When the Meridional Overturning Circulation Shuts Down

Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) (drawing by Nina Munteanu, from “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

March 6, 2055

Before leaving for the university this morning, I watched a news report on the storm that devastated the northwest coast of Britain last week. Over a thousand people were affected by the sudden deluge, severe winds, and flooding. Scientists are blaming another major AR (Atmospheric River). That’s the tenth so far this year for both Britain and Western Europe. Not surprising either. Due to the global temperature increase, the air holds more moisture, so these atmospheric rivers are growing in frequency and intensity. They are consequently wreaking havoc on the Atlantic west coast and the European coasts. I can hear Daniel’s ghost hissing in my ear: Between the relentless sea level rise and these storms, we’re fracked. The ARs that roar about like angry banshees have picked up the slack left by the stagnating great ocean conveyor. The conveyor or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)— circulates ocean water very much like in a lake, with dense cold water sinking beneath warmer, less salty water. Sunken water flows south along the ocean floor toward the equator; then warm surface water from the tropics flows north to replace the water that sank, keeping AMOC moving and preventing stagnation. As the Arctic turns into the Atlantic, dumping in more and more freshwater, the sinking is beginning to stop and the machine is slowing down. Freshwater is taking over the world. Like a giant wrench in an anarchist’s hand, it’s jamming the conveyor. Scientists underestimated how climate forcing would accelerate Arctic sea ice melt and increase precipitation. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation—the great ocean conveyor—is in the process of stalling. It accounts for at least a quarter of the planet’s heat flux. We in the Northern Hemisphere are already seeing its effects: the rivers in Europe are drying up, forcing farmers to try to grow crops in the snow; the angriest storms in history are battering our maritime coast. In the meantime, the entire Southern Hemisphere is growing steadily hotter as the Indian and Asian monsoons dry up. Imagine the dynamic sea turning into a stagnant pond. No one really knows what this all means. It is likely that the oceanic plankton—our last food source—will crash or go toxic. It will probably be both.

—Lynna Dresden (scientist) in A Diary in the Age of Water

“Global ocean circulation will not change abruptly, but it will change significantly, in this century,” writes Cecilie Mauritzen, scientist with the Climate Department of the Norwegian Meteorogical Institute in Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications”. Yet other researchers who study ancient climate change point to evidence that the AMOC can turn off abruptly. I suppose this depends on one’s definition of “abruptly.”

Mauritzen adds that “the potential for a significant change in global ocean circulation is considered one of the greatest threats to Earth’s climate: it presents a possibility of large and rapid change, even more rapid than the warming resulting directly from the build-up of human-induced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” An AMOC collapse would promote major cooling in most of the northern hemisphere, but also strengthen storm tracks in the North Atlantic and lead to further warming in regions of the southern hemisphere.

Climate models of an AMOC shutdown suggest a severe cooling in the whole northern hemisphere, particularly the regions closest to the zone of North Atlantic heat loss (the “radiator” of the North Atlantic central heating system). A shut down of the AMOC circulation would bring extreme cold to Europe and parts of North America, raise sea levels on these coastlines and disrupt seasonal monsoons that provide water to much of the world. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

What climatologists like Mauritzen don’t discuss is the profound effects on the Earth’s biological community supported by this global circulation. The result of an AMOC stall may result in a massive ecological collapse and our existential end due to creatures so small only a microscope can see them.

In the above quote from my eco-fiction novel A Diary in the Age of Water the scientist Lynna Dresden highlights one of the most discernable effects of an AMOC shutdown: extreme weather, a cold snap with more angry and wetter storms in the north, particularly Europe, that could last hundreds of years. Scientists report that when AMOC stopped near the end of the last Ice Age, the cold spell lasted a thousand years.

Illustration of oceanic plankton (by Nina Munteanu, in “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

But Lynna also talks about our primary producers, the phytoplankton (and their cousins the zooplankton). The phytoplankton—which is made up mostly of single-celled diatoms—drift on the ocean currents and sustain all life from producing the first source of a massive food chain to sequestering carbon, creating clouds and rain, and helping to create fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe.

According to Velasco et al. in Nature, “An AMOC shutdown could lead to the collapse of North Atlantic plankton stocks.”

When plankton populations crash, recovery is slow. Plankton ecosystems in Earth’s oceans took 3 million years to fully recover after the mass extinction event 65 million years ago, according to scientists at the University of California—Santa Cruz. In their 2006 paper in the journal Geology, the researchers concluded “that the time required to repair food chains and reestablish an integrated ecosystem is extremely long.”

Perhaps even more likely is that the plankton will only partially crash; more likely is a shift in its distribution and characteristics with many going extinct and some even exploding in numbers. This is called a regime shift—a widespread and prolonged change of a biological system due to climate change—something that is occurring throughout the world right now.

Coccolithophores under electron microscope (image by NASA)

For instance, a study in NRDC reported a massive surge in plankton in the Arctic Barents Sea in 2020. Researcher Brian Palmer shared that “phytoplankton blooms are growing faster and thicker than ever seen before.” Summer blooms of Coccolithophores (unicellular Protista with calcium carbonate plates) generally occur from July through September in the Barents Sea when this shallow northern sea is ice free. The 2020 study showed that these blooms are thicker and more extensive as nutrients influx from other oceans. A recent Stanford study indicated that the growth rate of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean has increased 57 percent in the last twenty years.

While higher productivity may naively seem a good thing, these blooms are problematic: to begin, their growth is often not synchronous with what might feed on them, creating waste and detrimental trophic cascades (see below); although the algal blooms absorb more carbon, this higher carbon also contributes to the acidification of the ocean, which, in turn, impacts the phytoplankton: their growth, behaviour, and succession. The dying blooms may also liberate the excess carbon under certain circumstances. This becomes a positive feedback cycle with ever more impact.

Algal bloom in the Barents Sea (image by NASA)

Stephanie Dutkiewicz, principal research scientist in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, says that while scientists have suspected ocean acidification might affect marine populations, the group’s results suggest a much larger upheaval of phytoplankton—and the species that feed on them. “The fact that there are so many different possible changes, that different phytoplankton respond differently, means there might be some quite traumatic changes in the communities over the course of the 21st century. A whole rearrangement of the communities means something to both the food web further up, but also for things like cycling of carbon.” Dutkeiwicz’s team also found that the interactive behaviour, including competition, among phytoplankton species might change.

Regime shifts also cause trophic cascades.

The guillemot seabird is an example of one casualty. The guillemot, which typically nests on the Isle of Shetland off the coast of Scotland, is starving and few are nesting. This is because the guillemot feed on sandeel fish that have all but disappeared because the cold-water plankton the fish eat have moved north. The historically icy waters between England and Scandinavia have become too warm for the plankton to survive. Of course, if the AMOC stalls, these warming waters may cool substantially.

References:

Dybas, Cheryl Lyn. 2006. “On a Collision Course: Ocean Plankton and Climate Change.” BioScience 56(8): 642-646.

Mauritzen, Celilie. 2009. “Ocean Circulation Feedbacks”,  Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications,” Martin Sommerkorn and Susan Joy Hassol, editors. World Wildlife International Arctic Programme. 97pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Palmer, Brian. 2020. “A Massive Surge in Plankton Has Researchers Pondering the Future of the Arctic.” NRDC September 09, 2020.

Schmittner, Andreas. 2005. “Decline of the marine ecosystem caused by a reduction in the Atlantic overturning circulation.” Nature 434: 628-633.

Velasco, Julian A. et. al. 2021. “Synergistic impacts of global warming and thermocline circulation collapse on amphibians” Nature, Communications Biology 4(141)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Apex Magazine To Release 2021 Anthology Fall 2022 with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Apex Issue #128 and upcoming 2021 Year Issue with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

“Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

Bird population change since 1970 (image The New York Times)

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Robin’s egg in the forest, discarded from the nest to divert predators (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

A robin fledgling rests on a patio chair (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Bernie Kraus creating one of his soundscapes

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction and Warning

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book “Silent Spring”

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Now is The Age of Nature…

Age of Nature is a series of three films made by PBS and narrated by Uma Thurman about humanity’s relationship with nature and wildlife and how scientists and conservationists study ways to restore the planet. The series, beautifully narrated and filmed, shows how restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. The series consists of three episodes: Awakening, Understanding, and Changing:

In AWAKENING you will discover how a new awareness of nature is helping to restore mostly collapsed ecosystems; this included: restoring the cod fishery in Norway’s Lofoten Islands; the restoring the Chagres watershed in Panama; rehabilitating the collapsed ecosystem of Mozambique’s Gorongosa Park; and restoring the denuded Loess Plateau in China by planting a forest (and reducing the sediment in the Yellow River by 80%). This episode shows how innovative actions are being taken to repair human-made damage and restore reefs, rivers, animal populations and more.

“We are at a turning point in history,” says narrator Uma Thurman. “and moving in a new direction. How we live with nature now will determine our future. A new age is upon us, the age of nature.” This new awakening comes with a change in philosophy.

“Materialism has suggested that wealth is coming from things. But, in fact, wealth is coming from ecological function.” 

—John D. Liu, Ecosystem Ambassador, Commonland Foundation
Orangutan in Borneo forest (image from “Age of Nature”)

In UNDERSTANDING you will explore how a new understanding of nature is helping us find surprising ways to fix it. From the salmon runs and connection to forest health of the Pacific Northwest to restoring fireflies in China, and the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone—scientists, citizens and activists are restoring the environment, benefiting humans and animals alike.

“If humans get our acts together and start thinking about the whole ecosystem, we’re going to be recovering the whales and ultimately we’re going to be saving ourselves.”

—Dr. Deborah Giles, Killer whale researcher, University of Washington
Jungle in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

In CHANGING you will discover why restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. Bhutan’s negative carbon system is based on “decades of enlightened but courageous policies,” says Tshering Tobgay, former prime minister of Bhutan. By law they maintain over 60% forest cover to maintain a rich biodiversity and help balance climate as a carbon sink. Over 70% of Bhutanese live along river banks where they cultivate rice and other crops. “We’ve always had a strong association with water,” Tobgay adds.

“Ultimately, if we’re going to understand how to stop climate change, we need to understand our planet,” says Professor Tom Crowther, who leads a team of ecologists in categorizing forests and soils around the world from “on the ground information” to understand the carbon they contain and absorb. Crowther stresses that “the key is to restore these ecosystems in the right ecologically-minded way. That means we don’t plant trees in ecosystems that would naturally be grasslands. We also restore trees in a very biodiverse mixture; we don’t just want plantations, monoculture of the same species. We need all the different interacting species which help one another to grow and capture huge amounts of carbon…We absolutely need nature to survive on this planet. If humanity is going to have a chance, we’re going to have to restore ecosystems all across the globe…Biodiversity is the life support for our planet.”

Rainforest (image from “Age of Water”)

The movie showcases three major ecosystems of significant carbon sequestration that need to be (and are in some cases) encouraged, nurtured and grown:

1.  Old growth forests of the world: Bialowieza in Poland is the oldest forest in Europe:

Malgorzata Blicharska at Uppsala University reminds us of an ecological tenet: the higher the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the more stable and resilient it is. “The more complex the forest is, the more resilient it will be to different environmental pressures, which is really important now in relation to climate change.” A more complex ecosystem has a larger toolkit to draw from when confronted with change. “Even if one species with a particular function disappears because of climate change, there will be other species that take over this function.” This provides a natural buffer to change, helping it cope with disruption. “A natural forest is not a stable forest; it is changing all the time.” Adapting. The simpler the ecosystem, the less likely it will be equipped to adapt to imposed change; the more likely it will collapse with change.

Bison in Poland ‘wilderness’ (image from “Age of Water”

2,  Ocean phytoplankton, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows: Peter MacReadie, at Deakin University, studies seagrass meadows that store enormous amounts of carbon. They, along with tidal marshes and mangrove forests lock massive amounts of carbon; this is known as blue carbon. Mangroves are incredibly efficient blue carbon sinks. “Blue carbon is definitely one of the new heros in the climate change mitigation scene.” They not only effectively sequester carbon, they protect coastlines, and they support half of the world’s fisheries.

MacReadie acknowledges the role apex predators in achieving balance in the ecosystem that might otherwise be destroyed by an over-abundance of herbivores. The apex predator keeps a balance not so much by eating prey but through what is called “fear ecology” and achieiving a healthy trophic cascade: the shark changes the behaviour of the next trophic level down, the turtle, that would otherwise over-graze the seagrass. “Through fear, they affect how much turtles breed, where they forage, where they move around,” ultimately creating a healthy balance of apex predators at the top, turtles in healthy balance and seagrass meadows thriving.”

Peatlands in Indonesia (image from “Age of Nature”)

3.  Peatlands: Taryono Darusman, director of research and development of the Katingan Project in Indonesia, tells us that, “globally, peatlands store around five hundred and fifty gigatons of carbon.” Covering only 3% of the land on Earth, peatlands absorb twice the amount of carbon in all the world’s forests—which are ten times the size. Peatland ecosystems also provide for a unique and highly biodiverse community. Peatlands form in wetlands and rainforests; many of these areas have been drained to create canals or for agriculture. The drying peatlands become susceptible to fire. The Borneo fires of 2015 released more carbon than all of North America’s industry of that same year.  

The last ten minutes of the film are truly heartwarming and encouraging as the film documents how awareness is growing and inspiring a grass roots movement, particularly with the brave efforts of youth around the world. People like young Dayak activist, Emmanuela Shinta (who worked with youth groups to replant a destroyed ecosystem in Kalimantan, Borneo), and eleven-year old Madison Edwards (who started a social media campaign to stop oil drilling off the shores of Belize).

Planting in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

Eco-heroism is sprouting all over the planet in response to her need for balance. Showing us that every single individual can make a difference…  

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Ontario Derecho: When a Disaster Brings Out Kindness

Cars trapped when a sugar maple snaps and falls on them in Saturday’s Derecho, Peterborough, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s Wednesday and parts of the city still have no power since Saturday’s storm swept through like a ferocious lion. We got our power yesterday. We’d relied on our kind neighbours, who had a barbecue, to cook up some suppers. The power has come back in stages depending on where lines were brought down by trees or the violent wind microbursts.

A string of power poles and lines downed by the violent winds of the derecho along Highway 29 near Lakefield, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Environment Canada calls Saturday’s storm a derecho: a long line of very active and violent thunderstorms or microbursts that include winds of at least 93 km/h with focused gusts of 121 km/h or greater. According to Environment Canada Senior Climatologist David Phillips, the storm spanned about 1,000 kilometers from Michigan to Maine as it went across Ontario and Quebec. Derechos typically contain numerous downburst clusters (families of downburst clusters) that, in turn, have smaller downbursts, and smaller microbursts. These tight, often cyclic tornado-like bursts within larger linear downbursts are what likely created the random devastation seen in Peterborough, where one tree was entirely uprooted and the tree beside it left untouched.

Birch uprooted on Auburn Street, Peterborough (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A true ‘herald archetype’, environmental disasters incite change, often through disorder. In doing so, they can bring out the best in us. The true mettle of a person is often revealed during such times, through the emergence of compassion and kindness.   

I live just off the Rotary Trail in Peterborough, facing a mixed riparian forest of mostly black walnut and locust trees, with some silver maple, willow, Manitoba maple, oak and ash. The trail is well used every day by cyclists and walkers. The tornado-force winds and deluge rains singled out a few trees on the forest edge and flung them across the trail. A quick inspection shortly after the storm revealed that several trees formed obstacles to those using the trail: a silver maple just in front of my good friend Merridy’s place; an old half-dead elm; and a large Manitoba maple whose upper canopy had gotten tangled in the telephone wires.

Various damaged and uprooted trees in Peterborough, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

When Merridy and I decided to attempt clearing the Rotary Trail of strewn maple limbs and branches, we weren’t there more than five minutes when a cyclist stopped and without a word helped us; he grabbed large tree limbs and hoisted them aside like Superman then got on his bike and took off without a word—like Spiderman. After more dragging of tree limbs and my deft hand at the tree clippers and the broom, we cleared the trail for walkers and cyclists. 

Before (left) and after (right) we cleared the Rotary Trail of downed silver maple from the derecho (photos by Nina Munteanu)

And then there was Charlie … a fashion-savvy quasi hipster-hippy who came cycling in with his chainsaw and hand saw on his back; he’d been all over the trail clearing tree debris just because he could. Charlie set to work on the huge Manitoba maple that had fallen across the trail and was leaning heavily on the telephone wire. Charlie proceeded to climb the tree and saw branches here and there to lighten the limb on the wire before cutting it. Two of us ladies became his cleanup crew, hauling big tree sections off the path as he downed them. By the time he got to the main tree limb on the wire, a group of cheerleaders had formed to watch. We all clapped when the big branch came off the line. One elder lady on two walking canes hobbled out from her home and handed Charlie a Bobcaygeon Petes Lager as thanks.

Charlie sawing off branches from Manitoba maple tangled on telephone wire (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Charlie saws the remaining tree trunk to clear the trail (photo by Nina Munteanu)

At first it was just me and Charlie. Watching him set up, I’d asked him if he was from the city and in the same breath knew he wasn’t—we both knew they were very busy getting the city’s power back on and freeing streets and getting trees off the roofs of houses; it would be a long time before they came to the Rotary Trail and other parks to clear. He responded, “well, that depends… are you a lawyer?” I laughed. We both recognized that Charlie was a rogue Good Samaritan, using less than regular protocol (no safety harness or equipment [except for goggles] and climbing shoes). When I said no, he relaxed and we introduced ourselves and exchanged stories about the storm, then got to work. I was soon joined by Susan, and together we became Charlie’s support team, hauling limbs and branches out of the tangle then rolling large tree bole sections to the side. Eventually several more walkers and nearby residents came to support the work and watch. Within an hour, the entire tree was off the path and off the wire. I felt a wonderful sense of community as people gathered exchanged names and stories about the storm. And it all started with one person’s kindness. Thanks, Charlie!

Before (left) and after (right) Charlie and his gang cleared the way (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find that we really find our humanity and sense of kindness when a disaster strikes… one of the ‘good’ things about them.

Derecho damage to trees in the forest in Peterborough area, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively Donate to Indigenous Education on Water Science

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds

Global Newswire announced yesterday that Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively donated half a million dollars to the Canadian charity Water First Education & Training Inc. to support the locally-based hands-on skills training and education programs with indigenous communities. The program focuses on young indigenous adults in learning water science and becoming certified water operators and environmental technicians.

“One of the most fundamental challenges in Canada today is the lack of sustainable access to safe, clean water in many Indigenous communities,” writes Global Newswire. “Successive federal governments have failed to address the issue, with the likelihood of having no access to safe, clean water still far more prevalent in the lives of Indigenous Peoples, compared to non-Indigenous populations in Canada.”

At least 15%, or approximately one in six First Nations communities in Canada, are still under a drinking water advisory. Everyone has a right to safe, clean water. The water crisis in Indigenous communities is unacceptable.”

Water First
Two Indigenous students test water

“Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Canada is home to over 20% of the planet’s freshwater — an abundance that’s envied around the world. There’s absolutely no reason Indigenous communities should not have access to safe, clean water. All the individuals involved, whether they are operating water systems or monitoring their local water bodies, are critical. We appreciate Water First’s focus on supporting young, Indigenous adults to become certified water operators and environmental technicians. These folks are helping to ensure sustainable access to safe, clean water locally, now and for the future. Blake and I are thrilled to support this important work.”

Ryan Reynolds
Using a Van Dorn sampler to collect water at depth

“Nobody understands the evolving challenges and needs more than the people who live there,” says Water First. “Drinking water challenges are complex: in some communities, local concerns may be around infrastructure, for others, source water contamination. And numerous communities have challenges recruiting and training young Indigenous adults to join the drinking water field.”

“Safe water needs skilled people”

Water First

Water First shares that Indigenous communities have identified the need for more young, qualified and local personnel to support solving water challenges. In partnership with indigenous community leaders, Water First customizes local water-focused education and training programs to align with community goals and needs. These partnerships are built on trust, meaningful collaboration and reciprocal learning.

In-situ water testing

Spencer Welling, Water First intern from Wasauksing First Nation shares, “I am doing this for myself, my family and community. It’s important to know how things are done and gives you a better appreciation for it. It’s a good career to have, which I’m sure would ease my parents’ minds knowing that. It also feels good knowing that my community will have a local water treatment operator at the plant for at least a couple decades.”

Water technician learns her skills

In 2018, CBC ran a story on a pilot training project that Water First ran with Indigenous youth to help tackle water challenges in their communities. The program ran as a 15-month paid internship toward ensuring communities have quality drinking water. Ten youth were involved. The training, which included week-long workshops (including mapping, traditional knowledge, and environmental science) and hands-on training at their local water treatment plants, focused towards a provincially recognized certification as a Water Quality Analyst. Certification through an exam at the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks permits them to do drinking water testing. They can receive further certification as operators through another exam.

Water technician learning his skills

Anyone interested in learning about Water First and its education and training programs can find out more at www.waterfirst.ngo.

Water First Education & Training Inc. (Water First) is a registered Canadian charity that works in partnership with Indigenous communities to address water challenges through education, training and meaningful collaboration. Since 2009, Water First has collaborated with 56 Indigenous communities located in the lands now known as Canada while supporting Indigenous youth and young adults to pursue careers in water science.

For more information, you can contact: 

Ami Gopal
Director of Development and Communications
Water First
1-905-805-0854
ami.gopal@waterfirst.ngo 

Collecting sediment samples for testing

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

‘Overcoming the Monster’ and DuPont’s Dark ‘Magic’

The Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated for decades with C8 used by DuPont to make Teflon

I write science fiction and fantasy. On occasion magic or something that stands for magic enters in.

But that’s my fiction. In my ordinary very real life, I tend to be suspicious of claims of ‘magical’ properties, particularly those that claim to provide great convenience and utility with no expenditure (except money). Perhaps it’s my half-German ethic of good old-fashioned honest work; these claims seem like a big cheat: mops that clean the floor spotless without you ever having to bend over or scrub; carpets that resist spills or clean themselves; non-stick pans where cooked food just slides cheerfully from pan to plate without sticking.

In my experience, I have often found that if something seems too good to be true—like magic—there’s a catch. And just like magic in a good fiction story, it comes with great hidden cost.

Enter DuPont and its dark magic…

DuPont Washington Works facility at Parkersburg, West Virginia

DuPont is one of the richest families in the United States since French aristocrat Irénée du Pont de Nemours fled the French Revolution in 1802 and built a gunpowder mill in northeast Delaware. DuPont soon expanded to bombs and poison gas and over its more than a hundred years of operation DuPont has been linked to dangerous products that have caused health problems, particularly to its own workers. By the 1930s DuPont had created leaded gasoline, which ended up causing madness and violent deaths and life-long institutionalization of workers. Certain rubber and industrial chemicals turned the skin of exposed workers blue. Bladder cancers developed in many dye workers.

Spruce trees damaged by Imprelis

Then there was DuPont’s Imprelis, an aminocyclopyrachlor herbicide to control weeds that caused widespread death of mature trees and created ‘killer compost.’ DuPont failed to submit reports to the EPA about potential adverse effects of Imprelis and sold the product with misleading labelling. When damage reports began to surface weeks after Imprelis was introduced, DuPont simply continued to sell the product until the EPA finally banned its sale and DuPont was charged for negligence and violation of FIFRA. A year after the ban, impact from Imprelis use continues to be reported throughout the northern United States for a range of trees including maples, oaks, honey locust, Norway spruce and white pine (stunted, twisted or curled new growth, bud-kill, delayed leaf-out, stem die-back). Trees that initially experienced minor affects from Imprelis later developed more severe damage (e.g. bud formation and cold hardiness).

Concerned over “the tendency to believe [chemicals] are harmless until proven otherwise,” staff doctor George Gehrmann convinced DuPont to create Haskell Laboratories in 1935. The lab became the first in-house toxicology facility; but, due to its position within DuPont, Haskell Lab also inherited limitations on its ability to conduct and report objective science. Just as self-regulation is a ridiculous concept, self-analysis is feckless and fraught with the potential for omission and false reporting. When pathologist Wilhelm Hueper tried to share his results with the scientific community on how dye chemicals led to bladder cancer, he was gagged and fired, and DuPont went on to use the chemicals for decades after in what appeared to become a common pattern for this company.

Early ad for DuPont’s “Happy Pan”

DuPont developed many astonishing products, mostly for warfare, including nylon, Lycra, Saran wrap and, of course, Teflon—their magic non-stick compound. By the late 1940s, they were producing a wide variety of industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials, sterile and specialty packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients, and agricultural chemicals worldwide. By the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. This did not deter DuPont from continuing its production line for these products.

Representation of 1950s DuPont “Happy Pan”

By 1954, during the ramp up for the Teflon rollout, DuPont’s toxicologist R.A. Dickison noted possible toxicity of the surfactant C8 (PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid) used to make Teflon. By 1961, the same year they rolled out their Teflon-coated “Happy Pan”, DuPont knew C8 was a toxic endocrine disruptor and caused cancer. DuPont’s chief toxicologist Dorothy Hood cautioned executives in a memo that the substance was toxic and should be “handled with extreme care.” It didn’t stop the roll out. By 1982, DuPont had confirmed the high toxicity of C8 in humans.

Teflon-lined Tefal (T-fal) pan made with C8

From the 1960s well past the millennium, DuPont displayed gross criminal negligence in not reporting their in-house findings of C8 toxicity to the EPA, and doing nothing to protect their workers exposed and working with C8 (and eventually their community when C8 leaked into the water supply). For over five decades, DuPont executives chose to: 1) continue using toxic C8 despite its proven toxicity; 2) expose C8 to their own workers without telling them (and even testing their workers without telling them why); 3) dispose of C8 unsafely, releasing the toxin into the communities and the environment; 4) cover up and deny that they did, when they were caught in the act.

Effects of PFOA (birth defect in Bucky Bailey whose mother was on the Teflon line without protection during her first trimester; blackening teeth from the excessive fluoride, from scene in “Dark Waters”)
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finally, in 2019—sixty-seven years after DuPont knew PFOA was toxic and did nothing—this forever chemical was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. Unfortunately, by 2019, PFOA was already literally everywhere on the planet in concentrations considered unsafe. Given its high water-solubility, long-range transport potential, and lack of degradation in the environment, PFOA persists in groundwater and is ubiquitously present in oceans and other surface water around the globe. It is found in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic (where it was not used or manufactured), no doubt transported there through ocean currents and in the air, bound on particles.

Average surface water levels of PFOA and PFOS by country in 2012 (from Kunacheva et al. 2012)

In 2020, NBC News revealed that DuPont was still avoiding its responsibility to clean up its C8 mess and compensate those harmed by DuPont’s negligence. In 2015, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transferred its responsibility for environmental obligations and liabilities associated with PFAS (C8) onto other entities such as Chemours, Corteva, and NewDupont. If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva will be responsible. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS (C8) costs to their victims.

Timeline for DuPont’s use of PFOA (C8) to 2006 (image from The Intercept)

Their Story…My Story…

In his 2006 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, Christopher Booker told us that there are seven types of plots in story. One is entitled “Overcoming the Monster,” an underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil to restore safety or order to the land. The evil force is typically much larger than the hero, who must find a way, often through great courage, strength, and inventive cunning, to defeat the evil force. This is the story of David and Goliath, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Jake Sully and Miles Quaritch in Avatar, of Rita Vrataski and the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The list goes on…

Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully face off in the film “Avatar”

The “Overcoming the Monster” plot, whether told literally or through metaphor, reflects an imbalance in the world—usually of power—that the hero must right. The true story of DuPont’s evil maleficence reflects the great power imbalance of many large corporations and the evil they enact through willful deception and mischief to increase profit, their god. 

We’ve now come full circle to me and my relationship with magic. For in some terrible way, the story of DuPont is also my story. One of power imbalance, of deception and ignorance. Their deception; my ignorance:

In 1954, the year I was born, DuPont discovered the toxicity of C8 in its Teflon products at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg—and proceeded to roll it out for mass use.

In 1964, I was ten years old and struggling with my Grade 5 teacher who was trying to curb my unique self-expression. I was already aware of environmental imbalance and destruction in the world. My pet peeve was littering because it demonstrated great disrespect for others and the environment; I told environmental stories. That year DuPont had already begun its great deception; having confirmed the toxicity of C8, they simply watched (and recorded) as this cancer-causing endocrine disruptor injured, maimed and killed their own workers. The company did nothing to prevent it and they told no one.

In 1969, I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts and years later the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic assaulting Icaria 5, an enclosed city within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America. The city is run by deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

In the early 1970s, I entered college and contemplated becoming an environmental lawyer; I wrote short stories, mostly eco-fiction, and joined marches protesting environmental destruction by large corporations.  DuPont confirmed that C8 not only persisted in the environment; it bioaccumulated in animals. A 1979 internal memo in which humans exposed to C8 were referred to as “receptors,” DuPont scientists found “significantly higher incidence of allergic, endocrine and metabolic disorders” as well as “excess risk of developing liver disease.”  DuPont withheld this information from EPA.  

In 1981, when I got my first job as a limnologist and environmental consultant in Vancouver, DuPont confirmed that C8 caused birth defects in its own workers—and did not warn its workers; in fact they created false data for EPA and continued exposing women of childbearing age to C8. In 1984, a year after I formed my own consulting company Limnology Services in Vancouver, DuPont staffers secretly tested their community’s drinking water and found it to contain alarming levels of C8. Deciding that any cleanup was likely to cost too much and tarnish their reputation, DuPont chose to do nothing. In fact, they scaled up their use of C8 in Teflon products and bought land to dump their toxic sludge in unlined landfills. Deaths in DuPont workers from leukemia and kidney cancer climbed.

Throughout the 90s, I started teaching college ecology courses in Vancouver; Shared Vision Magazine published my first article “Environmental Citizenship” in 1995. Meantime, DuPont’s Washington Works plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA sludge, powder and vapor through stacks and outfall pipes into the Ohio River and surrounding air. By 1996, C8 was in the drinking water of Parkersburg and other communities. Despite what they knew of C8’s toxicity, DuPont kept it a secret (no one else was testing for PFOA because it was unregulated).

In 2007, Darwin’s Paradox, my eco-fiction novel about an environmental pandemic, was published by Dragon Moon Press in Calgary, Alberta.Four years earlier, the law had finally caught up to DuPont, but not before they had dispersed 2.5 million pounds of harmful C8 from their Washington Works plant into the air and water of the mid-Ohio River Valley area. It would be another twelve years before DuPont would stop making C8 (in 2015) and another four years after that when C8 would be banned from use globally (2019). PFOA is still unregulated by EPA; the best they can do is issue a non-enforceable health advisory set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker face off as Palpatine looks on in the film “Star Wars”

It isn’t the Darth Vaders or Miles Quaritchs we must overcome. Yes, they are monsters, but they serve a greater monster. For Vader it is Emperor Palpatine and for Quaritch it is the RDA Corporation. While Vader and Quaritch may be the face of evil, true evil lurks behind them, orchestrating. It is an evil we must fight internally, because each of us carries that evil inside us—in the urge to cheat on our taxes; in looking for the free ride (there are no free rides); in coveting what others have when what we have is enough; in embracing self-deception through unsubstantiated narratives and choosing to remain ignorant to suit a self-serving agenda.

I only heard of the decades-long environmental dispersal of PFOA (C8) by DuPont in 2022. I’d lived in total ignorance through DuPont’s entire five decades of deception with C8. This past year, I chanced upon “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott, who took DuPont to court in 2002. I found out seven years after DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA (DuPont currently uses other PFAS compounds that are unregulated and whose toxicity is unknown).

Lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) investigates leachate-infected cows from nearby DuPont landfill (photo from film “Dark Waters”)

Ignorance breeds complacency and hubris. Both will lead to downfall.

If you think you’re getting away with something … if you think you’re getting a free ride … think again. You’re being taken for one. Short cuts are dangerous. Nature is complex for good reason. Complexity builds in a diverse spider web of safeguards that interact to sustain the greater existential collaborative.

That is the real magic. And we’re not even close to understanding it.  

“Angel of Chaos” and “Darwin’s Paradox” explore human-induced environmental catastrophe

DuPont’s Forever Weapon of Death: Teflon and C8 (PFOA)

Teflon was created in 1938, quite by accident, by Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, who was working on alternative refrigerant gases. Plunkett had stored the gas (tetrafluroethylene) in small cylinders where they were frozen and compressed. The gas had solidified into a waxy white material, which came to be called Polyetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a slippery substance that was non-corrosive, chemically stable and with an extremely high melting point. Through polymer research, PTFE was combined with PFOA to make Teflon, a type of fluoropolymer and telomere-based consumer product. For every two carbon atoms, there are four fluorine atoms attached throughout the entire molecular structure. The fluorine atoms surround the carbon atoms, creating a protective armor, preventing the carbon atoms from reacting when anything comes into contact with them—such as food in a non-stick frying pan. The fluorine atoms also decrease friction, making it slippery.

Chemical formula for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) also called C8

DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was used in the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb effort. Like DuPont’s other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its way into the home. In 1951, DuPont started using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) known as C8 in its Teflon production at the Parkersburg factory. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as “a housewife’s best friend.” C8 was eventually used in hundreds of DuPont products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Farmer Tennant and lawyer Rob Billot encounter a leachate-infected mad cow in the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

PFOA is a member of a family of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and persist in the environment for decades. PFAS also bioaccumulate, which means these chemicals are absorbed and not excreted and therefore buildup in the body. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations. Before their manufacture started in the 1940s, no PFAS compounds were present in the environment. Now, thanks to their persistence and bioaccumulation, they exist everywhere in the environment, occupying virtually 99% of all life on the globe.

Currently, PFOA is one of only two PFAS chemicals regulated globally (the other being PFOS, which was banned in 2009, that DuPont replaced with another toxic unregulated chemical, GenX). Over 4,000 other PFAS chemicals remain in use that have not been studied and are not regulated. CHEMtrust, points out that when one PFAS chemical is regulated, “it is replaced in products and manufacturing processes by a similar, unregulated PFAS chemical. Unfortunately, the chemicals’ similarities often extend to their hazardous properties, and the replacement chemical is found to have similar harmful impacts on human health and the environment.”

DuPont’s Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia

References:

Ahrens L. 2011. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the aquatic environment: a review of their occurrence and fate.” J Environ Monit 13: 20–31. 10.1039/c0em00373e

Barton CA, Butler LE, Zarzecki CJ, Laherty JM. 2006. Characterizing perfluorooctanoate in ambient air near the fence line of a manufacturing facility: comparing modeled and monitored values.” J Air Waste Manage Assoc 56: 48–55. 10.1080/10473289.2006.10464429

Barton CA, Kaiser MA, Russell MH. 2007. “Partitioning and removal of perfluorooctanoate during rain events: the importance of physical-chemical properties.” J Environ Monit 9: 839–846. 10.1039/b703510a

Busch J, Ahrens L, Xie Z, Sturm R, Ebinghaus R. 2010. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the East Greenland Arctic Ocean.” J Environ Monit 12: 1242–1246. 10.1039/c002242j

Kunacheva, Chinagarn, Shigeo Fujii, Shuhei Tanaka, et al. 2012. “Worldwide surveys of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in water environment in recent years.” Water Science & Technology 66(12): 2764-71.

McMurdo CJ, Ellis DA, Webster E, Butler J, Christensen RD, Reid LK. 2008. “Aerosol enrichment of the surfactant PFO and mediation of the water-air transport of gaseous PFOA.” Environ Sci Technol 42: 3969–3974. 10.1021/es7032026

Paustenbach, Dennis, Julie Panko, Paul K. Scott, and Kenneth M. Unice. 2007. “A Methodology for Estimating Human Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA): A Retrospective Exposure Assessment of a Community (1951-2003)” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health

Prevedouros K, Cousins IT, Buck RC, Korzeniowski SH. 2006. “Sources, fate and transport of perfluorocarboxylates” Environ Sci Technol 40: 32–44. 10.1021/es0512475

Rauert, Cassandra, Mahiba Shoieb, Jasmin K. Schuster, Anita Eng, Tom Harner. 2018. “Atmospheric concentrations and trends of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and volatile methyl siloxanes (VMS) over 7 years of sampling in the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling (GAPS) network.” Environmental Pollution 238: 94-102.

Velez, M.P., T.E. Arbuckle, W.D. Fraser. 2015. “Maternal exposure to perfluorinated chemicals and reduced fecundity: the MIREC study.” Human Reproduction 30(3): 701-9.

Vierke, Lena, Claudia Staude, Annegret Biegel-Engler, Wiebke Drost, and Christoph Schulte. 2012. “Perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA)–main concerns and regulatory developments in Europe from an environmental point of view.” Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 16

Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. 2005. “A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans.” Mar Pollut Bull 51: 658–668. 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2005.04.026

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Apex Magazine to release 2021 Anthology This Fall with “Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it. They are running an Apex Kickstarter Campaign until April 30 to fund the anthology.

Apex Issue 128 and upcoming Anthology for 2021

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology. Here is how it begins:

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s egg, discarded in the forest to distract predators, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

Bird population decline since 1970

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

Robin fledgling rests on a patio chair, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Bernie Krause uses soundscape to measure ecosystem function

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, “Silent Spring”

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

Three baby goldfinches in a nest in a staghorn sumac shrub, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?

Sample of eco-fiction publications Nina contributed as author or editor
“What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?”

In 2019, at the When Words Collide writer’s conference in Alberta, I participated in a panel on eco-fiction. The panel, consisting of Alex Reissen, Merilyn Ruth Liddell, Claudiu Murgan, Nina Munteanu, and moderated by Canadian speculative author Candas Jane Dorsey, discussed what eco-fiction is, what it means to its writers and its readers and why it’s an important genre of literature. How, for instance can eco-fiction writers influence our audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn? How can we do it without turning to the polemic of non-fiction? We discussed the importance of “storytelling”, bringing in characters to care about, making the global experience (and issue) personal. Essentially dramatizing the premise.

Candas described fiction writers as “sneaky,” exploring the issue (and message) through context and setting with a focus on character journey. This includes use of sub-text and subtleties embodied by individuals. I mentioned treating the environment as a character—a character to care about.

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, and envisioning our future.

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior. “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action.

Cedar pine forest during winter snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

Margaret Atwood, Maddaddam

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

When We Burn Books…

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen


—Heinrich Heine
House of Leaves burning (photo by Learning Lark)

In her 2017 article A Brief History of Book Burning, from the Printing Press to Internet Archives Lorraine Boissoneault writes, “As long as there have been books, people have burned them.” Books were burned to silence a dissonant, threatening and potentially rousing voice; they were burned to wipe out a cultural presence; They were burned to control and curtail intellectual freedom; they were burned to simply ruin and pillage and destroy.

Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war, Boissoneault tells us. “In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire.” According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” 

Boissoneault adds, “When al-Qaida Islamists invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts—books that needed to be burned.” The damage might have been much worse if not for men like Abdel Kader Haidara, who risked their lives to protect the medieval works. He and others succeeded in smuggling out 350,000 manuscripts.”

“Qin was only one in a long line of ancient rulers who felt threatened enough by the ideas expressed in written form to advocate arson,” says Boissoneault. Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” writes author Rebecca Knuth. The Library of Alexandria had its contents and structure burned during several periods of political upheaval as a casualty of brutal war and associated despoliation and pillaging.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, there were suddenly far more books—and more accessible knowledge. Book burning continued, unfettered, perhaps taking on a more symbolic and insidious role, and no less violent.

In 1966, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that did not conform to party propaganda, such as those that promoted capitalism or other dangerous ideas, were destroyed. In 1992, the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka—repository of nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature—was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists.

German writer/poet Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine’s Prediction

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer/poet Heinrich Heine wrote: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen, “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings.” He was referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qoran as part of the eradication of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, during the Spanish Inquisition half a century before.

A century later, on May 6-10th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned by Nazi brownshirts, SS and Hitler Youth groups in Berlin’s Opernplatz (Bebelplatz). A violent outburst that, in fact, did foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust. Some twenty thousand books were burned, including those by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein.

Nazi book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933
Brownshirts and Hitlerjugend perform Nazi salut as books burn in Opernplatz, Berlin in 1933

Wikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (‘live burying’) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer at Geneva;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books at various American cities.
Hitler youth burning books at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933
Book-burning crowd at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933

“Even when the knowledge itself isn’t prevented from reaching the public, the symbolic weight of burning books is heavy,” writes Boissoneault.

“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in his 1644 book Areopagitica. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury on the Dummying Down of an Obedient Society

In the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found this statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

Addressing currently relevant themes of censorship, conformity and anti-intellectualism, Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In this world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The book gets its title from the temperature that paper catches fire and burns.

The book-burning fireman Guy Montag in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451

The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman, after a day’s work of burning:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

–Fahrenheit 451
Firemen Beatty and Montag on their way to burn books (from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film)

Soon after, Montag encounters an old lady who refuses to leave her house when the firemen come to burn her books. She dies alongside the stories she cherishes. Montag then meets the girl, Clarisse, who knows something of the past, when firemen used to put out fires, during a time when there were no informers and people were not afraid.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Montag’s superior warns him, arguing for why they must be burned and their knowledge erased. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” A foreshadowing of what follows.

Fahrenheit 451 weaves a compelling political and social tale that follows one man’s journey in finding his soul and his ability to judge for himself—through his rediscovery of literature.

Book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Barbara Tuchman, 1980 address at Library of Congress
Burning German book (photo by Amnesty International)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…

Dew drops on Hawkweed hairs, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

That day may seem like science fiction or the far future, but as William Gibson famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

This is partly why I’ve been recently writing speculative (mundane) science fiction in which components of fiction blur with non-fiction. In a recent interview on the SolarPunk Magazine Podcast, I discussed with hosts Justine and Bria how my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water blurred fiction with non-fiction. The novel achieved this through the use of a diary to create a gritty realism in a mundane narrative hard to put down. The intention was to achieve personal relevance for the reader to what was going on, particularly with climate change—a water-driven phenomenon. In The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley postulated that “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.” I had to laugh when I read this; “she gets me,” I concluded.

In the near-future of A Diary in the Age of Water, Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable.

In her entry for July 13, 2049, Lynna the diarist writes:

“Today CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.”

Nina Munteanu, A Diary in the Age of Water
Raindrops on a black locust leaf, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What follows in the novel is complete commodification of water and further restrictions for citizens in the form of house tap closures and daily water quantity quotas from paying public water taps. No form of water is free or available without payment. And if you can’t pay, well…

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap… The man behind Hilda pushes her forward. She stumbles toward the tap and glances at the wCard in her blue-grey hand. Her skin resembles a dry riverbed.

Heart throbbing in her throat, Hilda fumbles with the card and finally gets it into the reader. The reader takes it. The light screams red. Her knees almost give out. She dreaded this day…

A tiny water drop hangs, trembling, from the wTap faucet mouth, as if considering which way to go: give in gravity and drop onto the dusty ground or defy it and cling to the inside of the tap. Hilda lunges forward and touches the faucet mouth with her card to capture the drop. Then she laps up the single drop with her tongue. She thinks of Hanna and her throat tightens.

The man behind her grunts. He barrels forward and violently shoves her aside. Hilda stumbles away from the long queue in a daze. The brute gruffly pulls out her useless card and tosses it to her. She misses it and the card flutters like a dead leaf to the ground at her feet. The man shoves his own card into the pay slot. Hilda watches the water gurgle into his plastic container. He is sloppy and some of the water splashes out of his container, raining on the ground. Hilda stares as the water bounces off the parched pavement before finally pooling. The ache in her throat burns like sandpaper and she wavers on her feet. The lineup tightens, as if the people fear she might cut back in. She stares at the water pooling on the ground, glistening into a million stars in the sunlight…and knows she is dying of thirst…

Nina Munteanu, The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua

This excerpt from my bilingual short story “The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua” (Mincione Edizioni, 2016) follows the life of Hilda Dresden, daughter of Lynna, the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

Science fiction, you think…

Far future, you think…

Think again…

In 2010, Mike Adams of Natural News reported that collecting rainwater was now illegal in several states of the USA. Utah, Washington and Colorado had outlawed individuals from collecting rainwater on their own properties because, according to officials, that rain belonged to someone else.

In 2015, thousands of citizens in two of America’s poorest cities, Detroit and Baltimore, had their water shut off for being behind on their water bills (which had been sharply increased).

Both are inhumane examples of government-imposed oppression over what should be a public and free resource: water.

Dew drops on hawkweed hairs and Mealy Pixie Cup lichens, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Maude Barlow, the Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, writes in Boiling Point of the water crisis in Canada—perhaps our best kept secret, considering that Canada is supposedly so water-rich. Are we giving it all away? And what of our indigenous communities, some of whom have not had potable water for decades?

So, I agree with Gibson about the future not being evenly distributed. This is because the present isn’t evenly distributed. Much of this disparity arises from an extractive and exploitive mentality and practice. One that commodifies what needs to remain free and available for all users. Capitalism ensures an uneven future by focusing on fear and stressing competition, separation, and exclusion.

In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion.

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world.

This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

So, “The Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…”

…Let that day never come.

Make it so…

Moss with raindrops on capsules, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Barlow, Maude. 2016. “Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis.” ECW Press, Toronto. 312pp.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2020. “The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance.” Emergence Magazine, December 10, 2020.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water.” Mincione Edizioni, Roma. 114pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2016. “Designing Regenerative Cultures.” Triarchy Press Ltd. 288pp.

Raindrops ‘float’ on a black locust leaf in a light rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)


Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.