China’s last female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died over the weekend at the Suzhou Zoo. She was the last known female of her species. Only three others are known to exist, one at the Suzhou Zoo and two others in separate lakes in Hanoi, Vietnam. Yangtze softshell turtles are the largest freshwater turtle species in the world.
The turtles became threatened due to habitat loss and the use of the shell and bones for (useless) Chinese alternative medicine.
China Daily reported: “An international research team carried out the fifth artificial insemination for the female turtle on Friday, but the animal did not recover from the procedure, even though researchers spent hours trying to save its life. The dead female turtle is believed to be over 90 years old; Suzhou Zoo’s male turtle is over 100 years old.”
From 78 degrees on Tuesday to snow on Wednesday? Swings like this aren’t unusual in the central United States, where weather can quickly shift from one extreme to another. That’s especially true in the springtime, when conditions turn into a roller coaster, with balmy spring days followed by abrupt returns to winter.
These wild swings have been on full display this spring, with a record-setting cyclone on March 13-14 and a second system this month bringing very heavy snow and intense winds to a broad area from Colorado to Minnesota. For researchers like me, this region is a fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, place to study weather and climate. It’s no accident that places like Colorado and Oklahoma are among the world’s hubs for atmospheric science.
Where the winds meet the mountains
What generates such “big weather” on the Great Plains? It starts with geography.
As you travel west across the central United States, the Plains gradually slope upward. Then, in central Colorado, the terrain quickly rises into the Rocky Mountains, creating big changes in elevation, along with more subtle ridges and river valleys. This topography sets the stage for our region’s complex weather systems.
Southeastern Colorado and the bordering panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma form a breeding ground for extratropical cyclones – the large, low-pressure systems that routinely move across the country, bringing rain, snow, thunderstorms and strong winds. As troughs of low pressure aloft move from west to east over the Rocky Mountains and then emerge on the other side, the columns of air are “stretched” vertically. This makes them spin at increasing rates, just as figure skaters do when they draw their arms in.
These features interact with the usual south-to-north gradient in temperature that exists east of the mountains – that is, warmer in the south and colder in the north – kicking off a process in which strong cold and warm fronts develop, and a cyclone can rapidly intensify. Along those fronts, widespread precipitation forms, including everything from heavy snow to severe thunderstorms.
So the day or two before the cyclone develops, temperatures are often well above average, only to quickly plummet as the strong cold front associated with the cyclone blasts through. In other words, the rapid changes in temperature that we see east of the Rockies are not just an interesting aspect of these storms – they are key to their development and intensification.
When these cyclones develop in the fall and spring, they can generate many forms of unusual and hazardous weather, sometimes just a few counties apart. Visitors in eastern Colorado are often surprised to hear warnings for wildfires, tornadoes and a blizzard at the same time. As climatologist Brian Brettschneider has shown, much of the Great Plains region averages well over a foot of snow – after the first day 70-degree day of the year! And Colorado is the only state in the nation where every month of the year is the average wettest month of the year in some part of the state.
There is much at stake during major storms in the central U.S. This region has a history of deadly flooding, and droughts, wildfires, tornadoes and hailstorms here can cause billions of dollars in losses and damage.
Thanks to dedicated research and increasing computer power, weather forecasts continue to improve steadily. The National Weather Service’s forecasts for this year’s March and April cyclones were spot-on. But forecasting more localized snowstorms and thunderstorms is still very challenging given this region’s complex terrain. This is a subject of continued research.
There also remain important questions about the effects of climate change on the northern and southern Great Plains, thanks to the huge variability in the weather. We have seen a clear warming trend, as in most parts of the nation, but it is hard to pin down how this warming is influencing factors such as droughts, severe weather and snowstorms.
After severe droughts in many areas in 2018, 2019 thus far has been one of the wettest years on record. Is this just a reflection of our naturally highly variable climate, or part of a long-term trend associated with the overall warming of the planet?
Despite these challenges, meteorologists and climatologists are passionate about figuring out how the atmosphere works, making better predictions of its behavior and communicating that information to decision makers and the public. Events like this spring’s major storms remind us that we all need to be weather-ready, year-round.
About six months ago I stopped eating meat. I was teaching a graduate course at UCLA that investigated how Italian Renaissance writers conveyed their concepts about the human through writing about the nonhuman – plants, animals, objects, angels, demons, gods and God. As weeks passed, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the nonhuman entities all around me, more aware of their vibrant lives. Cutting flowers for a short-lived bouquet seemed wrong; chewing on animal flesh became flat out impossible.
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the authors we were studying in the course. Out of the thousands of pages comprising his 25 documented codices, known collectively as his “Notebooks,” we read passages describing the natural world and its inhabitants, and some of his philosophical maxims, fables and riddles. In a striking passage that introduces his “Treatise on Water,” he wrote:
“By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire, his body resembles that of the earth; and as man has in him bones — the supports and framework of his flesh —, the world has its rocks — the supports of the earth; as man has in him a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls … ”
Unlike many thinkers of his time who anthropomorphized the Earth, Leonardo terramorphized man. But it was not just man that Leonardo saw as a Platonic microcosmic-world-in-miniature. Animals, he wrote, are “the image of the world.” They reflect the Earth, just as we do.
Humans not superior to animal world
Leonardo never challenged the Christian belief that human beings were made in the image of God, nor the classical notion that man’s proportions and symmetries (albeit a white, middle-aged, able-bodied, European man) were beautiful and worthy of imitation in architecture and art. But he also never claimed other living beings were less beautiful, soulless, or lacked intelligence.
When comparing animals and humans – which he did often – animals often came out looking better. In one of his notes, Leonardo wrote, “Man has much power of discourse, which for the most part is vain and false; animals have but little, but it is useful and true, and a small truth is better than a great lie.” He often pointed out how much more powerful animals’ senses were, how much faster, stronger, more efficient and capable they were of performing remarkable feats, such as flight.
And animals were not nearly as “bestial” to one another as humans could be. “King of the animals – as thou hast described him – I should rather say king of the beasts,” he wrote. Leonardo lamented how human stomachs have become “a sepulcher for all animals” and how “our life is made by the death of others.”
Leonardo the vegetarian?
This passage, along with other writing about humans as killing machines and their esophagi as animal cemeteries, as well as a few comments by his contemporaries, have led many to believe that Leonardo was a vegetarian.
There is a 1515/6 letter by the Italian explorer Andrea Corsali to Giuliano de’ Medici that – in discussing how the Gujarati of India won’t eat anything with blood or allow hurt to come to any animate thing – says they are “like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Corsali, however, did not know Leonardo well, and the sentence is ambiguous; it could just mean that Leonardo never hurt animals or wanted to see them hurt.
Nowhere in his writing, however, did he speak of not eating meat. His grocery lists have meat on them, although it is possible he was purchasing it for members of his household: students, servants, guests, animals.
Whether he ate a totally meat-free diet or not is unclear, but his love for animals is unquestionable. He lived with animals on a farm as a child and they were ever-present in his studio – likely cats and dogs, insects, birds and reptiles (some alive, some deceased). Leonardo studied them, depicted them, wrote about them and built machines – even war machines – inspired by them.
Leonardo’s literary writing – fables, riddles, aphorisms – is filled with animals. While they often serve as Aesopic moral stand-ins for humans, Leonardo also used them differently than other classical, medieval and Renaissance fabulists, contrasting them to humans, celebrating their strengths and wisdom and critiquing how humans treat them.
In his “Prophecy” riddles — which read like predictions of a horrendous apocalyptic future — one encounters legions of cruelty and pain. “I see children of thine given up to slavery to others … paid with the severest suffering, and spend[ing] their whole life benefiting those who ill treat them.” As a riddle, this is not what it seems. He’s writing not of humans, but rather, of donkeys, and how humans repay their services with unkindness and even violence. That said, in an empathic move, Leonardo was also linking humans to donkeys, and pointing to the ever-present fact that humans subject other humans to terrible fates.
And in a particularly chilling prophecy, he described animals so full of evil that they were destroying all life on land and sea: He cries, “O Earth! Why dost thou not open and engulf [these animals] in the fissure of thy vast abyss and caverns, and no longer display in the sight of heaven such a cruel and horrible monster!” The monster, of course, is man.
Although many people assume Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is an indication of an adherence to the commonly, but not universally, held Renaissance notion that man was the most perfect of beings and “the measure of all things,” his literary and artistic production seem to show that he saw animals as the true “image of the world.” While he included human beings in the group he called “animals,” it was not as preeminent entities, but as one of the world’s infinite, beautiful varieties.
Animals on their own terms
Animals proliferate in Leonardo’s visual art. In his sketches we see horses run, trot, rear up on back legs, fall. Birds, bats and insects extend their wings. Cats stretch, wrestle and lounge. Lions roar. Bears, dogs, crabs, rhinoceroses quietly stand or walk. Beetles and ants bend their appendages.
All these animals are present in his writing, too, joined by an ark-load more: domesticated, wild, local, exotic, mythical (dragons!) and imaginary (sea-monsters!). Leonardo’s depictions of animals emerge not only as forces that teach us about ourselves and challenge our sense of human primacy, but as powerful, creative forces, on their own terms.
Leonardo chipped away at the walls between “us” and “them” by placing all life on a level field, all things as micro-reflections of a macro-whole. And as he envisioned in his terrifying visual and verbal depictions of catastrophic deluges and global disasters, we’re all in this together.