Thursday, November 28, 2013

Musings: Memories to be Thankful For

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual…O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”  - Henry David Thoreau
Happy Thanksgiving! There are so many things to be thankful for, not only at this time of year, but all year long: family, friends, good health, food on the table, a job... and as Thoreau so eloquently states above: for finding wealth not in things but in memories and experiences. The Nature Conservancy in Washington posed an interesting question on their Facebook page yesterday along those lines:  

What memory of spending time in nature are you most thankful for? 

After getting past my immediate reaction (how do I choose just one?!?) the obvious answer came to mind as I reminisced about the numerous summers spent on road trips with my Dad and older sister.

Yellowstone National Park:  The first of our annual road trips with Dad. That's me on the right, and depending upon how angry she would be with me for sharing this, that may or may not be my older sister on the left...

Outfitted with sunglasses, fanny packs, clunky cameras, hiking boots and/or sandals (with socks!), we hiked through Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods, Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Banff National Park, Glacier National Park, as well as Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the Olympic National Park here in Washington... just to name a few!

At the time, as a child who viewed hiking with some trepidation and who tended to get whiny once the hike exceeded a mile or so, I didn't realize that these experiences of being outdoors in nature were changing me as a person.  The natural wonders that we marveled at, hiked through, learned about, and photographed gradually worked their way into my being and gave me a greater appreciation for the impressive ancient forests, roaring waterfalls, mountain peaks, rock formations, lava flows and canyons that are our national heritage.  The impressive raw beauty combined with the intriguing ecology and history of the scenery drew me in, sparked my interest, and led to what will be a life-long affinity for the outdoors and the environment that surrounds us.

Over the years I accumulated photo albums packed with pictures of the sites we visited, freezing in time the images of our proud national and state parks that are increasingly threatened by environmental issues such as climate change.  I am a believer in the idea that people care about what they know: without having seen a particular natural feature or landscape, and without developing a connection with it and a reason to care, people will be less likely to be involved with and impassioned about its protection.  Looking back now, I know that these annual summertime road trips were crucial in developing the environmental ethic and interest in nature that defines a big part of who I am as a person (and Nature Nerd!) today.  And for this, I am truly thankful. 

Dad on a hiking trail through a lava flow in Oregon

Thank you Dad, for driving us around the country so that we could see the scenery and experience the journey rather than putting us on an airplane to quickly get from point A to point B; for taking us into the great outdoors to appreciate what is real instead of shuffling us into the artifice of amusement parks. Those road trips to our national parks are the memories of spending time in nature that I am most thankful for!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Going Green: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Today is National Recycling Day!  It may not be deemed Hallmark card-worthy, but this member of the Obscure Holiday Club is guaranteed to be on the radar of us environmentally-conscious nerds. 

When most of us think of recycling, an image of our large blue recycling bins parked curbside and filled to the brim with plastic, glass, cans, and paper will likely come to mind, luring us into the false sense of satisfaction that we are in fact, doing our part to protect the environment.  However, it is important to remember that recycling is not the only component of being a responsible consumer and environmental steward… we have to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Recycling is actually the “last resort” option, after the first two have been exhausted.  If grade school was the last time you heard this phrase or put it into practice… it’s time to review these three crucial steps to consuming responsibly:


On a daily basis, people in our society are bombarded with advertisements that try to convince us that the things we currently have are not up-to-date or good enough, or that we need more "stuff"... stuff we never knew we wanted or needed until we saw the advertisement for it.  The first step to becoming a responsible and environmentally-conscious consumer is to consume less:  reduce the amount of things you buy

The quality of our natural environment plummets as the amount of consumer purchases increases. Think about it... all products go through the same process in the journey from raw materials to the store shelves:
  1.  Raw materials have to be mined/extracted/grown, with resulting environmental collateral damage such as deforestation, pollution, and habitat destruction, among others
  2. The product must be manufactured and packaged, leading to further pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
  3. The product is shipped to the store for purchase, leading to even further greenhouse gas emissions
As you can see, the environmental damage adds up throughout the entire process. This is why it is so crucial that our society learns to equate consumerism and "stuff" with greater environmental destruction.  Do your best to reduce your own consumption: ignore the propaganda of "bigger, better, more" and instead choose to maximize the lifespan and utility of the items you currently own. Not only will the environment thank you, but your wallet will as well!

Is it worth doing this to our planet...

Open pit mine in China, where metals for cell phones are mined. get the latest and greatest one of these every year?

Do you have something in your house that you don’t need anymore, but that is still in good condition?  Instead of tossing that item in the trash, here are a few options to consider:

  •  Donate the item to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or a similar charitable organization.
  •  Sell it! Craigslist, garage sales, and classified ads are easy ways to make a few bucks on items that you no longer need, but which could be useful to someone else.
  • Repurpose it! This, along with “upcycling,” seems to be all the rage these days for the crafty, thrifty types.  Seriously… if you need some ideas, just go to Pinterest and type in “item name” and “repurpose” in the search field and behold the hundreds of possibilities.  Here, I have to salute my mother: she has been a great repurposing role model in my life. She repurposed old items and junk before it was even cool.  My sisters and I used to joke that she would turn anything into a flower planter. Like a barbeque. Seriously.
 Here are a few repurposing ideas found on Pinterest:

Another BBQ-turned-flower planter. Cute!

Crutches can become eye-catching shelves

Turn an old piano into a bookcase

Turn old t-shirts into a quilt full of memories!

  This one isn't from Pinterest, but is a braided rug that my great-grandmother made from old clothing:
Some of these examples might be practical, some might be a little silly... but the point is that the options for reusing your old items are limited only by your imagination!


And now we arrive at the last resort: recycling.  If you have an item that you don’t want anymore, can no longer use, and are unable to repurpose, then the next best thing is to recycle it.  We all know that paper, along with clean glass, aluminum, and most types of plastic, are recyclable in our curbside bins, but some recycling companies will also accept scrap metal (pots and pans, small appliances), bagged plastic grocery bags, and food waste (in designated bins). Check with your provider for guidelines on what items are acceptable. You can also check with the manufacturers of the products you're looking to recycle. Many companies, especially electronics companies, are increasingly implementing take-back programs for their old, outdated, or no-longer-functioning products.

There are certain items that need to be recycled cautiously, so do your homework before recycling these:

  • Electronics: if taken to less-scrupulous recycling facilities, your old electronics could end up being shipped overseas and dumped in developing countries for “recycling” (i.e., polluting the local environment and creating a dangerous health hazard as the items are burned to extract raw materials). For tips on proper electronics recycling, check out my Responsible Electronics Recycling article.
  • Fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, mattresses, etc. are just a few items that have special recycling requirements.  Check with your city or county for information on how to recycle these items, as local programs and requirements vary.

This National Recycling Day, make a commitment to not be just another part in the machine of our over-consuming, throwaway society.  Implement the practice of Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling in your everyday life and encourage others to do the same.  Our planet—and our own survival—depend on everyone's collective efforts.

Do you have creative ideas for reducing, reusing, and recycling? Please share in the comments below!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Environmental Issues: Ocean Acidification

Lurking in Earth’s oceans is a silent and insidious threat with the capability to collapse entire ocean ecosystems.  Is this some kind of sea monster, a recently discovered giant of the deep?  Is this a futuristic weapon with the potential for inflicting unfathomable damage?  Political conspiracy? Aliens? Nope, this is chemistry, in the form of ocean acidification.  Ocean acidification is the serious but lesser-known environmental threat frequently hidden behind the limelight of its infamous companion, climate change, both of which are borne from the emissions of greenhouse gases—specifically, carbon dioxide (CO2).

Is there danger lurking in the waters?
The oceans are presently helping to mitigate the effects of our society’s out-of-control carbon dioxide emissions by absorbing 25% of these emissions annually, which would otherwise end up in the atmosphere and accelerate climate change even more than we’re currently experiencing. However, this helping hand comes at a steep price.  Seawater naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 means that the oceans are in turn absorbing more CO2 than they have historically, which is causing big problems for ocean ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them.  

When seawater absorbs CO2, the two react to form carbonic acid and free hydrogen ions, which increase the acidity of the water.  This reaction “steals” carbonate from the water that otherwise would have reacted with free calcium ions to form calcium carbonate—the building block for shells of ocean inhabitants such as crustaceans, mollusks, corals and zooplankton.  With calcium carbonate in short supply, these creatures expend more energy in the juvenile stage searching for these scarce but crucial building blocks than they do searching for food, and ultimately many will end up starving to death. The increasingly acidic water dissolves the shells of these creatures as well. 

Images of a shell dissolving in acidic seawater
Losing tiny ocean creatures such as zooplankton doesn’t seem like a big deal—until you recall their place in the ocean food web.  The creatures most seriously threatened by the direct effects of ocean acidification form the very bottom of the food web.  If they disappear, then so do all of the fish, whales, sharks, etc. that are above them on the food web. Can you imagine losing Washington State’s famous salmon or orca whales? If ocean acidification gets out of control, our oceans could be looking pretty desolate, and the billion people that rely on their bounty for survival could find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive.

What happens if you remove the base of the food chain? Everything above it disappears.

In a more immediate sense, ocean acidification is posing an economic threat as crab, oyster, and other fisheries struggle with the changing ocean chemistry.  In the series of articles entitled “Sea Change—The Pacific’s Perilous Turn” published last September in the Seattle Times, author Craig Welch provides a detailed look at how ocean acidification is harming commercially harvested ocean creatures and the industries that depend on them. For instance, a family oyster farm located in Willapa Bay was forced to move their hatchery to Hawaii after the water in Willapa Bay became so acidic that the juvenile oysters were unable to survive.  Juvenile king crab are also struggling to survive, jeopardizing the future of the $100 million king crab industry in Alaska.  Researchers have even found odd behavior in fish exposed to acidic seawater—behaviors that caused the fish to lose their sense of self-preservation and get eaten by predators, as well as displaying affected senses of smell, sight, and hearing—all of which could have a grave effect on commercial fisheries.

As always, when writing about environmental issues, I wonder “what about Washington”?  Well, when it comes to ocean acidification, things aren’t looking too great for the Evergreen State.  As outlined in the “Sea Change” articles, Washington is especially at risk of suffering ill effects due to our location in relation to ocean currents.  Ocean currents carry cold, CO2-rich water toward the coastline, where upwelling brings the acidic seawater to the surface and into our coastal habitats. As Welch explains, the really bad news for Washington is that due to the way ocean currents circulate, the waters that are absorbing CO2 today will not reach Washington State until 30-50 years from now.  So the negative effects we’re currently experiencing are not even the worst of it… we won’t see those effects for several more decades.

So what can be done to deal with ocean acidification? We can hope that adaptation will get us through: fisheries can switch to fishing species that are more CO2-tolerant, shellfish farmers can move their hatchery operations to locales with better conditions, and, although a long shot, species themselves may evolve somewhat in order to better survive in their new environment.  However, the only way for us to have any chance of slowing ocean acidification and saving as much of our ocean ecosystems as possible is to get CO2 emissions under control. If our global society continues spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans will continue to absorb it, and will continue to grow into a more acidic and hostile environment.

We need to continue pushing our government leaders to implement and enforce CO2-emissions limits, to combat both climate change and ocean acidification. We also need to push for development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that do not emit CO2. In the meantime, you can take matters into your own hands and check out the Going Green page on this blog for ideas on lowering your personal carbon footprint.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

In The News: Earth with no ice?

A recently-released interactive map on the National Geographic website has been receiving a great deal of attention in social media in the past few days.  Entitled "If All the Ice Melted"  these maps are a sobering picture of a planet Earth where all of the glaciers and ice sheets have melted, resulting in a sea level rise of 216 feet that dramatically alters the world we know now. 

But don't reach for that flotation device just yet! According to National Geographic, scientists estimate that it would take 5,000 years for all of the Earth's five million cubic miles of ice to melt and drain into the sea.  Even if humans are still around thousands of years from now to see this happen, the rising sea level will likely not be the worst of our problems... along with a planet bereft of ice, scientists also estimate that we'll be dealing with an average global temperature of 80 degrees F, instead of the current 58 degrees F. Between rising sea levels and high temperatures, much of earth will become uninhabitable for humans.

Here's a look at the new coastline of North America in an ice-free world:

As you can see, the entire East coast is now underwater, and we've completely lost Florida.  New inland seas now cover Louisiana and parts of California and Alaska.  But there is good news for the West coast: aside from parts of California, we appear to survive the sea level rise relatively unscathed! Be sure to take a look at the other maps on the National Geographic website.  The devastation to Asia and Europe is especially profound.

One factor not mentioned in regard to these maps is the effect of CO2 emissions and climate change.  It would be interesting to find out if the 5,000 year estimate for melting all of earth's ice is based on current climate and CO2 emissions trends.  If CO2 emissions increase or decrease, how will that change the ice-free timeline and projected average temperature? 

Although we're unlikely to see an ice-free Earth anytime soon, we are still facing rising sea levels as a result of climate change.  Glaciers and ice sheets are melting at alarming (and accelerating) rates, and sea levels are expected to rise as much as a few feet by the end of this century.  With 600 million people and two-thirds of the worlds' largest cities (greater than 5 million people) located in areas less than 10 meters above sea level, the implications of melting ice and rising tides could be very grave indeed.

For more information on reducing your impact on climate change and sea level rise, be sure to check out the Going Green page on this blog!