Tag Archives: britain

Book Review: Britain’s Habitats

Britain’s Habitats: A Field Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Great Britain and Ireland – Fully Revised and Updated Second Edition
by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still, and Andy Swash
Princeton University Press

There’s something distinctly intriguing about a country that has agriculture covering 69% of its land surface but loves its habitats and wildlife as much as Britain. It’s hard to find a nation that loves its habitats more than the Brits, who have described it in lavish detail and from myriad perspectives for centuries. From Daniel Defoe’s classic A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain published in 1724 and even before that, Britain has had no shortage of books describing its beauty.

But things have also changed. Gone are the days when most people would look for impressions and intricate journal stories. What most of us want now is quick and accessible information. Somehow, Britain’s Habitats manages to do a bit of both.

Personally, I quite enjoy it when books are true to their title. Britain’s Habitats does just that — it describes the country’s habitats, virtually all of them. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that, but where it truly shines is presentation.

It starts with a wholesome introduction to the great diversity and variety of ecosystems, including details about the country’s geology, climate, and conservation measures. It’s inspiring to see just how much conservation is emphasized in the book, and this manages to create something that all books on nature should: it creates an emotional connection to the reader. I found myself interested in things I already knew, or things that would have seemed obscure and dull just moments ago. I wanted to know what flowers grow on upland wet heaths, or what makes coastal marshes unique. Although the book is filled with facts and information, it also speaks to the human, not just the brain — and that’s something that’s too often overlooked.

The essence of the book, however, are the brief descriptions of habitats. Every habitat is presented on a few pages, starting with a general description (lavishly decorated with photos), a map of where the habitat can be found, information about rare species, and other practical information (like how to recognize the habitat or when to visit it).

Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for both nature photos and maps. Britain’s Habitats hits hard on both ends. Curiously, the book doesn’t really opt for an eye-catching approach — there are lots of photos of bushes, shrubs, and things that wouldn’t strike the average traveler as particularly interesting. But to this reviewer, it seems that the book doesn’t strive to be pretty, it strives to be interesting, and that it accomplishes.

Overall, I’d say Britain’s Habitats shines in two regards: it makes for an excellent guide for those travelling through Britain (anywhere in the country), and it offers a deeper understanding of what nature has to offer. In these pandemic times, maybe we need a bit more of this.

Ring of ancient, massive shafts found near Stonehenge

In archeology, sometimes you can teach an old site new tricks, it seems. New research reports the discovery of at least 20 huge shafts forming a circle at Durrington Walls, the site of a stone-age village about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Stonehenge.

The position of the shafts in relation to Durrington Walls and the village of Durrington, UK.
Image credits Vincent Gaffney et al., (2020), intarch.

The discovery of this major, buried monument could help us better understand how the iconic stone circle in England came to be, or what its purpose was.

Ancient digs

“The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique,” says Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford and corresponding author of the paper describing the findings.

“It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”

When the shafts were first found, the team assumed they were natural structures, formed by water flowing through the chalky subsurface. However, remote sensing and sampling quickly showed that this wasn’t the case, and that the shafts were built by human hands.

Researchers say the shafts appear to have been dug around 4,500 years ago. Exactly what their purpose was remains unclear, but the team suspects they served a religious purpose, for example acting as a boundary around a circular monument known as the Durrington Walls henge.

The shafts are, on average, 864 metres from Durrington Walls henge, forming a circle around 2 kilometers in diameter. They are over 10 meters (32 feet) in diameter and 5 meters (16 feet) deep. Although 20 have been discovered so far, there are likely more to be found at the site.

“When these pits were first noted it was thought they might be natural features—solution hollows in the chalk,” says Gaffney. But geophysical surveys carried out at the side showed “there was a pattern on a massive scale.”

Britain is a hotbed for archaeology. Stonehenge, built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C., is iconic across much of the world and one of the country’s top tourist attractions, and a feat of engineering during its day — but it’s by no means the country’s only stone circle. These structures are thousands of years old and the reasons why they were built are still poorly understood It was likely a religious or spiritual place, or a means of keeping track of the seasons.

Among the more exciting implications of this finding is that it betrays a relatively advanced understanding of mathematics, without which the ancient builders couldn’t have produced a neat and organized circle on the scale seen here.

The paper “A Massive, Late Neolithic Pit Structure associated with Durrington Walls Henge” has been published in the journal Internet Archaeology.

Britain’s earliest farmers were immigrants from Greece and Spain

Neolithic cultures first appear in Britain circa 4000 BC — almost a thousand year later after they appeared in nearby areas of continental Europe. A new genetic study finds that these farmers came all the way from Greece, following a route along the Mediterranean.

Farming is probably one of the most important developments in human history, but the exact circumstances through which this practice diffused through Europe remain unclear. Recent genetic analysis suggests that farming emerged in the Aegean Sea — the body of water between what is today the mainlands of Greece and Turkey, and this population spread through the Mediterranean, bringing the new technology with them.

It took them a while to spread through the continent, though.

The archaeological record clearly indicates a dramatic change in Britain around 4000 BC — but it wasn’t clear exactly what brought this change. There are several theories regarding the extent to which this change was influenced by cultural or demographic processes. This latest evidence seems to suggest 4000 BC is when farming settlers from the Aegean Sea came to Britain.

Mark G. Thomas, Ian Barnes and colleagues from the University College London analysed genome-wide data from 6 Mesolithic and 67 Neolithic individuals found in Britain, including ‘Cheddar Man’ — a famous human fossil found in Cheddar Gorge, England. The authors found that Neolithic populations in Britain were primarily descended from Aegean Neolithic farmers but also bear many similarities to Iberian Neolithic individuals, suggesting that the Aegean population came through the Mediterranean, some of them settling in today’s Spain and Portugal, while others continued moving on.

“Genetic affinities with Iberian Neolithic individuals indicate that British Neolithic people were mostly descended from Aegean farmers who followed the Mediterranean route of dispersal. We also infer considerable variation in pigmentation levels in Europe by circa 6000 BC,” the study reads. A minority portion of their ancestry comes from populations who took the Danubian route, researchers add.

Location of the samples involved in the study. Image credits: Brace et al / Nature.

Farming developed later in Britain than the rest of the continent

The British Isles is one of the farthest European places from the Aegean origin. The British Neolithic populations are geographically isolated from continental Europe by large bodies of water and had maritime climates which differ from the majority of mainland Europe — all factors that may have altered the nature of the adoption of farming.

This study indicates that the farming practice was brought by Aegean populations and was not developed independently by early Britons.

“Our analyses indicate that the appearance of Neolithic practices and domesticates in Britain circa 4000 BC was mediated overwhelmingly by immigration of farmers from continental Europe, and strongly reject the hypothesized adoption of farming by indigenous hunter-gatherers as the main process.”

Another interesting feature is that unlike other European regions, there is no detectable interbreeding with local foragers.

The study “Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain” was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Hoverfly.

Britain is going through a “widespread loss” of pollinating insects, study reports

Great Britain is in great trouble, new research reports — it’s running out of pollinators.

Hoverfly.

Image via Pixabay.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology measured the presence of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species across the UK from 1980 up to 2013. According to a new study, one-third of the investigated species saw a decline in the number of areas in which they were found over this time frame, while one-tenth saw an increase. The remainder of species either had stable population trends or only saw inconclusive changes.

Bee gone

“We used cutting-edge statistical methods to analyse a vast number of species observations, revealing widespread differences in distribution change across pollinating insects,” says Dr. Gary Powney of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who led the research. “There is no one single cause for these differences, but habitat loss is a likely key driver of the declines.

The study analyzed over 700,000 records, most collected by members of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and the UK Hoverfly Recording Scheme, who looked at more than 19,000 1km by 1km squares across Great Britain. The team writes that it’s possibly the first study of its kind — a large-scale, long-term, species-specific estimates of distribution change for pollinating insects in Britain.

One positive finding of the study was that key bee species — those responsible for pollinating flowering crops — have actually seen an uptick in numbers. They say this could be an effect of the large increases of mass-flowering crops grown during the study period and government-subsidized schemes that encourage farmers to plant more of the wildflowers the bees feed on.

But now, the bad news: the study also found that, on average, the geographic range of bee and hoverfly species has declined by a quarter — this, they write, is equivalent to a net loss of 11 species in every one-square-kilometer area. This included non-crop pollinator species.

Losses were more notable in northern Britain — likely as a result of climate change. Species that prefer cooler temperatures likely reduced their geographical spread in response to rising mean temperatures, the team writes.

“While the increase in key crop pollinators is good news, they are still a relatively small group of species [among all pollinators],” says Powney. “Therefore, with species having declined overall, it would be risky to rely on this group to support the long-term food security for our country. If anything happens to them in the future there will be fewer other species to ‘step up’ and fulfil the essential role of crop pollination.”

Non-crop pollinators are just as vital to us and the environment at large as crop-pollinator species. They help preserve biodiversity levels in the wild by pollinating wildflowers and acting as a key food resource for other wildlife. “Wildflowers and pollinators rely on each other for survival,” Powney adds, explaining that “loses in either are a major cause for concern when we consider the health and beauty of our natural environment.”

Dr. Claire Carvell of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a co-author of the study, says the results point to multiple pressures affecting species of bees and hoverflies across the country. She says we need more and more reliable data on the pattern of pollinator decline, as well as its causes.

“While this analysis sends us a warning, the findings support previous studies suggesting that conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming and gardening, can have a lasting, positive impact on wild pollinators in rural and urban landscapes. However, these need further refining to benefit a wider range of species.”

“In addition to recording species sightings, more standardised monitoring of pollinator numbers is required at a national level and a new UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme has been set up to do just this.”

The team says that this study relied entirely on wildlife recorders who go out and take the pulse of different species in their areas. As such, they want to encourage more people to take part in wildlife recording to help us better understand how wildlife is reacting to environmental changes.

The paper “Widespread losses of pollinating insects in Britain” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Archaeologists find first ever evidence of Julius Caesar invading Britain

The legendary Julius Caesar led the Romans with unprecedented strength, controlling almost all the Mediterranean coast, as well as large swaths of today’s France, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. Now, for the first time, archaeologists have found solid evidence that Caesar also landed and conquered parts of Britain.

Pilum tip from Ebbsfleet, confirming the Roman presence in the area. Image credits: Haselgrove et al.

Confirming an Emperor’s story

The last conclusive study on Caesar’s conquests was 100 years ago. Now, researchers from the University of Leicester have found a trove of Roman weapons and other artifacts indicating the presence of a Roman base at the city of Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet, in southeast England. The artifacts were found in a fort-like structure dating from the 1st century BC, in Caesar’s time.

Based on this new evidence, archaeologists believe that Caesar’s fleet arrived in Britain in 54BC, with the fort being built up to protect the ships. This location matches Caesar’s own account of his landing in 54 BC, with local topography fitting his description: great sea visibility, the existence of a large open bay (Pegwell Bay), and the presence of higher ground nearby. Caesar’s account has been known for a long time, but this is the first time evidence has been found to confirm this story. Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick, Research Associate from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History said:

“Sailing from somewhere between Boulogne and Calais, Caesar says that at sunrise they saw Britain far away on the left hand side. As they set sail opposite the cliffs of Dover, Caesar can only be describing the white chalk cliffs around Ramsgate which were being illuminated by the rising sun.”

The landing went smoothly, but a massive storm damaged many ships as they were at anchor. This description too seems to fit with the local setting. Fitzpatrick continues:

“Caesar describes how the ships were left at anchor at an even and open shore and how they were damaged by a great storm. This description is consistent with Pegwell Bay, which today is the largest bay on the east Kent coast and is open and flat. The bay is big enough for the whole Roman army to have landed in the single day that Caesar describes. The 800 ships, even if they landed in waves, would still have needed a landing front 1-2 km wide.”

All of this seems to indicate that this is indeed Caesar’s landing place and not another expedition. The shape, size, and defense type of the fort, along with the presence of iron weapons including a Roman pilum (javelin) all suggest that the site at Ebbsfleet was Caesar’s Roman base in Britain.

“Caesar also describes how the Britons had assembled to oppose the landing but, taken aback by the size of the fleet, they concealed themselves on the higher ground. This is consistent with the higher ground of the Isle of Thanet around Ramsgate.”

“These three clues about the topography of the landing site; the presence of cliffs, the existence of a large open bay, and the presence of higher ground nearby, are consistent with the 54 BC landing having been in Pegwell Bay.”

The excavation site at Ebbsfleet. Image credits: Haselgrove et al.

Changing landscapes

The archaeological site is now 900 meters inland but during the time of Caesar, it was closer to the coast. The site is estimated to be about 20 hectares large and has changed quite a bit, just like the Roman Republic changed during Caesar’s time. Caesar played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. However, his reign was not spared of hardship.

It has long been thought that because Caesar’s invasions of today’s France (then Gallia) were so unsuccessful, Caesar didn’t really invade Britain or leave an occupying force there. Scholars used to think that the Romans at the time barely had an effect on the Britons. But the archaeological team challenges those beliefs, saying that Caesar’s forays into Britain, beyond the known world, caused a sensation. They also argue that at the time, victory was achieved by defeating your opponent in battle, not occupying their lands, so Caesar might have considered that he defeated the Britons even though he didn’t leave many (or any) troops behind.

Lastly, scientists say, this paved the way for further Roman incursions onto Britain, culminating with its conquest by emperor Claudius almost a century later. Professor Colin Haselgrove, the principal investigator for the project from the University of Leicester, explained:

“It seems likely that the treaties set up by Caesar formed the basis for alliances between Rome and British royal families. This eventually resulted in the leading rulers of south-east England becoming client kings of Rome. Almost 100 years after Caesar, in AD 43 the emperor Claudius invaded Britain. The conquest of south-east England seems to have been rapid, probably because the kings in this region were already allied to Rome.”

“This was the beginning of the permanent Roman occupation of Britain, which included Wales and some of Scotland, and lasted for almost 400 years, suggesting that Claudius later exploited Caesar’s legacy.”

You can watch a more thorough presentation of the findings on BBC Four’s Digging For Britain.

Britain powered itself for a day without coal — the first time since the industrial revolution

UK’s National Grid hailed a lofty milestone as it reported that Friday, 21st of April, was the first day since the Industrial Revolution that the country powered itself without coal.

Coal power is a significant part of the UK’s historical identity. Image credits: Acombmate2114.

A world built on coal

In the 19th century, Britain was leading the planet through the Industrial Revolution, and nothing would never be the same again. The shift from hand production methods to machines affected every aspect of human life. For the first time in history, the standard of life started to exhibit a solid, sustained growth, and this was clearly visible for everybody: average income and population grew wildly. It’s estimated that the world population in the early 1800s was just around 1 billion people, but the rate of increase after that was staggering. It took several centuries for the population to double from 500 million (around the year 1500) to 1 billion – yet after just one century, the population reached two billion in the 20th century, and here we are now at over 7 billion.

Coal energy powered the world through the Industrial Revolution. Image via Wiki Commons / US Gov.

All that was possible largely due to coal and other fossil fuels (oil & natural gas), which provided the necessary energy. But aside from the population growth and the increase in standard of living, the Industrial Revolution brought in another, more insidious effect: climate change. As Britain and subsequently the world became industrialized, greenhouse gas emissions started to increase and accumulate in the atmosphere. In the mid 20th century, concerns started to grow about our impact on global climate, and by the turn of the century, the situation became pretty clear: man-made emissions were having a significant, detrimental impact on the global climate. If we wanted to change that, reducing our emissions was the way to go.

So it came to be that much like the rule of the British Empire over the world had faded, the grip that coal had on humanity was starting to wane.

A day without coal

It was a clear sign of coal’s dropping power when the control room of the National Grid tweeted this on Friday:

https://twitter.com/NGControlRoom/status/855544665172529156

Coal has seen a strong and steady decline in the UK, coming down from 30% in the early 2010s to less than 10% in 2016. To their merit, the UK has invested greatly in renewable facilities, although they’ve done so out of economic reasons rather than a desire to reduce emissions. Still, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF, called the first coal-free working day “a significant milestone in our march towards the green economic revolution”.

“Getting rid of coal from our energy mix is exciting and hugely important. But it’s not enough to achieve our international commitments to tackle climate change – we haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.” Redmond-King said.

In recent years, renewable energy has surged in Great Britain, with wind covering some 12% of the country’s electricity needs, and solar also pitching in (to a lesser extent, this is rainy Britain after all). Nuclear is also solid in the UK as a low-carbon energy source, contributing to about 20%, a figure that has remained more or less constant for many years now. But it wasn’t all low-carbon sources that compensated for coal — natural gas also stepped into the picture, and natural gas also shows a steady growth in recent years across the country. So it’s not like it’s all renewables replacing coal — a big chunk of that is replaced by natural gas, which while still an improvement, is still not the best way to go.

Getting rid of coal

Scotland’s wind energy helped a lot. Image credits: Gordon Proven.

Worldwide, coal is still used on a massive scale, especially in developing economies such as China and India. While this is an encouraging milestone for the European country, we still have a lot to go before we can say we’re on the right track. Scientists have warned time and time again that despite the Paris Agreement, the world is not doing enough to maintain a healthy track. As for the UK itself, the country seems too caught in its political woes to truly worry about the environment.

After the Brits decided they want to leave the European Union, the government just announced new general elections and that’s pretty much covering all the headlines. The country’s ongoing air crisis is largely ignored as action was delayed yet again, despite the government actually losing a trial due to this. It seems that the sheer inertia of and economic rentability of renewable energy is carrying the UK on its back — and for now, we’ll just have to settle for that.

UK pushes forth with sugar tax

The United Kingdom has announced drafts for a sugar tax set to begin in April 2018, addressing the country’s growing obesity problems.

Image via: Public Domain.

The tax is set to work in two different ways: a smaller tax for soft drinks with more than 5-8 grams of sugar per 100ml and a bigger one for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml. However, pure fruit juices, sugary milkshake, and yogurt drinks will be excluded from the tax though authorities stress that people should keep consumption to under 150 ml / day.

The move is supported by researchers, who argue that this is a much-needed step to limit obesity – especially teenage obesity. The move will also combat diabetes and heart diseases. Dr Max Davie, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

“We are very pleased to see government moving forward with this draft legislation. The sugary drinks that will be affected by this tax have no nutritional benefit and often contain levels of sugar that are above a child’s daily recommended limit. These drinks are a major contributor to the high sugar intakes of children, particularly teenagers, and we are in no doubt that they are, in part, contributing to this country’s obesity crisis.”

Diabetes is a growing health concern in many developed and developing countries around the world, with 1.5 million deaths directly due to diabetes in 2012 alone. All sugary foods can threaten health, but sugary drinks are particularly dangerous. Unlike sugar from food, the sugar from drinks enters the body quickly, which can overload the liver and pancreas. France was one of the first countries to introduce a targeted sugar tax on soft drinks in 2012, with a similar measure being announced in Mexico in 2013.

Supporters of the tax cite tobacco taxes which are similar in nature and have been wildly successful in most cases. Cancer Research UK estimates a 20% tax on sugary drinks could prevent 3.7 million cases of obesity over the next decade and the World Health organization also backs the tax up, stating that the government could use the tax money to fund subsidies for healthy fruits and vegetables. Worldwide, it’s estimated that sugary drinks alone kill 180,000 adults worldwide.

But of course, the industry negates this. Gavin Partington, of the British Soft Drinks Association, said:

“There is no evidence worldwide that taxes of this sort reduce obesity, and it is ironic that soft drinks are being singled out for tax when we’ve led the way in reducing sugar intake, down over 17% since 2012.”

 

ClientEarth vs UK Gov. verdict announced, officials have to tackle the problem

The UK government’s plan to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis is illegally poor, the supreme court decided. This marks the second time in 18 months when the officials have lost the case on this issue in court.

London viewed from Hackney, April 2015.
Image credits David Holt / Flickr.

A while ago I’ve written about how the UK’s government is being taken to court (again) over their lack of action regarding air pollution throughout the country. The supreme court has finally released its ruling on the case — officials must work towards cutting illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in dozens of towns and cities in “the shortest possible time.”

ClientEarth, the NGO which took the government to court over the issue, said that the plans currently set in place are, well, flimsy at best. UK’s policy makers have placed too much weight on the issue of cost, they said, ignoring many measures which would have helped improve the country’s air quality. Justice Graham, who ruled on the case, agrees with them. Graham added that ministers knew their plans relied on over-optimistic pollution modeling, which were based on diesel vehicles’ emission levels recorded in lab settings rather than on the road. The numbers have since been proven wrong. If I may quote myself from the previous article (and I believe I can):

[ClientEarth’s supporters point out that ] as the Volkswagen [scandal] recently proved, NO2 and particulate matter emission measurements for modern diesels (on which these models are based) are flat-out lies.

Faced with the second ruling against them in such a short time, the UK’s government took its losses and said they won’t appeal the decision. In court, officials agreed to discuss a new timetable with ClientEarth for realistic pollution modeling, and the steps required to curb pollution down to legal levels. The two parties will re-convene in court in a week, but if they can’t reach an agreement the judge will impose a timetable upon the government.

A time to act

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said that the time for legal action has passed, and called on Prime Minister Theresa May to action.

“I challenge Theresa May to take immediate action now to deal with illegal levels of pollution and prevent tens of thousands of additional early deaths in the UK. The high court has ruled that more urgent action must be taken. Britain is watching and waiting, prime minister.”

She responded by saying the government will act in accordance with the ruling, offering new proposals.

“We now recognise that Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has to look at the judgement made by the courts and we now have to look again at the proposals we will bring forward,” she said.

“Nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it.”

Bad air in Britain causes some 50,000 early deaths and amounts to £27.5bn (US$33,84bn) in damages every year, the government estimates. Thornton added that the increased action required to solve the issue will likely include implementing larger and tougher clean air zones in more cities than at present, as well as other methods such as scrapping schemes for the most polluting vehicles — diesels in particular.

Documents revealed during the case showed that the Treasury blocked plans to charge diesel cars for entrance into the most polluted towns and cities, as they were concerned about the political backlash of angering motorists. When the environment and transport departments suggested changing the excise duty on vehicles to promote the least-polluting alternatives, the Treasury rejected their proposal.

It also became apparent that the government planned to bring air pollution down to legal levels by 2020 for some cities and 2025 for London. This was done not because it was “as soon as possible”, but because that was when the officials thought they would face fines from the EU. A draft plan called for 16 low emission zones in cities outside London, for which polluting vehicles would’ve been charged to enter, but that number was cut down to just five to lower costs.

“Today’s ruling lays the blame at the door of the government for its complacency in failing to tackle the problem quickly and credibly. In so doing they have let down millions of people the length and breadth of the country,” said Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who took part in the case against the government.

These proposals will now be revisited. Thornton said that officials should implement a national system of clean air zones by 2018.

“If you put in clean air zones, it works overnight,” he added.

So there it is. The UK government has been told, yet again, to act and protect its people. Hopefully, this time it will.

“Extinct” elms discovered doing just fine in the Queen’s gardens, Edinburgh

Two elms of a species presumed to be extinct in Great Britain have been discovered in the Queen’s Edinburgh gardens in Scotland.

Image credits Lubomir Mihalik / Pixabay.

In the 1970s, Britain was being ravaged by the Dutch elm disease — an epidemic which claimed between 25 to 75 million trees. Yes, tree epidemics are a thing, and they’re really bad news for us and the species that rely on those trees for food and board. Ulmus Wentworthii Pendula, or the Wentworth elm, was tragically wiped out of the island nation by the affliction.

Or, so we thought. Two Wentworth elms were (unknowingly) found (several thousand times) hiding in plain sight in Edinburgh, adorning the Queen’s gardens. While it took a botanical survey of the grounds surrounding the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal residence in Scotland, to identify their species, the trees are by no means inconspicuous. Standing some 30 meters (100 feet) tall, the elms are one of the most photographed trees in the gardens — it’s just that no one ever noticed they’re “extinct” before.

“Such a discovery when the trees in question are just shy of 100 feet [30 metres] and in plain sight does sound rather odd,” said Max Coleman from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

He thinks they went unnoticed for so long because Wentworth elms were never very common to begin with.

“If you pull your tree book off the shelf to try and look them up, you won’t find Wentworth elm listed in the books,” he explained for the BBC.

Wentworth elms have a distinctive “weeping” habit and glossy, almost waxy, sparsely-haired upper leaf surface.
Image credits Max Coleman / Wikimedia.

Most likely, the elms were taken from the city’s botanical gardens sometime in the last century. The RBGE records show that the trees arrived there in 1902 from Germany, but after that, they only mention one tree in the gardens which fell to the disease in 1996.

“It is very tempting to speculate that the Wentworth elms at the Palace are the two missing trees from RBGE. There is anecdotal evidence that the young trees could have come in to RBGE then been grown-on before planting-out in their final positions,” said Coleman.

“Certainly, there was a close relationship between the Palace and the Garden in the early 20th century and the head gardener at Holyrood, William Smith, had trained here. And, although we have no record here of elms going out, we know that a large number of ivy plants went from here to Holyrood to plant round the abbey ruins.”

For now, though, the origins of these two surviving Wentworth elms remains mysterious. It’s a very fortunate find, however, and experts are now considering how best to restore the species starting from these two individuals. Part of that job is to figure out what helped them survive the disease that wiped out the rest of their species.

“It is very likely the only reason these rare elms have survived is because Edinburgh City Council has been surveying and removing diseased elms since the 1980s,” Coleman added. “Without that work many more of the thousands of elms in Edinburgh would have been lost. The success of this program may be partly demonstrated in the way two rare trees have been preserved.”

Now, the elms will have to start working hard at making baby elms. Hopefully, they’ll live up to the task with as much gusto as Diego the tortoise.

Ancient Chinese skeletons found in London could hint at unknown ancient community and trade

Two ancient skeletons discovered in a Southwark cemetery cast a new light on the Roman Empire’s and London’s history, and could indicate a Chinese trading community once called the island home.

Part of the remains found in Southwark.
Image credits Museum of London.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, curator of human osteology at the Museum of London, has revealed two sets of remains found in a London cemetery which she believes are likely of Chinese origin. The bones were found at a site in Lant Street, Southwark, in a group of over 20 sets of human skeletons dated from between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. Dental enamel samples from the remains were examined using cutting-edge techniques, revealing the surprising origin of the two skeletons.

“This is absolutely phenomenal. This is the first time in Roman Britain we’ve identified people with Asian ancestry and only the 3rd or 4th in the empire as a whole”, Redfern told BBC Radio 4.

Previous archaeological discoveries have shown that the city of Londinium, as it was known in Roman times, had a multicultural population and was an important trading hub. However, it was always believed that its people included only residents of the Roman Empire. The skeletons fly in the face of this traditional belief that Roman Britain was a pretty homogeneous society.

It also suggests that the Roman and Chinese empires had much more interaction than previously believed. They also raise the possibility of trade taking place between the two nations outside of the famous Silk Road — London is a good distance away from the route. The findings raise the possibility that Chinese traders settled in the area, and may have even set up their own trading communities.

One of the skeletons the team identified as Chinese.
Image credits Museum of London.

This is only the second time an individual of possibly Chinese origin has been found at a Roman site, the first being the discovery of a man with Asian ancestry man in Vagnari, Italy.

“The expansion of the Roman Empire across most of western Europe and the Mediterranean, led to the assimilation and movement of many ethnically and geographically diverse communities,” wrote Dr Redfern in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

The archeological community is still divided on what to make of the finding. Two skeletons is still a meager testimony of a whole community living in Roman Britain.

“Its power and wealth meant that it also had trade connections for raw materials and products, such as silk throughout Europe, Africa and also to the east, including India and China. Many people travelled, often vast distances, for trade or because of their occupation, for example in the military, or their social status, for example if they were enslaved,” Dr Redfern added in her paper.

“It may well be that these individuals were themselves or were descended from enslaved people originating from Asia, as there were slave-trade connections between India and China, and India and Rome.”

The full paper “Identifying migrants in Roman London using lead and strontium stable isotopes” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Credit: Flickr

Why does it rain so much in London? Well, it’s not that much really

Credit: Flickr

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Before I first set foot in London, I – like most people – was under the impression that hellish gusts of wind and rain would be the most memorable parts of my trip. In reality, even though I visited in January, there were only a couple of days of rain, and even these quite mild. So I decided to investigate a bit.

What I found was that London isn’t by far the rainiest city out there, and moreover, because it rains time and time again this makes England considerably warmer than it should have been. Where does it all come from? If you ask me, it has something to do with the British love-hate relationship with rain: they say the weather’s dreadful, but they never seem to talk about anything else. In fact, I think it’s their best ice breaker during conversations. Secretly inside, every Brit adores the rain and I’m certain they couldn’t live without it – not without a short burst from time to time, at least.

The myth of a rainy London

Yet, even so, it doesn’t rain that much in London. Granted, the rest of Britain is one different matter altogether, especially the Highlands, but we’ll get to that soon enough. According to the Met Office Climate data, over the 30 year period, there were 106.5 days of rainfall per year on average (which counts as a day in which 1mm of rainfall or over fell). This means that there was rainfall on 29 per cent of days per year and on average it didn’t rain 71 per cent of days per year. Average rainfall is 557.4mm with 1410 “sunshine hours.”

There are more rainy days in Miami (at 135) and Orlando, Florida (117) than there are in London. New York City clocks in at 122 days and 1,268mm of rain. Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Mexico City all have more rainy days on average in any given year than London.

In the rest of the country, according to the UK Met Office, the average rainfall in Britain is 1,154mm per year. On average it rains for 156.2 days per year (data from 1981 to 2010). However, some parts of England are much wetter than others, and the farther west you go the likelier it is you’ll need to pack the iconic umbrella. The Scottish western Highlands get doused annually with over three meters of rain, the Lake District and the Pennines in the northwest of England top the rainy charts too, as well as the mountainous Snowdonia area in Wales and the higher ground of the Cornish and Devonshire moors. The map below released by the Met Office is quite revealing.

Rainfall average (1981 - 2010)

Rainfall average (1981 – 2010)

Why it rains so much in Britain

Granted, it does rain rather frequently in Britain, despite the exaggerated rumors. This mostly due to the island-state’s unfortunate location, being right in the path of the atmospheric jet stream. The jet stream, a massive but mysterious driver for British weather, usually passes along a steady path from West to East across the Atlantic – sometimes a bit to the North of us, sometimes a bit to the South. The flow of these streams is not a neat curve but a series of massive meanders. Britain is right on the northern side of those meanders where conditions are cooler and wetter which means which means the country keeps getting hit by rain.

Normally, we would expect the pattern of the jet stream to keep shifting, for its shape to switch every few days and for our weather to change as a result. Instead for week after week – and possibly for weeks ahead too – the meanders of the stream are sticking to the same shape so repeated rainstorms have become the norm. Nobody knows why this pattern is so static.

jet stream

Credit: Metro Office

On top of this, there is the related question of climate change. Most researchers are extremely reluctant to attribute any single weather event to global warming. But Dr Peter Stott, a leading climate scientist at the UK Met Office, says that since the 1970s the amount of moisture in the atmosphere over the oceans has risen by 4%, a potentially important factor.

It’s worth mentioning that 2012 was an unusually rainy year having seen the”most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. The report released by the Met Office reveals that while downpours and storms have not been out of the ordinary, their frequency has been.

“Each one of these individual events has not been particular outstanding, they’ve been broadly along the lines of what we would expect for a typical winter storm in the UK,” said Simon Parry from the CEH and co-author of the report. “What’s been notable about it, and different from what we’ve seen in the past, is the persistence.”

Two key factors the authors believe have contributed to the effect:  a persistent high-pressure system lurking over a patch of the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of North America and, second, the quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO).

So there you have it. The British do have their fair share of rain, the west more than the east, higher ground more than the low-lying areas, but feel no pity because the British love the rain. Without it, there’d be less to moan about and fewer occasions to perfect their famous stiff upper lip.

Brits expect to spend their holidays on the moon by 2020

I had some good laughs reading data from a survey published last week that outlined the blurred perspective between science and science fiction for some Britons (one in five believed light sabers were real). Today, I ran into another online survey that posed some laughs conducted by a British online travel agency in which people were asked where would they like to vacation in the forthcoming years.

Hilariously, more than one in ten people said that holidaying on the moon would be possible by 2020, according to sunshine.co.uk. In the same year, 16% of the over 2,000 interviewed correspondents in the survey  reckon that an undersea railway tunnel between the UK and the US will be built. A small fraction of travel aficionados, about 4%,  said there’s a good chance of being able to time travel in the near future – you know, so you can avert those bad holidays or the booking of that dirty, over-priced hotel.

“It seems that some people just aren’t content with the holidays of today,” sunshine.co.uk co-founder Chris Brown told the Associated Press.

“Some evidently quite like the idea of floating through space, as opposed to lounging by the pool or walking along a sunny beach. It’s interesting to see what some people think will be possible in the near future.”

Extremely rare baby seahorse sighting

Seahorses are just as elusive as they are cute, so diver Neil Garrick-Maidment, the executive director of the Seahorse Trust was absolutely thrilled when he spotted a 1.5 inch long baby female seahorse “clinging onto a piece of seagrass”. This trule remarkable sighting was made in the waters of Great Britain, in the Dorset waters, a region well known as a breeding area for seahorses.

“These babies are so small they have never been seen before in Britain, and as far as I know in Europe either,” Garrick-Maidment said. “The species is literally hanging on by its fingertips so it’s heartening to see them breeding here. I can’t overestimate how rare it is to see something like this. It’s absolutely, mind-blowingly fantastic.”

If we were to take a look at these little guys, the odds aren’t good for them at all. Of the 3-500 baby seahorses born during each breeding cycle, just 2 or 3 make it to adulthood. Think about that whenever you’re having a rough day.