Category Archives: Environment

The Mysterious Russian Nuclear Disaster

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Are you following this story from Russia? The Russians lied about it numerous time, and I don’t think we can expect them to ever tell the truth. But it appears to have been a test of a highly improbably weapon (a nuclear powered missile) that resulted in either an explosion that shoved a lot of radioactive material into the atmosphere, or an actual but accidental nuclear explosion.

A village was ordered to be evacuated. Then they cancelled the evacuation.

There is evidence that the bodies of the slain scientists, and/or others injured at the site, who were blasted in the explosion, were so radioactive that the doctors that attended to them also need to be treated. It also may be the case that the nuclear device is in the sea and needs to be recovered.

This is a real mess.


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Food Or War by Julian Cribb: Excellent new book

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For many years, scientists who studied biology, behavior, and ecology (under the name of various disciplines) looked at resources, including and especially food, as a major determinant of social structure in social animals, herd structure in herd animals, and so on. Then, there was a revolution and it quickly became apparent that sex, not food, underlies everything and is the ultimate explanation for the variation we see in nature. That pair of dimes lasted for a while, then the other penny dropped and thanks to key research done by a handful of people (including me, in relation to human evolution), it became apparent that there was a third significant factor, that ultimately trumped sex as an organizing force. Food.

I hate it when the author of a book about something historical (history = written records) or even contemporary requires a paleolithic or prehistoric context. If I had a dime for every first chapter I’ve seen where a perfectly expert expert drones ignorantly on about how their book is a follow on of something that started in Olduvai Gorge and side stepped the Neanderthals and all that, I’d have several dollars. Praise the gods that Julian Cribb, in his new book Food or War, only does that for a few paragraphs and does it well!

This book is important, impressive, and a must read.

Food has organized society, politics, war, settlement, colonialism, and the economy more than any single factor, and food has been revolutionized by those things as well. As a simple way to understand this, consider any particular traditional food ask yourself, “would this even be possible were it not for the ability to sail up wind in a ship?” The answer, once you get to it, will almost always be no. Plantains, grass-based cereal crops, maize, potatoes, cassava, a range of vegetables such as tomatoes and various gourds and squash, green leafy things, all of it, are now available to grow in each and every habitat they can be grown in, not just the habitats that happen to be in the geographical region they were domesticated in. And, importantly, this transition happened centuries ago, depending on where one looks. Much of it happened before missionaries or explorers accounts even have a chance to flesh out the details of native live, and certainly long before anthropologists or other professional observers arrived on the scene.

Food or War is the book you must read now to understand the complex historical dynamics behind what you are eating.

The book covers food up to the present, and all the major considerations related to it. Drought, loss of land, climate change, migration, foodies, permaculture, organic farming, and on and on are all addressed in this well written scholarly but for everyone volume. And Cribb makes a stab at projecting into the future, and suggesting what we may consider doing about our food related problems.

This is not a happy book. A book dedicated to Paul Ehrlich is not going to be a happy book. It is a black book with blood red writing and a skull and crossbones on the cover. The title puts an or between the words food and war. This is not the read you need to get you away from the awful discourse polluting our psyches at this moment in history. But it is the book you need to read in order to understand and contextualize many of our policy related problems in the here and now. Plus, it is simply very well written, very well researched, and you will learn things. Many things.

Here’s the TOC:

  1. Food and conflict
  2. War and hunger
  3. The strategic importance of food, land and water
  4. Is ‘agriculture’ sustainable?
  5. Hotspots for food conflict in the twenty-first century
  6. Food as an existential risk
  7. Food for peace
  8. Urban dreams and nightmares
  9. The future of food
  10. Conclusion: key recommendations of this book.

I strongly recommend this book. It is available for pr-order, coming out in September.


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State of the climate, 2019

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The year 2018 was warm, but since previous years had been super warm, it may have seemed a bit cooler. There was indeed a downswing, but only a little one.

However, 2019 is looking like an upswing year. It will not be as warm as the recent El Nino year, but it will be close, and it will follow the predicted upward course of global warming caused by our release of greenhouse gasses and the effect of those gasses on delicate and critically important atmospheric chemistry.

Climate Central has a a State of the Climate report here.

Note that the various predictions for the activity level of the 2019 hurricane season suggest an average year. The most common midpoint of estimates for the number of actual hurricanes is five, with 2 major ones, in the Atlantic. The long term average for those numbers is 6.4 and 2.7. However, the estimate for the total number of named storms is a bit higher than the average of 12.1, suggesting between 10 and 14 or so. We have already had one, before the official start of the season, but the Atlantic has been relatively quiet since then.

This Spring’s unprecedented flooding is of course directly related to climate change, and there isn’t a sane person on the Earth who doesn’t accept that as truth. You will have a harder time finding people accepting a link between tornado activity, which has been very high this year, and global warming, but it is also true that a) there has been a very well entrenched and active non-acceptance of that relationship for years in the meteorological community and b) it seems that having a few bad years in a row, as we have had with hurricanes, is required before enough people put their thinking caps on and think. So, I await a possible shift in position on tornadoes and global warming.


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Pipelines: Just say no

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Two pieces of news about pipelines.

From MPR: MN court says PUC didn’t weigh oil spill impact in Line 3 pipeline decision

In a victory for Line 3 oil pipeline opponents, the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed the state Public Utilities Commission’s approval of the Line 3 replacement project’s environmental review, saying it didn’t adequately address the potential impact of a spill in the Lake Superior watershed.

Last June, the PUC approved Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline, which has been transporting oil across northern Minnesota from Alberta, Canada, since the 1960s.

From Politico: Trump administration seeks criminal crackdown on pipeline protests

The Trump administration is joining calls to treat some pipeline protests as a federal crime, mirroring state legislative efforts that have spread in the wake of high-profile demonstrations around the country.

Bring it on, suckas. Even a conservative federal judge has read the constitution.


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Did Voters Vote Climate? Yes And No

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Voters seem to have liked many candidates endorsed by environmental organizations, or who had good climate change related policies. But, they seem to have rejected ballot initiatives, in Colorado, Arizona, and Washington, that would have moved us closer to the necessary energy transition. Continue reading Did Voters Vote Climate? Yes And No


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CO2 from Coal in the US: Good News

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Carbon dioxide emissions from US power generation have declined by over a quarter since 2005, according to a recent report from the US government. The largest part of this reduction is from reduced demand, with switching around among fossil fuels that are less vs more dirty and adding non carbon sources combine to make about the same difference. Like this:

From the US Department of Energy

The following graph shows the total generation and the total CO2 output of the US electricity generation system, comparing 2007 and 2017. Solar and wind don’t show up in 2005, but are a nice little chuck in 2017 (progress but too slow). Combined, non-carbon (still with nuclear as the largest part) went from 28% to 38% at the expense of fossil fuels. Within fossil fuel, there was a husge shift from coal towards natural gas. What we need to do now is to stop switching to methane, and start switching only to wind and solar. Right now.

From the US Department of Energy

Source


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Congratulations to Rebecca Otto, Willard Munger Winner!

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Willard Munger served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for a total of 42 years and seven months, which is a record. He died while still in office, and beat another record as the oldest legislator in the state’s history. He was born and raised, and served in, the Fergus Falls area, which is in the northeastern part of the state.

Munger was a very significant environmentalist, and was responsible for a number of key legislative acts to protect Minnesota’s natural heritage. So, eventually, they named a trail after him, the longest segment of which runs from near Hinckley to near Duluth, about 63 miles, and as such is the fifth longest paved trail in the United States. (The trail follows the old railroad line, which I believe is the same line that passed through the Great Hinkley Fire of 1894, in which 418 people died.

They also named an award after Munger, the “Willard Munger Award for Distinguished Environmental Partnership.”

Rebecca Otto, my friend, is currently the Minnesota State Auditor. If you are in the State Auditor business, you will know that she has served in various auditor professional societies, and is recognized, nation-wide, as one of the best Auditors ever. When the US State Department is trying to help the novice government officials in newly minted democracies to find their way out of a history of dictatorship, corruption, etc., they send them to Minnesota to learn from Rebecca.

More recently, Rebecca ran for the DFL (Democratic) Party endorsement for Governor of Minnesota, and I helped where I could with her campaign. Sadly, she lost the endorsement. But it is notable that the outcome of that gubernatorial endorsement, along side a very odd Attorney General endorsement, led to one of the more chaotic phases of Minnesota politics. But I digress.

Here’s the point: Rebecca has always been the best pro-science and pro-environment candidate ever. Serving her local school district, the state legislature, the state as auditor, and as a civic leader, Rebecca has developed and promoted pro-environment policies that are so good, they will be part of statewide policy after the next election, even though she herself will not be.

And so,

For her life-long dedication to protecting and improving Minnesota’s environment and natural resources, State Auditor Rebecca Otto will receive the Willard Munger Award for Distinguished Environmental Partnership at the DFL Founders Day Dinner. The sold-out event takes place Saturday, Oct. 20 at the St. Paul RiverCentre. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is the keynote speaker.

See you at the dinner, Rebecca!

(By the way, if the name Otto is familiar to you, it could be because you know of Shawn Otto, author of The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.)


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How Catch And Release Can Damage Fish

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If you catch a fish and you eat it, it has no chance of survival. That’s pretty obvious.

If you catch a fish and you set it free, it could be just fine. Indeed, it could be rather fun for the fish. “Hey, did you see that? You wouldn’t believe what I just saw! Hey, you know that eagle that ate Joe last week? I could see where its nest was! And this guy had this whole bucket of leeches! Holy crayfish!”

But most likely, if you catch a fish intending to release it, there is a chance it will not fare so well. People who catch catfish intentionally know this, and don’t bother with catch and release. I’m not sure if I’ve ever caught a catfish where the hook didn’t go deep into its gut as the sole action in the entire process of grabbing the bait. Not even worth taking the hook out. You just take the catfish home, clean it, and get the hook then. Generally, live bait has a higher chance of this sort of thing happening. Unless you are jigging with a fairly large hook and a live bait that is hanging off, the chance of your fish swallowing the hook, even part way, is high. Generally, as well, fishing in this manner is associated with fishing for food or, one might hope once in ten lifetimes, a trophy walleye or something.

I personally fish almost exclusively with lures. If the lure comes with a treble hook, I’ll either remove it and replace it with a single hook, or cut off one or two hooks. I mush or cut off the barbs. I take at least one of the treble hooks off any lure with multiple trebles. For bait hooks, I smush or remove the barb. And so on.

(By the way, this give me the opportunity to put a single weedless hook on a lure that is essentially designed to catch on to every damn thing in the lake, allowing for more options when casting.)

When I catch the fish, since I’m casting and reeling and the hook is barbless, it is pretty easy to remove the hook from the fish. Sometimes, if the fish is fairly big, I don’t actually want to land it. That may involve too much handling, and that can damage the fish. With a single hook and no barb, I can get a look at the fish, and flick it free pretty easily about half the time.

(Also, I carry at least one very large needle nose pliers. I can grab the base of the hook or the hook/lure with that, and with a simple twist, release the fish before or after landing, depending.)

I’m pretty sure that I don’t do a lot of damage to the fish I fish for. If a fish I catch is legal and damaged, I eat it. (Not right there on the spot; I clean and cook it first.)

How might catch and release injure fish that are not particularly mangled by the process? There is a paper just out in the Journal of Experimental Biology, bu Melissa Thompson, Sam Wassenbergh, Sean Rogers, Scott Seamone, and Timothy Higham. In “Angling-induced injuries have a negative impact on suction feeding performance and hydrodynamics in marine shiner perch, Cymatogaster aggregata” the researchers report that injury to the inside of the fish’s mouth can change the pressure gradient that these fish use to suck prey (and lures) into themselves. It is not demonstrated that this impacts survival, but it does seem to impact feeding efficiency.

“The suction feeding system is somewhat similar to how we drink liquid through a straw,” Higham said. “If you poke a hole in the side of your straw it’s not going to work properly.”

Fish researcher Tim Higham explains, “As we predicted, the fish with the mouth injuries exhibited a reduction in the speed at which they were able to draw prey into their mouths. This was the case even though we used barbless hooks, which are less damaging than barbed hooks. Although we don’t yet know how/if this reduction in feeding performance would affect fitness and survivability in nature, we can say that fishing-induced injuries impact the fish’s ability to feed while the mouth is healing. This study emphasizes that catch-and-release is not as simple as removing the hook and all being well, but rather is a complex process that should be studied in more detail.”

This is obviously going to depend on the kind of fish in question. As noted above, the whole suck-in-the-food approach for catfish may simply do them in. But I’m not sure a Northern or Muskie is feeding in exactly the same way. Clearly, more research is needed!

The abstract of the paper:

Fishing is a popular and lucrative sport around the world and, in some cases, may contribute to declining fish stocks. To mediate this problem and maintain fish biomass in aquatic ecosystems, catch-and-release fishing, whereby a fish is caught and immediately released, has been implemented in many countries. It is unclear whether the injuries to the mouth that are caused by the hook have an impact on feeding performance of fishes. Using high-speed video and computational fluid dynamics (CFD), we asked whether injuries around the mouth caused by fishing hooks have a negative impact on suction feeding performance (measured as maximum prey velocity) of the commonly angled marine shiner perch (Cymatogaster aggregata). We hypothesized that fish with mouth injuries would exhibit decreased feeding performance compared with controls. Ten shiner perch were caught using scientific angling and 10 were caught using a seine net. Feeding events were then recorded at 500 frames per second using a high-speed camera. Compared with the control group, maximum prey velocity was significantly lower in the injured group (P<0.01). Maximum gape, time to peak gape, maximum jaw protrusion and predator–prey distance were comparable between the control and injured groups, leading us to conclude that the injury-induced hole in the buccal cavity wall reduced the pressure gradient during mouth expansion, thereby reducing the velocity of water entering the fish's mouth. This was confirmed with our CFD modelling. Fishing injuries in nature are likely to depress feeding performance of fish after they have been released, although it is currently unclear whether this has a significant impact on survival.


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There is one country in this world moving away from more efficient transportation

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And that is the United States, and that is because of Donald Trump. From WaPo:

The Trump administration on Thursday announced plans to freeze fuel-efficiency requirements for the nation’s cars and trucks through 2026 — a massive regulatory rollback likely to spur a legal battle with California and other states, as well as create potential upheaval in the nation’s automotive market.

The proposal represents an abrupt reversal of the findings that the government reached under President Barack Obama, when regulators argued that requiring more-fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety.

Trump’s plan also undercuts California’s long-standing ability to set its own tailpipe restrictions, most recently in an effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

What is the rational for this? There is only one. Hippie punching. He is showing his base that he has yet another way to make the liberals cry.

But guess what. The liberals will not cry. But they will fight.


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Who cares about sharks?

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This is shark week. So, I have some thoughts about sharks.

If they were lions, I’d have some good stories about the times I was nearly eaten by this or that lion. But my engagement with super predators has been mainly terrestrial. As a kid, fishing in swimming in the ocean, I’ve had a few encounters with sharks, like when fishing for mid size predators, like striped bass, among shimmering schools of mackerels. Now and then all the mackerel would give up on their shifting, roiling, herd strategy which allowed them to feed on smaller fish while at the same time avoid the bass, and switch to plan B, vamoose. One moment there are mackerel everywhere with the occasional bass flashing by. Next minute, there is nothing. And for that moment the only food in the sea is whatever is on your hook (probably a fragment of a mackerel). A certain proportion of the time, the shark that chased away the mackerel takes your bait.

I remember the first time that happened to me. I was probably around eight years old. There are usually a few old salts around any fishing pier, and there were that time. They came running over. “Eyup, you’ve hooked a dogfish, laddie. Reel it in as fast ‘you can, with luck the line will break.” But then the line doesn’t break and you pull a shark up out of the sea. “Careful, laddie, a dogfish has a spine on it, it can give you a bad gash.”

Squalus acanthias lacks anal fins and instead has spines. (Coincidence? I think not.) When cornered or beached, they arch their back and flop backwards, and in so doing, can slash up attackers. These fish have been around for several million years, being small (big ones barely get to a meter long), spiny ans slashy. In those days, if you caught one, it would be shared among the other fisherfolk as bait. Maybe chopped up for chum. I don’t think anybody ate them. These days, with the idiom “there are plenty of fish in the sea” turning rapidly in to an archaic phrase our the next generation will wonder about, spiny dogfish are probably a delicacy on some menus.

Squalus acanthias has another interesting property besides the menacing spines: they are canaries. This is one of most common species of shark in the world, but are threatened or vulnerable globally, and critically endangered in the Northeast Atlantic. Their population levels are down to less than 5% of natural in some areas. This is because the main food for Squalus acanthias in some areas are highly desired commercial fish such as salmon. We humans are directly competing with Squalus acanthias for food, and at the same time, hunting them.

We should all avoid using shark products. You can usually find out if shark material is used in the products you buy (it is not all food) by paying close attention to the labels. Obviously, you should not eat shark meat.

There are a gazillion organizations that support sharks. I have no idea which ones are good, which ones are shady. Also, at this moment of political crisis in the United States, I suspect that donations for shark supporting organizations are going to take it in the gills, as most of us donate to candidates or other causes.

If you have opinions or information about shark conservation groups that are worthy, please post that info in the comments.


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One step backwards for copper-nickel-sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

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I was just starting to think that every single thing that could go wrong in the effort to stop or limit destructive copper-nickel-sulfide mining in the fragile Boundary Waters ecosystem was going to go wrong. Then, suddenly, a reversal of fortune.

This is complicated but for those not following, I’ll try to provide an explanation.

The Boundary Waters contains rock near the surface that miners want to mine. And, very little can be done to stop this, given that we chose over the last few years to put Republicans in charge, and they are puppets of industry, especially extractive industries like mining.

Part of the process of mining in the boundary waters, which are legally protected from mining is to remove the protections by “swapping” land that is not in the protected area for land that is in the protected area. This is known as the Polymet Land Swap because Polymet is the the company that wants to do this particular mining. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been convinced, against their constituent’s demands, that the mining will continue. So, the land swap seemed a done deal, and everything that various opponents to the project have tried has failed.

Until just a few moments ago. One effort to limit or stop the mining is to insist that the courts have a look at the relative value of the land being swapped in this deal. The usual powers had tried to get that taken off the table, and it seemed successfully, until today. Under public pressure, netotiators in Congress have worked out a deal to drop the limit on the court’s consideration of relative value. It is all here in this press release from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 24, 2018 End congressional delays, let courts finally review PolyMet land exchange Saint Paul, Minnesota — Monday, congressional negotiators announced that a provision to end court review of the PolyMet land exchange had been dropped from the National Defense Authorization Act. Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is one of the organizations asking for a court review of the PolyMet land exchange, and released the following statement: “Sixteen months ago, we asked a federal court to review the PolyMet land exchange to ensure it provides an equal value exchange for taxpayers and public land users,” stated Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “Attempts to derail this review through congressional action have stalled the finalization of the land exchange and delayed justice for Minnesotans. This could have been done by now – it’s time to end the delays and let the courts do their job.” In March 2017, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, The W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, and Center for Biological Diversity asked a federal court to review the land exchange, arguing that it illegally undervalued public land. There are three additional lawsuits that argue that the PolyMet land exchange violates federal laws. In March 2018, U.S. District Judge Joan Erickson dismissed PolyMet’s motions to dismiss these lawsuits, but indefinitely stayed all of them pending congressional action. On June 28th, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it had completed the transfer of over 6,600 acres to PolyMet, but this action is subject to court review and can be modified or reversed if found to be in violation of federal law.


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Protecting Minnesota’s Waters from PolyMet Copper-Nickel Mine Pollution

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Every single place that Copper-Nickle-Sulfide mining has been done — every. single. location. — the mining companies left behind a destroyed landscape. There have been no exceptions.

This sort of mining can not be done without destroying the landscape.

It is quite possible that Minnesota’s boundary waters are not saving, and we should just mine out the copper.

Or, not.

Look: Continue reading Protecting Minnesota’s Waters from PolyMet Copper-Nickel Mine Pollution


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