Dateline: 04-01-2010, 8:00am, Japan Time; Something New to Worry About

March 31, 2010

An article in the Japan Examiner this morning posits that we have more to fret about than simple global warming. It seems that cultural geologist Vikram Patel, of the Mumbai think tank Interactive Geoterra has issued a paper documenting that not only is the planet heating up, it is also flattening out at a rather distressing rate. Initial, albeit anecdotal, reports suggested that global warming was causing significant ice melt at the tops of several of Nepal’s highest mountains, Kachenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu, thus rendering their summits several meters lower than previously recorded. In one case, that of Annapurna (8848m), which has no peaks nearby to block intense alpine sun rays, the pinnacle has shrunk by close to 30 meters, roughly one hundred feet. As it turns out, however, it is not simply solar-related meltdown, but a sandification of the underlying rock and soil which causes huge runoff during precipitation and contributes strongly to avalanches of epic proportions compared to landslide activity from as little as five years ago.

Patel came to Japan in 2008 to study the effects of sandification on the Japan Alps, most particularly Japan’s highest mountain, Mt. Fuji. Fuji, which is typically snowbound year round at the peak, has seen broad patches of bare earth showing through the snow cap in summers, particularly on the west side, for the past several years (the first time in recorded history). Patel’s study was an eye opener: previously measured at 3776m (12388 feet), Fuji-san’s summit had slipped alarmingly, close to fifty meters (150 feet) to a corrected altitude of 3730m (12237 feet). Anecdotal information from local growers suggested that their topsoil had become increasingly sandy and infertile over the previous three seasons, which squared with Patel’s assertion that the venerated mountain is inexorably eroding into the plains below.

The following two years found Patel in such diverse mountain locations as Colorado, Kenya, the Urals, and the Andes, and in each case, both the objective data (measurements of summit height, examination of runoff) and subjective data (observations by Patel and his research team, interviews with local residents) support the notion that the world is indeed flattening at a disturbing rate. “I should not be surprised to see Mt. Fuji lose 300 meters more in the course of my lifetime,” opined Patel, who is now forty-nine. “At that rate,” he continued, “assuming even a simple arithmetic progression, we could expect Mt. Fuji as we know it to exist no longer in 200 years.” The ramifications for smaller mountain ranges, like the Eastern US Appalachians, are even more dire. “No one can say with certainty what the weather patterns might look like with the diminishment or absence of mountain ranges, but it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that US Midwestern weather fronts would have no natural barriers to prevent their eastward migration, thus hammering eastern seaboard cities with a barrage of both Atlantic and Plains States storms on a more or less constant basis.”

Patel shrugs off suggestions that he is painting a worst-case “doomsday” scenario. “This is not a case of ‘the sky is falling’,” he points out, “but rather a case of ‘the sky is rising’, as the ground continues to erode away dramatically at the points where it reaches closest to the heavens. This rivals global warming as one of the most difficult challenges to be faced by the human race in the latter part of the 21st century.”

What can we do, if anything, to stem the tide? Patel’s suggestion: “Well, I would say to mountain climbers, please do not take souvenir rocks from the mountaintops when you reach the peaks. Perhaps instead you could bring lowland soil with you on your ascent, to leave at the summit upon arrival. Any small change one can make in one’s behavior has the potential for moving (or rebuilding) mountains when repeated at a global level.”

In closing, Patel offered a short message of hope and comfort he learned as a child at the knee of his Spanish governess: “Feliz Dia de los Inocentes. mis amigos crédulos.” (For a literal translation of Patel’s exceptionally important closing message, please visit http://translate.reference.com/translate, and paste the text into their translator program.)

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It’s Sakura Time Again in Edo!

March 31, 2010

On the Tokyo evening news every year around this time, the piece of information that everyone tunes in to discover is: “what percentage of sakura (cherry) blossoms have opened thus far?” The reason for this is that the Japanese, the world’s pre-eminent amateur photographers, want to be on hand, tripods at the ready, at the absolute most propitious moment for snapping pics of the pink explosion that defines Tokyo every spring. The weatherman (it is always a man, although he quite often has a comely female assistant to flip the charts and hang on his every word as he dispenses pearls of meteorological wisdom), armed with a nothing more than a pointing stick and a highly scientific-looking blue screen, hijacks perhaps a third of the news half-hour, giving the rundown suburb by suburb, with the seriousness of one describing, say, a mining accident: Saitama, 54% open; Yamanashi Prefecture, 51%; Yasukuni Shrine, 53%; Shakujii Koen, 52%. It is a fragile balance, the cherry blossom pageant, easily disrupted by rain, wind or an unseasonal frost, but the TV weatherman is on top of it, rest assured. If you don’t get decent photos, it’s your fault, not his.

I have little need of a weatherman to keep me apprised, for I have acquired a sensitive instrument of my own for detecting the onset of cherry season; actually, I have had this instrument all my life, but until coming to Japan, I had never used it to measure cherry blossom activity, to the best of my recollection. It is as plain as the nose on my face; in fact, it is the nose on my face, and its passageways close down like the 101 Freeway at rush hour just as sakura season begins, and stay that way for a couple of weeks until the last straggling petals flutter their way down to the curb side. As an added bonus, the pink of my eyes accurately mirrors the percentage of blossoming; by the time the cherry trees are in their full glory, there is scarcely a pinpoint of white to be seen anywhere in the vicinity of my irises.

Still, masochist that I am, I follow the blooms just like every other sentient being in Japan; with wide-angle lens at the ready to document the broad swaths of roseate blush that stipple the parks and gardens of Tokyo,

51% and counting...

and close-up lens in reserve to catch the most minute details of petal, pistil and stamens, all rendered against an artfully soft-focused background of foliage.

Sakura Zoom!

Are these identical to the photos taken by a hillion-jillion other amateur photographers, all of whom have gathered outside Kudanshita Station at the same moment as I, the elusive 100% moment? Oh yes, except they all have better cameras. And do I have literally thousands more pictures just like these from years past? Oh yes, stored in my computer, on memory chips, flash drives, and CDROMs. And next year at this time, all other things being equal, will I be doing it all over yet again? Oh yes. I must be a fan of mouth breathing.