Science closes with what sounds to your editor like a rather weak plea to give some sort of recognition and respectability to the 696 numbered doomsday group:

"Many details about climate interaction are not well understood, and there are ample grounds for continued research to provide a better basis for understanding climate dynamics. The question of what to do about climate change is also still open. But there is a scientific consensus on the realiity of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen."

December, 2004 is now history. However, locally, it is difficult to preach that global warming is upon us, when all of southern Texas just experienced record snowfalls the afternoon and evening of 24 December! The area from Mission (just west of McAllen), east-southeast along the Rio Grande River is citrus growing country. An occasional frost is not uncommon, and a few freezes have been known, but snow? No! This is the area known as tropical Texas! Even 230 miles to the north, the area of Victoria, Texas only saw a tenth of an inch of snow back in 1973, and the last "White Christmas" seen in Victoria, Texas in 1918 also only recorded a tenth of an inch. Snow? Don't be absurd,...after all, global warming's the name of the game! By the way, elsewhere over the northern Hemisphere, the weather was cited as "normal for this time of year," or simply "seasonable."

Fig. 2. Walkway and driveway at your editor's home in Victoria, Texas, 1630 hours local time, 24 Dec. 2004.

Fig. 3. Walkway and driveway at your editor's home in Victoria, Texas, 0730 hours local time, 25 Dec. 2004.

Now back to reality! Here in Victoria, at your editor's home, snow flakes began to be seen about 4:30 in the afternoon (Fig. 2). At first, they did little but wet the still-warm cars, grass areas, and driveway, but the snow continued, and continued, and continued! As a matter of fact, it didn't stop until about 3 A.M. of the next day! Sunrise, Christmas Day, was a different story (Fig. 3)! Brownsville, Texas, away down at the southernmost tip of Texas, had an inch and a half of snow,...McAllen was blanketed with three and a half inches, and Victoria had a record snowfall of 11 to 12 inches!

Fig. 4. The walkway in the opposite direction from the driveway, the afternoon of 24 December.

Fig. 5. The walkway in the opposite direction from the driveway, early the following morning.

What does one do when faced with such an event (Fig. 4) (Fig. 5)? Your editor sent a fitful night, periodically checking greenhouse and outside air temperatures, quaffing an occasional cup of coffee, and gently adding another stick or two of wood on the fire. Much later in the day, we were to learn all the residences on the other side of the street had lost electrical power at about 0300 hours for about 14 hours, but here, with power lines buried and a large power company transformer serving only this house and barn complex, the electrical power never failed.

Fig. 6. Wilma and Sandra rejoice over the snowman's completion (complete with your editor's work hat!)

Fig. 7. Sandra, making a "snow angel."

As the day dawned, it was time for the little kiddies of all ages to rush out and play in the snow, make a snowman (Fig. 6), and do all those things winter people take for granted and southern-tropical people take as a giant treat (Fig. 7). Your editor, jaded from years of growing up in snow-laden country, flying aircraft in winter weather, and still with memories of sliding down many an icy runway, declined most of these so-called recreational pursuits. This one remained content to take several photographs of the locally historic event, while internally reflecting on the global warming consensus and the degree to which--for all our technological advances--the ability to provide accurate long-term weather forecasting obviously was lacking.

Fig. 8. The street at Norma Albert's home in McAllen, Texas. The 3.5 inches of snow has begun to melt on the hard surfaces, but it still clings to the vegetation.

Far to the south, in the citrus growing country, the situation was not quite as dramatic as in the Victoria area, but a heavy snowfall in citrus growing country sends more than one kind of a chill throughout the region! A photo arrived from Norma Albert a few days later, and it graphically illustrated the uncommon phenomena to hit the McAllen area (Fig. 8).

The bruhaha over global warming and the reality of the storm to hit this area of southern Texas gives rise to another--much more serious--consideration. An even more recent issue of Science (Kennedy, 2004) cites as "breakthrough of the year" the "new evidence that Mars was once warm, wet, and salty: a candidate environment for early life." As the issue of 17 December was published, it looked like a triumphant year for science and scientists.

Alas, little notice had been taken of historical events and what they might portend right here on earth. A much-earlier edition of Science (Highlights, 2003) took note of an earthquake on 1 November, 1755. The quake was estimated at 8.5 magnitude and was along the Africa-Eurasia plate boundary in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Lisbon. It devastated Lisbon, produced ground liquifaction, seiches (seismic activity; earth tremors), a tsunami, and subsequent fires. Shaking was felt throughout the rest of Portugal and in Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, and northern Africa. The tsunami flooded much of the Atlantic and western Mediterranean coastlines, and seiches were noted as far away as Finland. It was suggested the initial offshore earthquake triggered within minutes another earthquake about 300 km. away on the lower Tagus Valley fault. The Lower Tagus Valley fault is an important component of the plate boundary and suffered ruptures in 1344, 1531, and 1909. With the realization that the 1755 event adds in with the other events, the recurrence interval is reduced and the estimated seismic hazard is likely increased.

Locally, and seemingly in contradiction to the gobal warming declarations, Victoria, Texas saw a record snowfall, but the news of a mere local area snowfall on 24-25 December was pushed into oblivion by the event of 26 December! An undersea earthquake at 2014 hours Eastern Standard Time on Saturday struck of the west coast of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Initially it was given a magnitude of 8.0, which was later upgraded to 9.0. The tsunami, the giant wave generated by the quake, struck the region's coastal areas without warning. Now, as the New Year dawns, the human deaths are estimated at over 150,000 and this will doubtless be revised upward in the days and weeks ahead.

What does all of this have to do with we who grow orchids? On the surface, perhaps little. Nevertheless, we who grow orchids and pursue topics related to the science of the orchid family, may wonder at humanity's priorities. From the relatively secure desk of this aging editor, it has always been a bit difficult to rationalize the intensity with which humans (of several political stripes) seem bent on Mars, what's there, and whether or not life once existed there. What nobody is saying is that the gravity of Mars is so slight that the planet holds only the thinnest of atmospheres; actually, about that similar to the atmosphere atop mount Everest. Water, if on Mars, is certainly not readily abundant, and the Martian winds are known to have velocities of up to 300 miles per hour during storms. The cold fact of life is that we may eventually spend billions on Mars, but we are not going to colonize that planet! We may go there, collect a few rocks, plant the banners of a nation or two (or even three or more), and return. We may even erect some sort of a "permanent" station to record the 300 mile per hour sand-storm winds, but we are not going to erect great on-site space stations, and big cities with shopping centers there. In short, Earth is where we live, and we don't even know enough about our home planet to give long-term warnings about a freak snowstorm or a tsunami capable of snuffing out about a fifth of a million humans in the space of a few seconds. What are humanity's real priorities? What should they be?

In 1981 we knew of 660 species of orchids in Mexico. By the early 1990's that number was estimated by Soto-Arenas to be 1,300, and new species continue to be described from Mexico and many other countries including the well-tromped-over United States. In short, we really don't know our own planet, yet we eagerly put billions into the search for life on far-distant worlds. Might human resources be better allocated toward the eradication of malaria? Might there be better methods of human population governance than via the actions of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? What will it take for humans to learn to outgrow the bigotries of politics, religions, races, and greed, and learn to cooperate instead of exploit each other and this small planet?

Might some nondescript orchid species hold a cure-key to malaria, diabetes, or some other human scourge? Why do some orchids survive in the cold and others not? Where is the "frost-free" gene that might be implanted to permit growing tropical cattleyas in Canada? We simply don't know. If the knowledge is sequestered somewhere, it's certainly not being applied. The possibilities for research in molecular biology abound. However, meanwhile, the simple ability to identify this tree or that plant is becoming highly uncommon on the modern college campus. It's already rare in secondary schools, nearly nonexistent at elementary school levels, and--among adults--is generally limited to a few casual common names for a limited number of garden plants. The idea of using the universal language of scientific names is consistently downgraded by many who actually seem to take pride in being quite provincial and mentally lazy.

Mars and the other planets may be of great importance to earthlings, and whether life forms exist elsewhere in our solar system or elsewhere in the universe would be interesting to know, but what we can do with that knowledge? When gained, it will only confirm what we already instinctively know by studying life forms right here on earth: that the elements chemically bond the same throughout the universe! Hence, by spending billions to study rocks on Mars, we will confirm what a near-infinite variety of life forms have illustrated for a few billion years here on earth: that life forms--whenever and wherever they evolve in the universe--are all carbon-based! Sooner or later, we will realize that RNA and DNA is the universe's way of making life!

Ecologically, there are great gaps in humanity's knowledge about the planet we all inhabit. At this date, millions of dollars have been pledged for aid due to a tsunami disaster. Yet, for all of the coastal disaster areas and loss of human life, an international banking house's report at the start of the new year estimates the disaster will have had only a 2 to 3% economic effect on the countries hardest hit! Despite the disaster photographs being shown in the United States, many inland areas appear to have been relatively untouched. Thus, in the face of a massive human disaster, nations are facing the fact that not only ecologically, but economically, the buck stops here,...on earth!

We enter a new calendar year with much to learn about the orchids we grow, and those merely studied in nature. As we contemplate the natural disasters confronting humanity, and the global misallocation of human and economic resources, perhaps we may at least resolve to cooperate more with each other; more eagerly help each other to learn; and be more ready to share resources with each other. This earth has been visited with many "natural" disasters in its geologic history, but each of us is here for not even a breath of geologic time. Will that microsecond of an individual life span be subtly concentrated on an ego-trip drive for some pseudo-gloried position, or will our basic personal orchid-oriented resolves be channeled more altruistically?

References

Oreskes, N. 2004. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science 306, No. 5702, p. 1686. 3 December, 2004.

Kennedy, D., Editorial. Breakthrough of the Year. Science 306, No. 5704, p. 2001. 17 December, 2004

Highlights of recent Literature, Editor's Choice. 2003. The Great Lisbon Earthquake. Science. 302, No. 5649, p. 1295. 21 November, 2003. (reprinted from Bull. Seismic Soc. Am. 93, 2056.)

Copyright © 2005 R J Ferry