Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Fireworks Blamed for Arkansas Blackbird Deaths, Cause of Fish Kill Still Unknown

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm

New Year's Eve fireworks are thought to have spooked thousands of red-winged blackbirds, sending them to fly blind into the dark night.

Nearly a month after Arkansas residents found thousands of dead red-winged blackbirds and tens of thousands of dead drum fish, half the mystery remains unsolved.

The 4,000-5,000 red-winged blackbirds that fell from the sky this New Year’s died as a result of blunt trauma, according to tests conducted by several state and federal agencies, announced the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission on Wednesday. Weather radar confirmed the theory that dense swarms of the birds took off together during New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations. Unaccustomed to flying at night, the birds have poor night vision and are thought to have crashed into buildings, trees, and other stationary objects.

The bizarre event occurred less than 24 hours after 80,000 drum fish washed up on the banks of the Arkansas River. The Game and Fish Commission has conducted similar tests on the fish, but has been unable to find any conclusive cause.

Tests of the river water revealed normal minerals, nutrients, and metals and did not find any toxins. Infections and parasites have been ruled out as well. AGFC Chief of Fisheries, Chris Racey is quick to reassure consumers that fish caught in the river are still safe to eat.

Coupled with the blackbird event, the riverbanks strewn with fish have drawn a lot of national media attention, but fish kills are not uncommon. While pollution and other human interference can occasionally lead to fish kill, in many areas of the nation, these events are simply a natural phenomenon. In Massachusetts, MassWildlife receives so many calls from residents disturbed by riverbanks dotted with dead fish, that they have a web page devoted to reassuring the public that fish kill is often a natural process. This is a seasonal occurrence and can be triggered by many different factors, from diseases to oxygen levels in the water.

Arkansas rarely sees fish kill of this size, but it does experience this type of event annually. “Unfortunately, we probably will never know exactly what killed these fish,” conceded Racey.


EEA takes Massachusetts pulse on climate policy

In Uncategorized on May 16, 2010 at 9:37 am

Over the past few years, Massachusetts has taken the national lead in developing a “clean energy economy” and tackling climate change. Governor Deval Patrick signed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) in August of 2008. This act represents a long-term commitment to slash GHG emission to just 80% of the level that has remained steady since 1990. A short-term goal has been established to reduce emissions by 10-25% by 2020. Secretary Ian Bowles of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) is charged with setting a specific goal within this range by January 1, 2011.

The EEA’s Draft Climate Implementation Plan identifies existing and potential measures that could be taken by the transportation, building, and energy sectors. Existing and anticipated policies include adoption and implementation of various international, federal, and regional standards and regulations. Projection models indicate that these measures alone are likely to result in a 19% GHG emission reduction by 2020. While this is well within the range of 10-25% set by the Global Warming Solutions Act, the EEA has identified several other areas holding potential for emissions reduction.

The question is, how much of a commitment are the people of Massachusetts willing to make?

The EEA will take the pulse of Massachusetts’s residents on this very issue at a series of public hearings scheduled to take place throughout the state next month. Individuals, businesses, landlords, and large companies alike are all invited to weigh-in at one of these hearings or through written comments.

EEA Assistant Secretary for Policy, David Cash described these upcoming public hearings as “hugely important.” His office is casting a wide net amongst potential stakeholders, reaching out to environmental groups, business groups and local municipal groups. Still, he says it’s hard to gauge who will show up.

The EEA is specifically looking for public comment on 5 questions outlined in the Draft Climate Implementation Plan.

1. Where between 18 and 25 percent below 1990 levels should the emissions limit of 2020 be set and why?

2. What role can Massachusetts state government play in catalyzing the clean energy economy? What policies could inspire entrepreneurship and create markets for clean energy products and services?

3. Over what number of years should cost effectiveness of strategies be evaluated in pursuit of the goals of the Commonwealth for 2020 and 2050? How should future costs be compared to present costs?

4. How should the Commonwealth evaluate and prioritize strategies to achieve 2020 and 2050 goals?

5. How should green house gas reduction strategies be valued or prioritized?

Individual hearings will be held in Boston, Pittsfield, Worcester, Lowell, Lakeville, Springfield, and Woods Hole between June 1 and June 22. Additional comments can be submitted via email at

Is Fracking Just a Dirty Word?

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

With cap and trade initiatives temporarily sidelined in Washington, the dialogue has changed from emissions reduction to energy independence and job creation. Without missing a beat, the Chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson, of Exxon Mobil appeared before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on January 20, 2001, presenting hydraulic fracturing as the key to both.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process for extracting oil and natural gas from beneath shale by injecting fracking fluid, (water mixed with small amounts of chemicals), at very high pressures into the ground, forcing out fuel. The technology has been around for a century and has been used in Exxon Mobil oil wells for 60 years. Today, 90% of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells already employ this technology.

Why then, is Tillerson campaigning for an already thriving technology?

Tillerson is trying to paint an image of fracking as a technology that helps us achieve energy independence while creating jobs, ensuring fossil fuels keep the lead role in America’s evolving energy paradigm.

This image is more important today than it ever has been in it’s 100 year history.

For the past year, fracking has been under attack.

NPR reported last May that Texas, Ohio and Colorado residents claim that fracking has polluted their wells. These accusations have yet to be confirmed. It is difficult to analyze any link between contamination of well water and fracking fluid because the chemical compounds utilized are carefully guarded industry secrets.

In 2005, fracking was granted an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act taking regulation out of the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency. Vice Chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Colorado Representative Diana DeGette has introduced a bill in the House that would repeal this exemption. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania has introduced a comparable bill in the Senate.

While the passage of DeGette and Casey’s bills would be a victory for the Obama administration’s expressed desire to reverse the policies of the Bush-era EPA, it may not be crucial to the fracking fluid disclosure cause. In the absence of federal regulation, individual states have begun to request disclosure of fracking fluid contents.

Gas executives from Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources have joined the call for disclosure. This stance is an interesting power play. In addition to continuing the heavy role of fossil fuels in America’s future energy paradigm, this also places reform out of the hands and budgets of energy suppliers.

Fracking is performed by independent contractors, including ther firm Americans love to hate, Halliburton. It is these contractors that hold the recipes to fracking fluid. Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy can publicly declare, “we need to disclose the chemicals that we are using and search for alternatives,” because it is not his company that will bear the cost of such endeavors.

Environmentalists, worry that any disclosure initiated by the industry might be insufficient and hold out hope that Congress will move to bring the process back under federal regulation.


Taking the Guilt Out of Air Travel

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Americans work hard for their vacations. U.S. businesses are notoriously stingy with vacation time and their employees like to make the most of what time they can get.

While a trip to a foreign country for Europeans can be a quick drive over a border or two, Americans travel farther and rely more heavily on air travel. Those flights that carry us across oceans and language barriers leave behind a wake of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere.

I will not be boarding a plane for spring break this year, so rather than stew in jealousy, I thought I would take a peek at my friends itineraries to get an idea of the impact of various spring breaker destinations.

The UC Berkeley Environment and Sustainability Portal estimates that an escape from snowy Boston to sunny Jamaica deposits 1.23 tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere over the course of the 5000 mile round trip. Berkeley further suggests that a modest donation of $13.39 each to the UC Berekeley Climate Action Fund will sufficiently offset the emissions of their trip. CO2 Balance suggests a $22.04 donation to send energy efficient stoves to the developing world.

A trip from Boston to Cancun, Mexico yields similar CO2 emissions as the Boston to Jamaica trip. A vacation to Hawaii, the most distant sun seeker destination, results in more than twice the CO2 emission at 3.2 tonnes per seat and surpasses even transatlantic flights.

Whether or not these calculators are accurate is debatable and much discussion board space has been devoted to their critique. Their principle, however, is highly intriguing. Environmentally conscious businesses have been purchasing offsets to their travel for several years now. These web based calculators and small scale offsets have brought an easy and affordable way for the individual travelers to compensate in a small way for the massive fossil fuel use included in their ticket price.

“Air Travel Calculator.” UC Berkeley Environment and Sustainability Portal. Last accessed January 21, 2010.

“Air Travel Carbon Dioxide Emission Calculator.” Last accessed January 21, 2010.

Lizards of a Different Color

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2010 at 8:10 pm

White Sands of New Mexico- Photo Credit: Erica Bree Rosenblum

This is a tale of three separate species of lizard in New Mexico, Sceloporous undulatus known under the common name of Eastern Fence Lizard, Aspidoscelis inornata or Little Striped Whiptail and Holbrookia maculata a.k.a. Lesser Earless Lizard.

Each of these three species can be found in a variety of habitats in the American Southwest. Those residing in the White Sands formation of New Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert have evolved to be much lighter in color. Such an evolutionary trick of camouflage is not so unusual. Yet, Erica Bree Rosenblum of the University of Idaho and her fellow researchers have seen this convergent evolution as an opportunity to glimpse the processes driving evolution.

As Bree explains in her paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “all three mutations occur in transmembrane (TM) regions.” Yet, these TM mutations are not equal. Once this was discovered, it seemed likely that they would have achieved this genetic mutation through the same molecular mechanisms. Surprisingly, data revealed that the three species used completely different processes to achieve the same genetic change.

Aside from insects and bacteria, in terms of evolutionary timescales, genetic mutations occur over 100,000’s if not millions of years. The gypsum dunes only began formation less than 6,000 years ago, meaning that these lizards had to evolve within this relatively short time span. At this rate, Rosenblum expects that the pale versions of these three species are not far away from becoming their own species.

Credit: Erica Bree Rosenblum

Fountain, Henry. “White Lizards Evolve in New Mexico Dunes.” New York Times. New York Times, New York. (January 4, 2010). Accessed online at

Rosenblum, Erica Bree et. al. “Molecular and functional basis of phenotypic convergence in white lizards at White Sands.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. University of Texas, Austin. (November 23, 2009).

Tobacco to the Rescue?

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Move over corn, tobacco is poised to take the lead in the biofuel race.

Just a few short years ago, it seemed that ethanol, a biodiesel fuel derived from corn, was going to be the key which freed us from the shackles of fossil fuels.

Yet, the promise of ethanol has since worn thin. Nitrogen-hungry corn requires heavy fertilizer when grown on a large-scale, placing the local water-table at risk. Social justice advocates have cautioned further against using a food source for fuel.

Could tobacco be the answer?

Initially, scientists considered the oil derived from tobacco seeds as a potential fuel source. Seed volume proved to be too low, shifting attention to the leaves. With a little bioengineering, the leaves have become promising oil producers. The researchers at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University have recently isolated two genes in the tobacco plant DNA that, when over-expressed, increase oil production. Surprisingly, as oil production increased, so did the concentration of fatty acids within the oil. The result is not only more, but more concentrated oil.

While tobacco clearly has promise, it too will have to stand the scrutiny which befell ethanol. Tobacco is considered an expensive plant, though a significant portion of the expense lies in the curing of leaves for smoking tobacco as this involves the burning of large volumes of wood. It is this practice which is often quoted as a major environmental beef with the tobacco companies.

While tobacco is not a food source, there is still a legitimate concern that the crop could end up competing for land with food crops. Tobacco is native to the Americas, yet much is already produced in the developing world. Were tobacco to become an energy commodity, cash poor nations might be tempted to relegate more of their farm land to the latest cash-crop.

While it is an intriguing idea that Big Bad Tobacco could shift its business to the energy sector, it is yet still fantasy.


Plant Biotechnology Journal (2009) 8, pp. 1–11.

Save Our Cities

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 4:55 pm

The San Francisco Bay area prides itself on its aggressive implementation of environmental policies. Surprisingly, David Weintraub reports in his December 26, 2009 NYT article Air Quality Guidelines Face Unexpected Critics that some Bay area environmentalists are opposing caps on green house gas emissions. As the region’s air quality regulators propose new guidelines, these environmentalists have become wary that increased regulations will drive builders to outlying areas, contributing to urban sprawl. While this specific issue is based on local zoning laws and loopholes, there is a discussion that is applicable to every metropolitan area.

We need development within our cities. People who live in cities put fewer miles on their cars. Heat that is lost through endless rows of suburban roofs rises up heating apartment after apartment in cities. Suburban supermarkets stock a large selection of perishables, resulting in a high throw away rate. For all of their faults, cities are places of efficiency.

Air pollution is a very real concern today for the majority of America’s cities. City cites an American Lung Association report, “Six out of ten Americans live in urban areas where air pollution can cause major health problems.” Statistics like this are evidence that while want to avoid pushing developers out of the cities, we need to prevent them from further contributing to the poor health of the city.

So the quandary of the century is, how can we motivate developers to invest in cities despite the rising costs of meeting new standards?

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has brought recognition to the table as well a set of measurement standards. Those developers of LEED buildings wear their certification as a badge of honor. Yet, so far, this designation means little to the majority of the population. It is only when lessees begin seeking out LEED certification on a large-scale that developers will feel the pressure to pursue certification.

What is called for is an aggressive public relations campaign bringing the term LEED to dinner tables and water coolers near you.


To Swordfish or Not To Swordfish

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Perusing the menu at Pomodoro’s in Brookline Village, my eyes locked on “Grilled Atlantic swordfish on Sardinian couscous risotto.” My lips met in the beginnings of an “Mmmmmm,” just as my stepmother chimed in “does anybody know if swordfish is still a faux-pas?”

“I thought I heard that wasn’t true anymore,” I replied in preemptive defense. She gave me one of those skeptical looks that parents reserve for their children and proceeded to order the zucchini flowers instead.

Feeling a bit guilty, I realized that I had no idea what the status of the swordfish population really was. Sure, “I thought I’d heard” but I also “thought I’d heard” that green M&Ms were an aphrodisiac and pop rocks and coke killed Little Mikey. I decided it was time to try out this environmental journalism thing and get the skinny on swordfish.

In the 1980s, the “Give the Swordfish a Break” campaign popularized the plight of the dwindling North Atlantic swordfish. This campaign successfully coordinated boycotts of restaurants serving swordfish in the northeast resulting in what the National Marine Fisheries Service describes as “recovery that has surpassed expectation.”

Despite the rebound of the swordfish population, the discerning diner must ask one critical question before ordering, “how was the swordfish caught?” If the answer is through longline fishing, then it’s time to find something else on the menu.

Longline fishing is a method of increasing yields of large fish such as swordfish and tuna. This method utilizes mainlines tens of miles long. At varying intervals, a line dangles down bearing hand-baited hooks every few feet. These lines bring in a tremendous harvest of fish, but also of sea birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and other less desirable fish that are discarded as incidental waste.

If instead, you hear harpoon or handline, you know that this fish was caught with sustainable and responsible fishing methods. If specific fishing methods are unavailable, the chef should at least be able to tell you where it was caught. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood WATCH considers all domestically caught swordfish acceptable. It is highly recommended that you avoid imported swordfish.

If your server simply gives you a blank stare, I’d move on.