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Failing the Cycads (John’s simplistic theory on global warming)

By John Roberts
19 May 2013 04:38:00

Last year sometime in the spring I had something to do in Lampang, this often happens, there are a lot of elephants there.  On the way home the road climbs out of the Lampang valley and passes through the mountains before dropping down through Pang La & Ngao.  Travelling through the rice valleys separated by mountains of Northern Thailand it is easy to see how these places evolved to be city states in the days before modern transportation.

Right before the pass there’s a stand of old teak trees on the edge of a forested area, stalls by the side of the road selling jungle plants - and bear in mind, Dr Richard, this was before I’d spent time at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens and worked out I’d committed a sin - so, having just built a house and missing my family, I bought a palm and some jungle bananas as a gift.

You’d think, given the amount of time I spend thinking about not buying wild animals caught from the forest I wouldn’t have done this, but, well, I did - sorry - please don't do it yourselves, forest plants are happier in the forest where they belong, being part of a complex ecosystem rather than a garden.

We bought him home, called him Percy and planted him, whereupon he promptly died - being a cycad not a palm and not liking unshaded sun one bit.

Imagine our joy when, a couple of months into the rainy season, he sprouted again and provided a perfect circle of green frondy things, we looked forward to living with him outside our door, each year growing a tad taller and providing, therefore, a larger cylinder of shade.

Percy helped me coalesce this theory, something that has been sitting in the back of my brain for years, ever since people started talking about global warming - now, I understand carbon sequestration and all the remote stuff that happens in the atmosphere a little (but not too much) but at a ground level, how can the world not be getting warmer?  There are more of us generating heat, burning stuff to get around or to keep warm, even the tricks we’ve learned to keep cool - air conditioning, fridges, ice in beer etc. - are only really about taking heat energy and moving it somewhere as far away from us as we can manage (generating still more heat in the process).

With all this extra heat around, how can it not be getting hotter?

Heat’s a lot on our minds at the moment, despite the odd sprinkle I think it’s fair to say the wet season’s two months late and the hot season has extended - it’s hot - luckily for the eles it’s raining in China so the dams are open and the Mekong’s higher than our own rain would allow - this backs up into the Ruak and we have water to play with.

This theory, though pertinent now, has been bubbling around for longer than that.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time in and around Asia’s larger forests, Chitwan, Kui Buri, Keang Krachan and the Cardamoms and, while it’s fair to say that I’ve sweated horribly in all of them, sometimes cursed & sometimes relished (cold winter, afternoon Land Rover safari’s in Chitwan, heading out in the sweaty sunshine, wearing shorts, coming back - illegally - after dark freezing in the grassland, comfortable under the canopy) their heat retention properties.

I’ve always found the coast of Thailand a sweaty place that needs air-conditioning all night, yet camping on the outskirts of Kui Buri you need a blanket by 1 or 2 am the heat of the day doesn’t hit you until 10 or 11, if you’re not exercising it’s quite comfortable to, say, sit on a platform and wait for elephants to come along be counted.  In Koh Kong, Cambodia the other month you'd be sweating into your breakfast down in the town, but, waking up in the misty forest it was pleasantly cool on sliding out of the necessary sleeping bag.

So, without going into physics, chemistry, humidity or all that other stuff why would it be cooler in or next to the jungle?

Recently Mark the Vector Collector gave me a fancy thermometer that allows me to read the temperature in my office and outside simultaneously & record the maximum and minimum of each.  Based on two months data the difference between the peak daytime temperature in the shade and in the sun has been 7.6 degrees.

So, if we pretend that air doesn’t move, Percy (whose canopy is quite circular) is providing πr2h litres of air that is 7.6 degrees cooler than the air that’s just sitting in the sun.  He’s young and quite short (cycads grow very slowly) so let’s say (3.142 x (300x300) x 100)/1,000,000 = 28.278 litres (sub. ed. pls. check) of cool air. 

But air does move (& so does air into & out of my office) and, compared to a forest, Percy is very small.  Imagine if you’re standing next to an entire forest of shade and the air moves into your face?  That has to be billions of gallons of cooler air just cooling the place down, free of charge and absorbing carbon (which is doing more damage than just heating the place) AND creating oxygen (which we find quite useful) into the bargain.

So, there you have it, if you want to be cool & remain cool into the future, plant & look after trees.  Even if you aren’t yet convinced in all this climate change malarky it’s still more comfortable to sit around being skeptical under a tree than it is out on the open plain.

P.S. Yes I know there are many problems with this theory and a million other factors at work but it’s too hot to argue or to think too hard so let's just stick with simplicity for once in our lives, join me under my tree and we can talk about something else.  It is so simple there has to be something to it, doesn't there? - Thailand's lost 40 - 50% of her forest cover since WWII - was Thailand a still warm but cooler place before someone sold all the trees?  How could it not be?  You can still find people around who remember being able to walk from village to village from shade tree to shade tree. 

P.P.S. I’d like to dedicate this blog to Percy who the extended hot season did for.  In the first rains he put all the energy he had into sprouting and developing his little cylinder of shade for us, when the rains didn’t follow up on their promise & I wasn’t fast enough to set up the grey water system, he withered & died - we think - though, of course, we’ve thought that before.

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