Monday, January 17, 2022

Low Tide; High Wind

I am fortunate to row often -- usually more than once a week -- in the waters of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Sometimes this is in the ocean waters of Buzzards Bay or in Clark's Cove, but most often in the harbor formed between New Bedford and Fairhaven by the wide mouth of the Acushnet River. I often refer to harbor rowing as "inside" rowing because it takes place behind the protection of the New Bedford - Fairhaven Hurricane Barrier, by some measures the biggest structure of its kind on the planet. At 20 feet, it provides protection to both of the municipalities for which it is named and in extreme cases, for craft of all sizes that are kept -- sometimes just for the duration of a storm -- within its rocky embrace.

This makes the harbor a great place to observe ships resting between nautical ventures of work or play. We see refrigerated vessels carrying fruit, pleasure craft both ordinary and exceptional, barges and tugs engaged in decades-long cleanup efforts in the harbor itself, and of course the fishing boats that make this the most highest-value seafood harbor in these United States. 

For the past several years, we have seen a whole new category of ships: a growing assortment of survey vessels -- a general term I use (somewhat correctly, I hope) for the ships that are berthed in New Bedford between periods of work offshore. The one photographed above started showing up just in the past few months. It is blue in color, huge in size, and features an enormous helipad (above the stern, which is left in this photo) for landing supplies when it is far from any harbor.  One of its towers is for pushing communication equipment as far above the horizon as possible. The other -- in the center of the ship -- is for drilling into the sea floor for survey and construction purposes. A geology colleague of mine spent a few months in the Indian Ocean on a vessel that was similarly equipped; I greatly enjoyed his stories.

On the first weekend in December, my spouse and I decided to take a long walk -- part of our ongoing preparation for our upcoming Vermont Inn to Inn Walk and an excuse to perhaps get a better view of some of these vessels. We checked a tide chart and parked our car on Rodney French Boulevard near the end of the Hurricane Barrier Walk, about an hour ahead of low tide. As the satellite image reveals, there is a sandbar connecting the hurricane barrier to Palmer Island. At high tide, there is just enough water for a skilled steerer and crew to guide a whaleboat through this gap; at low tide, we can walk. I later learned that it is generally walkable for a four-hour window around low tide, but I am a cautious sort, so we timed our walkabout such that we would be on the island for just the middle hour of that window. 

The walk afforded us a view of another of these engineering vessels, the Dina Polaris

The scale of the effort involved in developing offshore wind turbines is remarkable. Both the wharf and a deep channel have been built specifically for these ships, so that they can provide research and construction support for very large wind turbines being placed on the south side of Martha's Vineyard. The property was used for metal recycling during a long pause when the original Cape Wind project had been abandoned and Vineyard Wind was not yet underway. 

See the Vineyard Wind company site and an April 2021 news story for much more detail about the project. 

As we walked around the island, I looked for remnants of the hotel/brothel that had been there decades ago, but did not see any sign of the foundation. We did, however, have a nice view of the lighthouse and nearby osprey nest. We would not have walked this close to the osprey platform during nesting season. 

A few weeks after our hike, my fellow rowers and I started to notice some additional vessels, including a bulk carrier that I can only describe as humongous. The Oslo Bulk 8 measures 354 in length. The lifeboat stored above the stern looks like an amusement-park ride to me. We are not certain what this ship is used for, but it seems to me making regular passages from Limon, Costa Rica to New Bedford. I have been in Limon, where I saw thousands of containers of fruit ready for export, so I am going to be trying to find more information about the use of this vessel.

Update: While I have had a number of tabs open for this post, the Baker administration has been working toward even greater expansion of offshore wind. Read WBUR's update of December 17, 2021 for details. 

And further update: This story will continue to evolve and will warrant separate new posts in the coming year. It will also be a major part of my summer course New Bedford: Maritime City if I am able to offer in in 2022. The latest update (as of January 2022) is New Bedford says wind boundary changes just a start, which describes ongoing efforts to accommodate the commercial fishing industry as the wind farm develops.

June 2023 Addendum

This post should have had a map! Here it is, belatedly. I have never used the Gifford Street parking before, but it allows visitors to reach the harbor views much more quickly than the Rodney French Boulevard entrance I usually have used.


Sunday, January 16, 2022

(West) Liberty for All

Images: West Liberty, Iowa Town Website

In the United States, liberty for all and government of the people are ideals that are important in the abstract but sometimes met with resistance in real life. I was therefore heartened to hear the story of West Liberty, Iowa

Described as a "majority minority" town, it is an example of a changing rural landscape in the United States. The country has always been more diverse than some seem to imagine -- or prefer -- and not just in urban places. West Liberty is an example of a community whose political leadership is beginning to reflect its true demography. In other words, it embodies the American ideal of E pluribus unum

This is how it should be. I lived for seven years in border communities in Arizona and Texas where representation often did not reflect the makeup of the community. 


The story discusses hardships that many in the community have overcome; it also mentions the importance of a local meat-packing plant as a reason many people have migrated to West Liberty. The 2006 film Fast Food Nation is a comedy/drama (very dark comedy, in my opinion) that describes some of the injustices associated with such plants that emerged throughout much of rural America in the late 20th century.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Reflections of Richard Leakey

It seems that the past several weeks have featured more than the usual number of notable deaths, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, E.O. Wilson, and Betty White. Just after the passing of these nonagenarians came news of the death at age 77 of a slightly younger fellow whose work I knew less well.

Word Art from the Ngaren Museum 
My favorite librarian and I both recall hearing anthropologist Richard Leakey in a lecture hall when we were students, though we cannot recall for certain when or where this was. I remember only that he was part of a noted family of anthropologists and that he had rather a cantankerous personality. As with many notables, I seem to have learned more about him after his death than I did when he was alive.

Vivienne Nunis interviewed Leakey for the BBC program Business Daily, in the context of a career changer. In just 18 minutes, they discuss several very different phases of his professional life, which really began when he was a child tagging along on archeological digs with his parents, anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey. He lived his entire life in the English colonial territory that would become the country of Kenya.

In the first phase of his adult life, he reached into the distant past, literally uncovering the lives of humans who had lived in the Rift Valley 1.6 million years ago. He then became a noted conservationist whose audacious protests led to protection of elephants through restrictions on the trade in ivory (this benefited whales as well). His work as a conservationist was linked in complicated ways to his political life and other government service.

The most important part of the interview is the discussion of the work of what has turned out to be his sunset years. His understanding of humans across eons led him to fervent work on the problem of climate change. He sees the arc of human experience from deep prehistory to a precarious future from his lifetime in the Rift Valley, where we began and where our fate is clearly undecided. He and his colleagues have been working to capture that entire arc in the Ngaren Museum, where ground will be breaking soon on a project animated by this view of time.

Leakey was also profiled in a 2010 issue of Sierra, the magazine of the U.S.-based environmental organization. In Elephant Man, journalist Susan Zakin begins the story at the Peponi Hotel on the island of Lamu, where they were supposed to meet. His refusal to come ashore at the hotel becomes a metaphor for his uneasy status with fellow colonials. The profile she writes provides important details about the first two phases of the life Leakey discussed with Nunis last month, especially his work in environmental policy. 

Note: Their meeting took place at a time when many tourists were avoiding Kenya because of violence surrounding national elections. This coincided with my owned planned visit to the country. I had plane tickets and plans to meet a student and her family near Mount Kenya -- where both tea and coffee are produced. Just before the trip, she completely disappeared. I was never certain whether something had happened directly to her and her family or if she cut off contact to protect me.


Leakey's transition from renowned anthropologist to avid climate-change activist reminds me of a similar transition on the part of Jane Goodall, a protegée of Louis Leakey who thankfully is still with us. I point to some of her work in my 2020 post Jane Goodall: Climate, Community, Coffee. I have updated that post to include her January 2022 BBC interview, which pairs nicely with the Leakey interview above.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Crossing the Chaco

The Amazon rainforest is the largest ecosystem in South America; it is the one that drew me into the study of geography. I know quite a lot about it, though I still have plenty to learn. 

Three-banded armadillo is one of 150 mammal species
in the Gran Chaco. Image: WWF

I know very little, however, about the second-largest ecosystem of South America: the Gran Chaco of Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. It is also second in biodiversity, with over 500 species of birds alone. 

Map: Wikipedia. Chaqu is a Quechua word meaning 
"hunting land" and hinting at the region's diverse fauna.

I have even more to learn about it, especially as both the land and the people of the Gran Chaco are threatened by rapid changes related to the opening of a bioceanic transportation corridor. The Amazon experience is, sadly, instructive -- rapid expansion of roads is bringing all manner of peril. In both cases, heretofore uncontacted civilizations are at greatest risk. 

Detail from an interactive map at Corredor Bioceanico, a website promoting the project.
The Gran Chaco is being traversed by road, rail, and river. 


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