How did humans reach the Americas?

The article below continues a series of findings and speculations that humans arrived in the Americas long before the end of the last ice age. For decades the prevailing view was that humans made it to the Americas by crossing the exposed Bering land bridge and then racing south to the rest of the Americas when the ice began to melt 14,000 years ago. However, recent discoveries have pushed those dates back.

The oldest human remains found to date anywhere in the Americas are perhaps 14,000 years old, in a Mexican cave. The oldest clear evidence of human hunting anywhere in the Americas was discovered in Sequim Washington, at the foothills of the Olympic mountains – a spear point was discovered in a mastodon skeleton shoulder bone. This was dated to 13,800 years ago, and can be seen today in a little museum in the center of Sequim with the mastodon skeleton. However, within the last year fossilized human footprints were found in New Mexico that were 23,000 years old – the height of the great ice time. Additional sites are suggesting humans arrived in the Americas at least 33,000 years ago.

Dogma held that ancient humans could only travel over land. Only relatively recently has the field of human origins accepted that perhaps ancient humans were capable seafarers, able to transit long distances over the ocean, island to island or along the coast. There was evidence found in Timor of deep-sea fishing for tuna 40,000 years ago – a fish found far from land. As long as 80,000 years ago humans crossed to Australia over a strait 60 miles wide, requiring sailors to be able to navigate the open ocean out of sight of land.

For most of human history – nearly 2 million years – sea levels were lower than today, mainly because during those 2 million years we have suffered an ice age every 100,000 years which has lasted 80,000 to 90,000 years, and during which time the weather was colder worldwide and sea levels lower, often much lower. The Bering land bridge has been exposed and then buried many times during this period.

Also, for most of human history, we shared the planet with huge mammals, the so-called megafauna. The wooly mammoth and mastodon may be the most familiar, but it was the predators – dire wolves, saber tooth cats, huge hyenas, and short face bears – that are of concern here. These were meat eaters, huge, and the apex predator – not humans. The short face bear, for example, stood 12 feet high and could reach 15 feet. How high is 15 feet? If you go to a Costco gas area, the roof stretching over the pump stations is 15 feet high. Next time you’re there, take a look and then imagine a bear, weighing up to a ton, standing and reaching that high. Short face bears only ate meat, and could run 40 miles an hour.

The idea that humans wandered across the landscape anywhere on earth, or between melting ice sheets to reach the rest of the Americas, seems totally inconsistent with their ability to survive attacks from these animals during the tens, even hundreds, of thousands of years these predators were ascendant. More likely, it seems, our ancestors back in those times were few, scattered, and always choosing places to live and hunt as secure as possible from attack, suggesting that they lived on islands off the mainland, or in glacial refuges guarded by thick ice. It also seems logical that humans back then would choose to live along the coast, taking seafood for food – fish, shellfish, clams – and able to stay away from the great predators by choosing islands for safety.

We may never know, of course, mainly because all those coastal sites were located on a shore now buried beneath as much as 200 feet of water, and all evidence of their settlement, anywhere on earth, is vanished, gone, buried, forever.

Here is a speculation – humans learned to use canoes and skin covered boats and other craft long, long ago, maybe even before we became “modern” 70,000 to 100,000 years go (whatever that may mean) and we followed every coast, living off the sea and sheltered as best we could from the great predators, from our earliest existence and memory. Humans reached the Americas along the coast, not over land. This could have happened whenever the Bering land bridge was exposed – 14,000 years ago, 30,000 years ago, 80,000 years ago or, even, 130,000 years ago at the end of the ice age before this last one from which we emerged 12,000 years ago. (Interestingly, during the warm interglacial between that ice age – the Eemian – and the latest ice age, for a period of 10,000 years, it was warmer than it is today and sea levels were 20-50 feet higher than today.) We don’t know.

The absence of evidence does not mean there is no evidence, it simply means evidence may not have yet been found. Yes, there are no human remains found in the Americas older than 14,000 years, but does this mean no humans were here before then? Maybe. However, logic suggest that humans first travelled using water and the coasts, relying on seafood, staying as far as they could from the great predators who ruled the upland. Logic suggests early humans lived in small groups and frequently were wiped out by those animals or other great disasters, like glacial floods, earthquakes, volcanoes. All the evidence for the earliest human living spaces lies buried beneath the rising seas. And this is how things were until, this last time the earth warmed, the great predators were finally overcome either by human hunters or climate change or disease.

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Why anchored ships don’t divert elsewhere….

I highly recommend this video discussing why ships are choosing to wait for days and days at anchor rather than divert to another port, perhaps an east coast port closer to the main markets for many containers off-loaded at the LA-Long Beach port complex. The Chief MAKO Seaman Vlog is an excellent source of other information about the container shipping business, from a sailor’s perspective, and in this video here he explains exactly why ships are choosing to sit at anchor.

This morning I read in the New York Times that the supply chain problems are now going to make life harder for farmers exporting food and grain. This of course is true for those foodstuffs sent via container (there are some, for example fruits requiring refrigeration in refrigerated containers), but by and large most agricultural products are sent in bulk cargo ships, not container ships. Here in Tacoma there is a large grain terminal and nearly always I see three to five ships at anchor awaiting their turn, but this sort of back-up is normal and has not changed much in the four years I have lived here. Maybe there are shortages of truckers to carry grain from farms to silos and rail heads, but the congestion and panic expressed about the container business is not, or should not be, placed on farmers as well. Bulk ships are totally different than container ships and the two are never interchanged. Bulk ships have big open holds with huge hatches into which grain or salt or coal or iron ore of a host of other materials are loaded. Container ships, on the other hand, can only carry containers, stacked inside the ship or on deck. Supply chain issues with containers should have no crossover to the bull cargo sector. My suspicion is the Times article is misleading, and will only further inflame the rising panic.

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Reviews for Totem

Author Katherine D. Graham: In a masterful work combining historical fiction with a touch of fantasy/mythology, Sheldon’s newest epic novel Totem beautifully marries the best aspects of time travel and reincarnation tropes with modern-day real-life stakes.
Sarah is a troubled teenager whom grief has plagued, and is set up to continue that unlucky lot into the newest (third) volume of Sheldon’s Strong Heart series. Having not read the prior two volumes, I can happily say that no prior knowledge of the series was needed for me to be drawn into and captivated by this book.
I should also point out, in fairness, that while the 500+ page count is daunting at first glance, Sheldon has written Totem in “books” within the book itself (similarly to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, where multiple “volumes” are housed within one cover). This read is a fast, page-turning read that doesn’t let you go even with the historical and political backstory woven in, so the 500+ pages goes by fairly quickly
Partially due to its length, and partiall due to tragedy, there is a heavy turnover of characters in Totem. As this is a spoiler-free review I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that loved ones are not guaranteed fulfilled lives or happily-ever-afters in all cases in this book (though some are happier than others).
The twists and thrills of surviving in the wild are some of the most exhilarating moments of this read, and the chapters where we experience life in the past are truly magical and captivating in a way usually reserved more for epic fantasy than for historical fiction. It is truly as though we are there with the characters throughout their journeys…
I highly recommend this series to anyone interested in reading a respectful historical fiction that handles First Peoples’ legends and traditions with pride and care, while keeping the stories relevant to the struggles of modern day society (history repeats itself, but can we do better). A superb job to Sheldon!

Kirkus Reviews: In this gripping conclusion to Sheldon’s Strong Heart series, uncanny events occur after a mining operation is planned in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
In Strong Heart (2017), surly teen Sarah Cooley arrived on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with a steadfast loathing of the “boonies” but gained a near-mystical connection with the wilderness. In this final book in the trilogy, Sarah, who’s now 14, is intent on returning to the peninsula at the very moment that Buckhorn Industries are about to begin extracting erbium, a trace mineral which the company claims can detoxify coal emissions. The mining operation will affect the lives of everyone on the peninsula, including William Williams, a Haida merchant sailor, who took center stage in Adrift (2018), the second book of the series, and his daughter Myra, a tribal archaeologist. The narrative also follows Victoria Oldsea, an environmental project manager at Buckhorn, and Carl Larsen, who, accompanied by his niece Laurie, is investigating the appearance of grisly elk kills in the vicinity. Sarah and her friends are intent on boycotting the mining operation, but when Victoria spots what appears to be a black saber-toothed tiger, it becomes clear that other, strange events are afoot. A terrible windstorm brings additional chaos, and as those on the peninsula begin to experience unnerving visions, the veil among reality, history, and the spirit world seems to grow gossamer thin. The series accelerates toward an exhilarating conclusion as Sarah strives to protect the beguiling landscape.
Readers who are familiar with Sheldon’s writing will already know that descriptions of backwoods hiking often form the backbone of his Strong Heart narratives. In this latest offering, he again succeeds in evoking a clear sense of walking in nature: “The trail was easy. We were on an old road, rising steadily, following the river. We crossed a bridge high over a creek, the water boiling from the snowmelt.” The complexity of the novel springs from the author’s deft handling of a broad range of psychologically distinct characters and the skillful synthesis of key thematic elements, such as environmentalism, spirituality, and elements of Indigenous history. The latter’s intersection inspires stirringly poetic passages that add welcome texture to Sheldon’s minimalist prose, which otherwise remains direct and unadorned in style: “The meadows were a rich red from the summer’s dying, flowers burning their spirit. We walked through fields of blood, passing groups of trees, ledges of rock, pockets of snow.” Newcomers to the series may struggle to get a fix on the various characters at first, but this book can still be effectively read as a stand-alone work. Those who have been impatiently awaiting a denouement to the series will enjoy the gratifyingly intricate route that the author follows as he employs new and familiar characters. Overall, Sheldon has written an undeniable page-turner that’s full of intrigue and peril, as well as an emotive love letter to the natural wonder of the Pacific Northwest and its people.
An engaging and thoughtfully conceived finale to an impressive series.

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Water dowsing discussion – the truth!!!

This podcast I did a few weeks ago mainly about water dowsing, telling some true tales of my experience with it. You can decide whether this is true or not.

It is ALL true, I promise.

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I’m still out here on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That container ship that was burning sits about 20 miles from me, north, across the strait, near Victoria, fire now contained, perhaps even out. That monster storm that came through was a big one but no catastrophe, and it seems whatever struck all those waiting ships off California did not blow them all onto shore. There is snow in the higher elevations, creeping lower and lower as the air cools.. There has been a lot of rain. This has been, in fact, a fairly typical last week of October weather pattern for these parts.

We’ve been staying in a cabin not far from the Elwha River, maybe 10 miles west of Port Angeles, way up an old road near the end, among scattered houses, fields, trees, hard next to National Forest land and the national park. The other day the local herd of Roosevelt Elk, over 40 animals, wandered into the field behind this place and visited for an afternoon. They were magnificent.

This area, off Highway 101, just west of the river, was once called Elwha, one of the many forgotten local towns settled by pioneers before 1900. The little schoolhouse, built in 1908, still stands, now a community center. There is a long history of some local families here, written one Alice Alexander, grand daughter of a woman born on the homestead in the early 1890s who lived to 95, about her ancestors who came to this country when it was the remote end of civilization, to build homesteads, then houses, then a community. I am certain many of the homes out here are still owned by descendants of these families, great and great-great grandchildren of those pioneers.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington State was one of the last settled regions in all of the continental United States. While there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the native people here knew every inch of the entire peninsula, tree and trail, including the rugged and difficult to reach interior, the river headwaters and mountains were not properly mapped and surveyed until the late 1890s. This peninsula contains many recognized tribes of First Peoples, all with treaty fishing and hunting rights, and their presence and culture here is clear. On several roads leading to trailheads in the national park you will still pass cabins of huge logs, without roofs, 12 to 16 feet square, original homes of the original homesteaders.

Some of the greatest stands of timber in all the world grow here, and logging was the original and basic industry. My father worked in the logging woods in 1935-36 and he came to love the work and this area, which may be why I moved this way myself in 1990. The land, years ago, was a federal forest, and early on some people argued for its preservation while others argued for its exploitation. The easiest to reach timber stands, the lowlands, were huge, just enormous, but demand for lumber was steady and strong.

There is this story of how Olympic National Park came to be. It might be true. It is said that in 1938 timber barons convinced the President, Franklin Roosevelt, to come visit the peninsula, and they took him on a tour to convince him to open the rest of the federal land to logging. Roosevelt, arriving and seeing the grandeur of the country, instead made it a national park, a park that has grown in the decades since with newer adjacent wilderness areas. But logging continues, some stands of trees now logged and regrown three or four times.

Back in the earliest years of the 20th century, when the first settlers were building that school for their kids, the best way to get from Port Angeles to Seattle was by taking the steam packet, or ferry. That was a lot faster than walking or taking a horse drawn wagon on the terrible roads, over 100 miles, or trying to drive those roads in the newly invented motorcar.

But we humans are industrious, creative, and energetic. Maybe the interior of the peninsula was still uncharted in 1895, but by 1920, a quarter century later, there were roads all around the peninsula, trails all through the soon-to-become park, and lumber mills everywhere.

Now, a century later, nearly every single one of those dozens of lumber mills is no more, closed, removed, taken away. The dozens of salmon plants that once lined Puget Sound’s shores are gone. Almost every single original settler cabin has rotted away, been covered by other homes, or parking lots. Here at the foot of the road this cabin is on, downhill by Indian Creek, there is second growth forest, big tall trees, and no sign whatever of the shingle mills and lumber mills once there. One of the people who lived in this little community in 1905 or thereabouts, according to the family history here, was hunting up the Elwha River and a tributary and came upon some hot springs. (I suspect the truth is the First Peoples knew about these springs and told him.) He cut a trail, got some pack animals, and began ferrying people up to soak in those springs. Then he built, up there – this was at least 12 miles from this community, uphill all the way – a building to take customers, and later more buildings. There was an Olympic Hot Springs Resort and he made a business taking people up there to soak in the pools.

In the 1920s a second dam was built on the Elwha (the first was built downstream in about 1913) to power the local city and mills, and to build that dam a road was built and this road then carried on to those hot springs, a dirt road which still exists. By the late 1930s there were three buildings up there, cookhouses, sleeping rooms, maintenance sheds, the works. But then the business began to fade, and by 1940 the place closed, by then located within the borders of the national park, so some time after 1940 the park people removed all the buildings and everything else. I have been through that area a few times, and while there is still a dirt road leading to the pools, there is no evidence whatever of any resort, none. The pools are still hot, and used, but since the Elwha River washed out the access road only three miles from Route 101 there is no way to drive to the trailhead to the springs any longer, or, for that matter, other trailheads once accessed by roads.

The reason for the road washout? Both those dams, which by the way stopped salmon migration within six miles of the 50-mile river’s mouth, a salmon run that featured 100 pound king salmon, were closed in the 1970s and 1980s and then removed, with the last dam gone in 2014 or so. This was the biggest dam removal project in United States history. The removed dams swept millions of yards of sediment downstream and the river bed shifted and shifted again and cut off the access road, and a repair is barely in sight.

And that pack trail used years ago to get to the hot springs? It is now called the West Elwha Trail and still exists, I and my wife have hiked it many times, but now it only leads to the road that was later built, maybe five miles in.

All of which to say, in just the 130 years since this land was first opened, or settled by non-native people, most of the ancient forest has been cut down but then regrown (except for the heart of the peninsula where the million acre park lies, which is still pristine), two dams have been built and then removed (and the big salmon seem to be coming back), all evidence of dozens of lumber mills and resorts has been removed, there still exists a local economy based on some logging and services and recreation to the national park and surrounding areas, but things are tough, out this way, just as they seem tough in all out of the way places.

But – and this may be important – all those years ago when all that work and building was done, people fed themselves with local crops, used local materials for construction, made do with whatever they had, and, living in country they loved, appreciated what they were given and refused to complain about what they were missing. Maybe they did this because this was all they knew.

I am pretty sure, faced with our modern circumstance of hysteria imagining a delay or, God forbid, no shipment of items for the Christmas season, they would look at each other and smile before heading out back to start making toys….

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Closer to home

Closer to home…
A huge storm is bearing down on the entire U.S and Canadian west coasts, with record low pressure. Not a hurricane, exactly, but a monster. It’s likely California will be drenched, totally. A storm like this carries winds of hurricane force, and these winds kick up an awful sea state and swell. If you go to the Oregon coast right now you might see 30 foot surf.

A relatively small container ship, the Zim Horizon, came through this storm on her way to Vancouver, surely pressing her speed to make her schedule and hold her place for a berth to unload (otherwise she would be anchored and waiting for days) and she lost 40 containers, the seas were so big, swept away. Then, once in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Victoria, Canada, containers in the third stack aft of the bow caught fire, surely cargo contents igniting somehow. The fire grew fast and became bad fast, the captain evacuated some of his crew, some local tugs appeared to fight the fire, there are concerns that water to fight the fires might interact with chemicals in the containers and make the fires worse, the Canadian Coast Guard has strongly suggested the captain abandon shop entirely, which of course the captain doesn’t want to do because then he loses the ship, the engines shut down, pressure for fire pumps is lost, and nobody is left aboard to fight the fire on the ship. A ship fire is a sailor’s worst nightmare, bar none.

So as I write this that ship is still burning north of here about 40 miles (I am in Port Angeles as I write this), with the situation uncertain as to what happens next; there are all these drifting containers about 40 miles west of the coast which represent a danger to other marine traffic;  and this enormous storm is bearing down on California. Just this afternoon the marine authorities near Los Angeles recommended in the strongest possible terms that the over 100 ships anchored or drifting just off the harbor entrance,  waiting for berth space, and positioned to hold their place in the queue to unload, put to sea immediately to gain sea room from each other and have room to battle the high waves and winds approaching them. If a huge storm with 20 to 30 foot swells strikes the land, all those ships anchored in shallow water, probably half a mile apart, but maybe much closer than that, will be at tremendous risk of dragging their anchors and running into each other. If you’re anchored and you wait for the storm to strike, believe me, hauling anchor in a 60 mile gale and 30 foot seas, and somehow getting up enough way to maneuver before you are cast against another ship, or the beach itself, is not a place anyone wants to be. I am guessing, right now, ships are scattering to the west, toward the storm, but toward sea room, too.

We build these complex systems which work wonderfully until they don’t, but when they don’t it is a disaster, and the necessary costs and preparation to respond to such a disaster can be enormous. For marine ships, it used to be, years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard had fire fighting ships, and the U.S.Navy had firefighting ships and tugs, but these days all that work is contracted out to private salvage companies, based a long distance from most events. Eventually they will gather the people and the material and the tugs or ships to respond, but in the long hours or days before then it is up to the ship’s crew and whatever small local city fire vessels there might be nearby. I would bet that the City of Seattle might have even sent one of their fire boats 60 miles north toward Victoria, for example.

We did fire drills all the time aboard commercial ships, and aboard military reserve ships too. Every time we did such a trial it was sobering. Here’s the thing. A ship fire suppression system is itself a complex series of pipes, pumps, valves and hoses, running all through the ship. In the engine room are the big pumps, which use fresh water stored in tanks or maybe salt water through hull sea cocks. These pumps need to be run every now and then, greased, maintained. All the valves to direct the water flow – and believe me there are hundreds on any ship, many in hard places to reach –  need to be “exercised” so they don’t freeze up, get stiff, or break. The hoses, canvas, heavy, up to four inches in diameter and extending hundreds of feet, with brass ends and fittings, lie coiled all over the ship, and they too need to be regularly rolled out, stretched, inspected, and charged with water to find weak spots. If you set up a fire hose system and run it fairly often it is a fantastic fire fighting system, but if you only try it now and then, it can be a disaster, a deluge of broken valves, frayed hoses, broken pumps. These systems run all over the ship, and the duty of the sailors and the engine room staff is to hold drills to get used to responding fast as well as to practice fire fighting, because when and if a real fire strikes you don’t want to be struggling to do your job, clumsy. This of course is not to mention the fire suits we have to don or the masks and tank air systems we use when going into an enclosed space or, worst of all, a fire in the engine room. Those tanks are supposed to hold air for 30 minutes of breathing, but when you’re in a 40 pound fire suit and helmet, crouched, in heat and smoke, heart hammering, the low air beep seems to start within five minutes.

So aboard a ship there is a fire fighting system (I haven’t even started with all the extinguishers) that is critically important but exercised seldom. Furthermore, as in many high-consequence situations (happening very rarely but when they do happen hugely consequential), when the best definition of success is nothing happens, over time all the drills and schedules become routine, often missed for good reasons, and bad reasons, such that what often seems to happen is when such a disaster strikes the system doesn’t work, or works badly, or the fire teams are not practiced.

All sailors need to conduct real fire training, with all the gear, and real fires, in terrifying closed spaces, again and again, to keep their certification. But all we sailors, whether deck workers or officers or engineers or the steward’s department, are not fire fighters by profession. Our task in the event of a big fire is to hold the fort as best we can until the big boys arrive.

We all know, all of us, that if such a fire happens far from any help, or a fire gets out of control, there is nothing we can do. Off course, if such a conflagration occurs well offshore, then one ship and her crew are lost, but if it happens in a harbor someplace, a naval base or a big container complex, then the disaster can be far greater. But it seems, these days, that at U.S. Navy bases there are no fire tugs or ships staffed by the Navy. There used to be, but over the last few decades this work has been outsourced to private contractors.
I worked on military reserve ships. It used to be that such ships were staffed and manned by Navy personnel, enlisted men and women and officers, but somewhere along the way the decision was made to remove these ships and their staffing from the Navy and contract it out. This meant work for U.S. trained commercial and merchant sailors, of which I was one when I did it, but the main lesson I received from the ships I worked on was that they cost an absolute fortune to maintain and keep operational, and now that fortune included a hefty profit for the private contractor, too.

All of which to say, just in the case of ships, they are complex, and expensive to maintain, and budget pressures always reduce those maintenance dollars, and then you have a complex asset that cannot justify the required maintenance and prevention budget, yet if a fire happens, is entirely ill equipped to properly fight that fire. Everyone who goes to sea knows this, of course, it is the secret gnawing anxiety always with you, and you simply hope for the best, pray your officers know what the hell to do if a fire breaks out, pray you know what to do.

So, vagabond drifting containers somewhere out there, right now. A ship burning just to the north, close to a harbor and a city, and questions arising about whether the necessary assets can be found to properly fight the fire. An enormous storm bearing down on southern California forcing over 100 ships to either flee into the teeth of the gale or try to ride it out where they are, all those ships forced to wait outside the harbor because of the myriad supply chain breakdowns throughout the system — lack of berth space, lack of empty containers, lack of chassis for the containers, lack of rail capacity, lack of spaces to store the containers, the entire worldwide flow of scheduled container services interrupted and changed, blockages expanding and then contracting, all resulting in huge uncertainties about deliveries — deliveries of all the goodies we’ve come to think is what Christmas is about and, even more important, deliveries of all the necessary parts and components needed to finish these complicated gadgets we’ve come to demand and depend on from a worldwide sourcing system that, when it falters, is a disaster.

Maybe this is a once in a decade confluence of factors bringing notice to the fragility of these complex sophisticated systems we have constructed and then cannot or choose not to maintain.

We better hope so.

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Passing of an era, whether we like it or not….

This is kind of a sea story, I guess. In 1984 I’d been working out of Fall River, Mass on a red crab vessel, Taurus, ten day trips to the edge of the continental shelf ranging from Virginia to Maine, deep water, catching red crab at 600 fathoms on 100-trap lines, butchering the crab, icing them, for delivery to a processing plant up by Boston. Red crabs are hard to keep alive in tanks of water, unlike, say, lobsters, or, I am guessing, the Alaskan crab species. We’d fill mesh bags with crab parts, bodies or legs, bathe them in a sulfite mixture for disinfectant, then ice them in the hold. The Taurus was a converted small Navy ship, 180 feet long, a sister ship of the infamous Pueblo, but with the topsides ripped off and changed, a good sea boat, comfortable, and safe, or as safe as a 40 year old ship could be.

Then I had a chance to go to work in New York, and I took the job because it was a challenge, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to rebuild an abandoned steamship terminal in Brooklyn into some kind of fishing operation. In 1984 New York was the biggest port in North America, landing millions of containers at newer terminals over on the Jersey side, Newark, as well as a terminal on Staten Island and one in Brooklyn. Containers were king, and New York was the center of the action. Remember the movie, “On the Waterfront?” That was about marine labor in the middle nineteen fifties, when containers first appeared, and by the early sixties the 35,000 longshoremen in the city saw their job security disappearing before their eyes, as ships that previously took weeks to unload with gangs of dozens of people could now be unloaded – or the containers carrying all the freight unloaded – in a day or less using huge cranes and far fewer men. There was a huge labor battle over this, and when the dust cleared an agreement had been reached to allow containers to be unloaded by smaller gangs with the proviso that the rest of the displaced longshoremen were guaranteed an annual wage until they died. When I arrived there in 1984 I first heard about “GAI”, costing New York shippers something like $ 100,000,000 a year, which added to the cost of landed containers there, and which, therefore, encouraged other ports along the east coast to enter the business and offer cheaper rates.

By the 1980s manufacturing was already moving to Asia – Japan, mostly, or Korea – although China was starting to roar. By the time I came to New York some west coast ports, led by Seattle, interestingly enough, had started partnering with railroads to ship containers from Asia to the midwest and east coasts, offering faster shipping times than all-water from Asia to the U.S east coast through the Panama Canal, and this really took off when the railroads started placing the containers two-high on specially built cars, doubling the capacity of the trains. It took a few years to raise all the bridges and tunnels to enable the taller trains, but by 1984 much of that was done, enabling cargo shipped from Asia to reach the eastern US weeks earlier than all-water service. This rail innovation started the explosion of the west coast ports. This rail system grew and grew until, today, over 120 trains a week leave west coast ports to the inland United States.

In fact, just as I reached New York, the Port Authority, trying to compete with this new threat, had started their own double-stack service from New York to the interior, and they had sent their first train just the week I arrived there. I recall the excitement and then the bitter disappointment when that first train, made up of containers lashed two-high onto a flatcar, reached its destination with the container contents shaken and damaged, because the flatcar’s springs or whatever they are on rail cars were too rigid and the shaking transit ruined the cargo.

I was there in New York 1984-1990. During that time New York’s share of traffic dropped and dropped as a dozen other ports expanded and stole business; as the number of trains running cross country doubled and doubled again; as ships grew bigger and bigger. The dogma then was all ships had to be narrow enough to transit the Panama Canal, 105 fleet wide or less. There was even an around-the-world container service in operation. However, in 1988, American President Lines – APL -built some container ships that were too wide for the Panama Canal – post-Panamax ships, so-called – ships built expressly for the Asia-US West Coast or Asia -Europe trade. There was even talk, as by this time China was humming and factories seemed to be moving south toward Hong Kong and Viet Nam, of ships running from Singapore west through the Straits of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic Ocean directly to New York and some other U.S east coast ports, ships big enough to carry 5,000 20 foot or 2500 40 foot containers for the trip to work economically. I even remember a meeting in 1987 on the 64th floor of World Trade Center Tower Number One with the Port marketing guys scoffing that such a cargo string or loop would ever happen; that post-Panamax container ships were absurd. Ridiculous, some said. Impossible. A fantasy.

We’ll return to that scoffing later, and those APL ships, the first container ships too wide for the Panama Canal and in 1988 the biggest in the world, over 900 feet long and 120 feet wide.

The fish project at that abandoned Brooklyn facility, Erie Basin, failed, and I ended up working for the Port Department Planning Group planning container expansion facilities, of which I knew at the time nothing. The race was on, every port chasing every other port, fighting to deepen channels, expand acreage, piers, container cranes, all to entice the ever-bigger ships to land and discharge cargo. The mantra was this global enterprise was becoming increasingly efficient and global, the ships bigger and bigger, containers becoming the preferred manner of all consumer goods cargo world-wide. Nobody, as I recall, spoke about all the American factories and jobs that were disappearing. Nobody. Those APL ships at 5,000 TEU, too big for the Panama Canal, were replaced by ships of 6,000 TEU, then 8,000, then 12,000, then 15,000, even 18,000, ships 140 feet wide and 1300 feet long, enormous. And, to handle these ships, harbors were dredged to 40 feet then 50 then 60 then 70. The yards behind the wharves expanded, became larger, and more and more specialized and automated equipment was designed to stack containers higher and higher. Computer systems were expanded to track each container, to keep track of everything going on.

I moved to Seattle in 1990 and for nearly 20 years continued working mainly in the waterfront cargo shipping sector, designing and building container terminals. All those years, until I left the port business in 2012, the drumbeat was for more, bigger, faster. A huge and enormously complex logistics system arose to handle all this cargo, and as the manufacturing of all these consumer items moved to Asia everything depended more and more on a seamless, nonstop supply chain, a mixture of factories, warehouses, truckers, railroads, ships, more warehouses, and server farms of huge size processing all the data, all in the interest of seamless, fast, delivery of goods and products to the American and European consumer, often with the main goal of making everything as cheap as possible. The worldwide volume of containers and the number of container ships exploded.

After I left the port authority sector in 2012, still needing to work, I dusted off my years of sea time as a commercial fisherman in the 1960s-1980s and joined the Sailors Union of the Pacific and went down to the hall, Ordinary Seaman, hoping my card would come up. It eventually did, and I flew to New York, Newark, eyes wide and terrified, to join my first ship, a ship that had for several years been engaged in just that run so scoffed at when I had worked in New York nearly 30 years before – New York to Charleston to Savannah to Norfolk to Damietta Egypt at the Suez Canal to Jebel Ali on the Persian Gulf to Singapore through the Straits of Malacca and return, a 60-70 day round trip, on the very same ship that had been at one time the first post Panamax container ship and the largest on earth, the flagship of its class, the President Truman, now a measly rusty beaten up 5,000 TEU ship at the end of its useful life, a ship with over 175,000 hours on its main engine.

I made a few trips on the Truman and then APL sold her to Indian breakers for scrap and the last trip was one-way, New York to Singapore, where we handed her over to the new owners and flew home. On the way in to Singapore, the summer of 2013, we passed a new Maersk ship of 15,000 TEU with a Discovery TV crew aboard. We passed close alongside, dwarfed in size, once the king of the hill, now a rusty small ship among dozens of others, hardly noticeable. It was a haunting moment, that moment, watching that huge ship ghost by, enormous, just huge. It felt like the passing of an era, and now I think it was.

So when Covid hit, the virus hit a world trade and manufacturing system entirely built upon the container, promising shipments cheap enough to offset manufacturing distance, and offering as well the chance to use the ship itself as a warehouse while the goods were in transit, helping in the dream we could build a just in time efficient system free of inventory and free of excessive costs for spares and backlog parts; build instead a system where everything moved efficiently and inexpensively. Modern computer systems and worldwide banking systems made the data flows seem easy, almost magical, and, again, the view held we had figured all this out, all was well.

But, and take this from someone who first sat in port authority meetings with shipping CEO executives promising all was possible and who then chose to chip rust on the ships carrying the cargo and saw how fragile and difficult it was to keep the flows going, and how vulnerable everything would be if a great shock halted the flow, the imagined efficiency of modern data systems and logistics equipment to deliver goods is only that – imagined.

That ship that ran into the bank in the Suez a few months ago was a harbinger of what is happening now, a sign, a clear warning. One ship blocks one waterway and the world seems to stop.

But now, months on, after Covid has decimated ship’s crews and truck drivers and essential workers, after this hugely complex system has revealed all its many and critical vulnerabilities, it is sinking in to everyone that we have a problem, a huge problem. The price for great efficiency seems to be enormous complexity. The promise of just in time flows and worldwide manufacturing is being seen as flawed, brittle, because of that complexity, yet it will take both time and strong leadership to move manufacturing back closer to the consumer, and eliminate some of the risky and brittle links now being exposed.

President Biden made an announcement the other day that Long Beach and Los Angeles will operate 24 hours a day to relieve congestion, get the Christmas goods to the consumer in time. Leaving aside the lesson about why a good Christmas consuming season should be a measure of national health, Biden’s call was surely political, an effort so he won’t wear whatever bad might happen this Christmas. That is hard for him to do as the President, but it is also useful to know that what he called for, a 24 hour a day operation, is meaningless.. When a ship is at berth it is unloaded around the clock, already a 24 hour a day operation. There are 73 ships more or less waiting to unload outside southern California. I don’t know how many berths are at Los Angeles and Long Beach but surely there are at least 20. Those 73 ships could be discharged in three or four days if there are longshoremen to do it, but that is not the problem, the problem is where do you put the containers once off the ship? Are there truck drivers to take them somewhere and where do they go? How many are supposed to go on trains and how many trains are there? What about all the downstream and upstream cargo flows that have also been stopped, or paused? All those containers shipped to the west coast need to somehow be sent back for loading again, meaning the ships will be carrying air, the voyage a total sunk cost.

All of which to say, this seems to be a system-wide problem, not a political problem, although the rage held by all those workers who saw their jobs sent overseas is real and arguably the most important political issue facing us today. The entire system of a container ship delivery belt enabling one part of the earth to build things and another part to consume things seems to be breaking down, perhaps entirely flawed, and whatever readjustment that must be made will surely be painful and slow.

That first post-Panamax ship I heard about in 1988 and then sailed on 25 years later, the President Truman? She is surely now broken up, melted into steel, and perhaps contained in a much newer ship, perhaps even within one or several of the ships now stranded outside San Pedro.

What I am wondering about, reading about these supply chain issues, and then reading more about how workers are being burnt out forced to work overtime and how it seems many many systems of delivery and handling are coming apart, is whether we have built something so wonderfully efficient and complex that we failed to see that, once broken, it cannot be put back together.

Most of us have heard about Humpty Dumpty, as kids. It feels today as if the entire global supply chain system – send jobs to where cheapest-minimize inventory-worship efficiency and low cost-thrive on a throw-away culture – is the modern manifestation of a nursery rhyme birthed at the dawn of the industrial age at the end of the eighteenth century:

Humpty Dumpty sat of a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

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Impacts of Gulf Stream Collapse

The long article below discusses in detail the data showing a weakening of the Gulf Stream function over the last century (maybe two centuries). The Gulf Stream moves hot water from the Equator north to northwestern Europe, such that average temperatures there in the winter are as much as 40 degrees warmer than at the same latitude in Canada. The weakening seems to happen when volumes of fresh water, less dense than salt water, fail to sink even after cooling, halting the flow caused when warm Gulf Stream waters cool and sink off Europe and then wander south deep in the ocean. There is a worldwide current flow as well, taking about 1,000 years for a full cycle. A warming Arctic has melted volumes of sea ice and Greenland glacier ice and this less dense fresh water, not sinking as it should, seems to be slowing the Gulf Stream.

What happens if the Gulf Stream collapses, and the transfer of heat slows or stops? Waters get hotter around the Equator, and colder near the North Pole. Europe and North America and Asia will become colder; in the case of Europe, much colder. Entire weather patters will change in ways impossible to predict. The much colder conditions might even start off another ice age, because perhaps winter snows won’t melt year to year and over decades and centuries a huge ice sheet forms.

While it looks like the Gulf Stream may have been slowing even before the last half century of warming, especially near the North Pole, recent warming, allegedly caused by man’s industrial growth and CO2 emissions, may have ironically accelerated the melting of fresh water ice in the north such that the Gulf Stream slowdown, or even collapse, has been hastened, thereby hastening a return to cold conditions and even the next ice age.

If we go back to the last warm time before this one, the Eemian 120,000 years ago, which lasted about 10,000-15,000 years, we learn the earth was one or two degrees Centigrade warmer than today, arctic ice nearly all gone, and sea levels 10-20 feet higher. Maybe, back then, the melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice slowed the current and brought on the cold, and the ice. Maybe, in fact, the entire system of ice ages over the last two million years, at roughly 100,000 year intervals, happened the same way – the marine current systems shift and adjust such that warmer Equatorial waters are sent north to warm the north of Europe and start the melting of the ice, until the great ice sheets are gone, ushering in a relatively warmer and stable time when temperatures are more stable and warmer, until the warmth itself sends enough fresh water into the northern ocean to slow the current and bring back the cold. And then, once the cold is established, again and again during the ice age there are fits and starts to recreate that warmer flow, resulting in the documented frequent warmings and coolings, still all colder than during an interglacial, until, finally, one takes “hold” and a 10-20,000 year interglacial emerges.

The Younger Dryas, a period lasting 1,000 years shortly after the end of the last ice age, might have been caused when a great glacial flood burst into the Atlantic and slowed or stopped the Gulf Stream, bringing back cold conditions for ten centuries. Maybe this flood was the great flood that drained a huge lake south of Hudson’s Bay. That flood hit the sea at around 40 degrees north, well south of the latitiude of the Greenland glaciers. Maybe the cold time was shorter because at that latitude the warmth of the ocean and the Gulf Stream handled the less dense fresh water better than a thousand miles to the north.

It is interesting that while the current alarm about climate change is the cooking of the earth, it may well be that it is precisely this “cooking” that triggers the next cold time, or ice age, by sending all that Greenland fresh water into the fast cooling Gulf Stream south of Iceland.

We, or our grandchildren, or theirs, are going to find out.

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A “braided stream”

The article here documents how thinking is changing, or has changed, regarding the line of human development, suggesting that modern humans arose from a braided and complex series of interactions among earlier human groups. What I find interesting here is how Homo Erectus, the most successful earlier human in terms of longevity (nearly 2 millions years!) overlaps all subsequent forms (Neanderthal, Denisovian, etc) nearly to the present day. My thesis is that “modern” humans arose from earlier or other forms when somehow the intermixing enabled people to tell stories and thus carry culture, and this happened 70,000 to 100,000 years ago.

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More evidence of an earlier arrival…

Ancient Footprints Push Back Date of Human Arrival in the Americas

Human footprints found in New Mexico are about 23,000 years old, a study reported, suggesting that people may have arrived long before the Ice Age’s glaciers melted.

Fossilized human footprints that a White Sands National Park program manager first discovered.
Fossilized human footprints that a White Sands National Park program manager first discovered.Credit…Dan Odess
Carl Zimmer

By Carl ZimmerSept. 23, 2021Updated 2:22 p.m. ETSign up for Science Times  Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. Get it sent to your inbox.

Ancient human footprints preserved in the ground across the White Sands National Park in New Mexico are astonishingly old, scientists reported on Thursday, dating back about 23,000 years to the Ice Age.

The results, if they hold up to scrutiny, would rejuvenate the scientific debate about how humans first spread across the Americas, implying that they did so at a time when massive glaciers covered much of their path.

Researchers who have argued for such an early arrival hailed the new study as firm proof.

“I think this is probably the biggest discovery about the peopling of America in a hundred years,” said Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico who was not involved in the work. “I don’t know what gods they prayed to, but this is a dream find.”

For decades, many archaeologists have maintained that humans spread across North and South America only at the end of the last ice age. They pointed to the oldest known tools, including spear tips, scrapers and needles, dating back about 13,000 years. The technology was known as Clovis, named for the town of Clovis, N.M., where some of these first instruments came to light.

The age of the Clovis tools lined up neatly with the retreat of the glaciers. That alignment bolstered a scenario in which Siberian hunter-gatherers moved into Alaska during the Ice Age, where they lived for generations until ice-free corridors opened and allowed them to expand southward.

But starting in the 1970s, some archaeologists began publishing older evidence of humanity’s presence in North America. Last year, Dr. Ardelean and his colleagues published a report of stone tools in a mountain cave in Mexico dating back 26,000 years.

Other experts have been skeptical of such ancient finds. Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the Arctic Studies Center at Liaocheng University in China, said that some of these supposed tools might actually be oddly shaped rocks. Dr. Potter also questioned some of the dates scientists have assigned to their finds. If a tool sinks into underlying sediment, for example, it may appear to be older than it really is.

“There are unresolved issues with every single one of them,” Dr. Potter said of the older purported sites. “None of them are unequivocal.”

The study at White Sands now adds a new line of evidence for an early arrival: Instead of tools, the researchers have found footprints.

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The footprints were first discovered in 2009 by David Bustos, the park’s resource program manager. Over the years, he has brought in an international team of scientists to help make sense of the finds.

Together, they have found thousands of human footprints across 80,000 acres of the park. One path was made by someone walking in a straight line for a mile and a half. Another shows a mother setting her baby down on the ground. Other tracks were made by children.

Researchers work on excavating a footprint in the bottom of a trench.
Researchers work on excavating a footprint in the bottom of a trench.Credit…Dan Odess

“The children tend to be more energetic,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at Bournemouth University in England and a co-author of the new study. “They’re a lot more playful, jumping up and down.”

Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said that the evidence that humans had left the footprints was “unequivocal.”

The footprints were formed when people strode over damp, sandy ground on the margin of a lake. Later, sediments gently filled in the prints, and the ground hardened. But subsequent erosion resurfaced the prints. In some cases, the impressions are only visible when the ground is unusually wet or dry — otherwise they are invisible to the naked eye. But ground-penetrating radar can reveal their three-dimensional structure, including the heels and toes.

Mammoths, dire wolves, camels and other animals left footprints as well. One set of prints showed a giant sloth avoiding a group of people, demonstrating that they were in close company.

“What is fascinating about the study of footprints is that they present snapshots in time,” Dr. Stewart said.

The work of determining the age of the prints fell to Jeffrey Pigati and Kathleen Springer, two research geologists at the United States Geological Survey.

In 2019, they went to White Sands to get a feel for the site. Walking around some of the footprints, the researchers sometimes came across ancient seeds of ditch grass that had grown by the lake. In some spots, the abundant seeds formed thick blankets.

The researchers brought some of the seeds back to their lab and measured the carbon in them to determine their age. The results came as a shock: The ditch grass had grown thousands of years before the end of the last ice age.

Dr. Pigati and Ms. Springer knew those numbers would be controversial. So they embarked on a far more ambitious study. “The darts are going to start flying, so we better be ready for them,” Dr. Pigati recalled.

The scientists dug a trench near one cluster of human and animal footprints to get a tighter estimate of their age. On the side of the trench, they could see layer after layer of sediment. Carefully mapping the surrounding ground, they were able to trace the footprints of humans and animals to six layers in the trench, interspersed with eleven seed beds.

The researchers collected ditch grass seeds from each bed and measured their carbon. These measurements confirmed the initial results: The oldest footprints at the site — left by an adult human and a mammoth — were located below a seed bed dating back about 22,800 years.

In other words, the people who left the footprints walked around White Sands about 10,000 years before the Clovis people. The youngest footprints, the researchers estimated, dated to about 21,130 years ago. That meant that people lived or regularly visited the lake for about 2,000 years.

Ancient ditch grass seeds were used to date the footprints.
Ancient ditch grass seeds were used to date the footprints.Credit…David Bustos

“This is a bombshell,” said Ruth Gruhn, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta who was not involved in the study. “On the face of it, it’s very hard to disprove.”

Dr. Potter praised the White Sands team for their care in the new study, saying that it is the strongest case yet made for people in the Americas before 16,000 years ago. But he would feel more confident in the extraordinary age of the prints, he said, if there were other lines of evidence beyond the ditch grass seeds. The seeds could have absorbed older carbon from the lake water, making them seem older than they really are.

“I’d like to see stronger data, and I don’t know if it’s possible to get stronger data from this particular site,” he said. “If it’s true, then it really has some profound implications.”

If humans were well established in New Mexico 23,000 years ago, they must have started spreading down from Alaska long before that. “That starts to wind back the clock,” said Dr. Reynolds of Bournemouth University.

Some researchers have argued that people could have spread through the Americas even when the glaciers were at their peak. Instead of traveling down the mainland, they could have moved along the coast. Alternatively, Dr. Ardelean and his colleagues have proposed that people traveled inland more than 32,000 years ago, before Ice Age glaciers reached their maximum extent and blocked off that route.

Dr. Gruhn argued that both scenarios remained possible in light of the new evidence from White Sands. It would take more work to find earlier sites that favored one of them over the other. “We’ve got a lot to do,” she said.

Mr. Bustos and his colleagues have more investigations planned at White Sands. They want to learn about the behavior of the people who left their footprints there. Did they hunt the animals around them? Did they live permanently at the lake or just pay it visits?

They must work quickly. The erosion that has revealed the footprints will erase them from the landscape in a matter of months or years. Countless footprints are disappearing before the scientists even lay eyes on them.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” Mr. Bustos said. “We’re racing to try to document what we can.”

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