I am willing to bet that you haven’t heard of International Dark Sky Places (IDSP). It is an international program by the International Dark-Sky Association with different designations and the mission to encourage places to limit light pollution. Their designations include communities, parks, and reserves. Light pollution may not seem like a big deal, but it can be a serious ecological problem. Baby sea turtles can go towards an urban area instead of the brightness of the reflecting ocean and end up killed. Migrating birds can be confused and disoriented which can lead to exhaustion, starvation, and make them targets for predators. The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies explains here and also gives some ideas on what you can do to make a difference. The Audubon Society also has a program to help spread the word about this issue. Their website includes resources such as templates for letters to building managers and elected officials. After all, individuals can help, but turning your community or an area near you into a Dark Sky Place would be even better.
If you’re interested to find out where one is near you, you can use the IDSP finder. Perhaps you would like to star gaze, or maybe you’re just curious. I grew up near Boston and you have to go pretty far away from Boston to find a designated area. The Audubon website has links to local chapters so you can find out what is being done locally in the US, and what days are the most important for migratory birds.
The last few years have been unusual and challenging and I have not been posting to this blog. I have decided it is time to change that. The pandemic seemed to confirm that we are detrimental to the environment, but also that we can change that. For example, air quality change is possible if we can figure out a way to commute less. It is as important as ever to be aware of how we impact the environment and how we might be able to do better. But that is not what I want to talk about today. I have something specific on my mind.
I just got back from a conference on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. I received my Master of Science and started a new job during the pandemic. I am now a laboratory technician at the University of Notre Dame, spending most of my time researching the Great Salt Lake (GSL). I had the opportunity to go to a conference put on by Friends of Great Salt Lake, where my boss was one of the keynote speakers. It was unlike any conference I had been to. There were talks on ecology (what I study), birds, salinity, but also talks about bills that had recently been passed in the Utah legislature. Water rights in the western U.S. are complicated, and I don’t completely understand them, but they affect the amount of water that flows into GSL. There has been a decrease in snowpack in the mountains that feed the rivers that flow into the lake. And most of the water in those rivers is diverted for city or agricultural use.
GSL is a hypersaline, terminal lake, meaning it is significantly saltier than the ocean and no water flows out of it. Its ecology is relatively simple because only a few species can survive at its salt levels. It is important to migratory birds and to the economy of Salt Lake City. Last year it reached a historic low water level and it is expected to reach an even lower mark this year. The salinity is consequently increasing. The brine shrimp and brine flies, and the algae they depend on, are in danger of decreasing such that the birds won’t have enough food. The politicians are very excited about the bills that have passed, but so far no increase in water flowing into the lake has actually happened. I am concerned that it will take some sort of obvious calamity (i.e. massive bird die-off) before enough change will happen. As several scientists said at the conference, if we can’t get more water into the lake, nothing else will matter and it will disappear.
It’s been over a year since China decided to no longer take a lot of recycling from the U.S. (They did this primarily by insisted on uncontaminated recycling.) I looked into this issue a few months ago. It turns out the trash and recycling system in this country is not in good shape. China has not changed its mind. And yet very few people are still talking about it. It appears to be a systemic problem, but nothing will change if enough people aren’t aware of the problem.
There are many items for which we have the technology to recycle, but are not accepted for recycling curbside. This includes many types of plastic. An example is polypropylene, which is the number 5 inside the recycling triangle and is usually not accepted curbside.
Basically everything that is not accepted in the recycling ends up in a landfill. That includes e-waste (if not given to a company that will recycle it), tires, diapers, plastics, paper (colored, treated etc.). Unfortunately, right now more things are ended up in landfills because China is not accepting it anymore. A story originally in the Guardian explains how many things are being incinerated or going to landfills. What it takes to deal with all of our waste simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. Perhaps just another reminder to reduce first, then reuse and then recycle.
I recently finished a book call The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. It won the Pulitzer, among other awards, which might not mean a lot, but it is a fantastic book. It traces the history of mass extinctions on the planet (the most famous and possibly dramatic being the end of the dinosaurs). I didn’t know before reading this book that there have been five such mass extinctions, although I had heard that some scientists now think we are living through (and possibly creating) a mass extinction. I liked this book for many reasons. Kolbert talks about the historical extinctions as well as the one currently ongoing. In fact, the book starts with a discussion of how many frog species are dying. She beautifully weaves the past and the present together. While the book can be considered alarming it didn’t leave me feeling guilty or terrified. Interestingly, it also doesn’t paint scientists in the best light, especially those in the past who refused to accept new theories. While the subject may sound technical and dry, I enthusiastically recommend this book to everyone who is interested in the natural world.
Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.
My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.
However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.
Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?
I belong to a group called Women Working for Oceans. The mission is education and advocacy in partnership with the New England Aquarium. I went to a members only event this week. It was a Seagrass Restoration event in Essex, Massachusetts. We were led by two guest experts, Dr. Alyssa Novak from Boston University, and Peter Phippen from MassBays Natural Estuaries Program.
The first thing that happened when we arrived was that we were taken by boat out into Essex Bay and deposited on what was essentially a sand bar. Once there we met Alyssa who first explained to us how we were going to be replanting eel grass in the bay. This involved standing in knee high water, leaning over to dig a small hole, burying a small amount of root and then adding an iron staple on top. We asked her about the metal staple; apparently in calm water bamboo is used which decomposes relatively easily, but in this bay the water is too strong. The staple will rust and give iron to the plant. And since they work there a lot they do find them and reuse them as much as possible. Eelgrass provides food and shelter for many organisms in the bay, as described by Save the Bay.
While we were doing that Peter went out and brought back the crab traps that they had set out. So as the tide made our little sand bar smaller and smaller we moved on to the crabs. We had mostly caught rock crabs and green crabs. We counted the rock crabs, and then let them go. But the green crabs are an invasive species. We counted them, measured them, checked their sex and then put them in a big bag. They were going to be given to someone who uses them in cooking. All in all, not a bad day’s work.
Brazil was in the news a lot recently because of the Rio Olympics. A lot of the press around the Olympics was negative, including some environmental issues. However, the closing ceremonies showed that they are willing to deal with the problem, or at least that’s what I saw. While the history in Brazil isn’t great, they are making improvements. Brazil has a history of deforestation, often due to agricultural crops like soy beans. The rainforest has shrunk quite dramatically, but deforestation has declined by 70% in the last decade (see article in The Economist). One of the things that happened was Brazil passed regulations and restrictions, including a Forest Code, and recently studies have shown that they have worked.
Brazil has also started to tap into renewable energy sources, such as wind power. They are revising energy efficiency standards and have become a big proponent of green building standards and certifications (see article in GreenBiz). From what I’ve read Brazil is turning things around. They can’t suddenly make the Amazon rainforest reappear but they seem to be getting onto the right track.
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 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.