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“Ready” But Wholly Unprepared To Drill Alaska’s Arctic

24 Aug

As offshore oil drilling edges ever closer to becoming a reality in the Arctic Ocean, the good folks at the Center for American Progress examine the region’s lack of readiness in the event of a spill:

The Economics Of Overexploitation

19 Apr

Back in 2007, I explained what I call “The Montgomery Burns” perspective on ocean decline:

“Keeping economics in mind, there’s arguably reason to question whether we should fret over the oceans’ dwindling and altered stocks. Human tastes are malleable, so we adapt to what industry supplies. For example, lobster and skate – traditionally the ‘poor fisherman’s dinner’ – are now featured at NYC’s finest restaurants. Thus, a boom in lower trophic level species creates newly emerging markets! When traditionally harvested species decline, there is tremendous opportunity to cash in by exploiting the next readily available critter. From Orange Roughy to algae…Why not allow every commercially viable animal possible its 15 minutes of fame? Hey, when life deals you jellyfish, make a salad! Garnish it with a fancy name, add a hefty price tag… Excellent!”

And now folks, as expected, life is dealing us jellyfish.

An article in the latest issue of the journal Hydrobiologia reports jellyfish are increasing in the majority of the world’s coastal ecosystems.

Jellyfish directly interfere with many human activities — by stinging swimmers, clogging intakes of power plants, and interfering with fishing. Some species of jellyfish are now a food source in some parts of the world.

No, it’s not news-worthy, but fisheries are going to hell in a handbasket.

Taking a Bite Out Of Energy Consumption

16 Apr

While the United States is home to just five percent of the global population, we consume a whopping 20 percent of the world’s energy. With a seemingly endless appetite for fuel and concern over the stability of import supplies, everyone seems to be looking for a practical domestic solution. While presidential candidates, political pundits and the nation’s top engineers debate options such as offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, renewables and the Keystone pipeline, they’re ignoring one obvious way to save energy now: reduce the amount of food we waste.

Consider: the production and distribution of food in the U.S. currently accounts for at least 10 percent of our energy consumption. That’s because energy is consumed with every step of the process. We move water for irrigation, disperse fertilizer and pesticides, and work the land with industrial-size machinery. Then there’s the processing, packaging, sorting, stocking and transportation. In fact, according to the most recent estimate, each item of food travels, on average, over 1,500 miles to your plate by land, sea or air.

Here’s the important part: between one-quarter and one-third of what’s produced gets discarded before reaching us. In other words, a lot of food never completes that long journey. Wasted food is wasted energy.

There’s food that spoils in restaurants, and in our own refrigerators. There are the edible and nutritious, yet superficially blemished, fruits and vegetables deemed unsuitable for display at the grocery store. And then there are the left-overs from our unnecessarily super-sized portions, regularly emptied into trash bins.

It all adds up. According to a recent article out of the University of Texas at Austin — where I work — at least 2 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States was simply thrown away in 2007 in the form of food waste. That’s equivalent to the energy contained in hundreds of millions of barrels of oil.

Let me repeat that. A very conservative research study estimated we threw away 2 percent of the amount of energy consumed in this country. Really. Furthermore, what gets wasted is costly as well. The average U.S. family spends about $600 a year on food that will not ever be consumed.

Of course, we can’t recover all that’s lost. We can’t even come close. But the numbers should force us to recognize that it’s time to change the way Americans produce and distribute food. That means investing in better farming practices, increased agricultural research and dedicated programs to educate consumers about food choices that will save them money.

Will it be easy? Of course not. But the tremendous international efforts currently undertaken to keep us powered up — energy exploration, research, and development — aren’t exactly a piece of cake either. So, if we truly value energy in this country, we have to figure out how to save more and waste less.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

Environmental Visual Communication: The Convergence of Science and Art

29 Feb

This is a guest post by Neil Osborne about a terrific new program in Environmental Visual Communication at the Royal Ontario Museum. [Note from Sheril: Make sure to watch this stunning video.]

Solutions to long-term sustainability are not found solely in the realm of science. Environmental visual communication is an emerging field and its practitioners are key leaders who, through collaboration and deliverables, can build bridges between science and society. The ultimate goal is to motivate the public to care about and become active participants in saving our planet.

Positioned at the convergence of science and art, the Environmental Visual Communication program is designed to fill a recognized void of individuals who possess a blend of environmental science skills and the ability to effectively communicate to a variety of audiences.

Witness: Defining Conservation Photography Feature from Neil Ever Osborne.

With a focus on strategic messaging and technical savvy, you will learn to use photography, videography, multimedia and design principles to bridge environmental competencies with thoughtful communication through diverse media channels.

The program takes place in a truly unique learning environment – at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in downtown Toronto.

Throughout the Environmental Visual Communication (EVC) program, you will learn how to identify strategies to inform and educate, garner engagement and support, and build and share campaigns to address conservation issues.

Equipped with hybrid skills and a sense of active environmental stewardship, graduates of this innovative, integrated, and applied program will be able to connect ideas among diverse groups and tell compelling stories with fluency.

Learn more about the program and register here.

Interested in Energy? Do You Use Social Media?

7 Feb

For those on Twitter: Follow @UTEnergyPoll for objective, scientifically rigorous, nonpartisan data on public attitudes & perspectives on energy.

The Beautiful Math Of Coral

31 Jan

Margaret Wertheim leads a project to re-create the creatures of the coral reefs using a crochet technique invented by a mathematician — celebrating the amazements of the reef, and deep-diving into the hyperbolic geometry underlying coral creation.

Invasion Of The Burmese Pythons

31 Jan

Ed’s got a worrisome piece up about the 12 ft+ long Burmese pythons crashing native mammal populations in Florida. This is an issue I’m relatively familiar with having worked for Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) during the year of the infamous exploded python-gator photo from Everglades National Park.

No one knows exactly how these snakes initially arrived from south-east Asia, but the most likely scenario involves transport via exotic wildlife traders. As Ed reports, there’s great reason for concern:

In the first systematic assessment of the pythons’ impact, Dorcas has found that many of Florida’s mammals have plummeted in numbers in places where the snakes now live.

Raccoons, for example, used to be one of the most frequently seen animals in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Between 1996 and 1997, you’d see one every 35 kilometres on the local roadsides. That’s no longer the case. In the last few years, Dorcas and his team have driven over 57,000 kilometres of Everglades tracks, counting animals as they went. They worked between sunset and sunrise on 313 separate nights. Their roadside census showed that since 2003, when the python populations really took off, raccoon sightings have fallen by 99.3 per cent. Opossum numbers have fallen by 98.9 per cent. There are 87.5 per cent fewer bobcats. They didn’t see a single rabbit.

Notably, the animals surveyed should also be the easiest to spot. Birds and other local species have probably been heavily impacted as well through competition and predation.

More on efforts to stop the pythons here and make sure to go read Ed’s full post at Discover.

Calling All Citizen Scientists! Join The Christmas Bird Count

19 Dec

This is a guest post by Rebecca Deatsman.

Once again, the holiday season is upon us and we’re taking the time to enjoy our favorite traditions. Baking Christmas cookies, trimming the tree, birdwatching… wait, birdwatching? For tens of thousands of people across North America, giving up a day of their precious holiday break to spend it finding and counting wild birds is just as much a part of this season as presents under the tree. The organizing force behind all of this is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the world’s most venerable citizen science initiative.

Image by Hilary Wood

Long before the term “citizen science” had been coined, people in some parts of the U.S. participated in another Christmas tradition called the “side hunt.” Groups of people would form teams and take to the field with their guns, and whichever one returned at the end of the day with the most dead birds was the winner. However, around the turn of the century a man named Frank Chapman, an officer of the newly-formed Audubon Society, had an intriguing idea: why not replace the side hunt with another tradition, in which people would still go out and find as many birds as they could, but replace the guns with binoculars? In 1900, twenty-seven enthusiastic birders spent Christmas counting birds at locations spanning the continent from Ontario to California. That first year they tallied a total of ninety species, and the Christmas Bird Count has continued every year since.

The protocol has changed over time. Counts typically no longer happen on Christmas day, and instead can be held anytime during a three week period in late December and early January. Each count covers a specific circle with a 15-mile (24-km) diameter, with observers splitting up and recording every bird they see or hear all day – not just the number of species, but the number of individuals of each species. At the end of the day observers meet up to compile their data, which is then turned into the Audubon Society. But can such a simplistic method actually produce usable data?

In a word, yes. Not only does CBC data provide a record of bird populations going back over a century, it also covers a wide geographic area, from the Arctic Circle down into Central and South America, and this data has been used in numerous peer-reviewed papers. The Audubon Society provides a bibliography of hundreds of studies that have used CBC data on their website, spanning decades of ornithological research. Additionally, the Audubon Society uses the data to produce its own “State of the Birds” report, which has documented significant declines of many familiar birds, helping to identify species and populations at risk. Anyone can also access the same data to create graphs online or download and use however they want.

No experience is necessary to participate in a Christmas Bird Count – birders are generally more than happy to share their expertise with people who are new to the hobby. To find a count circle near you visit or use Google to locate the website of your state’s ornithological society. It’s a great way to meet interesting people, learn a new skill, and discover more about the place where you live. Happy counting!

Rebecca Deatsman is a graduate student in environmental education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she is studying how environmental educators use social media. She blogs about natural history and sense of place at Rebecca in the Woods and can also be found on Twitter as @rebeccanotbecky. This will be her seventh year of participation in the Christmas Bird Count.

The Earth Doesn’t Need To Change, We Do

16 Dec

My latest article is up over at Ottawa Citizen, where I explain that although geoengineering seems to promise a climate quick fix, we shouldn’t be experimenting on our only home. At least, not yet. Here’s a excerpt:

In recent decades, the climate crisis has gone from bad to worse. Rising temperatures coupled with severe droughts and stronger storms translate to an uncertain future for the planet. While impacts will be global, the poorest people in developing nations will be disproportionately affected.

But what if we could tweak Earth’s thermostat through geoengineering to cool things down? It may sound like science fiction, but some scientists already feel our situation is desperate enough to test the possibility. Still, just because they can predict what should work — in theory — doesn’t mean it’s time to treat our only home as an international laboratory.

From there I outline a few proposed strategies, explaining that some are technically feasible because Mother Nature already uses them, but warn they are not quite as simple as they appear — scientifically, politically, or ethically.

[My] greatest reservation is human error because even the world’s best rocket scientists occasionally make mistakes. Remember when NASA lost the $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 due to a simple mathematical oversight? The Jet Propulsion Laboratory used metric millimetres and metres, while collaborators at Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft based on inches, feet and pounds. It was one very expensive “oops,” and fortunately for us, it took place tens of millions of miles away.

So what’s a warming planet to do? We move beyond lip service and work to take greenhouse gas emissions seriously by lowering them to an acceptable level. It won’t be easy — in practice or policy. But there’s a lot more we can do too that will work in our favour. For example, forest restoration globally will not only protect animals, but also capture a great deal of carbon dioxide. With increasing urbanization, we have the capacity to reforest degraded grasslands and pasturelands, which would have a real, measurable impact on climate.

In other words, I’m not ready to give up on humanity to do the right thing. Not yet. Instead of attempting to manage Mother Nature through geoengineering, we should be doing a better job of managing ourselves.

Read the full article here

Should We Geoengineer The Planet?

15 Dec


I’ll have a lot coming tomorrow on geoengineering, which means tinkering with Earth’s thermostat through large-scale engineering to combat climate change. Some proposals to cool things down involve dumping iron into the ocean to promote algal growth or seeding the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide to reflect the sun’s rays. But before I go into great deal on whether we should try it, I’m interested to hear your perspective: