The rain in Spain

Flying in to Madrid from Delhi a few years ago, our plane had taken a southerly course over the Mediterranean. It was morning when we came in over the Spanish coast somewhere in the province of Valencia. A half hour of flight remained, and most of it was over the countryside of Castilla-La Mancha.

The portholes of Dreamliners have complex optics, with a gel filled layers between the stressed outer layers and the innermost clear layer. All portholes on airliners create a bit of chromatic aberration, but I had the feeling that this was much worse than normal. It was very obvious in this photo, which I took just as we hit the coast of Spain. The best I could do was to avoid the edges of the porthole. Due to a Dreamliner’s larger portholes, this is not as hard a constraint as it can be on some other planes. There are a lot of breakwaters and docking areas in that port. I wonder which one it is.

We were to discover later that we had landed during one of the hottest summers that Spain had had in recent years. But even before we knew that, it was clear that we were flying over some pretty parched lands. This green low-land with its lakes was the last bit of green we saw in quite a long while. I took a lot of photos from the air, but seeing anything in them requires quite a lot of work. The photos that you see here required fiddly adjustment of contrast and brightness. Still learning!

The parched landscape around this town is more typical of the area we flew over. I found later that a large part of the flat country that we flew over has average annual rainfalls between 400 and 600 mm. No wonder the fields that you can see in the photo above look so dry. Eliza Doolittle should have fact-checked the sentence she was taught. The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. Not at all. Most of it is in the north or along the mountains. I wonder how quickly, and by how much, these patterns will change in the coming decades.

Summer Thunderstorm

A sudden thunderstorm at the end of a burning hot day can lower the temperature by almost 20 degrees. The cooler, high altitude, air can take a couple of days to warm up again. In the middle of our trip to Corbett NP we were caught in this storm.

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.

Last light

Monsoon light is special. In many parts of the world you get spectacular sunsets and sunrises when there’s smoke and dust in the air. Here we can see that kind of special light because of small droplets of moisture suspended in the air. At least, we can see it at the change of season between grishma and varsha, summer and monsoon, before the sky is completely overcast.

The Family has been going for a walk by the sea to take photos. Being more of a couch potato, I take them from our balcony. The added advantage to this placement (add-vantage, to make a bad pun) is that I can get a view of the canopy below me, covered with the last flowers of the Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia).

In another neck of the woods a spreading banyan tree, the adult form of a strangler fig, has become host to a dense growth of epiphytic Pothos. I’ve never seen another specimen with such large leaves. In the fading light of the evening the green seems greener than usual.

There are other strange effects of light in this season. In the middle of the afternoon a dense mass of clouds can begin to obscure the sun, producing a watery light like the sunset. The sky and the sea can be beautiful now.

Changeable lizard wears red

Noticing a changeable lizard (Calotes versicolor, also Indian garden lizard) sunning itself on a fallen trunk of a tree, I stopped the jeep. In these hottest days of summer, everyone is constantly following the weather, watching for the arrival of monsoon. Today we look at satellite pictures, but once the changing colour of this lizard told people about the coming rains. Monsoon is its breeding season, and just before it the males change from their dusky olive or brown to this bright form, with the bright red head and black patch on the throat. I’m always surprised by how large the males are: more than 30 cms in length, with that wonderfully long fourth digit on its rear legs. We saw this one in Corbett NP, in the Terai grassland.

The very next week I saw another near Kanha NP, in the central Indian jungle. Notice the difference in the ground colour, with the dark stripes on one. The shapes of their heads and jaws also seem to be somewhat different. Growing up on the Gangetic plains, I would see both varieties in gardens. I was a little confused by these differences. Were they the same animal? Eventually I decided to treat them as the same. But it turns out that the “species” hides multiple species across its range from Pakistan to south-east Asia, which are just beginning to be enumerated. Different subspecies began to be enumerated in the 1990s, but now genetics seems to establish three different species in Myanmar and four in India (with some overlap in their ranges). It also turned out that the “type specimen” which used to be held in Paris had been misplaced. So a new “type specimen” was collected and described in 2016, but, because of the loss of the original specimen, it may not yet fully accepted as an example of Calotes versicolor. It seems possible that the name C. versicolor applies only to the second photo, whereas the header photo could be of the newly identified species Calotes vultuosus.There are mysteries peering at you from your garden!

Flying barefoot past Everest

A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.

The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.

I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

Entering Junagarh Fort

Bikaner was founded just over 500 years ago. The central fort, like the city around it expanded from a smaller core. The earliest extant part of the fort was built about 450 years ago. The temperate regions of the world were then going through what is called the Little Ice Age, but the tropics were nearly as warm as the 20th century CE. The colder polar regions made the world somewhat drier, so the monsoon was weaker. Water and heat were concerns for the architects, just as they are today. The city was founded in an oasis in the desert. The fort was built as palace apartments around courtyards, just like most traditional houses in India.

As we drove in through the outer city gate, I wondered why the fort was so tall. All books said that Junagarh fort was different from other forts of Rajasthan in that it was not built on a hill. We parked, bought our tickets, and walked past the tourist barriers towards the entrance gate. This is called Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) and faces east for good fortune. On one side of the forecourt is a hall, whose door is locked up now. Above it is a stage where musicians would play when friendly royals visited. I’m sure less friendly visitors could find archers there. It was only when I saw the steep and narrow climb to Suraj Pol that I realized why the fort was built high. It was a defensive measure. Elephants trying to ram the entrance could not build up speed on the climb. Also armies would be hemmed into a narrow and steep canyon where they could be shot.

The fort walls were built of red sandstone, the floors of granite. The first courtyard was almost entirely of this local stone. Even so far outside the main court, the jalis and balconies were finely carved. My camera had run out of fuel, so I’d left it in the car, along with The Family’s binoculars, so we couldn’t take a very close look. The carving was elaborate, but did not seem to be very innovative, and consisted of octagonal patterns. The plaster ceiling in the surrounding corridors carried gilded decorative motifs. A single balcony was covered in the blue and white tiles whose technology must have come from China. There have been so many contacts with our neighbour over history that this single fact does not help me date the balcony.

We pushed through a curtain of heavy metal disks hung in chains on the Tripolia gate, and into the second courtyard. This was the diwan-i-aam, the public court. This would have been constructed in the early 17th century. To one side of the gate was a small temple, locked up. There were interesting doors along one side of the quad. “I can use them,” I thought, as I took photos. But the star of the quad was a pool and pavilion, reputedly in Carrara marble. This must have been added a century later. The courtyard must have held people while the king sat on his throne inside the archways. Now they are glassed over. We dithered. Should we proceed into the next courtyard or look at the throne room and then go into the apartments above?

Grishma

Grishma ritu, high summer, has us in its grip. The relentless heat of the day only gets worse as the sun passes the zenith. At night the moist sea breeze comes down on us like a warm blanket. As your body tries its ancient mammalian method of cooling by sweating, the moisture works against it. You are easily dehydrated in summer.

The flowers love it. Bougainvillea is flourishing on our balcony, providing a green screen that filters the light in the living room. The white flowers of the creeper are nestled in four colours of bracts. Hibiscus blooms in its shade, its fivefold stigma red and erect.

Earth Day 2022

Counterculture or moon shots? Rachel Carson or James Lovelock? What prompted U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN in 1969, to sign the declaration to bring about an annual Earth Day? The first one was celebrated in 1970, the Paris Climate Treaty was signed on another. Now in a year that has seen record breaking heat waves simultaneously at both poles (40 Celsius above normal in Antarctica, 30 Celsius above in the Arctic) in a week in early March, and a heat wave in April covering south east, south, and central Asia, Earth Day has come around again. All tipping points are long past, now it is a matter of survival.

The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.

Attributed to BCA Research in a tweet

We have known for quite a while that climate changes in the past couple of million years drove the evolution of the genus Homo. A brilliant new paper gathers archaeological and computational evidence that Homo sapiens arose in a climate change event 300-400 thousand years ago. If we are the product of a climate change, it stands to reason that large changes in the global climate can drive us into extinction, or at least into a population crash. If the weather is not the end of us, it could be the end of civilization. Quite a storm? Place a buy order with your broker. Better still, read some books or listen to an interesting lecture. Some suggestions follow.

Grasslands of India by Jayashree Ratnam (on Youtube)

Yesterday I listened to Ratnam’s talk about the unrecognized savannas of India. She gave a very clear definition: if the tree canopy is not continuous, then it is a savanna. The sunlight percolating to the ground allows lots of ground layer plants to grow. As a result, the competition to reach the sun does not drive the ecology, and it is totally different from a forest with a canopy. Whenever I’ve traveled in the last couple of years I’ve come across a savanna mis-classified as a degraded forest. As a result of this colonial-era mistake these habitats are being destroyed and species which need such a habitat are now endangered: the black buck, the Indian elephant, the great Indian bustard, the Bengal Florican. Ratnam gave a wonderful account of the under-counting of biodiversity in such biomes. She went on to talk about the cost of this mistake in climate mitigation efforts. Large scale tree planting in these biomes kill the undergrowth and release soil carbon into the atmosphere which is not compensated by the trees. The discussion at the end was specially interesting.

A take-away lesson: by merely re-focusing on highly modified ecologies like cities, roads, their verges and those of farmlands, the very large economy that has been built around carbon-neutrality can work without endangering grassland species.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday (Penguin)

Traveling across the planet can give us a view of the enormous variety of life that shares this current climate with us. But they are mostly limited to what grows in this current range of temperatures, humidity, or oxygen and CO2 in the atmosphere. Halliday then takes us on a tour of what kinds of biomes the earth supported in vastly different eras. The billion year journey is illuminating: our current crisis is not a crisis for the earth, it is for our own survival. A changed climate will support different animals and different plants.

A take-away lesson: the earth endures, species don’t.

A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn (Hachette)

If you live in a city you might have noticed the life around you. Not just the gardens full of roses, other colourful flowers, and the weeds, the songbirds, pigeons, and crows, dogs and rats and their individual fleas, the mosquitos, flies, and the cockroaches, but also the lichens and mosses that grown on concrete, SARS-CoV-2, and other diseases, all live in an ecology we have created. Dunn writes about how the human-modified environment drives evolution. One of the interesting chapters in the book looks at the particular ecological niche that we humans occupy. Interestingly, most humans continue to occupy this niche even today. Across the globe today, and in recorded history, less ideal climates, or extreme climate variability, generally contribute to a fall in GDP and an increase in violent crime.

A take-away lesson: free movement is essential for the survival of species as the climate changes; so one needs to create green corridors joining different biospheres. It is an interesting political exercise to think that the same lesson also holds for humans.

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