Global Research: Whistling as a Language, Earth’s MegaCities and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

Posted on August 14, 2017


Human advancements have been catalogued at an increasingly accelerated rate since the advent of the net and distributed and mobile computing. Global communications systems allow researchers to collaborate and share information or development tools more rapidly to create the technologies of the future. Consumer adoption also happens more quickly and technology succeeds and, importantly, fails faster.

Whistling Merrily

So it’s always heartening to read about an ancient tradition that proves you don’t always need a hammer to crack a nut. Linguist and bio-acoustician Julien Meyer works at the Laboratoire Grenoble Images Parole Signal Automatique (GIPSA-lab) in France, studying the fascinating art of whistled speech from around the world. There are more than 70 whistled languages, ranging from Amazonia to Siberia.

Whistled language helps in remote places where workers may be spread out along a valley or across a mountainside, herding animals and planting or gathering crops. It’s wasted effort to walk over to co-workers, and shouting strains the vocal chords, but whistling can carry a message even against the wind.

A member of the whistlers of the Ossau Valley Association Bernard Miqueu, whistles with his fingers in Laruns, southwestern France. The tradition of the whistle language was revived in Béarn in the 1950s by the acoustician René-Guy Busnel, who conducted the first study on the whistled language of Aas, a village of 70 inhabitants, located a few kilometres from Laruns. AFP PHOTO/IROZ GAIZKA

Julien’s findings show that whistled vowels in any language are more easily picked up and understood – we are all able to learn whistled speech. But despite this whistled languages are disappearing due to urbanisation. As more people live and work in cities, whistled speech becomes more and more rare and obsolete. So if you want to hear how whistled languages sound, The World Whistles Research Association has examples including Silbo from the Canary islands, the whistled speech of Mazatec in Mexico, and Béarnais from the Aas village of the French Pyrenees.

Shanghai at night – megacity of 80 million inhabitants.


In the past 50 years urbanisation has accelerated, and more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Earth now has more than 30 mega-cities with populations exceeding 10 million inhabitants. That figure is expected to reach 50 by 2050. Paris and London are home to around 12 million people, but Shanghai in China is approaching 80 million making it the most populous city on Earth.

“Urbanisation is so intense that it has clouded the issue,” says Michel Lussault, a geographer at the French National Center for Scientific Research’s (CNRS) Environment, City, Society laboratory. “We no longer know where places like Mexico City, Tokyo, or Shanghai — which bear no resemblance to what they used to be — begin and end.”

Muddying the water is the fact that some countries overestimate or deliberately underestimate their size, for geopolitical reasons or to obtain international aid. So geographer François Moriconi-Ebrard and colleagues at the CNRS Espace laboratory developed a universal calculation method for all cities. “We use satellite images to delineate the perimeters of the city and we compare this with the census cartography, using the smallest units provided by each state,” he explains.

Lagos, Nigeria, satellite image. Lagos is Nigeria’s former capital city and is still its economic and commercial centre. Lagos is situated in south west Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea coast (lower right). The city includes Lagos island (right centre to centre) a number of other islands and the surrounding mainland. At top right is Lagos lagoon. Due to its natural harbour Lagos has been an important seaport since the 15th century when it became a European trading post. The busy harbour is at centre to lower centre. Taken by the Ikonos satellite on 5 April 2002.

Asia and Africa are the continents to watch for mega-city growth – Lagos (Nigeria), Cairo (Egypt), Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Onitsha (Nigeria) are poised to tip over the 10 million mark soon. Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia is also experiencing huge population growth thanks to Chinese investment. These population explosions may well lead to greater pollution and insecurity, but they also offer improved living conditions, sanitary facilities, gender equality, education and infant survival rates.

Runaway social inequality and growing cultural tension are the price we pay. Larger cities have greater income disparity as international capitalism creates large numbers of low-qualified maintenance and cleaning jobs. Rich and poor neighbourhoods spring up and wealthy gated communities shut themselves off from the masses. Also, if you’re ever in downtown Mexico City check out the milky white colour of the atmosphere created by traffic pollution. Cities are warmer and more polluting and that trend looks set to worsen.

A diplomatic system for the largest cities is emerging and is set to bypass transnational negotiations to find solutions to problems. On climate change and ecology the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group was initiated in 2007 by then London Mayor Ken Livingstone to bring the planet’s 90 largest megacities together to find peaceful solutions.

The Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car

Hydrogen Cars

To combat climate change and usher in an era of ‘zero emission’ vehicles in our cities there are great efforts underway to reduce the cost of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Fuel cell electrical vehicles run on batteries in the same way as traditional electric cars, but the fuel for the battery is produced by hydrogen gas. Typically the fuel cells that produce the hydrogen are between 10 and 30 litres. Each consists of an anode and cathode that takes oxygen and hydrogen and produces water (as a harmless waste product) and electricity.

Refuelling with hydrogen takes as long as a traditional petrol or diesel refuel, compared to the several hours it takes to recharge electric car batteries, and their fuel range is similar to that of diesel vehicles. A single hydrogen refill can power a fuel cell car for 375 miles (600 km), around two to three times the range of an electric car.

There are hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market right now, but price and operating life are factors in their widespread adoption. Models include the Toyota Mirai (launched in Europe in 2015), the Hyundai ix35 (2015), and the Honda Clarity (2016). The Mirai cost €79,000 on its European launch and fuel cell cars in general are not expected to reduce in cost to around €30,000 until 2023.

Their operating life is also lower than that of diesel cars (300,000 km or 7,000 hours) at around 150,000 km or 4,100 hours. Again manufacturers hope to develop the car’s life to 7,000 hours by 2023. For more information on the latest developments, check out what CNRS says is one of the busiest research fields in the world.