At midnight tonight the sardine will drop. That is, the eight-foot wooden sardine lowered in coastal Eastport, Maine, to signal the arrival of the new year. It is therefore time to pull out The Naturalist's Notebook's environmentally friendly crystal-ball snow globe for our own annual ritual.
We shake the snow globe and the white stuff flutters down in words and images of next year—a preview of nature and science news and events to watch for. Better that you know in advance, right? So here we go. Let the flakes fall where they may:
7 Billion People. Perhaps you read our September blog entry about the rapid growth of the world's population. The Earth is now projected to reach 7 billion human inhabitatants—an increase of a billion in just over a decade—late in 2011. The consequences for the planet are considerable. In its January cover story National Geographic announced plans to run a year-long series on the subject.
Electric Cars. Should you buy one? Do they work? Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs arrived in showrooms this month, and 2011 could be the launch of a new era. But electric cars require just as much energy as gas-powered ones and will put a new strain on utility companies. Pamelia's brother Scott works in energy conservation for one of those companies, and he is already working to anticipate how to deal with the jolt of increased electrical demand.
National Park Cuts. When the new Congress convenes and starts trying to slash the deficit, the National Park system won't be exempt from scrutiny—even though it is already strapped enough to have to rely on private groups such as Friends of Acadia for help.
Climate Change Inaction. That same Congress includes many new members who think that virtually all of the world's scientists and thermometers are lying, and that global warming is a hoax. Or at least think that 7 billion humans can't possibly have an impact on the planet. In the jobs vs. the environment match-up, the environment will be the heavy underdog.
A Funny Birding Movie. If you haven't read Mark Obmascik's comical book The Big Year, you ought to. It's the true story of three obsessed birders who are each trying to break the record for most North American bird species seen in a year. The big-screen version comes out in 2011, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
The Gulf, A Year Later. You don't have to be a network news director to figure out that the April 20th anniversary of the BP explosion will be a smart time to recap the oil disaster's impact on wildlife. The coverage will play up nature's resilience and make the people who lost fishing jobs seem like the biggest victims.
Dying Bats. Since it appeared in 2006, a deadly fungal infection called white-nose syndrome (which leaves its victims with white snouts) has killed at least a million bats in North America and could soon wipe them out completely in parts of the continent. Mosquitoes are happy: Bats are an important part of the ecosystem and eat astounding numbers of insects that would otherwise attack crops or pester people. As bats suffer, so, to a far lesser extent will spelunkers (recreational cave explorers), who are already being barred from entering certain caves where bats live or lived.
Salvia and Nutmeg. Perhaps this month you saw the secretly shot photo of 18-year-old Miley Cyrus (below), the wholesome singer/actress and Disney icon, taking a puff on pipe filled with... salvia. No, not the beautiful red or purple flowers you grow in your garden, but a strain of the same plant that has hallucinogenic properties yet is generally considered an herb, not a drug. News coverage of late has also touched on teens snorting nutmeg, presumably for an eggnog high. Public outrage will follow, along with the first hard-hitting series ever on HGTV.
DNA and Our Ancestors. Already genetic research tools are helping scientists learn new details every month about the evolution of homo sapiens. This year researchers who are decoding the genome of Neanderthals from fossil evidence discovered that those burly hunters interbred with modern humans tens of thousands of years ago; between one four percent of the DNA found in many of us comes from Neanderthals. That explains a lot.
Mars, Here We Come. In November, NASA is scheduled to launch Curiosity, a science laboratory that will land on the red planet in August 2012. Its mission is to determine the habitability of Mars, in case that climate-change thing turns out not to be a hoax.
The Naturalist's Notebook, Season Three. O.K., so the snow globe didn't exactly predict that the Notebook will be a big story in 2011. However, it's shaky in this area; it also didn't predict that in July 2010, when the Obama family visited Maine, the Notebook would be mentioned in news accounts all around the world (which it was, in a widely reprinted AP story). In any case, we just hope that this year you'll have fun visiting or hearing about the Notebook (where new surprises are in store) and that you'll encourage others to stop in or to follow us through the blog, the website or Facebook. We'll do our best to keep things interesting.