For the Conservation Curious

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Goods News / Bad News for Species December 23, 2016

Although it’s the holiday season and I should write about cute puppy dogs with bows and ribbons, there were two stories I saw in the last week that I am compelled to write about. One is rather dreary, the other gives me a bit of hope. Since you’re supposed to tell someone two nice things before you break the bad news, I’ll start with the positive story…

Many news outlets discussed the discovery of many new species in the Greater Mekong Area of China. These included a frog that sings like a bird, a blind fish, a walking catfish, and 123 others. So to me, the fact that in 2016 we are still discovering new species is amazing, especially those on land. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of new species in the deep sea… but those will be much more difficult to find and catalogue. There are most likely myriad insect species that we don’t know about too, but again, their small size makes them more elusive. The world is still ripe for discovery.

And yet, Nick Cox, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Species Program said, “The good news is new discoveries. The bad news is that it is getting harder and harder in the world of conservation and environmental sustainability.” Just as these species are discovered, they are under threat. That is downer statement number one.

Number two is that scientists are warning that the species extinction crisis is far worse than previously thought. CNN has a great interactive story (videos, charts, etc.) about it here. They discuss the five causes that are speeding up the process: climate change, agriculture, wildlife crime (i.e. poaching), pollution, and disease. That’s a lot to keep you up at night if you care about animals.

However, they offer solutions to help us slow the crisis. And I’d like to offer a thought or two as well.

  • People have the capacity to do great harm to the planet, but we have as equally great a capacity to help and heal the earth.
  • By recognizing the problems, we can develop solutions for them.
  • Iconic species like the rhino and elephant, and even the giraffe, which scientists say are in a downward population spiral, grab people’s attention and pull on their heart strings. By protecting them, we protect other less charismatic species too.
  • No matter how gloomy the news has been this year, and it has indeed been downright apocalyptic at times, we have to keep faith that things change… sometimes at a glacial pace… but they do change. I’ll hope for the best.

(Photo collage from The Telescope)

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Winter Floods are no Joke February 21, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Will the snow ever go away? That’s what a lot of people are thinking these days. In the ten years I have lived in the Harrisburg area I have never seen so much snow accumulate over one winter. Sure, we had a February blizzard or two in years past, but nothing like the piles of snow and ice that dominate the urban landscape right now.

I think people’s biggest concerns right now are: Where all this snow and ice is going to go once it melts. Will it cause significant flooding downstream? And what will happen to the rock salt, cinders and gravel that is now trapped in the ice, leftover from over-zealous public works staff?
Those are reasonable concerns that I will try to explain here.

According to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Joseph Stromberg, on average the U.S. uses 137 pounds of salt per person each year to keep roads and sidewalks free of ice – that’s 22 million tons! His article goes on to say the following:

“A group of scientists that tracked salt levels from 1952 to 1998 in the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, for instance, found that concentrations of sodium and chloride increased by 130 and 243 percent, respectively, with road salting the primary reason as the surround area became more developed. More recently, a study of a stream in southeastern New York State that was monitored from 1986 to 2005 found a similar pattern, with significant annual increases and road salting to blame for an estimated 91 percent of sodium chloride in the watershed.”

That can’t be good for the environment, and it’s not. Scientific studies have shown that the chloride in rock salt negatively impacts amphibians, fish, plants and other aquatic organisms. The salt can dehydrate trees, particularly those in urban areas along sidewalks and parking lots. Plus the dried salt may attract deer to roadsides (they lick it for its nutrients), creating more traffic hazards. Occasionally the salt may enter drinking water wells too, although that is very rare.

What can be done to improve this situation? Municipalities are beginning to try out new combinations of salt and gravel, salt and water, salt and sugar beet juice, and even salt with cheese brine. Whatever works, especially if it’s safer for everyone. They are also varying the timing of salting. If you put down salt prior to a storm, rather than during or after, it is much more effective and less likely to wash away with the melting snow and ice.

But this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – the sheer magnitude of the snow and where it will end up when it melts. That’s a trickier issue. If our days warm gradually, the snow and ice should be able to melt slow enough to be absorbed into the ground and carried off by streams and rivers without causing major flood events. However, if we have numerous warm, sunny days in a row, possibly followed up with rain, that could spell trouble. If you live in an area that experiences periodic flooding, make sure you have an emergency plan, just in case.

Building our homes and businesses in floodplains is never a good idea, but people like to live with a view of water, so there’s no way around it. All we can do is be prepared, design those structures with flooding in mind, and stay as safe as possible. Be careful out there, everyone!