Stories tagged it's complicated

Apr
05
2011

Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife
Word on the street is that Xcel Energy has canceled its $400 million, 150-megawatt wind farm project in North Dakota. (North Dakota, if I remember my geography right, is the Dakota directly … above South Dakota. I think.)

The reason Xcel is giving for the cancellation is the same one I give for never going out in the yard without a rake: birds.

The wind turbines, it seems, could pose a potential hazard to two endangered birds: the whooping crane (known to be a silent, thoughtful bird), and the piping plover (known for perching on bathroom windowsills to watch people bathe). The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America (save that for humiliating your fiancé on trivia night), and its population has been reduced to only about 400 birds, largely due to habitat loss. The piping plover, also a victim of habitat loss, is a shore bird with a global population of just over 6,000 individuals.

Faced with a federal mandate to mitigate the threat to the birds, Xcel, like an unenthusiastic kid who just found out he’d have to bike to a lame birthday party, decided that that the wind farm scene just wasn’t worth the hassle.

It’s too bad, really. Shana explored this issue a couple weeks ago, but the long and the short of it is that it’s a doozy. On one hand, no one wants to see a five-foot-tall crane run into a windmill (if you laugh, you go to Denny’s when you die), but on the other, you have to balance that threat against the chronic environmental effects of fossil fuel use. If both species are vulnerable to habitat loss, climate change probably isn’t going to be a great thing for them. And at least in the case of the cranes, fossil fuel has an even more direct effect on them—the cranes’ only winter habitat, Aransas, Texas, is a regular spot for oil and gas drilling operations. So … they’re able to work that out, but not the North Dakota wind farm?

It kind of feels like that kid was really looking for an excuse not to go to the birthday party. But I suppose we can’t really blame it all on the kid—we should have made sure it was a better party. And, yeah, I can see how having a bunch of birds around would make for a creepy party, but if it was done right it could also be an awesome party with all those birds!

Oh, god, I don’t know what’s metaphor and what’s reality anymore.

Anyway, no more big wind turbine field in North Dakota. What do y’all think about that?

Mar
04
2011

This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...

Here's Bryan's comment:

I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.

Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?

How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?

How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?

Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.
Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.Courtesy US Government

And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.

Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.
Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.Courtesy Matthew Baugh

It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.

And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.

Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.
Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.Courtesy Ivy Main

I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?

Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?
Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?Courtesy Clementina

Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?

I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?

For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.

Feb
17
2008

Nearly identical twins: The difference being, of course, that the boy on the left thinks only evil thoughts.
Nearly identical twins: The difference being, of course, that the boy on the left thinks only evil thoughts.Courtesy Chubby Bat
Genetic studies have recently revealed that identical twins are only mostly identical.

Identical twins, by definition, should have the very same DNA. While the genome is virtually identical, says a report in the American Journal of Human Genetics, there are tiny and fairly common differences in the genetic makeup of twins.

Each set of twins involved in the study had the same DNA, but “evinced differences in the number of copies of individual DNA segments.” So some twins could have multiple copies of a segment of DNA, while their siblings might be missing the same segment altogether.

The study complicates our view of genetics, but might lead to a better understanding of why identical twins sometimes have significant differences in health. Parkinson’s disease, for instance, can develop in one twin and not the other, and until now environmental factors were thought to be the only explanation for that sort of thing.

What’s most remarkable about the study, to me at least, is that these geneticists claim to have discovered something that I learned from watching a video when I was seven. I am, of course, referring to the 1988 documentary Twins. The film follows two separated-at-birth twins, within whom a keen observer can detect subtle discrepancies in morphological phenotypes. One of the brothers, Julius, looks strikingly like a younger version of California’s governor, while the other brother, Vincent, looks a little more like some kind of goblin, possibly a gnome. Also, Vincent has latent criminal tendencies, and Julius is cursed with deeply sub-average intelligence. So while this study sheds a certain amount of light on the subjects of the film, I’m not sure that the scientists should go around talking about “original research.” At the very least, I hope that Ivan Reitman is credited in their bibliography.