Thoughts from doing a computational project…

I’m 50 days away from thesis submission, 182 days in to my master’s project. I’ve mentioned that my project was on deforestation in a few previous posts, but never really wrote about it, and since I’m approaching the time for more writing, I thought I should finally get around to it.

This project isn’t my first computational one, since the two projects I did in my third year  at Cambridge also involved using available data and computational modelling. The huge difference though is that those projects were only about two to three months long each and there honestly isn’t much that one can do in such a short time (we were advised to spend no more than 70 hours on each project, but I reckon I spent at least 120 hours…), while I’ve got 8+ months to deal with this. Those projects also had to be done on top of lectures and essays and supervisions, whereas I could concentrate fully on this project, and really go deeper, but even so, I wish I’ve got more time. My other experiences with longer research projects were from secondary school (15-16 years old) and junior college (17-18 years old) and had involved field work, with minor amounts of data processing and analysis towards the end, and these kinds of ecology projects were what I was more familiar with. So despite having had some (very limited) experience with computational project previously, this project was really an eye-opener for me, and I got a glimpse of what the other end of the spectrum of ecological studies was really like. I’ll also admit that, though I really enjoy field work and have always looked to do field studies, I am hooked by the sheer amount one can do with computational studies.

Over the few years that I’ve been in the UK, I’ve been increasingly drawn into the computational world, finding data analysis and visualisation fascinating, and coding and programming pretty amazing. Perhaps it was the dawning realisation that I’m not particularly good at species identification (compared to peers of my age), and while I’m no where near good at programming (compared to everyone else in the world), I can get good at it still. And it’s broadly applicable to a variety of fields.

My project involves identifying global deforestation hotspots, modelling the drivers and projecting future deforestation hotspots. I used a freely available global dataset of forest cover and forest loss from 2000 to 2014, and processed that to obtain a map of deforestation hotspots. Between downloading the dataset and plotting a map of deforestation hotspots, a lot of my time was spent considering the definition of a forest, figuring how best to calculate deforestation, what a deforestation hotspot meant, and double checking my code/visualising my data to ensure it was giving the right output. I did a literature search to inform my choice of explanatory variables for the modelling, obtained and processed the relevant data to get them in a suitable format for modelling.

There has been a fair amount of wading through lots of statistics and math, trying to understand theories and the logic behind some numbers and values, instead of just running the relevant function and accepting the number that magically appears. I tried not to be daunted by the tonnes of equations (I’m someone whose mind automatically blanks when I see an equation, rather than try and engage with it), and the fact that I didn’t quite understand most of it, and the knowledge that some modelling entails rather high level computational skills. Some things I have accepted that I will probably not be able to fully grasp at this stage, given the lack of time and resources, but which I acceded by telling myself I will look into it later. Most of my time is probably spent Googling and trying to read up, on statistics, R package vignettes, and specific functions in packages.

I have learned how to download files and run Python scripts using bash in terminal on my Mac (though not much else apart from that). I’ve been using R extensively, mainly manipulating raster objects, but also for data frames, plotting, saving output etc. Not great at it still, could definitely improve on making code neater, faster and more legible, but a marked step up from before. Also trying to write in LaTeX and using GitHub to version control, but I’m still a long way from incorporating those into my workflow.

I realised though, that doing a computational project did not mean I only picked up computational skills. The actual running of code and processing of data seldom took much time – as mentioned earlier, time was mostly spent thinking, reading, and trouble shooting (or just managing my data and writing ReadMe files to keep track of what I’ve done). But during the occasional periods when my computer was doing my work for me, I tried to hone my other skills. Articulating a rabbit skeleton I picked up during my Pennine Way hike (still a work in progress), drawing, coming up with graphics using Inkscape, creating a Tumblr for Silwood Park, cooking, and blanching vegetables. Though developing these skills are perhaps more an artefact of being at Silwood Park than doing a computational project…

 

I did this one-year master’s partly because I wasn’t sure if going into a PhD and research was what I really wanted to do. I did get occasions of existential crises and questioned my research skills and interests, but overall, I have quite enjoyed working on my project and do want to get deeper into some of the topics. And so now, alongside finishing up my project and writing my thesis, PhD hunting is underway…

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What is a forest?

It’s such a simple question, everyone knows what a forest is. Or do they? I thought I knew, until I started my masters project. It is on deforestation hotspots, using a global satellite-derived dataset available from Google Earth. Unsurprisingly, I came across the issue of how to decide what would be considered a forest.

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Some trees, but not a forest. Savannah at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Is a forest defined by a clump of trees? Three trees huddled together in a field would not a forest make. How big does the clump have to be then? If the trees are spaced out, with metres in between each one, that would not be considered a forest, more of a savannah-type ecosystem. A community/urban park with some trees interspersed over an area wouldn’t be considered a forest either. Does it matter how tall the trees are? What about how long the trees have been there for? If the ground was recently razed and the seeds of forest plants are sprouting, would that still be a forest? Does it matter if these trees harbour animals which are reliant on the ecosystem, does that make it more of a forest? Yet despite time lags in extinctions, we are increasingly getting the empty forest syndrome.

According to Wikipedia,

“A forest is a large area of land covered with trees or other woody vegetation.”

The second hit that turns up on my Google search ‘what is a forest’ seems to do a pretty thorough explanation of the different definitions (if you’re interested). I’m not trying to be philosophical or pedantic, but trees, which make up forests, occur in so many different ecosystems, at different densities, and in different forms, resulting in varying definitions of what forests are. It is tricky trying to pinpoint an exact definition for a forest, but when you’re doing it traditionally, at the site itself, most people do have some kind of gut notion about what forests should be like and what the vegetation in front of them would be considered. Though perhaps that also depended on cultural contexts (see Box 1).

Box 1. Forests in the UK

I had always thought forests referred exclusively to natural forests, but soon learned otherwise. In the UK, places referred to as ‘Forests’ are often planted or maintained by humans (e.g. New Forest), usually for deer-hunting purposes (for royalty, at least historically). Otherwise, they would be plantation forests (managed by the Forestry Commission) . In contrast, woodlands is the term for natural forests, and ancient (or old-growth) woodland for forests that have been around since the 1600s (but possibly still not primary).

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A forest? Bluebell-covered woodland at Banstead Woods, Surrey.

With advances in satellite technology and other remote-sensing methods though, forests are often reduced to just a bunch of numbers. Most definitions use some percentage of canopy/crown cover (over a given space). The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO (2000) for example, defines a forest as perennial woody plant >5m tall, with a crown cover of >10% and an area >0.5ha. It might not matter to the average individual on the streets perhaps, but the vague definition has repercussions on biodiversity conservation, climate change agreements and ultimately on humanity. Satellite-based estimates for global forest cover range from 32 M km2 to 41 M km2, and the huge discrepancy is mainly due to the ambiguous definition of forest (Sexton et al. 2016). Technical discussions aside, almost everyone would agree that forests provide immense benefits to mankind. Exactly what benefits though, which is what politicians and decision makers want to know, would depend on the definition used. Sexton et al discovered that the difference between using a >10% tree cover and a >30% tree cover definition for forests within the tropics alone would incur a difference of 45.2 Gt C of biomass, which is valued at US$1 trillion.

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Oil palm plantations amidst more natural forest, as seen from space. Google Maps image.

The other issue with using satellite-based products to monitor forests, is that the definition used would often include areas that are not of particular conservation importance (e.g. plantations) but cannot be easily differentiated. Conservationists are also often more concerned with the deforestation of primary forests, and less so with secondary (regrowth) forests (although secondary forests are increasingly perceived to be of conservation importance too), but the distinction cannot be made (easily) from satellite products. If you’re staring at the images, perhaps you would be able to pick out the neat rows, or the distinct crown of oil palms. Often though, especially if one is covering a huge geographic area, you would just be looking at numbers and coding language.

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Plantation forest in Dartmoor National Park, Devon.

Forests are great in themselves, trees are cool, but often the biological value of forests lie not so much in the sole presence of the trees, but the presence of animals too. Remote-sensing technology has not quite levelled up to being able to identify the presence of animals in landscapes (with a few exceptions like ecosystem engineers perhaps), particularly those that like to hide in vegetation.

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Troschel’s tree frog (Hypsiboas calcaratus) at Villa Carmen Biological Station, Peru

Camera traps and drones are great, of course, and many forest species thought to have disappeared have been found to still dwell in that forest with the use of these technology. They don’t make themselves amenable to large-scale processing though, and there are projects that make use of the public to help identify the animals (e.g. Snapshot Serengeti). And still, they require people to be on the ground (to set up the camera traps or fly the drones).

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Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) in Kenyir, peninsula Malaysia. Check this post for more camera trap photos from when I was volunteering with Rimba. Photo courtesy of Reuben Clements (Rimba).

So what is a forest? I nearly went into an existential crisis (a bit of an exaggeration) thinking about this (a few months ago, but it took me this long to formulate a blog post) with regards to my project. Cos how I choose the definition of forest could affect the results I get, which I not only want to be ‘true’, but also want to have some policy-relevance for (looking at how much time I have left though, getting to this stage is looking increasingly unlikely). It is really difficult deciding what to conserve when one cannot define the target well. Perhaps conservation is better left to locals and those who work on the ground, and know the site well, rather than someone like me sitting at my desk far away, typing a bunch of code.

Yet conservation as a field is underfunded (and understaffed), and it’s way cheaper and faster to identify areas computationally than through fieldwork. They work at different scales too, and examining global datasets can throw up areas of rapid change that conservationists were not aware of. Even so, I think ground-truthing needs to be done, and fieldwork is still an integral part of conservation (yeah okay that’s partly because I want to get outside and not just stare at my screen). This post has kind of degenerated into a rant about some of the limitations of a computational project relying on satellite-based data. It’s not all been bad though, and my next post will be about what I’ve learned, broadly, from my project thus far.

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The little patch of forest beside my hall at Silwood Park, where I often go to destress from my project. The slight irony though.

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World Environment Day 2016

I’m almost late for the UK, but not quite for the rest of world westwards. It’s been a fairly hectic weekend for me, being on an outdoors/field work first aid course. Anyway, it’s World Environment Day today, celebrated every year on 5 June, and the theme this year is Go Wild for Life, highlighting the illegal wildlife trade. It seems slightly odd to me that we need a day to remind us about the environment that our lives depend on – I doubt we’ll ever need or have a World Money Day – but that is a major part of the reason why the UNEP marks a special day for it I guess. We take it for granted and don’t usually think about how everything we do or own is linked to the environment.

The focus this year is on wildlife crime – trading wildlife illegally – and rightly so. Wildlife crime has been on the rise, and is estimated to be as high as $258bn, coming in after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Wildlife crime isn’t just about ivory poaching or killing rhinos for their horn, it also includes the wildlife pet trade. Most of us aren’t into traditional medicine (the main reason for the loss of rhinos and pangolins), but many do like animals, especially ‘exotic pets’. I’m always slightly apprehensive when people tell me of their non-dog/cat/goldfish pets, because I always wonder where those come from.

The environment is not just about wildlife though, but everything that supports life on this earth – our life support system. Everyone should be strongly encouraged to live in an environmentally-friendly way, and to be honest, I sometimes think that shouldn’t even be a choice. I do think regulations and monetary policies should be implemented to enforce a less-damaging lifestyle, like taxing 5p for plastic bags, or turning certain areas of cities into car-free zones. Lightening our (first world) footprint on the earth is not just about the amount of carbon we emit, but also about the amount of waste we generate, the amount we consume (water, food, minerals, energy etc.).

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A collection of reusable things you can give your dad, according to this website.

Most coffee places here in the UK/London give disposable cups when you purchase a hot drink, with labels on them saying they’re made from recyclable materials or are recyclable etc. Great, but I do wish we didn’t have to produce/use them in the first place. The cafes in Imperial College London and University College London, to my disappointment, always give disposable cups, unlike in Cambridge where they’d give a mug unless you asked for a takeaway. And if you brought a reusable cup (which I often do), you get a 50p discount. The library cafe in Imperial did sell reusable KeepCups at £7 (I bought my reusable coffee cup from the Grads Cafe in Cambridge for £1, though they’ve stopped selling the ones I have and started selling KeepCups at £5, and the discount is apparently just 20p now…). I seldom buy coffee from the cafes in Imperial/UCL, but I had been buying more often recently, and the amount of waste generated got to me sufficiently that I went online to search for the feedback form, and told the counter staff that perhaps a discount for bringing reusable cups would be a good idea.

Apart from trying to generate less waste (I try not to use single-use disposables, having switched to a Mooncup, and bringing my water bottle/coffee cup around with me, but I’m far from achieving a zero-waste status), I really wish more people in the UK wouldn’t waste water. It’s remarkable how effective the brain-washing teaching in Singapore has been, that even after almost four years here, I still find it very difficult to let a tap run free, even for a short while. Most people here just let the tap gush while they pot around clearing the table or whatever. And let the shower run while they’re lathering. When I’ve asked people why do they not just turn it off and save some water, I usually just get a nonchalant ‘we’ve got lots of it anyway’ answer. Okayy, but I don’t think that’s a good excuse for wasting resources anyway. Especially when it doesn’t belong to you, but to every living thing on this planet.

Perhaps the best way of trying to adopt a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle is by starting with our food choices. Making sustainable food choices isn’t terribly difficult – simply reducing meat consumption, eating food that is in season, and preferably obtained locally can go a pretty long way. The best piece of research I’ve heard so far this year was that just reducing meat consumption to within health guidelines (not even having to go completely vegetarian; I find that incredibly difficult myself) would greatly decrease global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not that difficult to not eat meat at every meal. Plus meat substitutes are getting increasingly better – my friend and I found out recently that Quorn’s chicken style nuggets taste amazingly similar to McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I’d take Quorn over McDonald’s anytime.

We don’t have to live an austere lifestyle to be environmentally-friendly, but I think if we all try hard to incorporate bits of it into our life such that taking the more environmentally-friendly choice comes automatically, we soon wouldn’t need a World Environment Day. I’m not coming at this from a moral high ground either – with my terrible flying and buying (outdoor/climbing gear) habits, I have absolutely no right to. But as this writer claims George Monbiot says, I’d rather be hypocritical than cynical any day.

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The Pennine Way

The oldest and longest National Trail in the UK, the Pennine Way was something I had heard of even in the early days of my coming to the UK. Being 429km long, I never really thought I would do it one day – and of course, I still haven’t completed the Pennine Way, even in parts. Nonetheless, I’m really pleased that, together with a group of friends, I’ve successfully completed part of it. The entire trail takes about 16 days to complete (though the record is 2 days 17 hours 20 minutes and 5 seconds), and can be split into 3 sections: 1) Starting from Edale in the Peak District to Horton-in-Ribblesdale in Yorkshire Dales National Park, 2) Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Dufton in North Pennines AONB, 3) Dufton to finish in Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.

We had previously attempted the first section from 28 Oct to 5 Nov 2014, but we were thwarted by injury on our second/third day (somewhere around Diggle/Delph) and had to take the train to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. We went up Pen-y-Ghent and visited Settle and walked around the area, so it wasn’t all wasted. I had intended to blog about the attempt, but never got around to it, so here’s some paragraphs that I wrote for it:

 

Start of the Pennine Way at Edale.

Start of the Pennine Way at Edale in Oct 2014.

We were camping, as it was cheaper than youth hostels, which can also be more inconvenient to get to at times. Though I had been on several long distance hikes/mountain climbs, I never really had to carry more than a day pack (thanks to the wonderful porters who are simply amazing). So having to carry our own tents, cooking equipment and food reminded me tremendously of my time in RGS OutDoor Activities Club, when we had to do that for our 2/3 day camps. It also meant that I had to carry a rather hefty weight for a long distance.

Campsite at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Woke up one morning to find the ground covered in frost!

Campsite at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Woke up one morning to find the ground covered in frost!

The weather wasn’t too bad for most of it, we had some really nice and sunny days. Most of the time was just plodding along trying to convince myself my bagpack wasn’t heavy/I wasn’t tired/thinking. Lots of thinking (fragments of thoughts: landscape farming grazing nature pruning shifted baselines culture biophilia nature deficit disorder tropics camping comfort level pubs etc no buildings)

 

Easter 2015 we did the West Highland Way in Scotland, but this year we decided to give the Pennine Way another go. First proper long-distance hike carrying tents etc. in which we experienced all the seasons Britain has to offer. We didn’t just camp this trip, we also wild camped some nights (abiding by the Code of Conduct of course) to give us more flexibility.

Day 1 – Horton-in-Ribblesdale to before Hawes

We took a morning train from London Kings Cross to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, arriving about 3+pm. We started off straightaway on the hike, after a quick coffee break at the cafe. The weather seemed decent enough, when all of a sudden, hail! Fairly large hail as well, about the size of raisins. The day’s hike was supposed to end at Hawes, but we would have arrived there too late in the evening, so we decided to wild camp en route. Choosing a wild campsite is harder than it sounds – it was very windy so we had to find a fairly sheltered, dry and flat area, which is fairly difficult on upland moors. We pitched the tents and started cooking dinner, then cleared up to hide in our tents from the wind. And not a moment too soon, for as I was brushing my teeth, it started snowing.

That night was not a restful one for me, though in the other tent, they were already knocked out. Despite my sleeping bag comfort limit being -3˙C, my cold tolerance is still fairly crap especially at night, that I was only warm enough to sleep in my sleeping bag when I have my down jacket on (top of the three layers I wear when hiking and the microfleece). This I learnt subsequently.

Soundtrack of the day: Misty Mountains (LOTR) You know how when you hike, especially on long stretches on your own, there’s always a soundtrack playing in your head? Mine usually loops the same song over. Though of course there was not just one song the entire day – the soundtrack of the day was just the song I felt most represented the day.

Day 2 – before Hawes to Thwaite

Struggled out of my sleeping bag the next day, having finally fallen asleep and being warm(er in the sleeping bag than outside). Instant coffee, depitched tents and off we went. Through Hawes, where we stopped for a nice breakfast and coffee in a cafe, and got more groceries. Then the Great Shunner Fell, the third highest point in Yorkshire Dales apparently, at 716masl. I never do well going up slopes, so I trudged along, trailing behind all the others. There was also a lovely snow blizzard. Yet I distinctly recall telling myself that, while I don’t particularly enjoy going uphills, I’m actually quite happy trudging uphill amidst heavy snow. Why, I have no idea, though I have questioned my love and need for the outdoors many times, especially in rough conditions.

The clouds passed as we were going downhill, and it was 雨过天晴 (clear weather after the rain). Beautiful blue skies and not a hint of snow anywhere, so we stopped for a bit. While on the summit, we met two guides who were in charge of a group of Duke of Edinburgh kids (DoE is an award for outdoor activities). They suggested a really nice campsite in Thwaite, and dinner in a pub nearby, and so we stayed the night at Usha Gap campsite (and had a nice hot shower). I also cheated that night and slept in the common area (there was no one else in the campsite) to avoid the cold, though I barely slept still cos I was too caffeinated probably.

Soundtrack of the day: Seven Years (Lukas Graham). The tempo makes for pretty good walking rhythm. Also lots of thinking about life, which I do a fair amount of time anyway.

Day 3 – Thwaite to Baldersdale

In my opinion, the best bit of the hike. Leaving Thwaite, we had a good amount of uphill to go to reach Tan Hill Inn, the world’s highest pub at 528masl. No where as steep as Great Shunner Fell, and I was really enjoying myself hopping across puddles in cloudy, slightly rainy weather. As we approached Tan Hill Inn at noon, a rainbow appeared. Not wanting to spend too much time or money, we only had a quick hot chocolate/coffee, before we proceeded. Lots of moor after that, with barely visible trails and lots of leaping across streams (or just getting feet wet). We crossed the A66 and entered the County Durham, and spent the rest of the afternoon crossing a vast moor to get to Baldersdale. Of which only Clove Lodge was left (is it still considered a village if it has only one property?), and looked to be going soon (sale signs were at the gate). We had not booked ahead, and it was fortuitous that the owner happened to come back that evening (so we managed to get some bread and eggs from him for breakfast the next day).

Another hot shower that night, though the night was frigid cold – there was frost the next day. With all my layers apart from the waterproofs though, I was warm (and sleep-deprived enough) and managed to sleep. Pitched on a bit of a slope though, and kept sliding down.

Soundtrack of the day: Test Drive (HTTYD). How To Train Your Dragon OST is my favourite upbeat epic soundtrack, especially Test Drive.

Day 4 – Baldersdale to past High Force waterfall

This day was also extremely pleasant, and might have been my favourite day if not for carelessness on my part in the later afternoon. We left Baldersdale for Middleton-in-Teesdale, and it was pleasant, sunny weather. Got there in time for lunch (chicken burger for me, fish and chips for the rest), more groceries, then onwards for a gentle ramble along the river Tees. The Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton section is usually done in a day, but as we were doing it in a day and a half, we took our time to dawdle and enjoy the wonderful weather. The river Tees reminded me tremendously of Scottish rivers, which are wilder and less tame (canalised) than most English rivers. We stopped atop a stack to admire the river, then again at a surprisingly impressive waterfall called High Force. England’s highest drop apparently, at 21 m.  At which point, I realised I had left my watch on the stack.

We pressed on past High Force to a place we thought we could camp at, which I have named the Garden of Junipers. I dropped my bagpack, leaving the rest to pitch the tents and cook dinner, and ran/jogged/walked back to find the watch. Managed to get somewhat lost, wandering amidst some sheep at pasture, and failed to locate the stack, despite it being just along the river. So I expended an extra 2 hours or so, covering an extra 8km to no avail. It was another very cold night, with clear skies (could have star-gazed if I could stand the cold), though it got warmer through the night.

Soundtrack of the day: Touch the Sky (Brave). Another one of my favourite happy outdoors songs, especially in Scottish scenery.

Day 5 – Garden of Junipers to Dufton

The last day of hiking, which I was somewhat thankful for as my feet were starting to hurt. The morning was definitely not one of my finest moments hiking, and I was getting fairly dragged down by the weight of my backpack. We stopped by a farm for some water, and filled our bottles with spring water (a rather interesting taste). Most of the hike after was right alongside the river Tees, and involved a fair bit of scrambling over rocks, and up a waterfall. We stopped for lunch break, but it was getting incredibly windy and rainy (which did not help my mood). We struggled against the gale force winds and prickling rain, got to an amazing U-shaped valley called High Cup Nick. We paused to admire for a bit, before the cold forced us on. Eventually got to Dufton, a tiny village with barely any shops. We were all wet and thought we might treat ourselves to a night in the youth hostel, but to our disappointment it was fully booked for the night. So another night in the tent it was, though we did get a hot shower, as well as an amazing dinner at The Stag Inn, the village pub.

The next day, we got a ride from the kind campsite owner to Appleby-in-Westmorland where our train departs, and spent a pleasant if rainy day in the village. Mostly in the secondhand bookstore/antique/collectables shop. English villages always have gems like these, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to visit a good number in my time here in the UK.

Soundtrack of the day: 遇见 (孙燕姿). A Chinese song for once, and a suitably emo one for the miserable day. Ended well though!

The End

It was a much needed respite from work and city, and I really enjoyed being in the English countryside. Was a bit of a shock going into Leeds (while waiting for the train transfer) and  London. The Pennine Way seems to epitomise the quintessential English countryside, with rolling hills, boggy moors, meandering paths, quaint villages and everything I read about in books by Enid Blyton/Roald Dahl/other English authors.

As much as I enjoyed it though, I think perhaps I’ve exhausted my British long-distance hikes limit (unless time and opportunity present themselves). Perhaps I’ll be able to do all of the Pennine way in one go at some point in the future. I’m really looking forward to doing more long-distance hikes though! And this trip has shown me that I can be fairly self-sufficient for hikes, in terms of carrying my weight.

What I was carrying

 

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Celebrating forests

It’s the #InternationalDayofForests today, 21 March! Given that my research project is on deforestation, I thought I should perhaps commemorate this day with a quick and somewhat random post.

The word forest holds different meanings, brings to mind different things. To some, it’s a plantation for timber; others a dark wilderness filled with dangerous creatures; or just a good break away from urbanisation. To me, it used to bring to mind old primary growth trees of Shorea and Dipterocarpus, or secondary forests interspersed with rubber trees, with a troop of long-tailed macaques, accompanied by a greater racket-tailed drongo and a veritable trove of arthropods – essentially the Central Catchment Nature Reserve in Singapore. It was only after coming to the UK, that I realised forests could also refer to timber plantations. Though I do find timber plantations and temperate forests less interesting biologically speaking (having considerably less biodiversity than the tropics),  they are rather therapeutic and comforting to walk through still.

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Trail through a Scottish pine forest during the West Highland Way

When non-Chinese speakers ask me about Chinese, I sometimes like to bring up the word for forest – 森林 (sēn lín) – which is made of repeats of the same character for wood – 木 (mù). It nicely captures the pictographic nature of the Chinese written language, but now that I think of it, also illustrates the use value of forests (as a source of wood).

 

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Infographic taken from wbcsd

The theme for this year’s Forest Day is Forest and Water, highlighting the value of forests in providing us with clean drinking water. As the above infographic shows, they also do much more than that. While I am all for the provisioning and regulating uses of forests, I do still think their purpose for being here is just cos they are here, and for being home to a tremendous variety of life. And for those two reasons alone, we should leave them be. (Though of course in reality those reasons have not been sufficient).

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Stream through a tropical rainforest in Ecuador

Doing a project on deforestation is awfully depressing (I realise I’ve gone from Seagrass Watch to Global Forest Watch), and I sometimes wonder what the point is when, no matter what you do, forests are still going up in flames, or being destroyed in search of oil (or other ‘useful’ materials). Still, one has to keep spirits and hopes up, that perhaps we will all be able to appreciate the full value of forests. And keep them intact.

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Happy international forests day! With love, from mangroves in Singapore (argh I miss the tropics)

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Keeping hopes high -valuing Singapore’s nature reserves over more infrastructure

It’s been 4 years since I left home to further my studies in the UK, and if I’m honest, I can feel the emotional connection to the place I call home getting weaker every year. In spite of advances in technology, emotional connections are still best forged physically, in person, in situ. (The photos, videos and blogposts that appear on my radar do help maintain some connection, but they’re dredging up memories rather than firing up my passion). The value of places for forging a sense of belonging and building relationships was something I realized years ago, back when I was in RI/RJC during EcoLit sessions when we talked about Place-Based Learning. Yet every year, I hear of places back home disappearing in the name of development, a further weakening of the things that tie me home.

Macritchie reservoir 2011

Macritchie reservoir (Central Catchment Nature Reserve) at dusk

The latest issue to stir the nature community back home into a storm is the proposed alignment of the new Cross Island Line (CRL) under our Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). It has been continually appearing on my social media and chat lines since the announcement of the publication of the Environmental Impact Assessment, suffused with articles from people inside and outside the nature community about why the alternative alignment skirting around the reserve would be better (or not).

Cross Island Line

The proposed Cross Island Line

Speaking up for our nature reserves is not just for ‘green group minorities’, cos the benefits of keeping our forest undisturbed (or at least, not more disturbed than it already is) extend far beyond. Perhaps this highlights how much more work we have to do in terms of public environmental education. Our forest reserves are not just home to various plants and animals, they also provide us with an easy avenue for environmental education, for people to unwind after a hectic day.

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Image taken off IUCN.

To those who say that it’s underground and won’t affect the trees, I don’t think anyone knows that for sure. Underground structures do and have caused problems on the surface before (think the Nicoll Highway collapse in 2004; though of course we don’t want the same to happen anywhere else either). I won’t go into the effects of building an MRT line underground on the forest aboveground here, cos all that is pretty well documented here and here. There will definitely be some impact, and there is no reason why we should be going for minimal impact instead of zero impact. We have so precious little left, why are we even considering risking it?

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Malayan colugo (Galeopterus variegatus), one of the residents of our forests.

We’re all about urban biodiversity and urban greening and sustainable cities. In public, on the international stage at least. But if we want to be a truly sustainable, green city, then surely respecting our own laws for nature reserves would be a start. What we have is truly uniquely Singapore, a bustling metropolis with a natural primary forest at the heart of the island, without having to build artificial gardens.

 

You would never hear of the UK or Germany or the Netherlands, for example, proposing to build any infrastructure through a legally protected reserve – public outcry aside, it is simply unthinkable. As my friend said, it would never get past planning stage.

Singapore rainforest biodiversity-Loy Xing Wen

Image produced by Loy Xing Wen.

To those who are resigned to the proposed alignment under the reserve going ahead because ‘gahmen say do then like that lor, bo pian. Nothing we say will change their mind.’, that will be precisely why it happens. But as Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The success of Chek Jawa in 2003 has showed us that our government will listen to us if we speak up. If we don’t, we might have started ourselves on a path of slippery slope, and we’ll not hear the end of various development projects encroaching on our legally protected areas – something that happens usually in developing countries with weak institutions. Which Singapore prides itself on NOT being.

The Lorax quote

Image grabbed off Google search.

If the only reason we’re even discussing this is because it was a path of least resistance, then for our principles, posterity, and progress, can we show that it is not so?

You can sign the petition for re-routing the CRL around CCNR here. You can also write to LTA, or to your MP, or to any news agency to speak up.

 

Thanks to fellow Singaporean nature lovers in the UK for the motivation to write this post and for putting thoughts into words. Some stuff written here was poached directly off them.

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Climbing in San Vito, Sicily

I’ve had a wonderful start to the new year in Sicily, hiking up Mount Etna in Catania and then a week of sport-climbing in San Vito lo Capo. San Vito was easily my favourite part of my trip to Italy, and definitely a place I want to come back to in the future.

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View from the top of a climb at Scomparto Rifiuti, with Mount Cofano in the background

Accommodation

We stayed at El Bahira campsite in a mobile home, though camping in tents is also a possibility. It was a really nice mobile home, with a kitchenette, shower and toilet. We could order (really fresh and awesome) bread at reception for the next morning (a 0.5kg loaf cost €1.20; a panini cost €0.50) and a guy came knocking on our door once in a while asking if we would like some fish (fresh off the boat).

It’s quite a climber’s accommodation, with a communal cooking/dining climbers corner equipped with stoves, fridges and lots of left-behind food (we saw at least 3kg of salt). A section of the wall (Campeggio) was also within the compound itself, and was lit up at night with powerful floodlights (though not as many when we were there, as I guess there wasn’t that much demand). It was a really nice location to be based at for climbing in the vicinity (right in the middle of a long limestone cliff), my only complain is probably the terrible wifi connection that was only available at the reception. Took ages to connect (if it did). As I always say, I’d rather have no wifi at all than be provided with bad wifi😛

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The Climbers Corner

There is also plenty of accommodation (B&Bs, and hotels) within the village of San Vito itself (about 2km away from El Bahira), including another camping ground La Pineta. There is a little supermarket within El Bahira but was only operational in the summer months, so we walked to San Vito for our groceries. Unfortunately, we went at lunch time which is a bad idea as everything closes for three-hour lunch breaks, except for a minimart located on the main street (Via Savoia). Apparently though, the minimart (run by a really nice Italian couple who unfortunately for us don’t speak English) is cheaper (and unsurprisingly fresher) than the supermarkets.

Weather

It was wonderful. Nice, warm (~16˚C in the day) weather for the winter, though the weather forecast was completely off (it was supposed to storm but thankfully never really did, though there were strong winds especially at night). It was typically sunny in the mornings, and cloudy in the afternoons, though it did occasionally drizzle. It was almost like British summers, only the locals went around in down jackets. It can get quite windy, especially along the coast, but it’s not impossible to climb in a t-shirt.

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View from the top at Pineta

 

Climbing

Beautiful limestone cliffs. They were apparently Cretaceous seabed that got shoved up over the past 50 million years as Africa crashed into Europe (crudely put. Can’t find the original website where I looked up that really simple picture, but here’s a paper if you’re really interested). Limestone = really sharp rocks (on slabs and verticals) but also very nice jugs (climbing jargon), though some crags were quite nice on the hands.

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Vai a Sinistra (5a) at Bunker Central section

I started out with a bunch of easy easy climbs, especially since I was climbing with friends who’ve only been climbing about a year or so. A bunch of 4s and 5s, but it’s only with the 20-30m long 6a/+ that the climbing got fun and enjoyable. I tried to recall my very first outdoor climbing trip to Krabi back in 2010, which was also on limestone, but unfortunately could not remember even how much I enjoyed the climbs then, to contrast with San Vito. I definitely led a lot more climbs this time though (didn’t have much choice), and am definitely more experienced with climbing outdoors now as compared to then.

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Pineta basking in the glow of sunset

I used the 4th edition of Di Roccia di Sole – Climbing in Sicily guidebook, but there is a Sicily Rock guidebook specific to San Vito that has slightly more informative comments. The guidebooks are all available to buy from the reception at El Bahira.

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Sunset after a climb at Campeggio. Photo credit: Chris Ho

Climbing outdoors is so different from indoor gym climbing. I feel like sometimes people who hopped onto the climbing bandwagon more recently and only climb indoors (with no intention of going outdoors) are more complacent, and have little idea of safety (see 50 ways to flail). I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to climb outdoors with friends who are qualified climbing instructors, so I could pick up the necessary skills. I did my first traditional lead climb last Summer in Australia, learning technical skills that would be useful when outdoors. Trad climbing wasn’t just about pushing oneself physically and mentally to the limits to make the moves, but also about understanding the physics of climbing and falling and how to place protective gear etc. There are some trad climbs in San Vito, but I was sport climbing when I was there.

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Calamancina on my last day, overcast and windy

I followed the advice of several websites and brought a 70m rope and at least 18 quickdraws, though I didn’t do any climbs longer than 30m and didn’t really need that many.

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Mount Monaco – where I did my first multi-pitch 

San Vito in general

San Vito isn’t just great for climbing (both sport and trad), but also for hikes, dives, mountain biking etc. There’s a wonderful climbing community with great vibes, based physically at the YMCA Climbing House, along the main street. Cool place to hang out, have a coffee or a beer, make friends with other climbers etc. I was climbing with my friends, and also made friends with several new climbing buddies, Mani, Peter (who owns a climbing school in Germany) and Marco (who’s also an outdoor film maker).

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San Vito’s beach. In the summer it would be crawling with tourists.

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Sun rays streaming down.

Resources (and where I first realised San Vito was awesome for winter climbing)

UK Climbing
Climb Europe
Dolomite sport
Winter Climb

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Sunset. View from a climb at Campeggio (within El Bahira). Photo credit: Chris Ho

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