Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Are you an environmental activist?

In some circles "environmental activist" are fighting words.  Don't ask me why...they just are.

I am a normal guy...relatively speaking.  I have never participated in an environmental protest or rally, taken direct action against any individual or company because I felt that they are acting environmentally irresponsible, or done anything like that.  Yet, I am an environmental activist.  I admit it, happily!

Are you one too?

Before you reach for your gun, consider this.

I am a marine biologist by training and a college professor by occupation.  Over my 20+ years teaching at the college/university level I have spent my time teaching courses that focus on the diversity and ecology of life on earth, as well as courses that either focus on or include attention to environmental topics and issues.

Because of that background, I am sometimes asked to talk to public school groups, campus student groups, and even Church groups or Boy Scouts about the environment and environmental issues.  In many cases these groups are not likely to consider themselves to be environmentalists or even environmentally friendly.  When that happens, what do you do?  I'll tell you what I do...I make a statement and then I ask a few questions.

First of all, I tell the group that I'm highly confident that almost everyone in the room, if not everyone in the room, is an "environmental activist."  It's fun to see the reactions to that.  Some people become immediately offended and want to argue right off.  But, rather than do that, I just ask the group to consider a few questions, and I ask them to raise their hand if they have ever done any of these things:

  1. Have you ever recycled anything?
  2. Have you ever picked up trash that was not yours or that was not on your property and thrown it away?
  3. Have you ever made a conscious decision to walk or ride a bike rather than drive your vehicle to get someplace?
  4. Have you ever taken a short shower or turned the water off while shaving or brushing your teeth in order to conserve water?
  5. Have you ever made a decision as a consumer to buy a particular product because it is more environmentally friendly than the alternative? (Think dolphin-safe tuna, or products made from recycled materials, etc.)
  6. Have you ever made a decision as a consumer to not patronize a particular company or store because you do not consider them to be environmentally responsible?
By the time I've asked the first 2-3 questions just about everyone in the room has raised their hand at least once.  After I've asked the questions I stop, shrug my shoulders and tell them, "I'm sorry, but if you raised your hand least once, you ARE an environmental activist."

It then gets REALLY interesting.  I explain that all it takes for someone to be an environmental activist, in my opinion, is for them to make any active decision that is environmentally friendly.  I'm not saying that people are environmental extremists or eco-terrorists, just that they may be more of an environmental activist than they previously thought they were.  It's fun!

In my opinion, everyone should be an "environmental activist", at least as I define it.  If we can do something that benefits the environment, we should do it.  When large numbers of people do the small things we can all do, it adds up.

So, ARE you an environmental activist?  I'll bet you are!

Here's to environmental activists everywhere!  Including you!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Joplin, MO, tornado struck one year ago today.

One year ago today an EF5 tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri.  The loss of life and property was devastating!

The St. John's Hospital in Joplin suffered significant damage from the tornado.  The hospital is shown in the background.  Most of the windows were blown out, and there was massive damage.  Yes, that's a helicopter in the foreground, possible a medivac rescue helicopter.

This is a closer view of one wall of the hospital showing the windows that blew out when the tornado hit.

This video footage is from a security camera inside the St. John's Hospital, and it captured what it would have been like to be in that waiting room when the tornado hit.  This video was posted today, one year after the tornado struck, by the Huffington Post (Huffington Post Joplin, Missouri, Hospital video footage, 22 May 2011).

For more info on this tornado and why tornados tend to form in the Great Plains and Midwest you can check out a posting I made a few days after the tornado struck back in 2011.  You can see it at Thoughts on the Joplin, MO, and Longdale, OK, tornadoes.

So what's happening with the Arctic Ocean melt, May 2012?

The annual Spring-Summer Arctic Ocean sea ice melt is well under way.  Like the past several years, the sea ice extent is below the historical average, though by the end of April the ice extent was still the greatest we've seen for this time of year since 2001.  Even so the NSIDC reported that the rate of ice loss is 2.6% per decade.  In other words...there's less ice up there than there used to be at this time of year, and every year there's getting to be less and less of the the floating white stuff!

The Arctic Ocean sea ice reached its maximum extent in mid to late March of this year.  The only time in the last five years when the sea ice extent was this large this late in the spring was in 2010 when it reached it's maximum in at the very end of March/very beginning of April.

Graph courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (NSIDC).  

The reason the sea ice extent is so large this year is that we have had colder than average conditions in the North Pacific.  The white area on the map below shows the extent of sea ice cover (at least 15% cover) as of 5/21/2012.  The orange lines show the 1979-2000 average extent of sea ice.  

Take a look at the Bering Sea, west of Alaska and north of the Aleutian Islands.  There's a LOT more ice there than usual.  The same thing is true for areas west of the the Kamchatka peninsula by coastal Russia and north of Japan.  In the north Atlantic, however, the melt is near normal by eastern Canada and Greenland.  It's ahead of normal, though, north of Scandinavia and northwest of the Kara Sea.  

I can't imagine that the ice in the north Pacific is going to last that much longer, but we'll just have to wait and see.

The take-home message?  The melt is underway, and though it's been slower than usual for May, it's still melting faster than average over all.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Trees and bees

I had some sadness and some gladness this week.

First the sadness...

My office window looks out across the university campus where I teach.  In the distance I can see mountains that are often snow-topped - nice!  My immediate view, though is made up mainly of a parking lot, a street and a round-about, with a large auditorium in the immediate background.  I can also see part of a green space plus a strip of grass between a road the parking lot in the foreground.

Something was different when I looked out of my window on Monday morning.  It took me a few seconds to figure out what it was though.  Then it hit me - someone had cut down four LARGE blue spruce trees that used to line the street that runs past my building!  The blue arrows in the photo below show about where the ex-trees lived, and they were about as tall as the arrows too.

(I apologize for the grainy photo...the only camera I had was on my computer and I was balancing it with  one hand while I reached down to click the mouse to take the photo...heh heh, no, really!)

There is a new steam line being installed along the right-of-way of the road, and the trees were, alas, in the way.  I am not judging whoever made the decision to cut them down, but it made me sad to see them go.  It's like losing three friends I've had since I got here 10 years ago.  Sigh.

Maybe they've gone to tree heaven.

I know that sometimes a tree just has to go.  They can get too large, too unstable, or diseased and a hazard.  These were, as far as I know, healthy trees...they were just in the way.  Now they are gone, and it makes me sad.

I wanted to know how old they were, so a colleague and I went down there and counted the rings on one of the stumps that was still in the ground.  We counted about 40 rings.  This means that they were probably planted there around 30 years ago.  Sigh.

Now the gladness...

There are two apple trees in our back yard.  I whacked them back quite a bit last winter before the sap started to flow, and I wondered if they would blossom this year.  One tree pushed out only a few blossoms, but the other tree is completely covered!  It's a thing of beauty!

A couple of days ago though, we had a spring frost.  It was 27oF, and I worried that the blossoms would freeze and drop to the ground, and that we'd lose our harvest.

In the afternoon of the next day I went out and walked around the tree.  The edges of the blossoms were slightly curled - caused by the frost - but then I stuck my head up into the tree near the trunk, and heard one of my favorite sounds from nature - bees.

I stepped back and soon saw the bees.  The bees flitted from flower to flower and their pollen sacs were getting full.

I don't know if you know this, but these gatherer bees could mostly care less if you get close to them.  You can get right next to them and watch them work.  It's awesome.

I know at least that there was something in the flowers that attracted the bees, now only time will tell if the flowers avoided enough of the frost to set fruit.  But either way the bees were there, and that was one more thing right with the world.

Trees and bees...