Three words to start today. Skiing came to mind when I was listening to a discussion about the Andean Condor on the car radio the other day. The enthusiastic recommendation was to go see a Condor on your travels. The reason the Condor was being discussed was the recent publication of studies based on GPS tracking plus a motion sensor that counted the bird’s wing strokes. There’s a science alert you can read on this subject if you want more. Meantime, for me, the most interesting part is not that a condor flew for more than five hours without beating its wings once. Sure, it flew over 170 kilometres using nothing but air currents. I’m pretty sure this has been happening for millions of years. What I want to know if it ‘sees’ the thermals or relies on something else entirely?
Albatrosses fly huge distance too. Same kind of problem. Dovetail this with how both species manage to stay aloft and you have an interesting chance to find something new. New ways of seeing our world perhaps?
A big bird needs a lot of food but it must minimise the energy it costs to search for a meal over a vast area. Science has long been investigating how the albatross finds the food. Soaring Albatrosses for example, may use very faint smells to create olfactory landscapes. Imagine that phytoplankton cells (call them algae) release dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMS) when they are broken up by the zooplankton (krill in this case) that eat them. So the albatross can detect concentrations of krill by ‘visualising’ the seascape using the DMS given off by their algal prey.
DMS has another interesting use that you probably overlook every day. The algal gas is a seed for clouds. Water droplets need something to envelop in order for the molecules to coalesce into the mist that makes up the clouds. You can a simple intro here if climate change is of interest.
This tell us why but not how the albatross soars so long and far. It doesn’t explain how they get home again.
I had the pleasure of watching an Andean Condor in Argentina. I was pretty sure I was looking at a distant condor but I couldn’t see the the distinctive white collar. Female or juvenile perhaps. And then she swooped low over the arid, basaltic banks of the Colorado River that bounds Neuquen and Mendoza provinces. Enormous is the only sensible word. There was a dormant volcano in the background and I was thinking how surreal this was. Surreal wasn’t just the condor. There was a guy standing beside me, waiting on a taxi, with a piece of black tape attached to his sleeve with a paper clip (and this is a story for another day).
Here I was in Rincon de las Sauces where I never expected to see a condor. I had been in the altiplano in Bolivia the year before where I’d no doubt I’d see condors but never did. So much for bird distribution maps.
And it’s Bolivia that reminds me of the third word, skiing. I find it hard not to find myself back in the Andes through links of associated memories from words like condor, volcano and the like. The word altiplano, for example, reminds me of altitude sickness or ‘saroche’. My first experience of the effects of the low oxygen levels at high elevation happened in La Paz airport. Actually, my first exposure was in the plane as we approached when a passenger had a breathless panic attack. The seemingly well-rehearsed stewardesses whipped out an oxygen mask, attached it and fled to the safety belts in their seats as the wheels touched the ground.
Landed, I was eventually sitting beside a conveyor belt, waiting for my bags. I whiled away the extended wait watching a troop of boy scouts that had boarded in Miami. They were wandering aimlessly around the terminal. I had expected them to behave boisterously as kids usually do in groups. I thought them wonderfully disciplined until I realised they were probably oxygen deprived 15 year-old zombies. This realisation came from my own experience. I’d been watching another of them trying to put his watch back on. He was struggling to get the buckle tongue into a hole on the leather strap. I watched. I know I watched because it was 0924 when I first looked over at him and I noted that he had adjusted to local time. That was probably why the watch was unbuckled. He still hadn’t buckled the watch by 0938. And at 0945 I realised I had been watching his saroche for twenty minutes. My saroche had me watching his saroche.
I didn’t experience other noticeable side affects despite spending three months 3.5 kilometres above sea level. I had acclimatised by the second day. Others among my colleagues were not so fortunate and one in particular had regular migraines. He said it was the first time he’d had them since he was released. He said his migraines had started due to the stress of being held hostage for six months in Africa. This had been few years before I met him and it’s not my story to tell. Suffice to say his accounts of being taken and held by terrorists was horrific and I think the fact that he was in Bolivia was proof that he was in denial (and needed help to recover).
Actually, I did have another encounter with oxygen deprivation but not sickness. This happened at 5,300 meters on a glacier called Chacaltaya that doubled as a steep ski slope for the lunatic fringe. Thirty minutes from La Paz, there was a restaurant and chalets at the entrance. We had driven up from Lake Titicaca which is 1.5 kilometres lower. We paid our entrance fee, walked to the head of the ski-slope across packed snow, really ice, covered with a dusting of snow that remained from an overnight flurry. Two of us posed and a third took our photos. Later down at the lake, the same third took a couple of pictures of us at the lake. I told him to press the shutter button all the way, else he was only using the auto-focus. At which point I realised we had no photos from Chacaltaya though they would have been perfectly focussed.
I’m very sorry to say that you can’t repeat this experience. We already knew that the skiing was unsafe and that the glacier was retreating rapidly when we visited in 1994. I’ve since read that the ice was all gone by 2009. The entire glacier is gone forever, the abandoned buildings a warning to us all.
I have a mini-rant by way of conclusion. I’ve not told you which radio station nor which program brought the condors to my attention. Normally I would credit the seeds for my journal. This time, I won’t because the experts discussing the condors have given me reason to gripe. It might seem like a minor gripe when I say that they referred to their primary source of the condor flight information as the science publication Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS). I will never know if this is true of if they pretended to have better understood their subject than they really did. I suspect from the wording on the radio that they based much of their discussion on the same science alert I credited at the top of this journal.
This might not matter to you, after all I’m doing much the same. I’d not know about the condors if I hadn’t heard the radio discussion. However, churn shouldn’t be disguised. Quoting your source is the right thing to do. Quoting an authority beyond your source, as if it was your authority, is not the same at all.
What will Substack do to the world media? If Substack goes the way I suspect it might (and there are other tools like Medium etc) where will original content come from? Here’s a link to a story from the Ben Evans newsletter I get each week (Benedict’s Newsletter). Maybe I’ll head to Substack too?