Purple, pungent and pricey—and here growing in Napier's Esk Valley in all its splendour.
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Purple, pungent and pricey—and here growing in Napier's Esk Valley in all its splendour.
In this issue we again visit the ever-expanding universe of climate change. Recently, even the Americans and Australians have shown some governmental interest in the subject and our own political parties are revamping their policies. I have to agree with the Greens that our initiatives have hitherto been feeble. A target of 3.4 per cent of biofuels by 2012 (up from an initial suggestion of 2.25 per cent) is hardly going to save the world! Surely 15–20 per cent should have been achievable in five years. However, biofuels are not my focus in this missive. For some time I have been troubled by the notion of buying carbon credits to offset CO2 production, and then claiming that the purchasing enterprise is carbon neutral. It seems a bit too slick and painless. The carbon credits may be in the form of wind-generated energy or subsidies for cleaner-burning cookers in some third world countries, but often they are tree plantings—somewhere. The idea is that the trees are going to grow and suck carbon out of the air to form their wood and leaves and the enterprise will buy a carbon sink equal to their production. Can we be sure that the trees are planted and that they grow as planned? If they grow more slowly than anticipated, they will not be removing as much carbon as the enterprise is producing. And as the trees start to approach maturity, their growth slows so they become less effective carbon sinks. Then, for the scheme to be meaningful, those trees must never be cut down. Most trees—like all other living things—have finite lives: eventually, they die, releasing their sequestered carbon as they decompose. Generally the faster a tree grows and the better a carbon sink it is in the short term, the shorter its life. Slow growing trees like most NZ natives will be sinks for a much longer time than pines, but their uptake will be slow. There don’t seem to be any free lunches here. The other question that should be asked is whether the offset trees would have grown without the carbon credit payment incentives. The answer could well be, “not now”, but that really isn’t good enough. If woody vegetation would ever have regrown on the site naturally, it seems to me that the carbon credit is questionable. And what is the end of the practice of planting forests that cannot be cut down? Senescent trees covering most parts of the earth that can sustain tree growth? That seems a nonsense. Of course, given the level of corruption in the world, it is entirely likely that offset forests in third world countries will never be planted or else will be quickly harvested for firewood and the like. The potential for abuse is vast and not only in the less developed world. We come back to biofuels here. One of the objections to them is that too much land will be consumed in their production. Well, the carbon offset credits are going to take just as much space, with the major difference that the biofuel land can be grown, harvested, replanted, harvested again etc. The carbon offset land is going to be planted and left and more will have to be locked up each year as fuel consumption rises and tree growth slows. English academic, writer and activist George Monbiot has compared carbon offsets to the medieval Catholic practice of selling indulgences (http://www. monbiot.com/archives/2006/10/19/selling-indulgences/). Under this fine system, intending sinners could pay the priest money in exchange for indemnity from the consequences of their future misdemeanors. Fancy some adultery? Well, it was a lot more expensive than petty theft but the priest would still absolve you in advance! Your heavenly eternity would remain intact as long as you could afford to pay for your sins in the currency of the day. I somehow doubt that the scheme cut much ice with God. Will our present clever schemes prove a substitute for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels? Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to rise despite Kyoto.
The database of citations for New Zealand terms and usages that is held at the New Zealand Dictionary Centre at Victoria University, Wellington, reveals more than a mere collection of words and the way in which they are used over time. We refer to our 45,000 term-strong database as a pataka of social and historical data, for each of the dated citations tells us much about contemporary attitudes, values, and customs as much as vocabulary usage. As an example, consider the word raupo, first cited for us in 1817. The database records a host of information collected over more than 187 years. In addition, we have a range of early variant spellings, including rapo, rapoo, rapou, rappeo, rappo, rappoo, raupu, and rapu, and it seems the common pronunciation was “rapoo”. In 1817, raupo was described as “flaggy grass”, and later during the 1820s as “a reed of a soft and spungy nature” and “a rush”. The uses to which raupo was made are many and varied. Williams’ Early Journals of 1833 describes a person constructing a canoe of raupo, Polack in 1838 describes a sail for a ship being made of raupo, while Markham’s New Zealand, published in 1834 describes its use as thatch, claiming “Rappoo is a flag or marsh reed”. Later, in 1842, it was identified as a reed-mace and was also known as coopers’ flag and coopers sedge, for coopers in England used reed or coarse sedge to put between staves of casks. There are several items of the 1830s and 1840s citing the use of raupo as a building material for whares and huts and later, Von Tempsky, during the warring years of the 1860s, recorded: The troops had hutted themselves for the winter in huts built of a sapling framework, walls of raupu (a species of rush in New Zealand swamps) and roofs of long grass. Raupo appears to have been used in building in conjunction with mangemange, toetoe, and totara bark, and in addition to huts and canoes, was used to make hurdles and rafts. In 1851, raupo made an appearance in the classified section of the Lyttleton Times: Raupo!Raupo!!Raupo!!! The undersigned is prepared to supply the Inhabitants of the town with this invaluable article. It can be warranted free from maggots, &c. &c. A bed made from this article will be found a colonial substitute for goose’s down. There are several early citations introducing us to pungapunga, the pollen of raupo, which was used to make pua or bread. According to Morris, who compiled a dictionary of Austral English in 1898, its use as a foodstuff did not stop there: The leaves are used for building native houses. The pollen, called pungapunga was collected and made into bread called pua. The root was also eaten. Raupo was also used in poi-making, according to Zimmerman in 1946: The poi is an egg-shaped thing, made of the pith from a swamp plant covered with a woven cover of raupo, somewhat like the leaves of the cattail. We find, from Miller”s Early Victorian New Zealand (1958) that raupo’s involvement in our history has not always been a happy one: Although the Maoris had burned only “a few bundles of raupo”, this was made the occasion of an armed expedition proceeding to the Wairau to arrest the chiefs on a charge of arson. And earlier, in Campbell”s Po‑enamo of 1881, we find that: Had they shown the same assiduity in raupo-ing the walls of the house as they did in smoking their pipes, we should have no cause to grumble... Raupo has also had a figurative or literary function (Listener March 13 1999: 45): A shadow would sometimes darken those eyes coloured light brown, like the velvety heads of raupo. Raupo has been as versatile linguistically as it has in other domains, changing word class as a verb for the collecting of raupo and, in addition, becoming the noun raupoing rather than raupo (just as we refer to fencing materials as fencing.) We have compounded forms where lakes and ponds are raupo-fringed, dairy farms are raupo-ridden, raupo bread is golden brown, raupo pollen is sought, and raupo swamps, raupo huts, and raupo whares abound. Perhaps the final citation should go to the writer in the New Zealand Observer of August 1813 with the Blackadder touch: Then you build a tin hut or a wattle and daub dumpy or a raupo whare and call it an hotel.
Studying Astrophysics and believing in ghosts might seem incompatible at first glance, but anyone with an ear to the scientific ground knows that this pact is obligatory in the physical sciences. Ask a cosmologist to identify the bulk of the Universe’s mass and she’ll tell you it isn’t found in the stars—less than one per cent—or the planets, and it isn’t in the sum of interstellar gas or dust either. Only about four per cent of the total energy density in the Universe can be attributed to luminous matter. The rest is known only by the shadow it casts. To label the substance that casts this shadow a ghost is to flirt with understatement. It fills most of the Universe. It is also invisible and fundamentally different from visible matter because it only interacts with what we can see, taste and feel through its gravitational effects. You can, in essence, fly through warehouses of the stuff without dislodging a hair. But at least we have given names to our ignorance: dark matter, the elusive substance that makes up a quarter of the universe; and dark energy, the rest. These are very different beasties—from one another and from everything else—and both are believed to exist only because they must exist, or else the little we think we know about gravity is completely wrong. Galaxies spin. Their rotational velocity, particularly around the outer bits, is very high. Basic Newtonian physics tells us that if their luminous content is all that is holding them together, they should be disintegrating like catherine wheels. Five times as much mass as we can see is needed to account for their continued coherence at these velocities. Either normal matter exhibits strange gravity at different scales, an idea which undermines the most cherished principles of physics and is therefore unpalatable to the bulk ofphysicists, or most of the mass of the Universe is missing, bound up in an exotic form of matter. Dark matter. Dark matter doesn’t shine or reflect light. It can’t be seen, collected in a jar or prodded. It is a substance comprising elementary particles so different from the atoms that make up our bodies, our planet, the stars and the elements of the periodic table, that we can do little more than theorise about its composition. But now, according to astronomer Myungkook James Jee, under the right circumstances we can see it, or at least measure its shadow. Dr. Jee and his colleagues believe they have discovered a dense ring of dark matter around a huge cluster of galaxies, CL0024+17, 5 billion light-years from Earth. The ring measures 2.6 million light-years across. CL0024+17 contains many spectacular galaxies, but a close inspection of the cluster centre shows several unusual and repeated galaxy shapes, typically blue and elongated. These are multiple images of distant background galaxies, visible because CL0024+17 is a strong gravitational lens (see issue 81, The Quest for New Earths). Gravitational lenses are useful to astronomers as they reveal distant objects, some of which would not otherwise be visible. Light takes a long time to reach us over such distances which means these objects are located in the distant past, providing us with insights into the early Universe. The lensing object also reveals interesting information about itself. What makes this lens special is that it was formed by the collision of two smaller galaxy clusters, 1-2 billion years ago. Theoretically, dark matter’s gravity acts as a scaffold for building galaxies and other visible structures. It should, therefore, be found in the company of luminous matter. But since visible matter and dark matter don’t interact directly, when galaxies collide there are two discrete collisions, one of luminous matter, the other of dark matter. And this is where it gets interesting. The dark matter collision is thought to have imprinted a shock wave on the merged cluster CL0024+17. Computer simulations suggest that when two clusters smash together, dark matter falls to the centre of the combined cluster and sloshes back out. In so doing it decouples from luminous matter, making it detectable through the change in its gravitational footprint. In the image (opposite), a diffuse blue ring-like structure, similar to a pond ripple, is seen in a map of the cluster’s dark matter distribution. This map was made by computer modelling Hubble observations of the lensed background galaxies and has been superimposed on a Hubble image of the cluster (below). These galaxies are distorted by dark matter ripples, just as pebbles on the bottom of a pond are distorted by ripples on the surface—the pebbles’ shapes appear to change as the ripples pass over them. So, too, the lensed galaxies behind the ring show coherent changes in their shapes due to the presence of the dense ring. Although dark matter has been detected before in other galaxy clusters, astronomers say it has never been detected so largely detached from the hot gas and the galaxies that make up galaxy clusters. But this observation is not accepted by all. Cal Tech astronomer Richard Massey who earlier this year produced a map of dark matter across 500,000 galaxies, notes that the critical measurements were derived from only one instrument on the Hubble Telescope which is no longer operational—it blew a fuse in January. “The signal is very weak. Some people are not yet convinced it’s more than an artifact,” he notes. Verification will have to wait for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2013 if the Hubble instrument cannot be repaired.
As temperatures around the world slowly rise, glaciers steadily retreat. New Zealand has over 3000 glaciers in its mountains, among them two of the fastest moving, most accessible and spectacular in the world—the Fox and Franz Josef. While thousands of annual visitors are impressed by the glaciers’ immensity, fewer get close enough to examine the beauty of the ice that makes up these groaning behemoths.
On Friday, May 11, this year, a tornado whipped through Greymouth, ripping off roofs, scattering corrugated iron down streets and knocking over fences and letterboxes, all the while accompanied by heavy rain and lightning.
What role should government have in providing affordable housing? The issue has been tossed back and forth between rival political parties for a century now, and with housing becoming less affordable for many, it’s likely to be debated for a while yet. Refugees, such as Nay from Myanmar, are among those who benefit from state housing.
To mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, a former student of taxonomy considers the life and legacy of Sweden's most famous naturalist.
Until recently most New Zealanders were resigned to never seeing a kiwi except in a glassed enclosure. Few even knew of the existence of whiteheads, stitchbirds or North Island robins. Then came the idea of the mainland island. Get rid of the rats, stoats and possums in an area—as conservationists had on some offshore islands and it might be possible to bring back the birds. That was the theory—and it’s worked. Now there are dozens, even hundreds, of projects throughout the country in which people are getting their hands bloody for the good of native biodiversity—although it isn’t quite as simple as one might think.
Twenty thousand years ago, in the depths of the last ice age, the sea around New Zealand was 120 metres lower than it is today. The top of Mt Aspiring peeped out from an ice sheet that covered the Fiordland mountains. The country was one big island, from Stewart Peninsula in the south to a little north of Cape Reinga. You could walk from Golden Bay to Taranaki. In a few centuries’ time, if the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt, the sea will be lapping on the streets of central Christchurch, and Farewell Spit may have disappeared. If the West Antarctic ice sheet also melts, Banks Peninsula will be what James Cook thought it was—an island. In the long term, global warming could transform the country and the planet, but it will also have a much more immediate impact on the world we live in, with respect to both the climate we experience and the way we lead our lives.
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