Mr Acid Rain and our Interconnected World

The entrance to the Forestry Commission Northern Research Station, near Roslin

My father, Roger Lines, was a research forester, working for the Forestry Commission. When, in the early 1970’s, I did my Statistics O-Grade I was fortunate to be able to help with some real research at the, then fairly newly established, Forestry Commission Northern Research Station. I was chopping young Sitka Spruce trees, grown under different conditions, in half at the basal node, and weighing the root and stem halves to determine how the environment in which is it grown affects where the plant puts its energy.

On the door of my father’s office was, in lieu of an official plaque with a job title, a clipping, presumably from some forestry journal, which simply said ‘Mr Acid Rain’

Acid Rain was one of my fathers many forestry related specialities. In earlier years soot from factories and power generation had been deposited on nearby vegetation, (and building and clothes on washing lines) physically blackening them and cutting off the light. The Clean Air Act of 1956 had greatly reduced smoke, but the sulphur which was still being emitted from the higher chimneys which were then being used was carried by the prevailing winds across the North Sea, where is acidified the rain falling on the Norwegian forests, stunting their growth.

In a similar fashion to the way that the damage caused by soot pollution led to the Clean Air Act(s) in the UK, the problem of Sulphur pollution led to the 1985 Helsinki Protocol on the Reduction of Sulphur Emissions. This is an example of the way that Science informs political decisions and is an example of the reasoned feedback loop in operation. Note that while the soot pollution led to regulation at a UK national level, the sulphur pollution problem required action at an international level.

Chinese Treasure Fleets

Some years ago I read 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies, and although the specifics of that book are strongly disputed by orthodox historians, it was, for me, an interesting introduction to Chinese naval power at the time, and the existence of the Ming Treasure Voyages under Admiral Zheng He is not disputed.

The fact that a mighty fleet of treasure ships could set sail from Nanjing in China in 1421 to reach as far as Aden in Yemen without being any impact on a Europe busy fighting the Hundred Years War shows how independent different areas of the world were in mediaeval times.

Suez Canal blockage

Six hundred years later, in March 2021, another gigantic Treasure Ship sailing from the far east along roughly the same route, sailed past Yemen, but became stuck in the Suez Canal. This time Europe was immediately aware, and not simply because it made a dramatic story, there was a real impact on some prices and on availability of some items. (This is slightly reminiscent of the expected effect on the price of goods when the sailing barque Kishon was due to arrive at some destinations, but on a much larger scale).

Vaccine components

Another item dominating the news in March 2021 was the Covid-19 pandemic, and how vaccines – developed with impressive swiftness, could be fairly distributed around the world. Although the various vaccines tend to be associated with particular countries (or even cities – unless it is just around here that the Astra-Zenica vaccine tends to be called the Oxford vaccine), supply chain difficulties tend to reveal how interconnected all the items required to create a vaccine which can be delivered to people really are. The interconnected nature of today’s world also makes a worldwide response to the pandemic essential, as if there are large populations of people who are transmitting the virus then it will mutate amongst that group, and will re-emerge as a new threat.

The worldwide flow of goods, information, wealth and problems.

The interconnectedness of our world means that it is not only goods and people who move around the world, but wealth and information too. Incorrect information about vaccine safety is reaching tribespeople living the the amazon rainforest, and slash-and-burn agriculture is, in turn, contributing to global climate change.

As an aside I am currently reading ‘Good Economics for Hard Times‘ which has some interesting commentary, by Nobel Prize in Economics winning authors, on the traditional thinking on Free Trade, Globalisation, Migration etc. This article is already long enough, but I really recommend this book if you are interested in the economic issues raised by our Interconnected World.

The world did come together to deal with the issues raised by sulphur in fuels in the 1980’s – I hope that in 2021 the world can work together on the harder issue of climate change.

One thought on “Mr Acid Rain and our Interconnected World”

  1. As an aside on Statistics; the statistics used in Forestry often has to be subtle, due to many important variables being outside the control of the experimenter. Medicine is similarly complex. I was reminded of this by an xkcd cartoon.

    https://xkcd.com/2400/

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