For the Conservation Curious

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Winter Floods are no Joke February 21, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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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!


Nature is Your Valentine February 14, 2014

This week’s blog is inspired by a quote from Thomas Jefferson. The past president once said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” I think this is very appropriate for today’s date – Valentine’s Day. On this love it or hate it holiday, many people are thinking about something they want – love. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, love plays a very important role in your life.

Valentine’s Day centers on romantic love, but I want to focus this blog post on a different form of love. I want to write about a love of nature. Think about all that nature provides for us: the oxygen we breathe, the clean (we hope) water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials for the products we buy and use on a daily basis. Without a healthy, productive natural world we would be limited severely in what we consume and how we thrive. Yet how many people think about nature and say to themselves, “I love nature?” Perhaps more people should!

Jefferson said we must be willing to do something we’ve never done before in order to get what we want. If we want nature to love us, by providing us with abundant natural resources and healthy environments that improve human health, we need to do something new. We need to pay more attention to nature, listen to what it is saying to us, and treat it with more respect. Just as you would treat your significant other, nature deserves the best too.

What does that mean? Nature is talking to us, even though it doesn’t have a voice. It tries to converse with us through freak weather events, species’ extinctions and temperature extremes. If only we would be more open to listening. So on this Valentine’s Day, instead of buying a dozen pesticide covered, imported roses or a box of corn syrup-filled candies, make a point to open your ears and eyes to nature. It is a Valentine that is worthy of your love, and one who will return it ten-fold to you if you’re willing to try something “you’ve never done” before.


Captivity a Cause for Concern? December 30, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:10 PM
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I watched the documentary Black Fish over the weekend. It covers the story of Tillicum, an orca at Sea World, who has killed and maimed several of his trainers over the years. There are numerous former trainers interviewed in the film, showcasing the ignorance their supervisors/Sea World management kept them in by lying and hiding evidence, as well as putting the blame on the trainers, not the whale.

I went to Sea World Ohio once as a child. I remember enjoying the experience. After all, I love animals and majored in zoology in college. I volunteered at a zoo and wanted to be a zoo veterinarian. But after watching this movie I want Sea World and other water parks like it to go out of business. When you see how they capture orcas like Tillicum, separating them from their mother and family group at a very young age, you may feel sick to your stomach or cry. I certainly did. You may feel outrage particularly when you learn from an orca expert how closely bonded these family groups are and how the mothers will call out with long-range sonar to try and find these stolen calves.

It is upsetting to know that Tillicum is not an isolated case. Orcas are placed in small tanks with non-family members, who then may attack and harass them. They are traumatized and scarred; no wonder they may lash out at their trainers from frustration or boredom. It is a shame that people have lost limbs and lives from these majestic creatures all for the sake of entertainment. When will enough be enough?

I urge you to watch this film and think about the pros and cons of putting such intelligent and social creatures into captivity. While having orcas at these parks may increase public awareness and appreciation for the whales, as Sea World and others have argued, is it worth the trauma inflicted on the animals and the possible injuries and fatalities that can ensue? Can’t we instill that appreciation for orcas and other marine mammals by showing people films and tv programs that feature them in the wild where they belong? I think that can be as effective or even more so, as they show the animals how they should be (dorsal fins standing strongly upright, living harmoniously in large pods), rather than how they appear in captivity (floppy dorsal fins, scars from teeth rakes). It isn’t always a pleasant film to watch, but without a little discomfort, how can we be motivated to act?


Zoos: Good, Bad or In Between? December 12, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:10 PM
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On CBS News this morning I watched a brief story about the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C. Multiple staffers had voiced complaints that animals were being overcrowded, leading to fights and health problems among the cheetahs, antelope and other species of special concern.

I have to been to this zoo numerous times over my lifetime and generally thought it was pretty nice (aside from all the invasive bamboo everywhere). As someone who volunteered at the Pittsburgh Zoo as a teen, and a frequent visitor to zoos and aquaria across the country, generally I am very supportive of zoos. The AZA accredited ones are helping to keep species in existence through breeding programs and releases into the wild. They educate the public about these magnificent creatures and build appreciation that will last a lifetime, hopefully.

However, as the CBS News story brings to light, there can be dark sides to zoos, at times. I can recall the days when animals were in cement-bottomed cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo. That was only 30 years ago. And there are non-accredited zoos out there that still use such horrible, unrealistic “habitats” for their animals (the bear and lion cages at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park come to mind). When animals are not given enough room to thrive, I do have an issue with that.
Many people question the motive of putting animals on display for our entertainment. They think that any zoo runs on exploitation. While I look at most zoos as educational, not everyone does. Is it better to let a species go extinct, rather than try to keep the species alive, even if only in captivity? Where do we draw the line?

I think part of the problem with the National Zoo’s situation is that it is free to go there. They rely solely on donations (and probably an endowment) to operate. That has to be difficult when you consider how many animals they have to feed and care for. Zoo staff are not paid all that well, but it still adds up. The senior staff is not made up of zoologists, I am guessing, so they are disconnected from what is best for the animals. They are tasked with making sure the zoo makes ends meet and continues to attract visitors day after day. So bringing in a few more cheetahs, and adding in a handful of new species without expanding the size of the zoo, seemed to make sense to their bottom-line view. But we’re talking about living creatures here, so that’s no way to run such a business.

CBS News said the zoo recognizes that they have issues, and have hired a new biologist to deal with some of the health issues and other problems. That’s one small step on what will hopefully be a wholesale review of their day to day operations. I will continue to go to zoos because I may never get to see a lion on the savannahs of Africa. But I will pay closer attention to the conditions of the animals and their habitats and won’t hesitate to complain if I see something untoward. You should do the same!


Toxic Butts to Treasure? June 8, 2012

This morning I read an article about how TerraCycle, a company out of Trenton, NJ that is well-known for upcycling products, wants to recycle cigarette butts and turn them into plastic pallets and other items. 

My first reaction was, “That’s great!” since there are so many butts on the ground and in our rivers and streams.  Trillions a year to be exact.  The chemicals trapped in the filter can leach into water bodies and kill off aquatic life.  So if we could incentivize people to not litter with their cigarette butts and rather send them to a recycling plant, aren’t we doing a good thing?  Sure, it would be best if no one smoked at all, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And as someone who does trash pick-ups in her community several times a year, I know that cigarette butts account for the majority of trash in some areas (along with chip bags – which TerraCycle recycles, fast food wrappers, bottles, and of all things, small packets of soy and duck sauce from Chinese restaurants).  Why people do not think cigarette butts are litter is beyond me.  People I know who claim to care about the environment and would never throw a bottle out the window seem to have no problem throwing their used cigarettes on the ground.  Why is that?  Where did that mentality come from and how can we change it?

But I digress.  As the article points out, there may be a major problem with recycling cigarette butts.  If all those toxic chemicals are concentrated into the filter, how can you make a product out of them that would be safe for people to use?  And what happens when that product reaches the end of its useful life?  Will it then contribute its own form of pollution to the environment?  If used cigarette filters are essentially toxic waste, can they ever be safe to handle? 

I would like to think that we have the brains and technology to figure this one out.  If TerraCycle can recycle cigarette butts (and used chewing gum, which is another thing the article mentioned) then I will see a lot fewer of them mucking up my city.  If turning toxic trash into treasure is possible, then maybe it’s not impossible to hope that my dad will quit smoking.  I will cross my fingers for both!


Big Week for Getting Outdoors September 24, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:07 AM
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On Monday (9/25) we celebrate National Public Lands Day ( AND Nature Rocks Day (, not to mention that the whole week is Take a Child Outside Week (  All these themed-dates raise awareness about the importance of our natural world and connecting all generations to it.  Why is it so important that we emphasize conservation and outdoor activities? 

Scientific studies show that when kids spend more time outdoors they are better able to concentrate in school, they exhibit fewer behavioral issues, their health (esp. asthma and stress-related conditions) improves and they lose more weight.  Those are all very valuable benefits, but to me the most important thing that happens when children get outside is that they learn to appreciate the natural world.  They see that a flower is worthwhile because it is beautiful, smells good and provides food for insects.  They see that a stream is valuable because it provides a home for many animals.  They see a forest and know that it is more than just the money that can be made by harvesting the timber.  If we don’t build that appreciation at a young age, chances are it won’t develop when they are adults.  By then they are so busy with the day-to-day of life: working, cooking, cleaning, shopping, driving, on and on: that they can’t stop and appreciate the world for what it is.  So, whether you have a child of your own, or a niece, nephew, cousin or friend’s kid, get them outside next week and in the weeks to follow.

What can you do when you’re out there? Where can you go if you live in a very urbanized environment?  No matter where you live you can find some special place within walking distance (or a short bus trip).  Go into your backyard, to a local park, along a tree-lined street, visit a farm or even a zoo – anywhere there is some greenery, animals and insects.  Sit in a quiet place and listen to the world around you.  What do you hear, other than any passing cars or planes?  Get close down to the ground – what do you see?  Bring a journal or sketch pad and have them draw or write a story about their discoveries.  Play a game of “I spy” but use only living things. For more fun activities, visit the links listed above.

For those above the age of 18, you can enjoy the outdoors too! Now’s a great time to go shopping for a bike or kayak; as the season comes to a close you can find some good bargains! Consider buying used – there are some good websites to find bikes and outdoor equipment that people are tired of. Their loss is your gain and by buying used you’ll help reduce the amount of new STUFF that we add to this already crowded planet.  FYI: a great website for learning about our obsession with stuff is But you don’t need much stuff to enjoy the outdoors. A pair of shoes will suffice.  Go for a walk and search for little signs of nature all around you.  You’ll be surprised to find it in some peculiar places.

We spend too much time inside, both in buildings and in vehicles. We need to get outside! We will be healthier, happier and more in-tune with the natural world – a world that we are part of, believe it or not.  Next week is a big week for getting outdoors, but it should be the start of a lifelong experience, not just one week out of many.