Earth Day: Thinking Big

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day! For my Earth Day, I’m attending a seminar on Google Earth (totally hot interactive kmz documents await you, lovely readers) and thinking about the environmental effects of racism, socioeconomic interest, and partisan politics here on the US-Mexican border.

The new ever-so-impermeable border fence will definitely stop endangered bighorn sheep and desert frogs in their tracks, though it probably won’t do much about people desperate to feed their families. Though it’s good to recycle and cut down on plastic bags, the really big problems are going to need really big cooperative solutions.

Check out National Geographic’s photos of life along the border fence. Here’s my favorite – a juvenile mountain lion in southern Arizona.


What stops population growth?

March 17, 2009

I’ve written before about why I think discussing population control became a taboo, but I’m glad to say I have never heard anyone arguing that poor children should just die. Disgusting.

But in case you have heard that argument, Hans Rosling is here to explain why it’s wrong. And he also explains why he thinks that a permanent world population of 9 billion is inevitable.

Via Anna and Think or Thwim

The Managed World: A Tale of Two Trophic Troubles

February 18, 2009

Macquarie Island, before and after cat elimination. (From 80 Beats at Discovery Network)

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World is an occasional series in the Oyster’s Garter that explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Most food webs look more like a tangled web than the Great Chain of Being – since predators eat each other and most animals eat more than one prey species, their relationships are complicated. But sometimes changing the population of a single predator can bring the entire ecosystem down like dominoes. It’s called a trophic cascade.

The New York Times has two examples of humans changing the populations of key species, and the consequences that result. The first took place on Macquarie Island, a small island between Australia and Antarctica. Like on many isolated islands, the native birds evolved without predators and live in burrows. Introduced cats were eating the birds and running amuck. So researchers embarked on an intensive cat-elimination program. Sounds good so far – kill the kittehs, save the birds.

Elk feeding. (NYT)

The only problem is that there are also introduced rabbits and introduced plants. With no more cats, the rabbits bred like rabbits and ate all the native plants. Introduced plants took over the bare slopes and prevented the native birds that this was all supposed to help in the first place from nesting in the best burrowing sites.

The second involves a lawsuit over feeding elk in Jackson, Wyoming. When elk were depleted and starving at the turn of the century, people started feeding them. Now Jackson has an elk overpopulation that eats all the native willows and breeds disease (that can then be passed on to cattle). But if the lawsuit wins, stopping the elk feeding would cause a kind of economic cascade – there’s an entire tourism economy built around the easy-to-find elks. And while unnaturally large populations of elk breed disease amongst themselves, starving elks stealing cattle feed would pass disease, too. So nobody knows what to do. (I don’t suppose anyone wants to introduce more wolves? They’re proven to control elk and I bet they’re good for tourism!)

The conclusion: it is  very, very hard to predict (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the unknown unknowns. There’s a million stories like these – even Lyme disease in the Northeast is thought to be connected to a trophic cascade with wolves, deer, mice, and ticks. To end with a slight non sequiter, this is why I’m leery of geoengineering. If we can’t even properly manage the ecosystem of 21-mile-long Macquarie Island, I worry that the cure for global warming could be even worse than the disease.

Conceivable Waste

February 6, 2009

I find it almost impossible to grasp just how much sheer stuff gets used up by our current society. It’s just one of those ideas hard to get your mind around, like how some numbers are too large for us to comprehend. Photographer  Chris Jordan tries to help us grasp what we’re throwing away partly by taking pictures of vast piles of trash, but also by making detailed representations of waste.  I found his stuff via a New Scientist slide show, but his website has some staggering photos of a mountain of sawdust, piles of dead cell phones, and other mind-numbing displays of waste. The whole thing makes me think of how Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E manage to find beauty in piles of garbage.  I recommend flipping through the whole slide show, but here’s one example, and then a close up of it.

There are 320,000 light bulbs in this image. This is equivalent to the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage, such as poor wiring and computers left in sleep mode.

And then the close up of the center:

Sustainable Chilean sea bass?

December 22, 2008

Last week, Deep Sea News readers had the opportunity to submit questions to Dr. Carole Baldwin, a fish expert at the Smithsonian who has recently written a sustainable seafood cookbook. I asked:

The Marine Stewardship Council recently certified a Chilean sea bass fishery as sustainable. Can certain slow-growing deep sea fish can be harvested sustainably?

As part of the new Smithsonian webisode series “The Scientist is In”, Dr. Baldwin answered three questions on video, and mine was one of them!  In short, she believes that the MSC certification of Chilean sea bass is legit, and that you can eat it without guilt.

Though I’m happy she responded to the question, I wish that she had provided more details. Is even the MSC-certified fishery sustainable in the long term? Do consumers have to worry about fish from non-sustainable fisheries being sold fradulantly under the MSC label? Does demand for the MSC-certified fish drive overfishing of unprotected fish?

To get Dr. Baldwin’s full answer, watch the video (with bonus sassy question from Mark Powell).

Off-duty kayaking not ok if you work for the Army Corps

December 11, 2008

It can be tough to be a governmental scientist. An Army Corps of Engineer scientist was recently exonerated from the dread charge of “off-duty kayaking.” Heather Wylie disagreed with the Army Corps’ ruling that the LA River was not a river because it was not navigable. This is critical to the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, since it applies only to navigable waters. So Wylie kayaked the LA River to demonstrate that the river was in fact a river.

The Corps hit her with a 30-day suspension for “off-duty kayaking” and “circulating a news article via e-mail documenting Clean Water Act enforcement problems.” The second one at least makes sense, but how on earth can the Army Corps regulate its employees leisure time?

The Army Corps settled the case yesterday, and Wylie will not face a suspension. Unsurprisingly she’s leaving the Corps anyway to become an environmental lawyer.

And what of the poor polluted concrete-lined LA River? The EPA is taking over from the Army Corps, rendering the navigation question irrelevant. Idealistic reaction: Yay, this will help restore a much-abused urban river! Cynical reaction: Sure, the EPA makes everything better. The Simpsons warned us about EPA!

Thanks to Oceana for the Philly Inquirer article!

How quickly nature falls into revolt when gold becomes her object!

August 28, 2008

Alaska has voted for gold instead of salmon. The Pebble Mine will be located right on the headwaters of one of the last great wild sockeye salmon runs. The salmon would have run for thousands of years, bringing at least $300 million to Alaska’s economy each and every year, but Alaska has traded them for 40 years of enriching foreign investors. Alaska seems to be hell-bent on becoming Nauru writ large.

The most painful and ridiculous part of the NY Times article was this quote:

“Perhaps it was God who put these two great resources right next to each other,” said John T. Shively, the chief executive of a foreign consortium that wants to mine the copper and gold deposit. “Just to see what people would do with them.”

I expect that God would weep. (I’m not a Christian, but I can Google like one!) From Christian Ecology:

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Ezekiel 34:17-18. As for you, my flock… Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?

Luke 16:2,10,13. And He called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous in much. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth.