Southern California is basically Mordor: Climate forcing effects in Middle Earth

“It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust, the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume.”

Boromir, The Lord of the Rings

Mordor, images from Lord of the Ring Wiki

Mordor, images from Lord of the Ring Wiki

Mordor, the seat of the Dark Lord’s power, a barren wasteland crawling with orcs, dry and desolate. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe thanks to documentaries about the Ring War and other literature related to the great, but fallen kingdom. As one astute reader of the ancient texts point out “Orcs still have to eat, right?” (Shiffman, 2014).

So what is Mordor really like, when the cameras stop rolling?

Mordor is a combination of massive industrial powerhouse and agricultural heavy-weight. Mordor is among the most volcanically active regions in Middle Earth. While areas in the immediate vicinity of volcanoes like Amon Amarth are better suited for forging and other activities that take advantage of the incredible (and environmentally-friendly!) geothermal power, the constant rain of ash makes the land untenable, however volcanic soil is incredibly rich and makes for some of the best farming in the worlds. So we see, in Mordor, great garrisons and forges to the north, where the fires burn. However, in the south, Mordor is home to a vast inland sea, Núrnen, where the fields and farms that feed the amassed armies of men and orcs bear fruit. Mordor has agriculture, and, despite the incredibly dry climate, quite a lot of it.

Oh yes, Mordor is dry. Thanks to a thorough analysis of the climate of Middle Earth (also available in Elvish and Dwarvish) we know that Mordor receives at most 0.5 mm of rainfall per day. This is thanks to the rain-shadow effect of the Misty Mountains and the sub-tropical positioning of the kingdom–Mordor is affected by a Hadley cell. So even though climate would indicate that Mordor be more barren desert and less most-significant-kingdom-of-the-age, the combination of freshwater access and geology has led to some of the largest agricultural operations in all of Middle Earth. In fact, Mordor is rather similar to another geopolitical powerhouse–Southern California.

Or, at least, it was.

California is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. With water tables dropping, wildfires raging, and the sea encroaching, it’s a wonder than humans continue to carve out settlements along this tortured coast. But, like the massive armies of Mordor, the population of Southern California continues to grow, and great fortress like that of Barad-Angeles fortify their walls against the onslaught. While Mordor enjoys up to 0.5 mm of rainfall a day, Southern California has suffered even greater drought, logging barely 0.14 millimeters per day since June 1.

Which means that, as the California drought continues, Southern California may actual be dryer, hotter, and less habitable than Mordor.

Warg extirpation and the destabilization of eagle colonies in Middle Earth

“Eagles! The eagles are coming!”

Pippin, Return of the King

“I came from the end of bag, but no bag went over me. I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ring-winner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”

Bilbo Bagins, The Hobbit

Truly, in this late age, is there anything left to be said of the Great Eagles of Middle Earth; the Eagles that soar in to lift hapless hobbits to safety or hurl rocks down upon their foe? They seem imbued with nearly limitless capacity to raise heroes from the grasp of certain doom, yet so inconsequential that they are called upon only in moments of least need, like a Mûmakil summoned only to pull an onion cart.

A wild warg makes critical carrion for eager eagles. Screen capture from The Hobbit.

A wild warg makes critical carrion for eager eagles. Screen capture from The Hobbit.

But why should beasts so powerful be used so infrequently, and only at the end of all things? Perhaps we must lift the veil and peer beyond the trope to a phenomena that moves the world in subtle and profound ways. Middle Earth is a changing world, reshaped by the actions of warring armies and rising kingdoms. And one kingdom, above all others, rose to prominence and fell, leaving deep scars in the resilience of Middle Earth ecosystems. The destabilization of Great Eagle colonies is only one of many orcthropogenic impacts to the ecology of realm, and it begins with the extirpation of the wargs.

Ages away, in a less magical time, we can look at the effects of species much like the warg, and how they shape their ecosystems. Across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, there lies the Fiefdom of the Yellow Stone. And in this place, this Yellowstone, the king of all creatures is the Grey Wolf. The Grey Wolves ruled for many years, until men, jealous of their land and fearful for their flocks sought to drive wolf from Yellowstone. Thus these fearsome keystone predators were extirpated from their home. Yellowstone lay barren of Grey Wolves for many years, until at last, through great effort, they were returned. 

Because grey wolves were both extirpated from and reintroduced to Yellowstone, we can examine their effects on the ecosystem in exquisite detail. One of the more surprising discoveries was just how big a role grey wolves play in provisioning scavengers. Grey wolves often leave large carcasses, and these carcasses make biomass available to other species the thrive in Yellowstone. When grey wolves were extirpated, carrion biomass went down, and carrion species declined. They also acted as a “temporal transport” for biomass–wolves ate less of their kills during the winter, leaving more available to scavengers during lean times. Among these scavengers are the Bald Eagle, whose reproduction is closely tied to available food sources. The fewer carcasses, the fewer eagles.

Return now to Middle Earth, and the great wargs of the Misty Mountains, wolf-like creatures large enough for an orc to ride. Wargs fulfill many of the same roles as wolves in the Middle Earth ecosystem, bringing down large prey and leaving carcasses for others to feed upon. Like the grey wolf, wargs were extirpated during the Third Age–they were captured and domesticated to serve the Mordor war machine. When Thoren Oakenshield and his band fled the Goblin tunnels, they were set upon by goblins and barely-domesticated wargs. When the Fellowship marched, decades later, they saw no wild wargs.

Thus, the domestication of the warg is so complete that they are are no more wild wargs in Middle Earth. At the Battle of Five Armies, there was still enough ecosystem resilience to withstand the gradual removal of wargs, but by the battle of Helms Deep, these magnificent creatures had been fully extirpated for six decades and the environment had fallen apart around them.

Without the massive carrion the wild wargs leave behind, the Great Eagle populations declined. As their numbers dwindle and resources become scarce, eagle colonies destabilize and social hierarchies fall apart.  Without a stable flock, it becomes impossible to orchestrate a mass migration towards the Gate of Mordor to confront their foe. Only a monumental effort by Gandalf the White could convince one small colony to come to his aid, at the last possible moment.

Again, we see how ecosystem changes, in both Middle Earth and our own world, can have significant, unforeseen consequences. Perhaps, with the fall of the Dark Lord, we will see wargs return to their native land and bring balance back to Middle Earth. Then we can count, once again, on the spontaneous magnanimity of wandering eagles to save up from our troubles.

Middle Earth could have been saved by the Endangered Species Act

Smaug gigan

Smaug gigananteus syn. Cordylus giganteus, the Giant Girdled Lizard, because of course there’s an actual species named Smaug. Photo by Wilfried Berns.

In a cave in the Lonely Mountain there lived a dragon. Not a gnarly, goblin-stuffed, slimy cave, filled with the bowels of orcs and fishy creepers, nor yet an empty, granite, echo-less cave with nothing in it to lie down on or horde: it was a dragon-cave, and that meant gold. At least it did, until a nasty band of poachers found Lonesome Smaug, the last of his species, alone, asleep, threatening none, and smote his genus from the red ledger, stripping Middle Earth of critical biodiversity.

The ecologists of Carsondell would say, of the age of war that followed, that the men and dwarves and elves and hobbits brought the darkness upon themselves. Indeed, as the Dark Lord raised his army, denuded the forests, and belched carbon from the factories of Mordor, Gandalf the Grey, one of the more powerful, though among the least conservation-minded, of the wizards would remark: “It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough.”

The Grey Wizard failed to mention that, were it not for his callousness, there would be*.

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What can Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs teach us about ecology, sustainability and conservation?

Cloudy_with_a_chance_of_meatballs_theataposterMy family loves to watch movies, which presents a problem during the few times we’re all together: there are very few good movies that none of us have already seen. This past Thanksgiving, we resolved that dilemma by watching some “based on a true story” garbage starring Nicholas Cage and the star of High School Musical, a plot-less but action packed shoot ’em up starring the governator and Sawyer from Lost, and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

Based on a popular children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs tells the story of Flint Lockwood, a young inventor who keeps trying to make life better for people in his small island town of Swallow Falls. His inventions always backfire, including the titular invention that makes the sky rain food. In the sequel, which I watched this past weekend because shut up I enjoyed the first one leave me alone, we learn that some of the food has become sentient.  Swallow Falls is now home to a unique ecosystem that includes watermel-ephants, taco-diles, fla-mangos, and many other hybrids called foodimals. In addition to featuring some of the best puns I’ve ever seen, these movies also raise some interesting questions about ecology, sustainability and conservation.

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Watch Outbreak Wednesday at 8 and tweet along with public health experts!

outbreakMuch of the public panic about the current ebola situation can be contact traced to the 1995 movie “Outbreak.” This fictional movie is based on the supposedly true story “the Hot Zone” by Richard Preston , though an important new analysis by infectious disease researcher Dr. Tara Smith shows that the Hot Zone has some major factual errors.

Wednesday evening at exactly 8 p.m. eastern time, a group of public health experts are going to press “play,” begin watching Outbreak, and tweet along. You can follow and join the twitter conversation at #OutbreakChat

Outbreak can be viewed on Amazon instant video (it costs $2.99 to rent it). To ensure that your viewing is synchronized to the chat, purchase the movie in advance so you can press play at exactly 8 p.m.

In addition to fact-checking from public health experts, we’ll also be making our customary snarky commentary, including a drinking game for those who wish to participate.

Breaching Blue Chapter 5: The Hunters

breakingblueAll week I’m posting the first five chapters from my absurd work-in-progress, Breaching Blue. Check out Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4. This concludes our week long mermaid adventure. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

The reef made them strong. Janthina no longer hesitated to swim above the sunbreak, to explore the illuminated waters above. Each morning, as the sunlight penetrated the twilight waters of the reef, Janthina would rise into the realm of light. The animals that lived in the sun were new. They were active, vibrant, powerful. They moved as if the whole ocean was theirs to command.

Janthina spied Tornus below. The arch of her back was unmistakable. She had grown into a powerful, confident mermaid, broad across the shoulders and strong. Resting on the seafloor, she look like nothing so much as a massive boulder. Tornus sat in a circle with Simnia, Luidia, and several others, fashioning spearheads from a pile of discarded stingray carcasses, their meal from the previous day. The long, jagged barbs were perfect for hunting. They could puncture the toughest scales and would remain lodged until their prey went limp.

The barbs were cheap. The spears, though, required great effort to prepare. The instructions for their manufacture were scattered across the reef. It took nearly a full lunar cycle for Tornus and her compatriots to find enough driftwood, another cycle to grind them down into long, sturdy shafts.  They were solid and  stout. There were none to spare.

Janthina swam down to greet her sisters.

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Breaching Blue Chapter 4: Over the Edge

breakingblueAll week I’m posting the first five chapters from my absurd work-in-progress, Breaching Blue. Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

Clymene swam just below the sunbreak, testing the limits of her own courage. The reef was behind her, its unexplored pinnacles rising into sunlit waters. She cut a lazy circle around the coralline towers as she drifted upwards with each circuit. Luidia watched from a distance.

Clymene cast an elegant profile as Luidia looked up from her sentry. Her tail was long and graceful, slimmer than Janthina’s, with a broader fluke. Her arms were long and limber; her fingers reached nearly to her peduncle, where there powerful muscles of her tail met the wide blades of her fluke. Luidia admired her sister. Her own stumpy hands barely reached past her waist, and hers was a bulkier build. Luidia had one advantage over her more streamlined sister. The massive pelvic fins that sprung from the base of her tail were fantastically versatile, she could to pivot and turn with exceptional precision. Where Clymene was constantly frustrated by the tight narrow corridors they continued to discover within the reef, Luidia could traverse them with ease.

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Breaching Blue Chapter 2: Sisters of the Reef

breakingblueSo, after thinking about it for the last 24 hours, I’ve decided to release the a chapter of Breaching Blue every day this week. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

Tornus examined her new home. She had claimed the highest vantage, the last cavern below the sunbreak, so she could watch her sisters moving across the reef. The mountainous coral atoll continued, transecting the sunbreak and climbing into the illuminated ocean. She could see traces of even more caverns extending towards the surface, caverns that opened into the sunlit waters. She felt dizzy, staring up at the radiant corals above. Her eyes prefered the darkness. The reef offered protection, but only so much. The darkness, where she could sense danger as a wave through her body, where her massive eyes could see what others could not,  where she could darken the pigments of her skin until she vanished into the abyssal backdrop, those offered her the greater protection. The fiercest hunters–blackfish, pilot whales, and beast much larger–waited beyond the sunbreak.

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Breaching Blue: Because Mermaids are the new Vampires.

breakingblueOriginally posted here: Attack of the paranormal mermaid romance novel: Why you should never, ever lose a bet to David Shiffman, the mermaid novel has taken some surprising turns in the last few months. I recognition, I’ve decided to repost the significantly revised first chapter to entertain. Happy Labor Day, US readers!

They drifted, mindlessly, in an eternal, ocean-spanning arc, bare particles of life, unassuming among the myriad. They drifted, wordlessly, no mouths to speak nor eyes to see. No hands to grasp, not that there was anything to grasp in the great circling gyre. They drifted, aimlessly, their purpose obscured by the haze of their own perception, brains unformed, uninformed ganglia pressing against a translucent carapace. They drifted, ruthlessly, the indomitable walls of baleen sheets, the brutal rasp of gill rakers, the insatiable grasp of dangling tentacles, winnowing their numbers. They drifted, together, a cohort growing stronger even as their siblings fell to the inevitable fate of prey among the flotsam. They drifted until they could drift no more, until their bodies, no longer mindless particles, but tiny facsimiles of their future selves, could challenge the current, assert their dominance over the drift.

No longer drifting, they sought refuge.


The reef was old. It rose from the seamount, a honeycomb of chambers stacked one on top of the other. They swam around the perimeter, cautiously. The Ocean was a dangerous place. Who knew what strange predators lurked inside the labyrinthine palace? Janthina went first. She squeezed through a small opening, close to the sea floor. The once generous entrance was overgrown with corals, generation stacked upon generation, each polyp building upon the skeletal remains of its ancestors. Whatever creatures carved this chamber, they abandoned it long ago.

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