bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy

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Ocean Giants

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.


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China’s environmental issues

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.

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Algae blooms

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.


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Ocean Noise

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.

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the UK: an environmental look

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?

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Women Working for Oceans

I recently attended a wonderful event at the New England Aquarium.  It was co-hosted by Women Working for Oceans, W2O, a group I recently discovered and am excited about.  The event started with a display in the lobby showing the finalists’ designs for how Boston can build its waterfront to be resilient to sea level rise and storms.  Some of the designs were really creative – things I never would have thought of.  Then we went into the IMAX.  The speaker who was the most interesting to me was Ellen Douglas.  She talked about Hurricane Sandy.  I didn’t realize that things could have been so much worse if it had just hit at high tide instead of low tide.  Here is a map of the difference the tide can make.


Ellen Douglas is the main author on a a report called “Preparing for the Rising Tide.”  After talking about the past, she moved on to the future.  She talked about the projections of what will happen with sea level rise in Boston.  She showed maps of what areas will flood and how often.  These maps are similar to the one above that shows the flood depths.  Then she showed ideas of flood walls – some that are benches until needed, berms, things that would help in the next storm.  I’ve read a bunch about sea level rise but it somehow seemed even more real when looking at pictures and maps of a place I know.  The second speaker was Robbin Peach from Massport.  It was good to hear how much has been going into protecting the transportation infrastructure in Boston.  Do you know if your city is prepared for the next big storm and sea level rise?


Environmental Action and Marine Biology

This summer didn’t turn out the way I planned (getting Lyme disease certainly wasn’t the plan), although I am moving toward going back to school to study environmental marine science.  I am volunteering for two organizations (which I will blog about later) and am just starting a statistics course.  But last week I was inspired when I got together with a group of people interested in preserving the oceans.  I went to an event at the New England Aquarium called Save Ocean Treasures.  It was designed to bring awareness to the efforts that are being made to preserve certain areas off the coast of New England as national monuments.  The aquarium brought in the National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry to talk about his experiences diving and show his pictures.  Here is an example:


Another speaker was Jon Witman who is a professor at Brown.  Protecting Cashes Ledge is one of his projects.  Cashes Ledge is a ridge that is a biodiversity hotspot off the coast of New England that has not yet been overfished.  Cashes Ledge is a nursery for Atlantic cod.  It is protected from overfishing for now but making it a National Monument would protect it forever.  The U.S. has been protecting certain areas on land for decades now and the Obama administration is considering protecting certain areas off our coasts.  The Conservation Law Foundation is one of the groups advocating for it.  I hope they succeed.

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Springtime! gardening and spending time outdoors

It’s springtime!  Despite New England’s weather it’s the beginning of June and it’s the season to spend time outdoors.  Unfortunately, mosquitos love me and I’m very allergic.  I hate dousing myself in chemicals, but I always figured it was way better than having multiple itchy spots for a week.  This year, I thought there must be a better way.  I was inspired by Clinton Kelly’s segment on The Chew (min.11).  (And I tend to do what Clinton says when it comes to entertaining.)  His suggestion was citrus juice on yourself, mosquito repelling plants, homemade citronella candles.  I plan on trying it all, but I wanted to grow some plants this year anyway.  It turns out a lot of herbs repel insects.  (Here’s an example of a list of plants: Naturalliving.) An herb garden on the deck seemed like the perfect solution.  Here’s a picture of half of my herb garden:


I bought an extra pot of lavender because it smells so good to me but not apparently to insects, is a great addition to tea and has beautiful flowers.  I’m thinking I might get some lemongrass pots as well.  I love to garden and I haven’t often been in a position with the room to do it.  I’m going to try to grow some vegetables from kitchen scraps.  In theory, I’ll never have to buy lettuce, ginger, garlic or onions again.  And I will know exactly what was in the soil and what was sprayed on them as they were grown.

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Glaciers and water

Before I had heard much about the drought in California, I started reading a book on glaciers.  I didn’t know very much about glaciers or what they might have to do with a drought in California.  Christopher White wrote a book about his trips to Glacier National Park in Montana and his conversations with people at the U.S. Geological Survey there.  It’s called The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers.  What I learned was disturbing and kind of depressing.

The snowpack on glaciers in mountains around the world supply a lot of the world’s fresh water.  (According to Live Science, 30% of California’s water is supplied by the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.)  And glaciers are receding.  The Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest in recorded history.  Glacier National Park is on pace to have no glaciers anymore within decades. The lack of water for all the places that rely on snowpack are not the only concerns when studying glaciers and their recession.  There are a wide variety of species that rely on glaciers and the tree line on mountains.  The tree line is continuously moving up the mountain.  The species that live on the coldest top of the mountain are getting crowded out.  Glaciers recede and any animals who rely on white as camouflage are losing their ability to hide from predators.


The USGS has some amazing photos that show the difference between the size of the glaciers early in the 20th century and today (such as the one above).  They have some wonderful information on their website: Retreat of Glaciers.  They also have a link to a better succinct explanation of everything than I could do:  I found a YouTube video that shows photo evidence of glacier retreat as part of the Extreme Ice Project: Chasing Ice.  Glaciers are amazing evidence of global warming.  And the retreat of glaciers is a global phenomenon, so it is not a matter of weather (local) but rather climate (global).  Glaciers are measurable and thus are a barometer for the effects of climate change.

This is another example of all the information being out there, but not enough people paying attention.

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Mangroves and shrimp

I love shrimp.  In fact, I love seafood.  I’m very aware of the scarcity of cod in the Northeast U.S.  But I wasn’t aware until recently of the devastation that shrimp farming causes.  It has caused me to pause a little before ordering shrimp.  I read a book on mangroves, which turns out to be all about shrimp.  It’s called Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea by Kenneth Warne.  He is a reporter and it tells of his journey to various places all over the globe that have mangrove forests.  It’s beautiful (and kind of sad) that all of the places are facing essentially the same problems, whether they’re in India or South America.  Shrimp farms destroy the mangrove ecosystem while bringing no replacement benefit to the local communities who depend on it.  I was really glad to hear about that these communities who find food, and materials for building and making fire, and essentially live on the mangrove forests still exist.  I hope that all the efforts described in this book are able to save those communities.  Shrimp farms seem like capitalism run amok.  They take one product, shrimp, and make as much of it as possible in order to make as big a profit as possible, for the one company that owns the farm.  They don’t care about the local people, or the local ecosystem.


Mangroves are important, more important than I realized.  They are a carbon sink – they capture carbon that otherwise would be released into the air and increase global warming.  They protect shorelines from storms.  They give safe harbor to different kinds of baby fish as well as a vast number of species including birds and mollusks.  Their nutrients feed off-shore reefs.  If you’re not interested in the science of ecology, local ecosystems (including the human component) or mangroves, this book may not be for you.  But it confirmed for me how fascinating and important I think all of this is.

Here is more reading (from the websites where I found the pictures), if you’re interested:  Mangroves in Ecuador and Mangrove Hub