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.
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.
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 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.
The Center for Alternative Technology in Britain released a report that says Britain could reduce their carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. It means we don’t need to rely on technology that hasn’t been developed. I hope it gets good publicity and maybe the U.S. can see what options are really available.
Many people are celebrating the two Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage today. It’s important not to overlook a ruling that was made that can do significant damage to government protection of the environment.