The Fish Are On Anti-Depressants: The Great Lakes, Harvey, and Our Weird Global Climate Experiment

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Storm’s coming…

 

A few years ago, I read this cool report out of Northwestern University about an old, hidden, forgotten cemetery near downtown Chicago, underneath some of the most expensive and tony property in the city. This boneyard was the final resting spot of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, before it was forgotten, paved over, and built upon. Skyscrapers and artisanal donut shops linger with a sneering assumption of permanence over a Potter’s Field.

It’s weird, the things our civilization leaves behind. The past, when it burbles up like poltergeists, give us this disconcerting shudder, a weird hollow dread mingled with our awe. I think that comes from twin recognitions: the first is the Ozymandias-like knowledge that we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground one day, and our buildings won’t last forever. The bodies in the ground remind us of that.

But they also remind us that we leave traces. We have an impact not just on our lives, but on the future. And as a species, we have an impact on an entire planet, in sometimes positive but mostly weird and disturbing ways. We’re changing the ecology of our home in a grand experiment to which no one really consented, but in which we’re all both participants and experimenters.

Harvey is a sign of this. Fish on anti-depressants is a far weirder, but no less profound one. In fact, it might be the most damning and on-the-nose verdict on our society I can think of. Let me explain.

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A Scattering of Summer Thoughts on the Orange-Moon Night of August 8th

This post has like, zero politics, and is just discursive and recursive and indulgent ramblings, so feel free to skip. 

 

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This wasn’t tonight, but that’s what it looked like!

 

You set out on an eastward walk as darkness begins to stretch a light blanket over the sky and crickets warm up their chittering symphony.  You’d say it is still light out when you leave the door, but by the time you’re a few blocks away from the lake, where the air takes on a subtle sweetwater perspiration, cars have their lights on and faces are indistinct until they pass you, barely preceded by snatches of conversation.

“If there was going to be a rule about where to stand, there should have been a sign.”

“We have enough space, but we don’t have enough room.”

You don’t know the signs or the rule, and you can’t help them with their space issues. The conversations are all couples right now, older than you, settled in, comfortable in the minutia of their observations. Relaxed and unhurried as they disappear into the strengthening night. But you’re unsettled.

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Some Good News About Asian Carp…For Now (Or: Why Trump’s Budget Ruins Everything)

In this 2012 photo, an Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jumps from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill., during a study on the fish’s population.

So, the Great Lakes actually got some good news this week, when it turned out that the canal leading up to Lake Michigan was free of Asian Carp. There had been a two-week monitoring of the area following the discovery of a carp in the Calumet River.

This is good news because if the Asian Carp get into the lake, they’ll be able to get into all the Great Lakes. They have no natural predators around here, and are expected to be able to out-compete local species for food and resources. They could potentially change the entire ecosystem of the lake, ruining commerical fishing (there isn’t much of a market for them right now), and having huge repercussions both environmentally and economically.

If you aren’t familiar, these are big suckers that jump out of the water when they hear a baot, and can do serious damage to boats and people. They fly around and can break your nose. They hurt when they hit you.

They were brought to America for fish farms, but then during a flood escaped into a river, and have worked their way up. Parts of the Illinois, for example, are completely choked with these monsters. Check this out.

It’s super unpleasant. Even if you don’t care about the ecological ramifications of them dominating the Great Lakes (and you should, what’s wrong with you?) just imagine the havoc it will wreak on boating, on the lakes and their tributaries. It’s a nightmare.

That’s why the US has spent a lot of money to keep them out of the Great Lakes, especially on the the Cal-Sag Channel, and the Calumet River. and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, where there is an electronic fence south of the city. And everyone agrees that’s a good thing. Who could be against it?

Oh, for the love of god

The alarming discovery of an 8-pound, 28-inch adult silver carp comes as President Donald Trump is proposing a federal budget that would gut funding for efforts to block Asian carp and other invasive species from the world’s largest body of fresh surface water.

The Trump administration also has refused to release a government study on new proposals to prevent carp from moving upstream from the Illinois River, where the fish already have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem.

Seriously, what the hell? How is it possible to be on the wrong side of everything? How is it possible to be on the wrong side of this? If you had asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have even imagined there could be a wrong side. I didn’t think there was a pro-Asian-carp-in-the-Lakes contingency.  Especially not from someone so concerned about keeping America safe from foreigners!

But then, they manage to be on the wrong side of everything, especially when it comes to the Great Lakes. They are trying to gut the Great Lakes Research Initiative, even though it will hurt their white working class base the most.  They even manage to be against making sure ballast holds don’t bring any more invasive species, which is almost impressive. You think they spend their whole days on operatic evil like ending health care or suppressing the vote, but nope: they take time to block common-sense ballast measures.

There’s been some talk about closing the Sanitarity and Ship  Canal. As most of you know, these were built in order to use lake water to wash the filth of the city down the Des Plaines and Illinois toward the Mississippi, and on to St. Louis, which: haha, screw St. Louis. The great shipping and sanitation channels changed the flow of the water, an audacious move, and the biggest diversion in Great Lakes history (which now could be a casus belli). 

But it did more than that. It erased the divide between the Mississippi Basin and the Great Lakes Basin, which means that invasive species in Arkansas can make their way up the vast river system into the greatest body of freshwater in the world. That’s why some people are advocating closing them down.

It’s an equally audacious plan, to be sure, and I doubt it will ever happen. But that’s the kind of big thinking that is needed to prevent a catastrophe. And that is what makes it equally catastrophic that we are being led by the smallest thinkers in the world, a whole party of petty, short-sighted, gleefully-destructive fools who inevitably take the most destructive possible course on every issue.

Protecting the Great Lakes smacks of environmentalism, and so they won’t do it. It’s pure nihilism. May they all be forced to paddleboard through a swarm of madly agitated carp.

Yukon River Rerouting Shows Sudden Impact of Climate Change; Is Bonkers Crazy

 

This river is younger than, say, “Lemonade”

 

There are few things that can change the course of a river suddenly. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi by suddenly shoving millions of tons of water in northward, but that was temporary. Normally, (unless like in Chicago you do it intentionally) rivers change directions or reroute their course very slowly, through generations of erosion as it pokes and prods and tries to find the easiest way to flow, a grinding process that eventually levels everything in its path, though never on the mere scale of a human lifetime.

Thanks to climate change, that might not always be the case. Times?

In the blink of a geological eye, climate change has helped reverse the flow of water melting from a glacier in Canada’s Yukon, a hijacking that scientists call “river piracy.”

This engaging term refers to one river capturing and diverting the flow of another. It occurred last spring at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of Canada’s largest, with a suddenness that startled scientists.

A process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016.

Much of the meltwater from the glacier normally flows to the north into the Bering Sea via the Slims and Yukon Rivers. A rapidly retreating and thinning glacier — accelerated by global warming — caused the water to redirect to the south, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year’s unusually warm spring produced melting waters that cut a canyon through the ice, diverting more water into the Alsek River, which flows to the south and on into Pacific, robbing the headwaters to the north.

Think about that. If you lived there (or, I guess, if you are a tremendous liar), you could say “I remember the days when these waters flowed north, onward to the Bering Sea”, and you’d be talking about last summer.

Now, to be fair, this was a perfect confluence of conditions: the way the land was shaped there didn’t have to be too much melt and erosion for the higher ground to make its way to the lower; the channels cut my newly melted water didn’t have far to go. We’re not going to wake up one day and see that the Ohio is charging back toward Pittsburgh. But it is still a stark and terrifying reminder that climate change isn’t something happening in the distant future. It is happening now, and it is really unpredictable.

In essence, we’ve decided as a species to enter a vast generational experiment where we see what happens when we accelerate natural processes and introduce unnatural ones. The earth heats and cools, glaciers advance and melt, rivers change their courses. These things happen on unimaginable time spans. They don’t happen over the course of a century, or the life of a summer. But, thanks to our desire to turn nature into capital, that’s what’s happening.

We don’t know how it will turn out. Things will happen that we can barely even guess. But it seems short-sighted to say it won’t be enormous.

I’ll leave this with an example of what retreating glaciers mean. We all know that the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and completely wiped out the landscape that came before them. And we know it was cold as hell. But I don’t think it is generally understood how much their immensity impacted geology, and not just topography.

They pressed down on the earth’s surface, slowly impacting it under their enormity. And as they retreated, the surface slowly started to rebound. This is a process that, tens of thousands of years later, is still happening. The impact of this can be felt right around here, in Chicago. When the glaciers first retreated, and the lakes took their present form, the ground was low enough that Michigan (and Lake Chicago before it) flowed southwards, toward the Mississippi Basin. But as the land rebounded, and glaciers cut more channels, eventually the whole Lakes basin made its way to the ocean.

Until, of course, the city of Chicago, disgusted with and sickened by the filth of its residents, reversed the course of the Chicago, turning southern Lake Michigan into an extension of the Mississippi Basin. That happened in a geologic instant. The reversal of the Yukon rivers was even quicker. It was instant.

Our impact on the planet might mimic the planet’s own cycles, as somewhat more sophisticated climate deniers claim, but that’s wildly misleading. It’s a gruesome imitation, at high-speed, a janky cassette player that suddenly turns your music into a screeching cacophony, with little regard for the consequences. It’s like jumping off the Empire State Building and saying you’re imitating the gentle swaying of a leaf on the wind. Same general direction maybe, and with the same end point, but brother, you’re fucked.

A Couple of Rainy Day Thoughts on How We’ve Altered the Landscape

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It’s been a gloomy rainy sort of day here in Chicago. The White Sox opener has been postponed, which is fine. I don’t mind delaying this 95-loss season another day. It’s not spring yet, anyway.  It’s the sort of April rain that feels like the lingering of March, the whole month of which felt gray and wet, a Smarchian sort of slog.

You look out the windows and see the dull and lumpy sky wrinkle itself in a thousand plinging puddles, and watch the puddles grow and slink off toward the sewer, and its hard to remember that it’s only been a few hundred years that rain has been allowed to land that way. It used to fall on the ground, and slowly make its way across whatever basin it found itself in, if it weren’t used up or simply evaporated, reimagining its particles into invisibility so it could fall again.

But that’s not the way it is, anymore. It’s a profound change, and the short-term effects have been, in some ways, disastrous. To build our cities, we’ve altered to way water has distributed itself around the world. We’ve paved over floodplains and changed rivers. We’ve manipulated drainage.

Look at a very minor example, the North Branch of the Chicago River. Patti Welti of DNA Info has the story.

A total of 1.67 inches fell, a record for March 30.

It wasn’t enough to push the North Branch of the Chicago River to flood, but the water did rise more than two feet during the morning and early afternoon.

How does less than two inches translate into more than two feet?

Before the Chicago area was extensively settled, the river meandered across a marsh-like geography, dispersing water over a greater space. Precipitation was absorbed by vegetation and stored in the ground, wetlands and flood plains, according to the report.

As the area became more urban, green space was paved over, wetlands were drained and the river was straightened to better collect runoff that would have previously seeped into the ground. The result is a watershed with very little stormwater capacity, the report explains.

So much of urban history has been about how to drain marshes and swamps. There were enormous struggles in England in draining The Fens, which led to political upheaval, revolutions, and other intrigues. These were enormous marshes, the “sink of thirteen counties”, as Daniel Defoe described them. But the English managed to straighten the rivers and turn the Fens into farmland.

 

Or one could look at the Great Black Swamp that used to cover much of Northeast Ohio, a terrible oozy wasteland that slowed down water flowing into Lake Erie. This was a swamp that was nearly impassable by anyone who didn’t know exactly how to transverse its deep sludgy waters, and was frequently a refuge for natives, who could get through it faster than European-Americans could get around it. Draining it was an enormous accomplishment that led to the creation of cities like Toldeo, not to mention millions of acres of farmland.

Funny thing, though. It turns out the swamp helped keep Lake Erie clean, serving as a natural filter for whatever came through the basin’s rivers. The enormous runoff that resulted, combined with chemicals from the regions farms (which the swamp would have filtered) is one of the main reasons why Lake Erie has died several times. The swamp helped keep away the algae blooms that have decimated the lake.

So we don’t know. We don’t know how these experiments will end. The Chicago River was slow and windy, often more marsh than river. It wasn’t meant to be a straight channel. Maybe straightening it was the price of the city. Maybe paving over its wetlands is how we were built. And maybe it will be fine.

But a rapidly rising and fast moving Chicago River, devoid of any drainage, is, in a very literal sense, unnatural. The short-term effects of how completely we’ve altered our landscape are only beginning to show. The long-term effects are unknown. But, with the rushing clarity of a springtime flood, we know one thing: water always wins.