Thursday 20 August 2015

Straighten Up

This last Tuesday was the third of the month and so it was Wexford Science Cafe night!  Until the local films-with-subtitles season starts up again in October, SciCaff is the high-point of my Bobby-Few-Friends month.  This month we were privileged to hear, from, the Senior Executive Scientist Environment Section at Wexford County Council aka the horse's mouth, about the EU Water Framework Directive and how this might affect our lives.  The WFD was a classic piece of European legislation which aimed to define 'water quality' and standardise the tests for it across the countries of the EU; and also to require us all to up our game on this aspect of the environment. If you wanted to summarise the impact of the EU in two words, they might be "equilibrate upwards". Give everyone a level playing field whether they come from the slums of Brindisi or from leafy suburban Bristol; but don't achieve this by setting the standard to the lowest common denominator.

As with all EU legislation, the WFD requested-and-required national governments to enact legislation and implement the law to comply with the standards agreed across the Union.  Some member states are quicker to embrace the necessary change than others, and Ireland had to be dragged through the European courts and fined a large number of teachers, firemen and wheelchairs before they started doing something about the environment. We get complacent about our environment because there are not many of us to pollute it - the population density/ of Belgium is 5x that of Ireland - but everyone agrees that less water is safe to drink, swim in or fish from than was the case when we were young.

As with all good legislation, the WFD tries to cover all the bases and adopt a holistic view of water quality: it's not just about measuring pH, nitrates, BOD, or phenols.  These criteria are all important but the overall score given to particular watercourse is that of the parameter which scores lowest. It is one of the few times when something EUish sets the bar to the lowest measurable parameter. We all undertake, over each of several five year plans, to a) get each water catchment to the next highest classification category and b) to let none slip from a previous high.  That's hard but it looks like an achievable aspiration. One of measured parameters is the 'morphology' of each watercourse.  The morphology of a river is what we were on about with Yellowstone and the impact of introduced wolves a couple of weeks ago.  It has been the relentless desire for mankind to trick about with water: when we were nippers, me and my sibs did it with plastic buckets-and-spades. Rivers are dammed for power and irrigation, rivers are straightened and dredged for navigation, harbour walls are built to encourage scouring for the same purpose.  This is wholly un-natural because all rivers prefer to meander and the meanders encourage more diverse habitat which enhances the ecological complexity, which means that the homeostatic equilibria [of pH, BOD etc.] are maintained with less exaggerated swings. Gravel suitable for spawning salmon is impossible to sustain in an artificial canal created to get ships from the Irish Sea to Manchester asap.

Straightening rivers reminded me of one of the great engineering achievements of the 1600s - the draining of the fens between Cambridge and the sea in the East of England. This was undertaken by a group of "adventurers" led by the 4th Earl of Bedford.  The deal was that the reclaimed land would be divided three ways: a) 1/3 for the corporation to be let out to tenant farmers b) 1/3 for the King and c) 1/3 for the adventurers themselves: that would be nearly 40,000 hectares. What they saw was an enormous soggy pancake-flat plain, more than 1000 in extent.  One of the principal rivers was called, appropriately, Ye Great Ouse. What resulted in 1636, after 6 years with shovels and wheelbarrows, was the 30km dead-straight Bedford River between Earith and Denver. That seemed to work a treat, the river flowed rapidly between its artificial banks, there was much less flooding and the land was drying out so that it could be used for agriculture. In 1649, after the Civil War finished grinding the country to a standstill, Bedford's son the 5th Earl was given a contract to drive a second parallel channel which became known as the New Bedford River aka The Hundred Foot Drain.  It opened up the floodgates for a series of cunning drainage plans with uninspiringly matter-of-fact names: the North Forty Foot Drain; Vermuden's drain [he has lost his central "y" to anglification]; The South Forty Foot Drain. The foot in each case refers to the width [=30cm] of the channel.

Among the unintended consequences was the fact that as the water was sluiced off the region and out to sea, the predominant peat of the Fenland dried out and was exposed to the air.  The acid anaerobic matter which was so good at preserving Tollund Man, was rapidly oxidised and disappeared into the atmosphere in an invisible plume of carbon dioxide.  That reduced the volume of material, which was already half water anyway, so the land on either side of the drains shrank away until the water was far above, dead straight and dead flat.

Dead flat?!? That would be an ideal situation to prove that the Earth is flat.  If, or rather IF, the Earth is round with a supposed circumference of 40,000km, then a flag should be invisible if waved from a boat sufficiently far along the Drain. Through the 19thC, several Flat-Earthers demonstrated to their own satisfaction that they could see the flag no matter how far away the boat went. Famously the issue was put up to challenge as a wager in 1870 by a slightly unstable individual called John Hampden. Our own Alfred Russell Wallace, ally of Charles Darwin, was a trained surveyor and he undertook the challenge and proved conclusively (i.e. to his own and other scientists' satisfaction) that the flag disappeared well before it was 10km distant. There were all sorts of shenanigans, libel-suits, murder-threats and the issue was still being debated, with and without photographic evidence, as much as 35 years later. "The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly."  Ogden Nash - his birthday yesterday.  . . . but some of the consequences of having a flat earth discussed by Vsauce [10 mins].  There, who moaned "borrrrrring" from the back of the class when I mentioned the WFD.

1 comment:

  1. I guessed the 'water' session would be an inspiring one! So sorry I missed it. How about writing up for the Wexford Echo and inviting people along for the new term? The Editor himself might be interested.