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Monday, July 14, 2014

In Praise of Volunteers

Penns Meadow stormwater basin upland area, showing
trees amidst a sea of wild flowers (photo by author).
I’ve written previously about the naturalized stormwater basin (Penns Meadow) in my township that our Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) has adopted. The basin was a roughly 3.5-acre, shortly-mowed lawn until our county conservation district was awarded a grant in 2010 to retrofit it with three different types of stormwater best management practices featuring appropriate native vegetation. I had the opportunity to work with a small group of great volunteers at Penns Meadow last week to tackle a project, tree protection, that has been on the EAC’s to-do list for a couple of years.

First, let me clarify the role that our township EAC is supposed to have. The EAC was established by ordinance in 2009 by the Board of Commissioners at that time with the stated purpose to:
“advise local governmental agencies including, but not limited to: the Board of Commissioners, the Planning Commission, and the Parks and Recreation Board, on matters dealing with the protection, conservation, management, promotion, acquisition, and use of natural resources including air, land, water, and open space resources located within or affecting Lower Macungie Township.”

And these stated duties are the types of things we discuss at our monthly meetings. However, in a municipality of 22 square miles in which 31,000 residents are connected by over 100 miles of township roads, there are some things of interest to the EAC that don’t fall into standard municipal services categories. For example, following up on proper maintenance of the Penns Meadow stormwater basin area has never really been officially delegated to any particular department or staff members.

Although the EAC was never intended to be a hands-on group of volunteers, we make an effort to coordinate volunteer projects once or twice a year for the good of the township’s natural resources. Many of these projects have involved Penns Meadow, simply because the retrofit was a great project and we want to ensure that the original efforts are properly maintained. And such was last week’s project at Penns Meadow, with the volunteer labor supplied by a group of Master Watershed Stewards.

Tree tube installed on a tree to prevent

rodent damage to bark (photo by author).
Our local Master Watershed Stewards Program is run by the Penn State Extension service. It currently operates in only three of PA’s 67 counties, however. Similar watershed steward programs are run by state land grant colleges and universities in a few other states (Arizona, New York and Ohio). Several other states have Master Naturalist programs that are probably comparable. Our Pennsylvania Master Watershed Stewards complete 40 hours of training on a wide range of topics such as:  the hydrologic cycle, groundwater, water chemistry, water test interpretation, stream ecology, wetlands, forestry, dam removal, riparian buffers, soils, geology, invasive plants, stormwater and flooding. Following training, 50 hours of volunteer work are required to complete the program and earn the title. In successive years, 20 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education are required. It’s only in its second year here, but it looks like it’s turning into a great program. And for an EAC chair who is often looking for volunteers to help with the Penns Meadow stormwater basin site, I’m happy to have some new volunteers to include so that I don’t burn out the boy scouts who usually help us with projects each year.

Mulch from township's years waste composting
operation and tree with a protective tube in
background (photo by author).
Last week’s project with our Watershed Stewards involved installing tree protection tubes around the trunks of 140 trees and spreading some mulch at the base of those trees. The tree tubes will serve two purposes. First, they will improve the visibility of some of the smaller trees among tall, dead, herbaceous vegetation in the winter when the area gets its annual mowing. We’ve had mishaps with trees getting run over once before, because the EAC did not have the trees marked out clearly enough. The second, and more critical, need for the tree tubes is to prevent rabbits and other smaller rodents from eating the bark around the trunks over the winter. While helping to install some of the tubes last week, I noticed at least one tree that had a ring of bark gnawed off around the base of it. Bark damage that encircles a tree like that is called girdling. If that girdling continues all the way through the bark into the underlying cambium layer, a tree does not stand much chance of surviving. Hopefully, with the new tree tubes in place, the girdled tree I saw can recover, and girdling of other trees will be prevented.

Thanks to the Lower Macungie Public Works Department for delivering about 10 cubic yards of mulch to the site – enough for all 140 trees receiving tubes. The Watershed Stewards distributed the mulch to each of the trees with either wheel barrow or by lugging a couple of five gallon buckets. Thanks to Julie, Shannon, Jien and Crystal for your sweat equity in Penns Meadow.

It was a hot evening, but it was nice to see the wildflowers in bloom. They look a heck of a lot better than a scorched lawn at this time of year.
Purple cone flowers (foreground) and wild bergamot (background) in bloom (photo by author).

Black-eyed susan (yellow) and swamp milkweed (tall with purplish flowers) in bloom (photo by author).

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why It's Climate Change and Not Global Warming and Why It Matters

Let me start this post by saying up front that, as a scientist, I believe that human activities over the past 200 years have resulted in a global warming trend that has been more rapid than any that we’ve seen in the paleoclimatological data to date. And I believe this current warming trend is setting us up for changes in our global climate that will continue way beyond our own lifetimes and will cause major disruptions in the lives of millions of people.

I try to avoid arguments on Facebook with climate change skeptics. Although sometimes I try to politely point out when their comment makes an incorrect assumption or draws an unsupported conclusion about climate science. And then someone else will often chime in trying to hijack science to support their view that climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy by ________ (fill in the blank with whichever liberal the person dislikes the most). I experienced a Facebook exchange just like this yesterday. Most of the time it’s people confusing weather with climate. Weather is what we experience day to day and differs from town to town. When we talk about climate, it’s on a global scale and trending over one year or thousands of years. Climate is driven by complex interactions of ocean currents and ocean temperatures with ambient air, resulting in the range of temperatures and range of precipitation experienced of over a given span of time at any given point around the world. That’s why I prefer to call it Climate Change. If I say global warming, someone will always point out that we just had one of the harshest winters in southeastern PA since the late 1970s.

The Facebook exchange started when one of my conservative friends posted a link to a climate-denier’s blog that discussed Antarctic sea ice levels increasing despite a warming global climate. Of course both the blogger and my friend took this sea ice observation as proof that global warming is a sham. So I took his bait and responded with the following analogy.

Trying to understand climate change is like watching a 5-hour long movie frame by frame. A human lifetime would equate to seeing one or two frames of that 5-hour movie. For a 21st century human to say that they do not see the climate changing is like viewing one or two frames of the movie and saying you don’t see a movie. To get an idea of what the movie is about, you’ve got to rewind through at least the previous hour. And that’s the case with climate change – you’ve got to look back at previous cycles of natural climate change to make sense of the rate of temperature change seen over the past 200 years since the start of intensively burning fossil fuels.

Then someone else tried to refute me by posting a graph showing ambient temperatures going back 10,000 years that were calculated from ice cores collected in Greenland. The graph came from an academic paper and was supposed to prove that it’s not as warm now as it has been for the past 10,000 years. Unfortunately, that individual was cherry picking data that was collected for an entirely different purpose than solving the global warming debate.

The graph in question was from a paper by Dr. Richard Alley, a widely respected glaciologist from Penn State. I had the opportunity to hear him lecture once when I was in grad school at Lehigh University, because he was a frequent collaborator with one of my professors. As esteemed as Alley is as a glaciologist, he would not claim to be a climatologist. So I looked up the abstract for the paper that this graph comes from, because I was curious about its context.

The title of the paper is, "The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from central Greenland." The Younger Dryas cold interval was a period from approximately 12,800 to 11,500 years ago in which the earth experienced a temporary period of cold, dry conditions. This 1300-year interval was at the tail end of the overall warming trend associated with the end of the most recent glacial period, which officially ended about 10,500 years ago. Alley would likely study the Younger Dryas to determine its effects on Greenland’s glaciers at that time. At the glacial maximum for the most recent glacial period (about 22,000 years ago), the glaciers had advanced about as far as Blue Mountain in eastern PA, Long Island, NY, and across many of the northernmost states in the Midwest. So the Younger Dryas period was a 1,300-year anomaly in the final 11,500 years of the most recent glacial period.

So in the big picture, yes, we are simply somewhere in the middle of one of several interglacial periods in the earth's 4.6 billion year history. But there is a preponderance of evidence indicating that carbon loading into the atmosphere appears to have accelerated the natural warming trend that we probably were already in. Indisputable proof doesn’t happen often in science, so we have to rely on the general conclusions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Their climate models all vary to some extent, but most of them acknowledge the effect of man-made carbon tweaking the global climate and accelerating the rate of warming of our oceans and atmosphere.

The reason for concern is that the temperature increases we are seeing in our global climate over the past 200 years have been at a more rapid rate than the warming period from 22,000 to 10,500 years that ended the most recent glacial period. There is evidence to suggest that during the previous interglacial period, around 125,000 years ago, sea levels were 3-4 m higher than they are presently. So if our present interglacial period ultimately gets as warm as the one that peaked 125,000 years ago, we could be looking at sea levels rising 10-12 feet. Even a couple of feet over the next 100-200 years is going to displace millions of people.

And possibly an even more immediate concern is feeding the earth's 7 billion people when weather patterns shift and droughts become more prevalent in regions currently associated with agriculture. The eastern U.S. might get wetter as a result, but we've built on or paved much of our great agricultural soil in the east over the past 50 years. The threat to agriculture is one reason that the U.S. Department of Defense considers climate change a national security threat.

Of course, the explanation above, when offered on Facebook, was met with the usual accusations of academic dishonesty by the 95% of climate scientists who will say anything just to get more funding to perpetuate the hoax that the “Administration” wants people to believe. But at least our military is acknowledging the worst case scenario of a climate warming more rapidly than it appears to have over the past couple hundred thousand years. So I guess we need to modify that old adage that the two things to never discuss at a cocktail party are politics and religion. Regretfully, it seems that we need to add science to that list of taboo topics.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Ethical Side of EPA's Proposed Clean Air Regs

Coal-fired power plant in Conemaugh, PA   (Photo by Stefan
Schlöhmer on ens-newswire.com)
I read a great op-ed piece last week that blows away the smokescreen spewed by detractors of the EPA’s newly proposed clean air regulations. The op-ed, by Christina Simeone of the Harrisburg-based advocacy group PennFuture, explained how market forces, rather than a mythical war on coal, are chipping away at the demand for coal.
That same day I also read an editorial in Scranton’s Times-Tribune that laid out much the same argument as Simeone’s op-ed. I entirely agree that there are valid economic reasons that we should not kid our selves into believing that that a liberal cabal is plotting to eradicate the coal industry.
But I’m also thinking about the human aspect of why we have to seriously wean our country from reliance on coal. Writing this post on Father’s Day, I’m thinking of the strong sense of social justice that my father impressed upon me. Because the reality of coal-fired power plants is that, other than the newest plants, they spew harmful contaminants into the air we all breathe. And in many cases, the people who live closest downwind to the older coal-fired plants have higher rates of respiratory illnesses than people in upwind towns. The people who are most likely to live in the downwind fallout zone of those older plants typically live there because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. They may be economically disadvantaged because of their race, their education, or simply because they are the nth generation of their family living and working in that town. Regardless of their situation or background, they have a right to breathe clean air, just like any other American has the right.
Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the environmental rights amendment, states:
"The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
EPA’s newly proposed clean air regulations, therefore, are entirely consistent with the right to breathe clean air that was guaranteed by the passage of PA’s environmental rights amendment in 1971. The argument that clean air regulations are killing PA’s coal industry has been debunked. Rather, if the newly proposed federal regulations are ratified, they will help to ensure the health of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, including coal industry workers and residents of coal mining towns.
I imagine some libertarians might argue that if the demand for coal is weakening because cleaner energy technologies are actually cheaper then the free market should be allowed to make adjustments without regulatory intervention. But surely there will be cheapskate coal plant operators intent on running their plant into the ground to squeeze out every last nickel from of their investment, regardless of how many of its neighbors it sickens or kills. The free market relies on rational decisions. But deciding to continue to pollute without regard for the human casualties of your pollution is neither a rational choice nor an ethical choice.
Portland, PA, coal-fired generating station. In 2011, Greenpeace reported that pollution from this plant was responsible for 30 deaths annually, as well as 54 heart attacks, 500 asthma attacks, and scores of hospital admissions and emergency room visits.
The reality is that trying to protect the coal industry is simply enabling a behavior that is destructive to everyone living and working downwind from any of the older coal plants. Without enactment of the EPA’s proposed clean air regulations, we are giving the operators of those plants a free pass to continue to pollute. That free pass forces someone else to subsidize their damaging behavior (in the form of the increased healthcare costs of downwind residents) rather than making the responsible party pay the external costs of their own archaic business model.
And this argument is only about the health and healthcare costs of the people downwind of coal plants. I haven’t even touched on the effect of coal plant emissions on our planet’s atmosphere. That will be another post for another day.