It has been a while since I’ve written anything and that’s because I’ve been struggling a little bit with my environmentalism. I had always thought I was better off leaving politics to someone who likes people better. I prefer animals. I never thought of myself as an activist. Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the election in November and my concern has not lessened over the past few months. I’ve started to realize that maybe this democracy needs more participation from people like me. I didn’t want this blog to be political, but it seems that environmentalism can no longer be entirely apolitical. While my goal is still to bring you information and make you aware of things you can do in your life, I am not going to shy away from politics. For instance, I believe strongly that we need clean water, clean air and clean soil and that the Environmental Protection Agency has played and needs to play a huge role in protecting those things.
I had the pleasure a little while ago of seeing some photos of coral reefs up close and personal at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. It was a pleasure to see the photos, but what is in the photos is not very uplifting. They are pictures taken by photojournalist David Arnold in the same spot as several underwater photographers took as early as 1970. It is called Double Exposure and really highlights how things have changed in the last decades. The website is really worth looking at: http://www.doublexposure.net/about-us/. Here is an example:
The left is 1980 and the right is 2011 in South Carysfort Reef in South Florida. It is really worth going to the website to see all the images and move the center line so you can see the entirety of both pictures and how it has changed.
I have recently discovered the immense joy of nature documentaries on Netflix. I had never seen Planet Earth and it turned out that all the hype was correct. It is an amazing series. But it’s really just the beginning. Between National Geographic, The Nature Channel and the BBC there are an incredible number of shows out there. And a lot of ecosystems on Earth that I knew little or nothing about. However, the show I was most intrigued by was Ocean Giants from the BBC. It has the amazing footage of the whales and sharks and ocean creatures that I’ve come to expect.
It also has a lot of information about the scientific research being done to understand these animals better. I always knew dolphins were smart, but I didn’t know that they would understand that a mirror showed them a reflection of themselves. And I find it fascinating that the dolphins would keep coming back to look. Whales in the protected areas in Baja California interact with humans in boats. They seem to go out of their way to interact and enjoy it. In the past they were seen as killers because of attacks on whaling boats. They seem to have forgiven or forgotten now. Ocean Giants really gave me a sense of the personalities of these beautiful ocean creatures. I hope all this research continues an we can better understand and help them as their environment changes.
I think everyone has heard about China’s problem with smog. There are days when people don’t go outside because it is so bad. This is one of the problems caused by the rapid industrialization and the amount of coal plants in China. It is not their only problem. They have water pollution as well and the contaminants are often very harmful to humans. LiveScience has an excellent, succinct article here: China’s Top 6 Environmental Concerns. China, of course, doesn’t want to talk about its environmental problems with outsiders and it doesn’t really like to admit problems to its own people. However, many of these problems affect the economy and that may move the government to act. Unfortunately public health problems have not.
China’s rapid industrialization has also led to an increasing deforestation and overwhelming use of all land resources including water. Having 1.3 billion people isn’t making the situation better. It is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also now investing in renewable energies and has agreed to up their use of them and cut their reliance on coal. The Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent article on China’s relationship with environmental issues: CFR Backgrounders.
I am currently taking chemistry as part of my prerequisite courses for grad school. A lot of chemistry doesn’t seem that relevant, but one of my assignments is to write a paper and it can be on anything related to chemistry. This allowed me to look at the more broad view of chemistry (rather than tiny molecules and atoms) and I have discovered interesting things. I won’t bore you with the whole paper, but I looked into algae blooms when they are caused by eutrophication which is excessive amounts of nutrients in a body of water.
Eutrophication often occurs when nitrates and phosphates are suddenly found in excess. Algae are able to use this excess nitrogen and phosphorus to grow exponentially. It appears that algae can use phosphates from a variety of sources to gain this critical component to their cellular activity. The biggest industry in phosphates is agricultural fertilizers but they also appear in laundry detergents and human and animal waste. Agricultural runoff brings the phosphorus in fertilizers from cropland to lakes, rivers and the ocean. This runoff also includes phosphates that come from animal waste. Phosphates in human waste and household cleaning products like laundry detergents end up in wastewater, much of which also eventually ends up in lakes, rivers and the ocean. Problems occur because some of the algae is toxic and can contaminate drinking water and the fisheries and potentially poison human food. The other big affect is the decrease in oxygen in the water. The algae are stimulated to grow through excess nutrients, but this growth means they are taking other nutrients, such as oxygen, out of their environment. This can cause the death of other aquatic organisms who require enough oxygen to survive.
I attended a lecture the other day at the New England Aquarium. It was an event put on by Women Working for Oceans, which I have joined. It was on a subject I knew very little about – ocean noise pollution. Scott Kraus, who works at the aquarium, spoke about studies done on right whales that show their stress levels go up with increased ocean noise. Chronic stress causes reduced reproduction rates and lower immunity. The key speaker of the day was Christopher Clark, who works at Cornell and has done a lot of research on the noise in the ocean. As early as the 1960s it was discovered just how far noise travels, especially low frequencies. An explosion off the coast of Perth, Australia was heard on the east coast of the United States. Even small explosions travel for hundreds of miles. Clark kept talking about how the scale is different when it comes to the oceans and large ocean animals like whales. Noise travels different, whales move around a huge area of the ocean.
As far as we know, all marine mammals make noise and hear noise. It is used as a social network among a species, and also for finding food. The noise of a large cargo ship can drown out all the noise made by the animals they are cut off from each other and their ability to hunt. Below, the small dots are whales and large splotches with red centers are ships. (This gif was shown as part of the presentation.)
Source: National Oceanic Partnership Program via NPR
While recent oil drilling off the east coast has been banned, exploration for oil with seismic air guns is still going ahead. I was glad to see representatives of both of my state senators there to hear about this issue. Technology also exists to make engines quieter, but little is being done. This is an environmental issue that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention or press.
I have been looking into various graduate schools and programs I might be interested in attending soon and and have found some outside of the US that look fantastic. It made me curious about what other countries are doing in terms of the environmental challenges that face us today. So I’ve decided to take a brief look at a few countries this year. I chose the UK first, partly because there’s no language barrier, and partly because there’s a program in Southampton I’m interested in.
London smog. It turns out that air pollution really is a problem. Here is an article from The Guardian about it: London air pollution ‘worst in Europe’. The good news is that the European Union has regulations and the UK is not living up to them. (This will mean less if the UK actually leaves the EU, but I think they’ll still want to clean up the air.) Air pollution can be a serious health concern.
The government’s Environmental Agency website is clear and helpful. It includes an article about releasing lots of fish into rivers. They have a program to breed and restock the rivers with various species. Overfishing is a big problem everywhere, especially in a place like the UK with so much coastline.
The UK did a National Ecosystem Assessment and this is, to me, is a fantastic idea. This is a way to look at the whole picture. They also followed up on areas that had uncertain results. Many environmental groups and government agencies all over the world are focused on only one aspect of the problem. Sometimes we also need to look at the big picture because it is all interconnected.
AzoCleanTech has also written an article about the UK if you’re interested in more information: How clean is your country?