Stories tagged environment

Which forms of energy production should the government be subsidizing more? Nuclear or renewable technologies like wind and solar?

St. Paul Metro Transit runs a program called Bike2Benefits. If you register, and keep track of your bike commute using their calendar, you'll not only see your mileage and your carbon emissions savings add up, but you'll also receive a Twin Cities bike map and be eligible for the year-end drawing. But hurry: you need at least 1 bike commute in each of 8 consecutive weeks before the end of the calendar year, and the temperature outside is dropping. (You can document rides retroactively, though.)


This seems to be a big week for the Great Lakes, especially their restoration and preservation. The Great Lakes Legacy Act is making its way through Congress; presidential candidate Barack Obama has promised to set up a five billion dollar trust fund for protection of the 5 inland seas (in the spirit of non-partisan fairness here’s the Republicans’ response); the new Omnifilm, Mysteries of the Great Lakes just opened and is playing here at the SMM Omnitheater; and a new debate has started regarding the long-held practice of swabbing debris from the decks of Great Lake freighters once they get out on the lakes.

Great Lakes from space: Photo by NASA
Great Lakes from space: Photo by NASA
The five Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario contain something like 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and are the source of drinking water for millions of Canadians and Americans who live around them. I grew up along the shores of Lake Superior (our hillside neighborhood in Duluth set on the prehistoric lake bottom of a larger Ice Age ancestor) so I’m partial to good old Gichigami and its siblings, and I’m really glad to see some serious attention is being paid to their clean-up and preservation.


A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.
A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.Courtesy Albedo-ukr
San Antonio has made a deal with the duke. A particularly mighty duke, too, and one that has often been overlooked, despite this duke’s ability to deliver great power.

I get some interesting questions from visitors when I out working on the museum floor. A lot of times I don't have the answers, praticularly about new trends of science that are in the headlines. Here's a top 10 list of things you don't have to worry about, from a scientific viewpoint at least, as you enjoy the final days of summer. Topics addressed include shark attacks, cancer from cellphones and the risks of using your car's air conditioning.


A baby penguin: Enjoy it while it lasts.
A baby penguin: Enjoy it while it lasts.Courtesy Ben Cooper
Nature is playing a funny joke on the world. It involves cute, baby penguins, and the tropical beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The punch line: the baby penguins are dead, and the beaches of Rio are covered in them.

Ho ho ho! Nice one, Nature!

You’ve all heard of the Circle of Life, I’m sure, and dead baby penguins are a beautiful part of that process, but this year something seems awry—namely that there are tons more dead baby penguins in Brazil than you’d normally expect.

The cause of the baby penguin die off is still unclear, but local zoo officials (the only authorities quoted in this article) believe that it may have to do with pollution, or over fishing causing the penguins to swim further for food than they normally would. Baby penguins would not be as able to contend with stronger ocean currents further from shore, and they’d, you know, drown and die.

So it may not be totally accurate to say that it’s Nature’s fault that all the baby penguins died. But it seems like something Nature would do.


Lake Superior Day: Swimmers enjoy the waters of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota's Canal Park.
Lake Superior Day: Swimmers enjoy the waters of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota's Canal Park.Courtesy Mark Ryan
How do you celebrate one of the largest pools of freshwater on Earth? By participating in the annual Lake Superior Day, that’s how! This Sunday, July 20, is Lake Superior Day, a day of celebrations for the world’s largest and cleanest freshwater lake.

Towns and communities lining the shores of Superior in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario are planning all sorts of events in tribute to the greatest of the Great Lakes.

Picnics, beach clean-ups, library displays, kite flying, concerts, hikes, an essay contest, and government proclamations are all part of the day’s celebration to bring attention to this huge body of water that holds 10 percent of Earth’s fresh water. Events are planned all around the lake. For example, games and activities promoting water conservation will take place in Red Rock, Ontario. A family picnic is scheduled at Silver Harbour in Thunder Bay, Canada. Afternoon events will take place on Barker’s Island Festival Park in the city of Superior, Wisconsin, and scientists and lake area experts will be on hand at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center at Canal Park in Duluth with information about the lake’s natural history, regional culture, and invasive aquatic species.

The annual event takes place on the third Sunday of July, and is sponsored by the Lake Superior Binational Forum, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Environment Canada. So, if you're anywhere near Gichigami this coming Sunday, join in the festivities, or just go jump in the lake!

Flowerpots in full flame
Flowerpots in full flameCourtesy GatheringZero
In my continuing quest to keep the public informed about exploding household objects, I bring you the case of the exploding......FLOWERPOT house fire?! I’m sorry but of all the things that could explode, a flowerpot falls pretty low on my list of potential hazards. The St. Paul Fire Department investigator, James Novak, agrees, “It’s not like everybody has to worry that their house is going to burn down...halogen lights, smoking, candles and Pop-Tarts in a toaster--there are a lot of things higher on the priority list than a potted plant fire.” Nevertheless, the combination of fertilizer, heat and oxygen within the pot can lead to potentially unorthodox flower pot behavior. Consider yourselves warned. As for me, I think a conversation with my fern about fire safety is long overdue.


So I'm surfing the web and I come across an item about DDT use in Africa. If it's true, then this is the kind of thing that really frosts my shorts. But, as the blogger notes, the item has only appeared in a couple of fringe outlets. Not that I consider the MSM the font of credibility. But I've already been taken to task for the Space Camp Barbie post, so it would be nice to have verification.

Anyway, according to this report, a Dutch textile firm is refusing to buy cotton from parts of Uganda which use the chemical DDT to combat malaria. Malaria kills up to 100,000 Ugandans every year. DDT effectively controls the mosquitoes that spread the disease.

But DDT has a downside -- it gets into the environment and poisons fish, birds and other wildlife. For this reason, it has been banned in the US and other Western countries for more than 30 years.

Countries that use DDT today don't spray food crops. They use small, safe amounts and generally confine its use to indoors, protecting people from malaria-ridden mosquitoes.

But this apparently is not good enough for the Dutch. According to the report, the company is refusing to buy cotton from areas that use DDT, claiming the crop is no longer "organic." As a result, farmers from those areas cannot sell their cotton at full price, and are losing money.

Basically, European eco-purists are giving African farmers a choice: avoid DDT and die of malaria, or use DDT and die of starvation. The Euro-elites, of course, face neither of these fates.

Like I said, this is based on just one report. It would be nice to get independent confirmation.


Lighting a backfire
Lighting a backfireCourtesy LouAngeli2008

As fires continue to rage in the forests of California, I thought I would introduce you to some of the people trying to control them. Smokejumpers are the logical people to start with as they are usually the first on the ground.

Smokejumpers are the elite forces of the US forestry department. Many fires begin in locations inaccessible to the standard means of transportation (trucks, helicopters, or by foot). These firefighters arrive by plane and parachute into remote areas. Often their landing site is the top of a tree or a boulder field. Their kevlar suits provide some protection but their skill set includes tree climbing, practiced falling and general hardiness.

In the beginning, jumpers were required to be unmarried without dependents. They had to be a bit reckless to be able to agree to jump out of a plane into a fire area! Despite the inherent danger of jumping, there have been relatively few fatalities in their long history. Jumping began in the late 1930s as flight technology and airplanes became more sophisticated. During the war, many of the jumpers were conscientious objectors to WWII. In 1981 the first women were allowed into the program. Today there are 9 active bases in the West but they serve fires from Alaska to the North East.

The physical requirements... 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes---all done in one session with a 5 minute break between each activity. So, I am pretty much disqualified right off the bat with the pull ups and even if I were to manage, the running would definitely eliminate me. I view running as a self destructive behavior (who would put themselves through that? sorry El). You must also be mentally and emotionally stable--that is a requirement! A smokejumper’s pack often weighs upwards of 100 pounds...and you have no ride out, you must hike or hitchhike in (after landing) and out of the fire. To see a complete list of physical requirements (including height and weight) check out the West Yellowstone smokejumper website.

What they do : After landing and recovering their gear (which is dropped from the plane in (hopefully) a relatively similar location to where they land) the crew sets out towards the fire. They carry no water save for their thermoses. They control the fire by either creating a fireline/firebreak, a swath of land around the edge of the fire cleared of any brush or fuel that could feed the fire, or they light a backfire . Backfires act much like a fireline/firebreak in that they burn towards the oncoming fire. By doing so, they remove the fuel the fire needs to continue burning. Only if the jumpers are unable to contain the fire are reinforcements called to the scene. Jumpers direct helicopters to drop water on hot spots and systematically work their way through the burn site feeling the ground to make sure that there will be no flare-ups. They can leave when the fire is controlled or fresh firefighters take-over, often times many hours after they first jumped from the plane.

Be sure to check out the links below. Jumpers work from June-Oct so those of you looking for adventure with an extremely selective and tight-knit group, smokejumping could be for you.