Researchers Find Polar Bears Are Irish

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This Photo is in the Public Domain

Polar bears are best known for wandering the icy expanses that once composed the Arctic Circle, but new research suggests that polar bears originated from a species of brown bear native to Ireland. The polar bear would have begun is genetic drifting from the Irish brown bear around 100,000 years ago, but the two species likely continued to come into contact up until 20,000 years ago. Though the brown bear disappeared from Britain and Ireland almost 9,000 years ago, all modern polar bears are actually descendants of the extinct species.

This Photo is in the Public Domain

According to the press release put out by the research team, “Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University and one of the team’s leaders, explained that climate changes affecting the North Atlantic ice sheet probably gave rise to periodic overlaps in bear habitats. These overlaps then led to hybridization, or interbreeding — an event that caused maternal DNA from brown bears to be introduced into polar bears.” The researchers believe that this hybridization occurred over a span of 30,000 years before the two species finally and permanently parted ways around 20,000 years ago.

These genetic discoveries dispel previous beliefs regarding the polar bear’s origins, which placed the specie’s ancestor on a collection of Alaskan islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) as recently as 14,000 years ago. Few would have guessed that the truth could be found on the very opposite side of the Arctic Circle. The discovery that the polar bear is in fact Irish, rather than Alaskan, will probably surprise zoologists and zoo visitors alike.

Swimming polar bear at the NC Zoo in Asheboro, NC (Source: Flickr)

As global temperatures continue to rise and the ice caps of the arctic diminish, the polar bear’s ancestry could be vital to its future. As the hunting grounds of this northern predator disappear, they could begin to travel south where they will inevitably come in contact with brown bears once again. Researchers anticipate the immersion of a new hybridization between these modern bears, repeating a phenomenon that has occurred intermittingly over the last 100,000 years as global warming and cooling cycles have come and gone. The polar bear’s ancestral history could be the key to preventing the species from disappearing from the planet forever.

TreeHugger

Swimming polar bear photo: Flickr

SticKs: A Kindergarten in the Park

Appropriately titled “SticKs”, this modern wooden modular structure is French architectural design firm Djuric Tardio’s vision of a miniature kindergarten. Shaped like a modern rendition of the tipi, the designs are meant to be installed in parks throughout the Parisian metropolis. “Why build kindergartens in city parks?”, you might ask. Djuric Tardio created the design in response to a lack of quality kindergartens in Paris, a problem compounded by the city’s prohibitive permitting requirements. Djuric Tardio have proposed building a series of similar three-story low-impact “nurseries,” as the studio refers to them, that will each support the care of up to twelve children.

Each SticK will be built in a park, taking advantage of a public space that is generally unused during the weekday, when the rest of the city is at work. According to the studio’s design, each nursery will include bio-climatic technologies to promote energy efficient climate control. The large windows and spacious rooms will take advantage of natural lighting. The first story of each structure is primarily a reception and kitchen area. The second is used for teaching and play-space. The top of the structure is an open-air terrace for people to enjoy. The simple, low-impact design is intended for easy, low-cost mass-production, and you can certainly argue that the structure would be quite interesting to see tucked away in a city park. On a more poetic note, urban children will be given the opportunity to make some of their earliest memories among these pockets of nature.

Djuric Tardio via Inhabitat

Cotton and the Disappearance of the Aral Sea

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Receding of the Aral Sea from 1960 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

The fishing towns that lined the borders of the Aral Sea were once a showpiece of the Soviet Union’s industrial might. The sea was so teeming with life that sailors could pull ashore 50,000 tons of fish a year, bringing resources and economic opportunity to the communities that worked on its shores (Pearce 109). Located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has transformed from one of the four largest lakes in the world to perhaps the world’s greatest environmental disaster. In under half a century, water diversion projects and mismanagement have reduced the Aral to less than 10% of its original surface area. Formerly productive fishing towns now sit in the middle of a salty desert. Populations are plagued with chronic anemia from salty tap water and a plethora of respiratory conditions brought on by the pesticides that once resided on the sea floor are now carried across the land by desert winds. To suggest that the disappearance of the Aral Sea was an unforeseen consequence of Soviet era engineering is an outright falsehood. Many scientific and political leaders in the former Soviet Union believed the Aral Sea to be a mistake of nature and a waste of water resources. This paper will explore the economic motivations and engineering decisions that lead to the shrinking of the Aral Sea and some of the environmental conditions that contributed to accelerating the sea’s decline. The loss of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s worst manmade environmental and public health catastrophes and understanding its causes and effects is important to responding to future crises brought on by climate change.

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Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The Aral Basin is fed by two tributaries, the Syr Darya which flows from the melting of the Tien Shan glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and the Amu Darya which springs from the Pamir mountains ranges of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan. Despite being surrounded by desert, the boundaries of the Aral Sea remained unchanged for centuries. While the sea would have experienced significant losses to evaporation (estimated at 0.9 km3 per 1000 km2 of surface area) and very little rainfall (around 6 km3 annually), the sea’s surface and subsurface flows were in such stable equilibrium that the sea level is known to have fluctuated by no more than 3 meters between 1850 and 1965 (Precoda 110). Though the Aral Sea has no outlets through which surface flows can carry away salt, the waters were only moderately saline during this time: around 1.0% in the sea’s interior waters and up to 1.4% near the southeastern shores (Precoda 110).

Over the course of human history, many civilizations have called the Aral Sea Basin home. Once part of the main historical East-West trading passage, the Silk Road, the region has established a tradition of irrigation and drainage systems that sustained agricultural production since ancient times. This agricultural development is believed to have had little impact on the volume of water flowing into the Aral Sea because the areas most developed were located in valleys and river deltas. These areas would have naturally experienced higher moisture levels than the surrounding deserts. “After draining and clearing these areas of reed growths, they were transformed into granaries and often the water used was less than that utilized by the moisture-loving plants which grew in the area” (Precoda 110). Accordingly, the water balance of the Aral Sea was not affected and most of the river flows did not leave the Aral Sea Basin.

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Central Asia Map (Source: MapCruzin)

By the 19th century, the fishing ports of Aralsk in the Syr Dary delta to the north and Moynaq in the Amu Darya delta to the south were the principal ports and economic centers for the region. The Moynaq fish cannery processed thousands of tons of fresh fish and distributed the protein across the expansive Soviet Union. Also known to be a popular spa town, Soviet tourists once flocked to Moynaq to swim in the sea and sunbathe on the pristine beaches (Kumar 3800). The reeds that grew along the seashore provided a seemingly endless source of raw materials and the moisture-loving trees that grew in the Amu Darya delta provided habitat to a diverse bird population as well as a barrier to erosion, the always looming threat of the surrounding deserts (Precoda 110).

Despite the diverse economic activity provided by the natural resources of the Aral Sea, many in Stalin’s USSR acted upon the desire to conquer nature in the name of social and economic progress. Zeev Wolfson, a senior Soviet official who smuggled a manuscript titled “The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union” to the West in the 1970s detailed the extent to which this attitude shaped the policies coming out of Moscow. Wolfson noted that “the more such projects contradicted the laws of nature, the more highly they were regarded, the more brilliantly the illusion of their success demonstrated the power and wisdom of the new leaders” (Pearce 120). In the years following the Second World War, Stalin began his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature and Soviet engineers strived to prove that they were willing to go to any extreme to demonstrate USSR’s industrial might (Kumar 3797). In the United States, engineers were building dams in deep gorges so as to collect the most water and generate the most electricity with the least loss of land. “But Soviet engineers ignored such natural features. They worried little about drowning wide, fertile valleys with shallow reservoirs. And in all they eventually flooded an area roughly the size of France” (Pearce 121). Efficient hydroelectric generation requires the extreme pressure differentials that come about from deep reservoirs, but many of the dams built across the Soviet Union had such shallow reservoirs that up to a thousand square miles might be flooded for very little energy production.  In his manuscript, Wolfson calculated that in many of Stalin’s hydroelectric projects, if the fertile land had been planted with hay rather than inundated, the annual harvest could have been burned to produce more electricity than the hydroelectric plant was capable of outputting (Pearce 121).

By the early 1930s, large-scale irrigation systems championed by the Soviet Union had destroyed almost every remnant of the traditional water management practices that once supported human civilization in the region. Technological advances such as more powerful construction equipment allowed the Soviet Union to remake its own surface hydrology. By building huge canals, irrigation waters could be transported to higher elevations and hundreds of miles from rivers and deltas (Kumar 3798).   These projects were undertaken without consideration of their consequences. In fact, prominent Soviet leaders declared the sea’s uselessness and believed that the loss of the Aral would be compensated by the fertile land that was sure to be exposed and the increased agricultural production to follow. They forecast the expansive pasturelands that the receding waters would leave behind and the countless flocks and herds that would replace the fish catches (Precoda 111).  Agajan Babayev, former president of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, went so far as to state publically, “I belong to those scientists who consider that the drying up of the Aral is far more advantageous than preserving it,” and that “many scientists are convinced, and I among them, that the disappearance of the sea will not affect the region’s landscapes” (Precoda 111). This view prevailed and with respect to the Aral Sea Basin, the postwar years can be characterized by plans to reallocate the entire flows of the Syr and Amu basins for irrigation.

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Satellite Image of Aral Sea comparing 1989 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

Between 1930 and 1961, the annual volume of water diverted for irrigation increased from 35 to 56.6 km3 per year. This volume peeked around 1980 at 109.1 km3 per year.  Water use for industrial and municipal services also increased from 7.5 to 18 km3 per year during this period (Tstsenko 192). Flows from the Syr Darya have failed to reach the Aral Sea since the 1970s and in some years, no water passes through the river delta of the Amu Darya either (Kumar 3798). In 2010, the Aral Sea was estimated to have shrunk to less than 10% of its original surface area (Tstsenko 192). The key contributor to the collapse of the Aral Sea was most likely the construction of the Karakum Canal, the first irrigation project to take water from the Aral Sea Basin and dump it into the catchment of the Caspian Sea to the west (Pearce 113). At 800 miles, the Karakum Canal is the longest irrigation canal in the world. With an average flow of 13 million acre-feet of water a year taken from the Amu Darya, the canal is comparable in size to the Hudson River. Most of this water ends up to the south of the Aral Sea Basin in the now-independent Republic of Turkmenistan, which has the unfortunate claim of “using more water per citizen than any other nation on Earth” (Pearce 112).  This achievement can be credited to the country’s primary export, cotton.

Soviet planners undertook these large-scale irrigation projects with a single-minded devotion to cotton production. Cotton needs a warm climate to grow, which is why Moscow decided that Central Asia would be the hub of cotton production, but it is also a very thirsty crop and growing it in the arid fields of the semi-desert region requires reliable flows from waterworks (Kumar 3798). Projects to reroute the region’s water flows were undertaken without concern for the costs and irrigated agriculture increased from 2.9 million ha in 1950 to 7.2 million in 1990 (Precoda 111). Political slogans from the post-WWII era included “cotton independence,” ”produce millions of tons of cotton at any cost,” and “fulfill the plan, at any cost” (Precoda 111). Moscow even required that the Central Asia region of the USSR import grains like wheat and barley rather than grow the crops themselves.  Still today, decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, “cotton production transcends all other national goals. In Uzbekistan, the cotton business still amounts to 60 percent of exports and employs 40 percent of the workforce – as well as consuming 90 percent of its water” (Pearce 119).

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Cotton Field in Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

While cotton is a thirsty crop, it is not that thirsty; staggeringly inefficient water use is rampant in the region’s cotton fields. In places, at least half the water being transported by irrigation canals simply seeps through the sand. Half of the water that remains is indiscriminately poured onto already waterlogged fields that either have insufficient drainage networks or lack them all together (Pearce 112). The excess water then evaporates from the land or seeps into low-lying regions. Large lakes of irrigation water have appeared along the border between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, filled by the runoff of decrepit irrigation projects and waterlogged fields. Smaller lakes can be found near the irrigated fields, many of them permanent enough to have been given names by the locals (Pearce 113). Most of the world’s irrigation networks include complex drainage systems to remove unwanted water and chemicals from fields, but the Soviet planners never got around to building these systems. This failure has resulted in the growth of heavily polluted brine lakes appearing in the desert landscape just as the waters of the Aral Sea receded miles from their former shores. In all, less than 10 percent of the water taken from the Aral Sea Basin is of direct benefit to cotton crops. The rest disappears through the sandy soil or evaporates (Kumar 3798).

Even in regions inundated with overflow irrigation water, unpolluted water resources can be difficult to find. This water pollution is not only the direct effect of fertilizers and pesticides used by agriculture, the primary water user, but also by the industrial and mining sectors which often work with dirty and outdated production processes, and by the lack of sewage systems in areas of high population pressure (Spoor 410). “The industrial sector, now largely privatized, still uses production techniques which are damaging to the environment, but there is neither incentive nor capital to invest in cleaner technology” (Spoor 412). This combination renders large quantities of diverted irrigation water unsafe for human use and destructive to local ecosystems.

The evaporation of water from waterlogged fields also poses a slow but permanent threat to the continued cultivation of the region’s farmland. All rivers carry salt, dissolved from rocks in the headwaters and picked up from deposits downstream. This salt once flowed into the Aral Sea, but now it is accumulating in irrigated fields. To prevent the salt from poisoning crops, farmers pour more water onto their fields with the intent of washing the salt away. This effort is of limited success as the new water begins to evaporate under the desert sun and the fields are left saltier and more waterlogged than before. Here is when the futility of this viscous cycle becomes clear; each year, farmers must add more water than the year before, resulting in ever increasing salt deposits left in the soil. Eventually the flushing fails and the fields are abandoned. In Uzbekistan, around 3 million acres of cotton fields have been lost to salt and waterlogging. In the autonomous region of northwestern Uzbekistan known as Karakalpakstan, one in five fields has been abandoned and the productivity of the remaining land has halved since the 1970s (Pearce 115). “Soviet planners inadvertently stumbled on a foolproof system for creating deserts,” a process that is continuing relatively unabated to this day (Pearce 115).

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(Source: Flickr)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, very little progress has been made to correct the waste of water. “The political economy of the cotton sector is intimately connected with the vested interests at national and local levels,” preventing the hydrological inefficiencies of irrigation systems from being addressed (Spoor 411). There is little incentive to challenge the foundation of the region’s economic prosperity in the name of ecological restoration. The most direct path to restoring the natural hydrological cycle of the region would be to demolish the canal systems, but such a project is out of the question. International efforts to save the Aral Sea have been met with local governments insisting that the welfare of the cotton farmers must come first (Kumar 3801). Nothing less should be expected considering the regional dependence on cotton exports for annual income. The end of the USSR has also meant the regional transition from a powerful central government to several sovereign nations. “Where previously Moscow made all the decisions relating to the water allocation and use, disagreements about water supply and consumption must now be resolved by negotiations” (Spoor 411). In 1992, the United Nations organized an international conference to establish a regional water strategy, but to no avail (Kumar 3801). The Central Asian republics are unwilling to relocate their cotton monoculture and risk its economic bounty.

The vision of Soviet planners to build a cotton economy in Central Asia is now a reality. The continued economic growth of the region is thus tied to the destruction of the Aral Sea.  Although the introduction of world market prices for inputs is reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the transitional economies of Central Asia, the “dependency on cotton has actually increased, as it is the main hard currency earner. Furthermore, water remains either free or only symbolically priced” (Spoor 413). It is an undeniable truth that in the near future, the Aral Sea will not be returned to its 1960 level. Due to the regional dependence on the waters, long-term changes are also unlikely.

The policies and practices that conspired to remove the Aral Sea from the face of the Earth read like a catalogue of poor environmental policies and self-destructive agricultural projects. Maps still show the Aral Sea as a prominent feature of Central Asia, ignorant of how the waters have been imprudently redistributed across the arid landscape. “During the Soviet period in Central Asia, the destruction of the traditional water management and crop rotation systems in the early stage of the Soviet era, followed by the ‘cotton at all price’ policy from Moscow from the 1960s onwards, greatly endangered the environmental sustainability of the Aral Sea Basin” (Spoor 420).  The exclusive focus on cotton production, under a sociopolitical system that ignored the environmental impact of inadequate long-term resource management, has turned the Aral Sea Basin into a disastrous experiment. Rather than revealing fertile fields and pasture lands, the receding waters of the sea exposed a layer of salts and pesticides. The desert winds that blow over the Aral Sea Basin once carried moisture to the surrounding ecosystems, but now the winds are dry, salty, and contaminated by a centuries worth of industrial farming cast back into the world.

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Old Fishing Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The destruction of the Aral Sea will remain a textbook example of unsustainable development for generations to come. The uncompromising support of cotton production at any human and environmental cost is the greatest environmental injustice of the Aral Sea saga. Though it may be many decades before the Aral Sea is removed from our maps, the Aral Sea has almost entirely disappeared from the Earth, unlikely to return. The once proud fishing port of Moynaq is still one of the region’s most popular tourist stops, but now visitors go to see the rusting hulks of fishing vessels stranded in the desert, hundreds of miles from the water.

 

Bibliography

Kumar, Rama Sampath. “Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia.” Economic and Political Weekly 37 (2002): 3797-802. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Pearce, Fred. Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization. Washington, D.C.: Island, 2004.

Precoda, Norman. “Requiem for the Aral Sea.” Ambio 20 (1991): 109-14. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Spoor, Max. “The Aral Sea Basin Crisis: Transition and Environment in Former Soviet Central Asia.” Development and Change 29 (1998): 409-35. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Tsytsenko, K. V., and V. V. Sumarokova. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. Ed. Michael H. Glantz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

A Curious Hummingbird: Beautiful E-Waste Art

I remember how I used carry around my CD collection in a zip-up case that I kept in my backpack. It feels like just a few years back, but technology and music mediums have changed quite a bit in that time. I still keep a stack of CDs in the glove compartment of my car on the off-chance that I leave my iPod behind, but the disks are probably dusty now from disuse. While electronics stores still fill aisle after aisle with new CDs, I don’t believe it is profound to suggest that the CD-ROM is going the way of the floppy disc and the zip drive. With the advent of iTunes, Amazon Music, and now Google Play, it is pretty easy for me to imagine a world without compact disks, but what to do with the stacks of blank CDs still sitting under your desk waiting to be burned? Australian artist Sean E Avery has discovered a beautiful solution, breaking the discs into pieces and turning them into fanciful animal sculptures.

Staying true to the obsolete technology theme, Avery’s work also makes use of old circuit boards, chips, and other recycled computer parts. Avery, who does not stray from turning his e-waste into anything but whimsical animal sculptures, has an amazing talent for capturing the creatures in an interesting state of motion. The result is dramatic and captivating, artistic recycling in its most elegant form.

Sculpture of an ant carrying a leafDuck sculpture made from recycled paper

Sean E Avery via DVICE

The Bubble Tent Hotel Beneath the Forests of Bouches-du-Rhone

I find it impossible to look through images of Bubbletree’s pop-up tents and not think of a human-sized snowglobe. First designed by Pierre Stéphane, these sometimes completely transparent and sometimes slightly opaque bubble tents offer a very unique way to travel, providing a vision of the night sky as you lounge in your shelter.  They are even being used to make an entire hotel in France. The Attrap’Rêves Hotel, located outside of Marseille, consists of a collection of these unusual tents that have been scattered in the forests of Bouches-du-Rhone, giving visitors the opportunity to sleep beneath the beautiful trees.

Bubble-Tent-Outdoor-Hotel-FranceThe bubble tents, which were first designed as a way for campers to explore nature without leaving a negative impact on the environment, are only about 13 feet in diameter. Their small size makes them relatively easy to pack up and tot away. While the Attrap’Rêves Hotel is not exactly roughing it outdoors (the tents come with comfortable furniture and during the warmer seasons, guest can choose spots with jacuzzis), the destination is certain to be a unique experience that puts you right into nature.

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Source: Attrap’Rêves Hotel via KNSTRCT

The images here are copyrighted to Attrap’Rêves where stated.

Notes on the History of Fracking

You can consider these the barebone notes on the history of hydraulic fracturing or fracking:


The process of hydraulic fracturing for the stimulation of oil and natural gas wells was first developed in the 1940s, with experimentation occurring as early as 1903. It was first used commercially by Halliburton in 1949, and because of its success in increasing production from oil wells, was quickly adopted. While hydraulic fracturing found success in the American oilfields of the mid-century, the process had not adapted to deal with the impermeability of shale formations (i.e. companies could not extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale using the technique).

In response to growing concerns from the gas industry that US domestic conventional gas deposits were losing their production potential, the industry funded Morgantown Energy Research Center (MERC) embarked on the Eastern Gas Shales Project in 1976. Led by MERC, a precursor to today’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, and with the help of the Department of Energy, several national labs, and other federal government agencies, research began to determine how natural gas could be extracted from impermeable shale formations.

Decades’ worth of R&D and technology demonstration projects led to the development of massive hydraulic fracturing (MHF), horizontal drilling, and microseismic imaging of gas deposits in shale. These advances in technologies and techniques enabled Mitchell Energy, a Texas gas company, to achieve the first economical extraction of shale gas in 1998 via an innovative drilling process called slick-water fracturing.

Despite a century’s worth of technological advancement, hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of natural gas trapped in shale was still not economically advantageous enough to entice gas companies to begin large-scale production. As late as the early 2000s, it appeared as if natural gas was destined to stay trapped beneath the earth until energy prices soared high enough to justify the effort. That was until an exemption from EPA regulations changed the course of natural gas extraction in the United States.


Nestled among the many questionable provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was one particularly groundbreaking (pun intended) stipulation that exempted hydraulic fracturing from the regulations set forth by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Added by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and now termed the Halliburton Loophole in honor of the energy company’s former chief executive, the exemption strips the Environmental Protection Agency from all regulatory authority over the drilling process. Regardless of your political convictions, you should be questioning why it was necessary to exempt hydraulic fracturing from EPA regulations in order to make it economically viable.

Furthermore, you should realize that the Safe Drinking Water Act is the only regulator authority that the federal government has over natural gas extraction practices. With the federal government powerless to control the drilling, it is up to state and local authorities to decide whether or not to allow extraction. It should not surprise you that local governments, particularly in coal-rich Pennsylvania, have been less that proactive in controlling the negative environmental impacts of fracking efforts.

I would rather not harp on any more about this so here is a video produced by UK’s Ecologist Film Unit. While the title of the video shows a clear bias, the program is well done nonetheless.

Have you heard about all the people who can set their well water on fire?

Source: Wikipedia, NYTimes

Plastic Eating Fungi Discovered in Amazon

The Amazon river basin is without a doubt the most biodiverse region on the planet. Researchers are continuing to discover new species every year. Recently, a group from Yale University discovered a fungus that appears to be quite content eating plastic in airless landfills, an environment too harsh for even the world’s most industrious bacteria.

The group of students who carried home the fungi were part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel. The group was working in the jungles of Ecuador to search for plants and culture the microorganisms within the plant tissue.  One of these microorganism, a fungus previously unknown to science, could prove vital in the global fight against waste pollution due to its eager appetite for polyurethane, a widely used plastic product.

Polyurethane is a popular plastic due to its longevity and resistance to decomposition. Used in everything from garden hoses and Spandex to shoes and foam seating, polyurethane will persist in the environment for generations. While no one complains about how their garden hose can take a beating all summer without disintegrating, most polyurethane products will be discarded eventually. Once they enter the waste stream, they stay there indefinitely.

The newly discovered fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first known microorganisms to survive on a diet of polyurethane alone. And just as importantly, it is able to do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, similar to the rather extreme conditions inside of a landfill. Environmental engineers have long used veracious microorganisms to treat municipal waste-water, but this discover could mean a significant shift in the management of solid waste. I would not be upset if we stopped burning our trash or burying it, hoping that it will simply disappear. Landfills have always stuck me as a very stupid concept and a frustratingly low-tech solution for such an advanced country to endorse.

American Society of Microbiology via Co.EXIST

Why Climate Scientists Could Be Rich But Are Not

The statistical analysis and computer modeling used by climate scientists could easily be applied to economics and business management. Instead of trying to calculate the role that clouds play in regulating global temperatures and instead of drilling ice cores in search of trapped pockets of prehistoric air, these individuals could be spending their time predicting market trends and making boatloads of money off of innovative financial products. Obviously, vast ideological and personal motivations separate business and science, but I would argue that the mathematics and statistics are comparable. In my own studies into computer modeling of environmental systems, we often jump back and forth between cost analysis and environmental system modeling. You would be surprised how similar a model predicting the rate of pollution diluting into a stream is to a model determining the cost of replacing high-sulfur coal with low-sulfur coal and solar panels as a city’s primary energy source. If climate scientists were motivated by money, they would have studied economics or law in college and gotten MBA’s instead of PhD’s in an area of study that would automatically make then the targets of ridicule. Before questioning the validity of global warming claims, think for a moment about the motivations that each group (the scientist and the denier) is acting upon.

co2-increase-graph

The thought that scientists would collectively fake data in order to deceive the general public would never occur to me. I could accept that a handful of never-going-to-be-influential individuals would sell-out, lie about their results, and fabricate unjustifiable conclusions. I could accept that some more established minds, tired of the day to day grind of academic research, would accept a check, put their name on someone’s report, and retire comfortably. I could accept that corporations with a vested interest in the continued, un-penalized use of fossil fuels would support research contradicting the findings of climate scientists (additionally, if I did work for an energy company, I would certainly play up the limited availability of oil and coal so as to stimulate the price in a healthy direction without increasing my operating costs), but to suggest that the scientific community is somehow coercing the public into believing their false conclusions with regards to global warming trends shows a deep misunderstanding of academic research and of the nature of the individuals that dedicate their lives to climate science research. To put that another way, research is strenuous and academically rewarding, encouraging those interested in intellectual discovery to join and those interested in making money to stay far away. Poor methodologies and unsupported conclusions are not accepted by the scientific community and thus it is not plausible that the scientific community would maliciously affirm global warming findings. Finally, the populations of people that become climate scientists are nerds; late-night-working, excited-by-new-data-finding, for-the-love-of-learning nerds. The deceitful, manipulative, and self-serving people go into fields and careers where such characteristics might actually be useful.

Below is a video produced by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing all the known CO2 concentration records.


I think the graph speaks for itself.

 

Step Wells of India

Panchmadi mosque and stepwell
Panchmadi mosque and stepwell

I was reading about ancient methods of water management and I came across the step wells of India. They are pretty cool examples of ancient engineering, built long before the discovery of electricity, and I thought I would share some pictures of the wells in the great subcontinent. Most common in western India, these structures serve(d) both an aesthetic and utilitarian function. India is known for its heavy monsoon rains and arid seasons, resulting in dramatically inconsistent access to water. These enormous step wells allowed the Indian populations to harvest the rain water and store it away for later use. Some wells are even equipped with ramps to allow cattle to access the waters. I would consider the practice of rainwater collection to be an ecofriendly predecessor to the hydroelectric dam, allowing for irrigation and water resource management without detrimental effects to ecosystems and upriver pollution levels.

Stepwell in Bawdi
Stepwell in Bawdi

The stepwells pictured would have been used predominantly for leisurely purposes and as an escape from the heat of the arid surrounding environment. This accounts for the decorative architecture and elaborate design. Most of the wells that served primarily agrarian purposes have not survived the centuries, due mostly to a lack of maintenance and the demanding nature of India’s seasons.

Water well
Bhandarej

This is the deepest stepweell in the world. Known as Chand Baori, the well is located in the village of Abhaneri near Bandikui, Rajasthan. The structure is an amazing work of ancient engineering.

Chand Baori

A Tiny Electric Camper Car

Golden Gate Camper

This tiny little camper is designed and built to allow the user to remain self-sufficient while roaming the country. Know as the Golden Gate, this electric camper was built by San Francisco artist Jay Nelson (the elegance and aesthetic of the vehicle should give away that it was an artist’s work). Constructed from a couple of electric bikes and a combination of plywood, epoxy resin, and fiberglass building materials, this tiny home on wheels is equipped with a sink and stove for cooking, a toilet, and a bed. I assume it is a very small bed.

Golden-Gate-electric-camper-driving

To steer the Golden Gate, the driver has to sit on the floor of the camper and control the vehicle using the wooden steering wheel. Considering the power driving the electric camper is coming from a couple of electric bicycles, it is not surprising that it has a range of less than 10 miles. Unless you plan to live out of the Golden Gate, don’t expect this little electric camper to carry you very far from home. Honestly, you would probably be better off just riding an electric bicycle. Those things have a range of 20+ miles.

TinyHouseListings via DVICE

Golden-Gate-electric-camper-interior-steering

Global Commodification of a Natural Resource

A Brief look at Water Privatization

In 2002, the United Nation recognized water as a human right in the General Comment 15. As such, water should be universally available, affordable, and safe. As true as this philosophy may be, the General Comment 15 is little more than an altruistic guideline that countries could follow to ensure their populations have access to safe drinking water, not a means of actually accomplishing such a feat (Varghese 2007).  Outside of the industrialized Global North, private water companies have recently, (within the last twenty years) gained significant influence over the water supply systems in countries without the resources or capital to build and maintain necessary infrastructure of their own. Unfortunately, private interests have proven largely incapable of acting in the spirit of the UN’s GC15, raising costs and cutting of access to populations of people unable to pay. Despite a largely unsuccessful trend, public water services continue to be turned over to foreign private corporations in the hopes that capitalism will devise a more efficient and affordable, albeit socially indifferent, means of water distribution.  The privatization of water services, driven by the rise of neoliberalism, pressures from the IMF and World Bank, and the financial interests of multinational corporations, is affecting populations all across the economic spectrum and in many respects failing to provide people with their human right to safe and affordable water.

waterpump

Image Source: On The Ground

An important fact to realize is that there are many ways in which private interests can influence water services. The term privatization of water refers to the transfer of ownership and/or decision making power to a non-state entity, generally controlled by private interests, that is given partial or total control of infrastructure maintenance, water quality control, and water distribution costs (McDonald and Ruiters 2005). These costs, as well as the profits being made, become the burden of the consumers. The complete transfer of ownership and control is referred to as divestment. Aside from the controversial divestment of water services in the UK during the 1980’s (where everything from water collection, to reticulation, to waste-water treatment was sold to private firms), there have been no major cases of complete divestment anywhere else in the world (Ogden 1995) (Hall 2005). Another alternative to publicly owned and operated water services is ‘public-private partnerships.’ Under the PPP model, the state continues to own the infrastructure and facilities. This ownership allows the government to oversee the water distribution practices and continue to hold the primary decision making power. A private company is hired to plan, operate, and maintain the water system (McDonald and Ruiters 2005). This partnership presumes that a private entity will be capable of operating the water services with such greater efficiency that customers will be provided for and that a profit can still be made.

The third form of water service privatization, a slightly different form of the PPP model, occurs in countries that formerly had no public water system, provided incomplete or inconsistent access to safe water and/or is no longer capable of financing and operating a public water service. These countries generally lack the economic resources to operate a public water service and are refused loans by international financial entities (most notably the IMF and World Bank) (Hall 2005).  These financial institutions pressure countries into pursuing PPPs with the attitude that their (the IMFs and WBs) investments will be safer if the project is under the control of private rather than public interests (Ogden 1995). In these cases, the government has minimal influence over the actions of the private company. Regardless of the direction that privatization takes, the economic practice represents a shift in focus as water services are changed from a “public resource” to a “private interest.”

Before delving into the complicated and entangled arguments surrounding the control of water systems, it is necessary to recognize the significance of privatization, particularly divestment, as a state practice. Until the middle of the 1980s, network utilities (telecommunication, electricity, and water) were state-owned monopolies in almost every country in the world (Varghese 2007). With the rise of neoliberal economics came a new attitude toward public services. In the U.S., regulatory and legal restrictions used to prohibit private operation of publicly owned utilities and infrastructure until these restrictions began to be dismantled under the first Bush administration and later under the Clinton administration (Varghese 2007). In the last 30 years, the U.S., U.K., France, and governments around the world have developed the practice of privatizing transportation systems (toll ways and railroads), public transit (trains, bus systems, and airports), health facilities, network utilities, prison systems, military companies, and various other formerly public services by selling facilities or transferring control to (often multinational) private firms and corporations (McDonald and Ruiters 2005). In the case of water services, privatization does not necessarily take the form of large multinationals like Suez, Vivendi, Bechtel, and RWE Thames. Though large corporations tend to attract the most attention, the hiring of small management firms instead of city workers represents a significant role in the debate (McDonald and Ruiters 2005).

drinking-water-treatment

Image Source: Great Lakes Echo

The privatization of services and the mentality of entrepreneurial capitalism supported by Western society have fostered a belief that private companies will operate more efficiently and with greater success than similar public endeavors. The catch is that private corporations are for-profit; investors want a return on their capital and decision making practices are ultimately driven by the intent to operate below cost (Hall 2005). Consequently, corners will be cut and the quality of service diminished. Inevitably, the privatization of services leads to increased state regulation as citizens demand better service and price controls. The UK remains one of the most significant examples; the government’s outright divestment of all water related assets lead to greater state involvement in water services than was previously necessary (Bakker 2003). The initial deregulation resulted in flagrant abuse in the form of price hikes and cutoffs, at which point the public demanded change in the form of regulation and oversight (Bakker 2003). The irony is clear; privatization does not mean less work for governments.

While the Global North has recently had some misadventures and temporary inconveniences, it is the Global South that has experienced the worst affects of recent privatization. In undeveloped countries with privately owned and operated water services, it is not uncommon to experience price hikes, water quality deterioration, water cutoffs, cholera outbreaks, and the diverting of water sources away from subsistence agriculture (Varghese 2007). Herein lays a second irony; the conditions in much of the Global South are representative of those in the U.S. two hundred years ago. Private water companies dominated U.S. cities during most of the nineteenth century. During this period, U.S. private water companies were largely unwilling to make the necessary investments in infrastructures and therefore unable to make universal access to water a reality. Cities suffered significantly from waterborne pathogens and frequent epidemics. This generated a public outcry for the government to step in and improve conditions for the sake of public health (Varghese 2007). In the 1830s, New York City took control of its water supply in response to the cholera outbreak of 1832 and to the inadequate water supply during fires (Galusha 1999). The local and state governments began investing substantially in improved infrastructure and wastewater treatment across the country. By the start of the 20th century, public water services greatly outnumbered and outworked the private systems. An EPA survey of water services in 1986 showed that publicly owned systems accounted for 45.5%, investor owned 14.7%, and the remainder was independently owned or self-supplied (e.g. rural communities, mobile homes, school, hospitals) (Varghese 2007). Water services remain publicly owned in almost every major city in the country and total approximately 155,000 nationwide (EPA 2010).

The natural question is then: Why is privatization being brought back into favor after it initially failed to provide safe water? The answer is quite simple: economic downturns and the rise of neoliberal policy lead to decreased spending on public services. Among all the public services in the U.S. and around the world, water services (water collection, reticulation, and waste-water treatment) is perhaps one of the most maintenance intensive of them all and requires indefinite investment; pipes and mains are all buried and adversely affected by temperature conditions, ever expanding populations require continuous increases in capacity and infrastructure development, and regional demands do not necessarily reflect natural resources (ex. Las Vegas and southern California) (Ogden 1995). Soon, “experiences of water scarcity, water-related disputes, wasteful use of water resources, and lack of finances – all were ascribed to public management of water resources” (Varghese 2007). As the public water systems around the world began to deteriorate due to underfunding, multilateral lending agencies, most notably the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, began to conclude that the private sector and market forces might provide the solution to the real and perceived inefficiencies of the public systems (Hall 2005). It is this ideological shift in the role of public finances and the replacement of government control with government regulation that lead to the formation of PPPs. Southern governments without the capital to build public systems are then refused loans from the WB and IMF unless they pursue privatized water and sanitation services through PPPs (Varghese 2007). All of these conditions combined, the crisis in public finances, WB and IMF push for PPP, and the neoliberal ideology of country’s elite, have left southern governments with two options; pursue privatized water and risk creating an inadequate system or do nothing.

Even after two centuries of water privatization, the kinks remain in the system. Since 2000, protests concerning water privatization have begun in Asia, Africa and parts of South America (Varghese 2007). In response, many companies, most notably German energy company RWE, now steer clear of unstable markets and focus instead on efforts to increase the acceptance of private water in markets where public services have existed for some time (Bakkar 2003).  Despite strong campaigns against water privatization, Chile, Philippines, and the UK have all experienced dramatic changes in their water services as facilities and payment practices have been turned over to the control of private companies (Hall 2005). In the U.S., efforts to convince the public that the public water system is inadequate have been spearheaded by bottled water companies. Nestle, Coke, and Pepsi have successfully convinced the public that their bottled water is healthier than the public drinking water supply. This is despite the fact that the U.S. standard for drinking water, regulated by the EPA, is one of the strictest in the world while bottled water remains unregulated (Varghese 2007). Private water systems were attempted in the U.S. cities of Atlanta and Birmingham, but eventually terminated due to poor service and management (Hall 2005). Other world government to terminate their water privatization practices include Tucuman, Argentina, Cochabamba, Bolivia, Grenoble, France, and Potsdam, Germany, representing the failure of water privatization in both Northern and Southern cities (Hall 2005).

Zamboangenos protest privatization of Water District

Zamboangenos protest privatization of Water District. Image Source: Water For the People Network

Ultimately, the privatization of the water supply means the commodification of a life sustaining natural resource. This is a significant distinction from other formerly public services like telecommunication, power, transportation, etc. Safe drinking water is essential to the survival of entire populations. The practice of placing control of this natural resource under the control of private interests, particularly in the most impoverished areas of the global South, is misguided and economically detrimental. Social and political movements in opposition to water privatization have had a significant impact in countries around the world and have contributed to the rejection of proposals and the termination of existing private systems (Hall 2005). For water to become universally available, affordable, and safe, as proposed by the GC15, it is necessary to turn away from the neoliberal economic practices of the past three decades and to realize that PPPs do not address the needs of economically deprived countries. As long as socially responsible economic practices are unprofitably, water privatization will fail to provide drinking water to the world.

 

Sources:

Bakker, Karen. “And Networks: Urbanization and Water Privatization in the South.” The Geographical Journal 4th ser. 169 (2003): 328-42. Web.

“EPA Public Drinking Water Systems: Facts and Figures.” US Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 09 Apr. 2010. <http://www.epa.gov/safewater/pws/factoids.html>.

Galusha, Diane. Liquid Assets: a History of New York City’s Water System. Fleischmanns (N.Y.): Purple Mountain, 1999. Print.

Hall, David, Lobina Emanuele, and Robin Motte. “Public Resistance to Privatisation in Water and Energy.” Development in Practice 15.3/4 (2005): 286-301. Jstor. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.

McDonald, David A., and Greg Ruiters. The Age of Commodity: Water Privatization in Southern Africa. London: Earthscan, 2005. Print.

Ogden, S. G. “Transforming Frameworks of Accountability: the Case of Water Privatization.” Accounting, Organizations and Society 2nd ser. 20 (1995): 193-218. Web.

Varghese, Shiney. Privatizating U.S. Water. Publication. Minneapolis, Minnisota: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2007. Print.

Glaciers Melting Faster Than Expected

Environmental researchers around the globe are finding that glaciers are melting faster than previously expected. While this melting will have little impact on the global stage (Garry Clarke, professor emeritus of glaciology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, estimates, that if all of western Canada’s glaciers were to melt away, the oceans would rise by less than 6.6 millimeters (a quarter-inch)), glacial melting has long been recognized as a sign of warming global trends and has the potential to significantly alter local water supplies.

Glacier flowing into Lake Fryxell, Canada
Glacier flowing into Lake Fryxell, Canada

Glaciers act as nature’s reservoirs, collecting and storing freshwater during the winter months and slowly releasing it during the warm season. Many of the world’s great rivers are tied to the glaciers of their mountainous neighbors. The Rhine would not exist without the snowy Alps and the Ganges would dry without the glaciers of the Himalayas.  If mountain glaciers disappear, the streams and rivers that they feed will be forever altered; flows will decrease, peak seasons will change, and water temperatures will rise.

According to Michel Baraer, of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, even the total volume of runoff will change because glacial ice keeps the water locked away in a form in which it does not easily evaporate.

Thus, even if annual precipitation remains the same in mountain regions, less of the water will make it to the lowlands, evaporating back into the atmosphere instead. The building of dams, reservoirs, and other water control systems will only exacerbate the problem of evaporation by slowing the flows and increasing the exposure to sunlight. The efficiency of storing freshwater in glaciers cannot be matched by human engineering.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Increased glacial melting will mean the inevitable arrival of peak water followed by a steady progression towards regional water shortages. According to Rick Lovett of National Geographic News, much of South America, with its high mountains and tropical sunshine, appears to be particularly vulnerable to climate-induced glacial shrinking. We have yet to see how peoples and governments chose to respond to water shortages, but as glacial melting continues to accelerate around the world, the consequences will be unavoidable.

Source: National Geographic

Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina

A Beautiful Wooden Bicycle

Created by designer Jan Gunneweg, this sleek bicycle is made from solid maple wood (only the handlebars, adjustable seat mount, spokes, pedals, and chain are metal and though the wheels are brown, they are still rubber). I never could have imagined a wooden bicycle looking as elegant and well-crafted as this. The smooth frame and the unique asymmetrical wheels create a distinct style. I’m not sure I would really be comfortable using a piece of art for daily commutes though. I would be too worried about the unavoidable bumps and scratches of day to day use.

Jan Gunneweg via NotCot

The Airdrop Responds to Declining Water Resources

Water resources are quickly declining around the world and with the global population reaching 7 billion, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  Desertification continues to diminish arable land and farmers are being put out of business as their crops dry up.

But Edward Linnacre, an Australian engineering student who recently won the James Dyson Award for creativity in engineering design, has a low-tech solution to the problem.  The Airdrop, Linnacre’s brainchild, will harvest moisture that has evaporated into the air, feeding it into irrigation systems for farms in desperate need of water.

Using a turbine that sticks out from the earth, the Airdrop collects air, sending it down into the earth where it grows cool and condenses, forming liquid.  The water is collected in a belowground tank and later sent up to the surface using a low-pressure irrigation system.

So how much water does this gadget generate?  The small-scale prototype Linnacre installed in his Mom’s backyard harvested about 1L (about 4 cups) per day.  That might not sound like much, but a large-scale system would vastly increase water outputs.

Linnacre explains in this Dyson Awards video, “There’s just an abundant resource of water in the air that surrounds us, even in places like the Negev desert in Israel, which is one of the driest deserts on the planet… All you need to do is reduce that air down to a certain temperature and you release that moisture.”

It’s the Airdrop’s simplicity that is especially intriguing.  According to Linnacre, it doesn’t take an engineer to set up, meaning that a farmer living in the Imperial Valley wouldn’t have a problem with installation.

Let’s hope the Airdrop makes its way onto the market in the near future!

Airdrop via GOOD

 

Visual Language for OCCUPY

No matter one’s opinion of the Occupy Together movement, one can agree that an effort to make the movement more clear is certainly a positive thing.  Introducing Occupy Design, a new website that provides signage to protestors.  Founded during “Hackathons” hosted in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington DC, Occupy Design connects designers and visual artists with the protest movement in an attempt to form a standardized and coherent visual language.

“These are people who have valid concerns grounded in reality and grounded in data that can be communicated visually,” say Jake Levitas, the current head of the project and a designer from San Francisco. “If we get these signs on CNN instead of the ones that say ‘Screw capitalism’ on a piece of cardboard,” viewers will see “exactly how people are being screwed and by how much. It’s a lot harder to argue with statistics than it is with talking points.”

Through the Occupy Design website, designers can download a design toolkit, which includes a common template and fonts, check out the list of active graphic requests from protestors, and upload graphics they design for the cause.

Additionally, occupiers can download “protest signs” (such as graphics representing income disparities in the U.S.), “logistical signs” (recycling center, bathrooms, etc), and “universal icons” (justice, community, human rights).

Let’s see if the signage catches on!

Occupy Design via GOOD

NYC Green Roof

The green roof pictured here sits atop a few low-rise brick building in West Village, NYC. Designed by Caliper Studio,the rooftop greenscape has turned what would otherwise be a tar roof into a beautiful living space. Not only does the grassy  yard dramatically re-character this NYC studio and apartment with it’s modern retrofit, but the green roof greatly improves the energy efficiency of the space.
A plank path adds functionality to the space and leads visitors through a sculpture garden by Roy Lichtenstiens. Two rooftops compose the space and are separated only by the noticeable change in elevation. If I live in New York, I would certainly love to have such a beautiful green space in such close proximity. The green roof adds an entirely new feature to the apartment while reducing the impact of stromwater runoff on the city’s sewer system and of summer heatwaves on the living space beneath. All in all, a beautiful coupling of form and function.