Monday, September 18, 2017
Friday, September 01, 2017
|from "Raw Sewage" by Ron Cobb. 1970. used with permission|
"Houston, we have a problem!" Yes, we do. The extent of the destruction from Hurricane Harvey, and the toll of human death and injury are not yet fully known. What we do know is that this is one of the largest natural disasters in recent U.S. history, and the areas affected will have a long and arduous recovery.
The Ron Cobb cartoon above was published almost 50 years ago, the same year as the first Earth Day. Today, 50 years later, it has the same urgent message as it did then. Have we learned what ecology is in the course of 50 years, or are we still wondering?
This post is neither intended to point fingers nor to minimize the real suffering caused by this monster storm, Harvey. It is intended to continue discussion about ecology, natural disasters, and yes, human-caused climate change.
It is not correct to assume or conclude that Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change; climate scientists are very clear about that. It can, and should be said that some of the characteristics of this storm are directly related to human-induced climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures result in an increased amount of moisture in the air and a greater storm intrensity and more rapid change in intensity, and higher ocean levels from melting polar ice influence the extent of coastal flooding.
For Houston, rain was the major factors that caused such extensive destruction. The Houston area received 50 inches of rain during the storm, and once on the ground, that water had nowhere to go. There has been a lot of reporting in the past few days about urban planning in Houston, and the fact that Houston is the only major U.S. City that does not have a zoning code. The result is mostly unregulated development and growth - urban sprawl - with one result being more impervious surface (buildings and paved surfaces). The city also has an inadequate stormwater drainage system.
A study of tree canopy and percent impervious surface in 20 U.S. Cities, using satellite imagery from the period 2001 - 2006, found that Houston had the second greatest area of annual tree loss (2,199 acres/yr). Houston also had the second highest, behind Los Angeles, increase in impervious surface, at 988.4 acres/year (by comparison, my city of Portland, Oregon lost 124 acres/yr of tree cover, and added 130 acres/yr of impervious surface).
So, back to the question "what's ecology?" Well, as with the Ron Cobb cartoon, I reach back to another of my ecology touchstones, the book The Closing Circle, by the ecologist Dr. Barry Commoner, first published in 1971. Dr. Commoner posed four basic Laws of Ecology: 1) everything is connected to everything else, 2) everything must go somewhere, 3) Nature knows best, and 4) there is no such thing as a free lunch. I don't believe that over the past almost 50 years there has been a better, simpler explanation of a very complex topic.
Think about the Harvey impacts in Houston (and other parts of Texas and Louisiana) in relationship to each of the Four Laws. The irony is not lost on the fact that Port Arthur, another Texas city greatly impacted by Harvey, is home to a number of oil refineries, including Motiva, the largest refinery in the U.S., and the terminus of the Keystone pipeline. Our collective use of fossil fuels has been a major factor in the changing climate, and everything is connected to everything else. The interaction between Hurricane Harvey and the lack of good urban planning resulted in more flooding than otherwise might have occured - no free lunch.
The myriad explanations, or excuses, about why Houston and other Gulf cities are so ill-prepared for a major storm boils down to one thing, the hubris of humans. Voter apathy, unwillingness to pay increased taxes, the relationship between individual and corporate profits and government, and a resistance to base policy decisions on science are factors in the extent of the Harvey disaster. Let me be clear here, Harvey was a monster storm, and even the very best urban planning and preparedness would not have resulted in zero impacts to people and property. What is true is that we are experiencing rapid and radical changes in Earth's climate, and we need to be more prepared for large, destructive climate events than we are now.
The President of the United States claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China. Other prominent leaders in our government, included elected representatives and newly-appointed heads of federal agencies, support this wrong thinking. I will assign blame here to these people, and others like them in positions of power or decision making. Climate change induced by human activity is a fact, and the leading experts and institutions involved in the science of climate change have strongly recommended that all levels of government focus on adapting to the changes. Cities like Houston need to be better prepared for major storm events, even if it means disregarding the words and actions coming down from the nation's capitol.
"What's ecology?" Just take a look around.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
This is our world as seen from above the north pole. To most of us, this has always been an uninteresting and unfamiliar view because we don't recognize it as the world map we learned in school. The important point now is that this part of the world is becoming a new area of international competition and possible conflict. The reason: climate change.
As Arctic sea ice thins and disappears, shipping along the Northern Route, shown in the map, is becoming more feasible most of the year. To demonstrate this possibility, a new Russian ice-breaking LNG (liquified natural gas) tanker sailed from Norway through the Northern Route in 6.5 days, without an accompanying ice breaker. This is a major achievement, and signals a major increase in Northern Route shipping. Russia intends to use this route to transport LNG to Asia. You can read about it here.
The U.S., Canada and Russia are the major countries along the Arctic seas, and there is increasing competition for dominanxce of this trade route. In addition, the shrinking ice sheets are making more Arctic areas available for oil and gas exploration and development, another arena for competition between nations and corporations.
The irony is not lost on the fact that the use of fossil fuels has been the main driver of global climate change, and one result is opportunities for more oil and gas production and transportation.
The environmental impacts on the Arctic from this increase in shipping and oil/gas development can only be predicted, but we know enough to understand that there will be negative consequences.
History is filled with dreams and schemes of a Northern Route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and many explorers have tried to find this fabled route. Now humans have found this holy grail, only because our actions have changed the climate and reduced the ice cover and thickness of the Arctic Seas.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Social media yesterday was filled with photos of people staring up into the sky wearing funny cardboard-framed dark glasses. There was something about it that looked familiar to me, and I realized that it reminded me of the early 3D movies that came out when I was a kid, and we all put on funny cardboard-framed glasses in the movie theater.
But yesterday wasn't a 3D movie, it was reality, a solar eclipse. Millions of people watched in amazement, wearing funny glasses, as the moon shadow covered the sun and, in the zone of totality, the world was dark for a short time. As a science geek, I keep thinking about the role of science in this event.
Before humans understood the science of astronomy, a total eclipse of the sun was terrifying. What must have gone through people's minds as they experienced this phenomenon? I also wonder how many people were blinded from watching an eclipse.
Now, because of science, we understand an eclipse. But science gives us more than an understanding. Scientists have models that allow them to calculate when an eclipse will happen, where it will be seen, the exact limits of the zone of totality, the timing at each location along the path, and so much more. I used an interactive google map yesterday to find the exact timing of the eclipse at specific locations (latitude and longitude), the duration of eclipse, the percent of obscuration, and other data.
And those funny-looking cardboard glasses? Science dictated the design of the lenses that protect human eyes from being damaged.
Science is part of everything we do today. The computer device I'm using right now, connected to the entire world through my wifi network is the result of applied research from many different science disciplines. Think about the difference in our lives now compared to a time when our ancesters were hunters-gatherers or simple farmers. (And yes, we can't not think about the two sides of science and technology use, positive and negative.)
I don't understand, and have little tolerance for people who purposefully negate the role of science in our lives. People like Donald Trump and many other elected officials who question the science of climate researchers, some even claiming that human-caused climate change is a hoax. And most Americans don't realize that the Trump administration is quietly rolling back science research programs and science-based regulations across all federal agencies, for the benefit of corporations. This anti-science movement is a real and present danger to the entire world.
We all need to look beyond the wierdness emanating from the White House (using the science-based tweet technology) and pay attention to the many ways science is being destroyed by our own president and his henchpersons. We need to let our electeds know that we do not agree with this.
Monday, August 21, 2017
In his remarks about the violent demonstration in Charlottesville, VA, President Donald J. Trump said that "I've condemned neo-Nazis, I've condemned many different groups. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch." He offered no explanation for how he knew this to be true.
The man in this photo is Matthew Heimbach, an American fascist, white-supremasist and neo-Nazi. He was an organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. that has now become infamous in American history. The photo was taken as he entered the courtroom to support the man who drove his car into a crowd of anti-right protesters, killing a young woman and injuring many others.
What most Americans didn't know when they saw this or other photos of this fascist was that the man pictured on the shirt, Corneliu Zelea Condreanu, was the leader of the fascist Legion of Saint Michael the Archangel and the Iron Guard political party in Romania during the late 1930's. Condreanu was behind huge pogroms in Romania that killed tens of thousands of Jews. He is now a revered figure to the fascist Heimbach and others in American and European fascist movements.
I am genetically a Jew (see footnote). My maternal grandmother immigrated to America from Romania, and my other grandparents came here from other parts of eastern Europe. The results of my recent genetic testing show that I am 96.7% Ashkenazi Jewish (the remainder, interestingly, groups with Irish/English, Sardinian, and East Asian/Native American!). So yes, I take the words and actions of fascists like Matthew Heimbach seriously; people just like him murdered people in my family and millions more of my people.
And yes, I take the the words of Donald J. Trump very seriously, and can only conclude that he, too, is a fascist.
I have nothing but enmity for the fascist Heimback and his ilk, and that includes the man who is presently the President of the United States of America. The message in recent Trumpian doublespeak is one of support for white supremacists and fascists, the so-called "alt-Right" who organized and participated in the violent Charlottesville demonstration. No rational, objective human being can defend these deplorables, but Trump does so with obvious glee and indignation. And Vice-President Pence stands "with the President" on this issue.
The fascists who marched in Charlottesville carrying Nazi flags and other fascist symbols call themselves patriots. Bullshit! Real American patriots include the more than 400,000 men and women who died, and the more than 671,000 who were wounded during World War II fighting the Nazis and their fascist allies. Carrying Nazi symbols and idolizing Nazis dishonors the true patriots of this country!
And then there is the case equivalency posed by Donald Trump comparing statues of Confederate generals and soldiers to those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners. Any intelligent person understands the obvious invalidity of this comparison. Washington and Jefferson helped establish a new country in a break from authoritarianism, a country with the ideal, still being fought for, that "all men [persons] are created equal." Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other icons of the Confederacy, were part of a rebellion against the government of the United States, based on the perpetuation of slavery as a legal, sanctioned enterprise. The excerpts from the Constitution of the confederacy, below, leave nothing to the imagination:
ARTICAL I. SECTION 9.
- The importation of negroes of the African race, from any foreign country, other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.
- Congress shall also have power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy.
- No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed.
ARTICLE IV. SECTION 3.
3. The Confederate States may acquire new territory, and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide government for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several States; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves, lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
The vast majority of Americans are not fascists. The events in Charlottesville, and the many race and hate crimes being committed in America this year, are symptoms of a disease, a disease of morality and conscience. These haters must be pointed out and shamed at every opportunity. We value free speech in America, but we do not value hate speech and speech that incites violence. Not even, and especially from a President!
Footnote: There is a common misperception that the term "Jew" refers to a religious group. While it is true that many Jewish people practice the Jewish religion, it is also true that many people who are genetically Jewish are not religious. To the Nazis in Germany, and the neo-Nazis around the world now, as well as many other anti-Semites, the term "jew" is a derogatory term used for anyone who has any familial or genetic Jewishness. When the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville chanted "jews will not replace us," they were not referring to people who practice the Jewish religion. Anti-Jew hate speech and violence around the world are not crimes against a religious group, they are race crimes.
Tuesday, August 01, 2017
Wearing shorts and a tank top, a cup of iced coffee on the wide arm of the Adirondak chair, sitting in the morning coolness of the garden; my attempt to start the day not thinking about the circus in D.C.
The sound of water falling on a large rock and dribbling into the pool below is the primary sound this early. The throbbing groan of the AC unit two houses away occupies the background. This is urban quiet.
A single ray of sunshine slices through the Italian cypress trees and illuminates the moon bridge, part of the stone temple, and the top of a feathery grass. A small breeze stirs a few mellow tones from the wind chime on the deck above.
The air in the sun ray is alive with tiny white erratic flecks - small flies that I call gnats. Their haphazard movements are somewhat hypnotic, adding a visual calming. The effect is broken, or enahnced for this ecologist, by predatory wasps and flies that speed through the shaft of light, hawking for the small living flecks.
My focus shifts outward as the city awakens. A dog barks. A truck lumbers past in front of the house. The faint roar of a jet high overhead takes a spot in my hearing. The pool of sunlight creeps towards my feet and warms the flat stones of the patio. My moment of peace is nearly over.
The temperature today will be 99 degrees. The political scandal of the moment will blast its way into my head. I will start the next task on my endless to-do list and another day will be in full bloom.
Thank you, Garden of Tranquility, for this brief moment of peace to start my day.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
I sat on the beach with nature for a very long time. It was a very low tide, and the shallow bay was mostly mud- and sand-flats. I had no computer device in my hand, no printed material, no earphones. By pushing my tinnitus into the background, I could hear only faint or occasional sounds; the thrumming of a distant ship engine and nature itself. It was an overcast day, somewhere between cool and warm, with no breeze. I sat and watched. I sat and listened. I sat and was.
Faint shadows appeared, and my back felt sun warmed, only for a few moments. Then cold flowed over me like a wave along the ground, and mist rose from the mudflat in front of me. I mentally hugged myself for warmth. My eyelids grew suddenly heavy, and I drifted with the mist.
Raven stopped to chat, settling on the water- and sun-worn root wad on the beach near me. I wondered what all the fuss was early in the morning when I heard him and his Clan in the roosting tree. I told him about the coyote chorus in the middle of the night before, and how I wished I had also studied their language when my brain was young and flexible. They sounded excited, maybe joyful; I didn’t know.
Raven is wise enough to talk to me without revealing those things that only ravens should know. And so he told me of his family, where his kids were living, how many visitors they had from other clans this summer; in other words news, but nothing too important. He did share that the big fuss that morning was another of the Raven Clan political arguments, and that one of his cousins, a distant one, launched into a rant about this and that. I asked if it was about us, the humans; he demurred.
Raven left to do some foraging on the mud flat before the tide turned, and he bid me a kind farewell until we met again. I enjoy Raven. Many people think he and his kind are course, crass, verging on vulgar; but I have known him for a long time, and understand that, unlike Crow, Raven and his own are honest, kind, and very forgiving.
After a quiet interlude, Eagle glided spread-winged over my head from her nest in the fir tree on the bluff behind me. She screeched a greeting as she passed, and I knew she needed to find more food for her young ones. She soared across the mudflat, wheeled suddenly and appeared to stall, then settled on something below. I couldn’t see what she was pulling on, perhaps a fish carcass, a stranded crab, maybe a dead gull. The food item occupied her for a very long time as I watched. Several times she spread her wings and hopped a short distance, carrying the item with her. It was a series of perplexing movements - perplexing to a watching human.
As I watched, I noticed that the area of land around Eagle was rapidly growing narrower; the tide was flowing. The tide that day was extreme, and as it rose it raced across the flats with an astonishing speed. Eagle stayed in place as the land grew narrower, finally opening her wings and jumping skyward just as the water reached her position. The light bulb lit above my head; Eagle’s strange hopping was an adjustment of her position to the highest point of ground on what to me was a pancake-flat surface. How did she do that? I’ll have to ask the next time we talk.
Eagle soared directly towards me, and gave me a quick glance and nod as she passed overhead to the nest with her waiting, hungry children. Such a polite being, even when busy.
A sound startled me awake. It was my wife calling from the bluff above. I was still sitting in a chair on the beach. The tide had come in, the water silently rushing across the mudflat towards me, and small waves lapped the shore not far from my feet. There was no Raven, no Eagle; had it all been a dream?
I think sometimes the boundary between awake and dreaming is fuzzy, and the real and imagined blend and separate in varying patterns. For me, this exploring of boundaries occurs most when I am alone with nature, trying to attune my dulled senses to the absence of human society inputs and the underlying sights, sounds, smells and feel of my surroundings. Deep down, I know that if I successfully cross the boundary, I can have that chat with Raven, ask Eagle how she knows certain things, understand and appreciate the music of Coyote. We humans have that ability, but most of us lost it long ago.
Imagined or experienced on the beach of the Lummi Peninsula, Lummi Bay, lands of the Lummi Nation in Washington State.