The Art and Science of Resurrection in 'Ghost Species'
By Amy Brady
Australian author and critic James Bradley stunned with his previous novel, Clade, a multi-generational story about a swiftly changing planet. His latest novel, Ghost Species, encompasses similar themes of ecological loss and climate catastrophe.
It introduces us to Kate Larkin, a scientist who takes part in a secret project to resurrect extinct species that will, in theory, help to re-engineer the planet. Questions of ethics and biological authenticity circulate the project, only to grow more complex when the scientists extend their work to bringing back one of humanity's closest ancient relatives – a Neanderthal. After the baby's birth, Kate begins to question the very things that make us human.
Timely and beautifully written, Ghost Species is an elegiac exploration of science and compassion against a backdrop of planetary trauma. In this interview, I asked James what inspired the novel, what he learned about the real-life science of recreating ecosystems, and his feelings about the future.
Amy Brady: Before we discuss Ghost Species specifically I'd like to talk about your writing interests more generally. Your previous novel, Clade, dealt acutely with the climate crisis, and you've written essays about the issue as well. What continues to draw you to the subject of climate change in your writing?
James Bradley: I have a friend who talks about "the knowledge," by which she means that moment when you fully appreciate the scale and urgency of the climate crisis and its implications. I'm not sure I really think it's quite as simple or as singular as that – it seems to me most of us continue to resist that understanding in various ways, and to struggle with the complex and often frightening feelings that come with it – but I think she's right that once you've got there, nothing is the same. Politics, art, love, relationships: they're all transformed. A lot of my writing over the past decade or so has been trying to think my way into that awareness, and then to try to make sense of what you do with it once you're there.
Amy Brady: Ghost Species explores the questions surrounding the science and ethics of de-extinction. Unlike other novels I've read on the subject, yours feels remarkably plausible. Tell us about your research process and what surprised you the most about what you learned.
James Bradley: I decided quite early on that I didn't want to spend pages and pages discussing the technicalities of the science, partly because I didn't think most readers would be terribly interested in them, partly because I felt they'd detract from the emotional questions that seemed to me to be at the heart of the book. But interestingly, my route into the idea was actually a bit like the one Davis, the billionaire who finances the project, follows. So I began by reading about rewilding and recreating ecosystems rather than reading about the nuts and bolts of recreating extinct species in the lab. That led me to the story of the ways in which reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone altered the physical structure of the rivers, and that led me to the idea that you might try to slow down the melting of the permafrost by using de-extinct ice age animals to re-engineer the climate in the north, in the way Sergey and Nikita Zemov are in Siberia.
Perhaps because I began thinking about ecosystems and interconnectedness and cycles of energy, when I came to start looking at the actual science of de-extinction I was less focussed on the technicalities than I was on the question of what extinction – and by implication de-extinction – might mean, not just as a metaphor for all the ways in which environmental crisis is upsetting and unhinging time and temporality, but for the kind of loneliness we all feel in a world where so much is being lost all around us.
Amy Brady: A question at the heart of your new novel is whether an extinct animal – or even an extinct human relative, the Neanderthal – can be considered "real" once resurrected. Is this a question that scientists are taking seriously? Is it one that you yourself have landed on an answer to?
James Bradley: When an animal or a species disappears from the world it's not just their biological identity that's lost, it's also a way of being in the world, and a whole host of complex entanglements with other species and their environment. That absence is profound and immense, but it also means that even if we do find the means to bring back vanished species, they will lack those connections and meanings. For Eve that disconnection is manifested through a larger sense of separation and loneliness, the feeling she's always an outsider. But what also happens in the book is that both Eve and some of the other recreated species begin to change and adapt – to go wild, I suppose – and as they do their lives begin to take on new shapes and new meanings, although not necessarily the ones their creators might have expected.
Amy Brady: Your novels emphasize compassion, how humans can find deep wells of love and sympathy and beauty even in times of great distress. So often in public debate climate change is discussed in terms of fear and anger, or on the other side of the spectrum, hope and courage. What roles might love and compassion play in not only climate debate, but perhaps in climate action?
James Bradley: I think it's really difficult to describe the scale or the trauma of last summer's bushfires here in Australia. Dozens of people were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed, and a whole range of animals and plants were pushed to the brink of extinction. But as I wrote at the time, what was really striking wasn't the anger and fear and grief, all of which was real and palpable (and given our government's appalling record on climate, justified), it was the outpouring of generosity and kindness. Truckies and tradies organized food deliveries, other people set up websites to find people who'd lost their homes a place to stay, members of the Muslim and Sikh communities took food to the firefighters, all of whom were volunteers, and many of whom had been fighting the fires for weeks or even months on end, and people gave millions of dollars to charities.
That didn't come out of nowhere. People did it because they saw people were suffering, and they wanted to help. That recognition other people's suffering is real is incredibly important, because once we do that it's much harder to look away, or to treat other people's lives as expendable.
Amy Brady: Speaking of love, I loved your protagonist Kate Larkin. Where did she come from? Is she inspired by anyone in real life?
James Bradley: I think all my writing is pretty personal, but with this book I really wanted to find a way of writing that erased all the barriers between me and the work, so I was writing out of somewhere very intimate, and undefended. I did that because I wanted to find a way of articulating a range of feelings of grief and fear that I usually need to keep under control so I can keep functioning. But it also meant I ended up using a lot of material from my own life in a pretty direct way: certainly the material about parenting and children is drawn from my own experience, and addiction and alcoholism have had a big impact on people very close to me. I suppose that desire to write without distance is also about the context in which I wrote the book. I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just as I was finishing it, and it's very much bookended by those losses, and a recognition of what they both meant to me.
Amy Brady: Climate change is often depicted as a slow-moving phenomenon, but so much has happened since the last time we did an interview together for this column in late 2017 – a mere two and a half years ago. North America experienced one of its worst hurricane seasons in history, and Australia suffered one of its worst bushfires in history. And that's just in our respective home countries. I asked you back in 2017 if you were hopeful for the future, and you gave a thoughtful and elegant answer that I will paraphrase as "I'm wary of despair." Have your feelings about what's in store for us changed? Are you still at least cautiously hopeful about what the future might bring?
James Bradley: When I wrote Clade one of the things I wanted the book to do was to push back against the idea the future is set, and make a space for possibility and change. I think over the past few years it's become much harder to hold onto the idea we might avoid the worst of what's coming. Having said that, I still think despair is a cop-out and an indulgence, and that even if the odds of staying under two degrees of warming are now slim, there's a big difference between two degrees and three, or three degrees and four, and which of those we end up with depends on what we do now.
Amy Brady: What's next for you?
James Bradley: It's a really good question! In fact, I've just finished a draft of a new novel, and I'm working on a book of non-fiction about the ocean, but both of them are still a way off. In the meantime, I've got a couple of long essays that should be out in the next few months, and I'm working on a couple of articles and a new novella. So I've got a lot of things on the boil, which is always nice.
Ghost Species, by James Bradley, Hamish Hamilton, published April 20, 2020.
Reprinted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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