Saturday, December 10, 2016

A letter to a friend, that became a rant and a conversation with my better angels, that became outpaced by events.

Hey, readers. A while back, I got an inquiry about the Standing Rock protests. I was linked to a lengthy article that made an argument, and asked for feedback. This was before the news that the Army Corps of Engineers would refuse to grant the easement to the pipeline (YAY!). I suspect this friend was given the article by a conservative loved one whose opinion was swayed or reinforced by it and offered it to her during or after one of those civil political conversations I'm personally so fond of having with my own conservative loved ones. Could be she came across it on her own, just by having enough conservative loved ones on Facebook that it came up.

However she found it, she shared it with me, and it pissed me off.

I'm making a conscious choice, by the way, to NOT link to that piece of garbage in this post. It doesn't need any wider circulation than it got already.

My first response to my friend was a brief coupe paragraphs:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


So, it occurred to me that not everybody keeps up with environmentally-focused news and developments the way I do. Truth is, I get my info from a lot of sources. There's a lot out there! A good deal of my idle reading comes from stuff I find on Facebook, I'll admit, but some is also scholarly work, links I've come across from professional sources, or even just personal interest stuff I've kept up with for a while.

So now, I'm going to share some fun little tidbits I've come across recently, just because I think they're pretty cool, or at least worth sharing around, on the off chance anybody reads this. You may recall, it's been a while since I put up my last post like this, News & Views. Hopefully this level of posting, where I just give a few thoughts on multiple little tidbits of fun or important info, captures some audience interest.

How I'd like to imagine my audience's hunger and enthusiasm for the tidbits I'm about to present.

Ok, so here goes. First, a little podcast called RadioLab, which I've been in love with for some time now. It isn't always hard science, wandering occasionally into philosophy or speculation, but it always has some great storytelling, and I'd encourage you to check them out beyond this one 'cast.

Not just about trees!

More locally, here's some fairly recent good news. The Columbia River Basin is likely gonna get some serious funding to get cleaned up some!

The Columbia River Basin Restoration Act would be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency but adds no new authorization to regulate.  The purpose of the Act is strictly to establish a competitive grant program to help local groups voluntarily clean up, monitor, and reduce the use of toxics within the Columbia River Basin.

So this is pretty cool, because apparently the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (with other partners) has been working on this for the better part of a decade. I've volunteered with them and attended a few of their conferences, and I can tell you they're a great organization with a solid foundation in the science of what they do. They actually just recently got a major award for a project implemented in 2015. But there's a lot more to get done, and we haven't exactly gotten our share of funding for it.

 The Columbia River basin remains one of only two major EPA designated ‘large aquatic ecosystems’ to receive zero funding for clean-up pursuant to this designation.  Since 2009, ‘large aquatic ecosystems’ including the Great Lakes and Puget Sound have received a total of over $3 billion in funding to protect and preserve their watersheds.

We could use a slice of that pie, lemme tell you. I look forward to getting my hands dirty.

Speaking of which, there's an opportunity coming up that I almost never miss, Clark County Public Utilities District's Make A Difference Day, Saturday, October 22nd. Yes, they used a pic of me at the link, from my volunteering at one of the past Make A Difference Days. They get TONS of people out, bring out some live music and other performers, set up free food for the volunteers, and make a whole fair of it. If you're local, you should go. I promise it'll feel good and you'll have fun.

Another opportunity I just heard about through the email list for a local ecology-interested meetup thing (which I can never make it to because they are mostly done before my commute is over in the evenings) is this project by Cascadia Wild to get people out surveying for wolverines on Mt. Hood. Snow shoeing. Can you see the glee on my face right now? I don't know that I'll be able to make it, but they seem to have quite a few options for training dates as well as survey dates. Keep your fingers crossed. If I make it out there, I'll tell you all about it in another post.

"You lookin' fer me, bub?"
(Image from Wikipedia, by Jonathan Othén - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

And now, to leave you with one last cool bit of imagery. Some climate scientists with the Nature Conservancy have put together a map of the anticipated routes of animal migration as birds, mammals, and amphibians all start to move to cooler climes in response to climate change. While a sad topic, worth a few subsequent essays or research endeavors into what this means for future impacts to agriculture and outdoor recreation and a million other things, it makes for an amazing image. Go read up on it, and take your time admiring the animation, because it represents so much work by some brilliant people. You can zoom in and pan around if you like. I also hope you click through the links, read some cool news, and turn on some RadioLab.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Shellfish, Ocean Acification, and Global Warming

I target my writing here at the layperson, so it may or may not be obvious to my readers that lots of things are happening to the ocean as a result of anthropogenic climate change, from coral reefs dying to sea level rise to changes in our fisheries to a mysterious "Warm Blob" in the Pacific (an actual thing!). Today I thought I'd try to tackle one of the causes of a few of those changes, Ocean Acidification. Ocean Acidification is an important point to understand when we're talking about the scale and consequences of global warming, and I hope to impart a bit of perspective on the matter here, if I can.

There's a lot of chemistry I'm not really gonna go into, but a little of it you have to understand, at least conceptually. First, a quick lesson on pH. I know you've seen that letter combination before, be it on lotion or soap or what have you, maybe you remember playing with pH paper in high school, but the thing to know is that it is a scale of measurement. Simply, it measures how acidic or basic something is, and those are opposite descriptors for the chemistry of a fluid based on the activity of the hydrogen ions in it. The scale runs from 0 to 14, where 7 is neutral, the low half of the scale is acidic and the upper half is basic. Lemon juice, for example, contains 5% to 6% citric acid and has a pH of between 2 and 3 (high acidity). The ocean is at a pH of around 8 (a little basic).

The thing to understand about pH is that this is a logarithmic scale. Like the Richter Scale used for measuring earthquake intensity, it isn't linear. We're not counting things, we're measuring intensity, in a range that boggles the human brain. A difference of 1 does not reflect an extra orange in a sack of oranges. Each mark on the scale is the previous mark multiplied by a value, not added to by a value. On the Richter scale a difference of one represents about a thirtyfold difference in magnitude. With pH, as mentioned, we're talking about the chemistry of the relative abundance of hydrogen ions, charged atoms. It takes a lot of those to change the pH of a cup of liquid you can hold in your hand. The numbers involved are beyond the capacity of the human brain to comprehend without some sort of shorthand to abbreviate things. You probably know that multiplying something by 2 over and over again gets you to astronomically high numbers really fast. Imagine doing that with a multiplier of 10 and you begin to understand pH.

So we have solid data to show that the pH of the ocean used to be more like 8.2, around 300 years ago, and over the last 200 years or so (thanks, Industrial Revolution!) it has edged up toward 8.1, which National Geographic will also spare you the math on and just tell you is about a 25% increase in acidity. That's a whole damn lot, which, when you think about how very big the ocean is, should scare you a whole damn lot. Because part of the carbon cycle of this planet involves the ocean soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere, forming carbonic acid (H2CO3) when it hits the water (H2O). This effect of the oceans soaking up our excess atmospheric carbon has definitely helped us by slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gasses that heats things up enough to melt glaciers and tundras, but we've generated so much CO2, so fast (think geologic timescales, now), that we're literally changing the chemistry of our planet. And it'll get worse. By one estimate, "if we continue our current rate of carbon emissions, global oceans could be 150 percent more acidic by the end of the century than they have been for 20 million years."

Look, we're not concerned the ocean is gonna turn into lemon juice. But we're pumping enough carbon into the ocean, that the acification is keeping sea life from functioning properly. That's why coral reefs are bleaching worldwide, and why the industry that harvests and sells mussels in Oregon is suffering. The higher acidity inhibits shell growth in marine animals. They literally can't make the chemistry of their bodies in the water function well enough to produce the calcium carbonate that they need for their shells, exoskeletons and other structures. The whole food chain is affected by this, including our fisheries.

Looks like a Dryer Ball to me.

There is so much we don't know about the ocean! We find new and previously assumed-to-be-extinct species, and we have absolutely no idea what this is! We have no idea what caused the Bloop (OK, we have some solid evidence to imply it was iceberg related, but still). We're still in the "observation" stage of understanding what the heck is going on with the Blob, as it is way too early to say we understand the process of it's generation even a tenth as well as we get the El Nino formation or what they call the "Pacific Decadal Oscillation." Hell, we can only sorta say we understand THOSE. We've looked at MAYBE 5% of the ocean and its depths, and the budget for NOAA (the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) is less than a quarter of that of NASA. We need more Boaty McBoatfaces. We need more research, not just of what climate change is doing but of what's been out there all this time (my own alma mater is amazing on this front, btw).

Don't get me wrong, I love NASA. I love the technological marvels they've brought us over the years, and the exploration of space, and I have no desire to see NASA's budget cut, but NOAA definitely needs more, because they work to understand our planet's life support system. If we screw that up, there's no fixing it. Sorry to end on such a downer note, but that's were the science brings us.

Which is why (and I can say this, because this is a personal blog, and I choose to say it because we're in an election year) I will never vote for anyone who denies global warming. And you shouldn't either. That eliminates about 95% of a particular political party, in case you were wondering. Bear that in mind this November.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Contaminants in our Environment, Biomagnification, and Science Literature


The Dissemination of Useful Knowledge in the Struggle for Modern Life

According to the Canadian Museum of Nature, belugas (Dephinapterus leucas) and killer whales (Orcinus orca) may be considered toxic waste in some places when they die. I'm going to do my best in this post to explain how and why.

So there's this thing I'm gonna introduce as background, called an Ecological Pyramid. This is a simple graphic representation of biomass at multiple trophic levels. Trophic levels being, of course, position on the food chain, from plants to bacteria and little buggies that decompose dead plant matter, to the larger buggies that prey on those, to the grazers that eat the grass that grows in the decomposing material, to the megafauna predators that prey on the grazers. Biomass, being simply the sheer amount of matter that is living, for this purpose categorized by trophic level.

The idea in an Ecological Pyramid is that only about 10% of the energy in all the biomass of one trophic level gets transferred/used to the next trophic level, so the apex predators need a ton of biomass and a large territory to support them. Now, this is simplified because it doesn't show food web interactions, so there are a number of reasons it doesn't work out for all situations, and there are a ton of exceptions and inconsistencies, but toss that aside a moment and imagine this:

So think about this as a way that nature might process some heinous contaminants. DDT, for example. Lead. PCBs. Mercury. Hydrocarbons from petroleum products or oil spills. This stuff gets picked up and processed a little bit at a time by the primary producers, bioaccumulated into that trophic level, but as a ton of primary producers get consumed by the next step up the pyramid, the contaminants don't dilute out. They aren't ever broken down because of how enduring they are, so they biomagnify. That means that a lot of contaminants sucked up out of the environment by the primary producers then end up in the bodies of each herbivore, because the structure of the food web and the biomass pyramid means a LOT of the primary producers are required to support herbivores. The concentration of the contaminant doesn't necessarily actually harm organisms at lower trophic levels, but because it gets more concentrated at each successive level, it can be really harmful to larger animals.

So if a chemical is mobile in the environment, long lived, and doesn't break down easily, if it is soluble in fats and/or can be considered "bio-available" for uptake by the primary producers, it can biomagnify. DDT was the beginning of our understanding of this phenomenon.

See, DDT is a nasty chemical, but the broader effects of it aren't immediately apparent. As far as we knew, it was just a really, really effective pesticide. It didn't just kill a few pests, though, it killed the broadest array of insects we'd ever seen. And like whaling or ocean dumping or logging or any number of other natural resource issues, we went overboard. Seriously, kids got hosed down with it in the streets, it was put on food crops everywhere, sprayed over whole forests and ornamental trees in residential neighborhood. We were spraying the stuff like it was going out of style.

“By their very nature chemical controls are self-defeating, for they have been devised and applied without taking into account the complex biological systems against which they have been blindly hurled” -- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

The more pesticides got sprayed into our environment, the more made their way into the food web, the more it impacted species that had nothing to do with the intended use of the pesticides, particularly apex predators (which, as you know from previous posts, are vital to the health of an ecosystem). Bald eagles, for example, were impacted by DDT in such a way as to reduce the hardness of the shells of the eggs they laid, so they were severely impacted, and put on the endangered species list. They were only removed from the list in 2007 after enough time had passed without ongoing continued exposure so that their population could recover.

Hang in there, I'll get back to whale carcasses in a minute. See where this is going, though?

Anyway, part of the problem was that the people making decisions to spray were typically pest control officials, largely bureaucrats who found it a cheap way to get a ton of land cleared of pests in a hurry or agricultural producers advised by those bureaucrats on how to dramatically increase their yield in a single season, and not the underfunded wildlife biologists who were seeing the impacts on the rest of nature or the public health specialists who eventually started to see impacts on people. Even otherwise fully healthy people, years after use and exposure.

See, the problem with a lot of pesticides is that they are fat soluble. Which meant that not only do they get into mammary tissue and breastmilk and harm the most vulnerable of our population, they can accumulate and be stored in fat for years, seemingly harmlessly, until one day a person might lose weight due to illness or injury or even an attempt at improved exercise lifestyle and find their system suddenly overloaded with more pesticide than they could handle, suddenly released from those tissues as their fat cells got used for energy. People can drop like flies, kinda literally, years after any exposure to pesticides.

To top it off, for quite a while, it seemed like the only way we could find to deal with pests developing resistances to pesticides (a natural evolutionary consequence of pesticide application) was to spray at higher concentrations, and more frequently. This served the interests of the chemical manufacturers quite nicely, and they had armies of lobbyists pushing their product on Congress and on agencies like the USDA. They sold their products as "cheap and easy!" until it wasn't, and then it was just all we knew for a while.

However, there are alternatives out there. Selective application of pesticides rather than wholesale spraying at incautious concentrations as used to be common is one way. If you use just a little of just the right pesticide at just the right time in a particular pest's lifecycle, you can get away with applying a lot less pesticide, at way less cost, to much greater effect. We've also had great results by selectively importing predators and microbial enemies and other biological controls of pest species, after very careful testing in controlled lab and field tests to find what would work.

Collectively, these practices are called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. My state, along many others including probably yours, has tons of information and resources on it available for the public (that's you!), for yardwork and gardening hobbyists, for agricultural producers, and for anyone who might be interested. I have vague memories of what my dad did to our yard and house to control an absurdly huge infestation of our dog's fleas when I was a kid, and I wonder what the concentration of those chemicals is in our own fat cells to this day as a result. It's a tough thing to think about, because nobody knew better. To this day, many people don't know better, and still over apply pesticides because they think simply that more is better and don't realize they can be causing problems that won't be seen for years, whether in the health of their family or in increased resistance by the pests to those chemicals.

Eventually, the voices of biologists like Rachel Carson started to get heard, even over the character assassination attempts of the well financed chemical industry and the politicians who served them. Rachel's 1962 book, Silent Spring, laid out all the evidence and made a convincing case for the application of alternatives and reduction of the use of pesticides. Her book, a labor of love she wrote while fighting cancer in the last days of her life, raised such a ruckus that DDT got banned, and the environment was raised for the first time to the status of a major political issue of interest to all of us. She basically started a major branch of the modern environmental movement singlehandedly.

I'd encourage you to read it, though I'd understand if you never picked it up, dear reader. I only got around to reading Silent Spring last year, in part just because I was embarrassed that I, an actual ecologist, had never read such an important work. Oh, don't get me wrong, I knew the information it held, and had taken classes that presented the same information with more recent updates to the science, but had never really fully appreciated the grace of Rachel's prose, or the effort she put into her work.

And that's why I (too rarely, I know) write about this stuff. Not because I consider myself a writer or scientist anywhere near Rachel Carson's eloquence or brilliance, but because so many people don't know this stuff, and sometimes someone might pick up a little knowledge from me. This is all just background information I'm fully aware of as a person with a career in natural resources, but many of my friends and family know almost nothing about it, and I feel like I have to honor the works of Rachel Carson and Bill Nye and Edward O. Wilson and Charles Darwin and Mary Roach and all the rest of the fascinating and entertaining science literature out there from ages past and present . . . by sharing it. We all benefit from this knowledge, because our neighbors overapplying pesticides in their yards, ignorant through no real fault of their own, affects us and the rest of the world we live in, too. Lots of issues are like that.

Maybe I'll get back into writing here more just by taking the time to read more, and sharing the experiences I get from my favorite new and classic science writing. Let me know if you like that idea, and encourage me once in a while, and you'll see more submissions from me, I promise. Gimme prompts! If there are questions about ecology or the broader sciences that you've wondered about, let me know. I'll be happy to share my knowledge, and go searching for it if I don't already have it.

Now: Confession time! I tricked you. Whale carcasses were really just a silly excuse to get me writing, and are hazardous not for the bioaccumulated environmental contaminants, but because Brobdingnagian sized rotting carcasses are a hazard to public health. Also, they have been known to explode without warning as gasses build up within them while they decompose from the inside out. But you learned some cool stuff, didn't you?

So without further ado, I'm really happy to have created an opportunity to share the following grossness. Enjoy. Oh, and, uh . . . viewer discretion is advised.

A few Rachel Carson quotes to leave you with:

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

“The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities... If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

(She was primarily a Marine Biologist, FYI)