Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slime is the Earth's Best Friend

"I collect spores, molds and fungus" is one of the classier lines in "Ghostbusters," the 1980s blockbuster which is my 10-year old's newest favorite movie.

We should throw algae in there as well.

Never a big fan, I tend to think of it as the stuff that makes me want to stop swimming in the local swimming hole.

But algae has a green side (pun intended) that falls into the "everything-old-is-new-again" category.

It seems that millions of years ago (for those non-creationists out there) algae saved the world, and we may just need it to do so again.

Way back before there was a Thin Green Line, or a Mercury for that matter, the earth was an inhospitable place; made so, no doubt, by the absence of a good local newspaper ... among other things, like clouds of poisonous gas.

But it turns out that algae likes poisonous gas, and when it eats poisonous gas, it makes the kind of gas we can all appreciate -- oxygen.

According to this story in Reuters, scientists now think algae can be used to make fuel. After all, it has done so before.
Not only did the algae turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars through photosynthesis, when it died it had the good sense to float to the bottom of the sea and, after a few dozen millennia, turn itself into some of the oil we now burn today.
"But why wait?" say modern scientists.
According to the article: "The race is now on to find economic ways to turn algae, one of the planet's oldest life forms, into vegetable oil that can be made into biodiesel, jet fuel, other fuels and plastic products.

'So we are harvesting sunshine directly using algae, then we are extracting that stored energy in the form of oil from the alga and then using that to make fuels and other non-petroleum based products,' Skill said.

He predicted that industry will be cultivating algae in viable quantities for commercial oil production with a decade.

Such fuels are considered to be net carbon neutral because the algae absorb greenhouse gases when they grow."

So buy your algae stock now folks, it's the slime of the future!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

Who says we at The Thin Green Line don't have a little grease under our fingernails?

Everyone? O.K., you're right. We can barely check our own tire pressure without help.

But that's OK. Living and writing in a car town and trying to convince car folks, who judge a vehicle by things like horsepower and torque, that they should also be worried about emissions is no easy task.

Not that we're complaining.....OK, maybe we are a little bit.

Anyway, in attempt to convince car folks that green can be cool, we present this link, to a slideshow on the New York Times web site, from which we have shamelessly and boldly copied the above photo. No, it's real and it's green baby. Go check it out.

But also, because we cannot completely deny our inner geek, we also present the below photo which, we confess, we think is cool too. It was dubbed "the itty bitty city car."

Come on. You have to admit, it's kind of cute, like the car equivalent of a kitten, but a kitten you can drive!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beware! Giant Snakes in Your Future


You have to love this story, because it reminds us that this earth on which we're riding is not a static thing (not to be confused with static cling).

And besides, how many times in your life do you get to type the phrase "Super Snake?"

Here we see a Los Angeles Times photo of a python, there to show you the scale of what he (or she) is crawling on.

It is a fossil of a vertebrae of a previously undiscovered species of snake justly named "Titanoboa."

According to this story in the Los Angeles Times, recently discovered remains of Titanoboa indicate it weighed 2,500 pounds, was as long as a school bus and could swallow a crocodile.

This, indeed, makes an anaconda, currently the world's largest snake, look like a red wiggler.

Found in an open coal pit in Columbia, where a substance, when burned, may just ensure that some other species we now know will become extinct, Titanoboa required a warmer climate than we have today.

As the Times reported: "Because snakes and other reptiles are coldblooded -- technically, poikilothermic -- they rely on heat in the environment. Generally, the farther from the equator that a reptile lives, the smaller it has to be.Extrapolating from the energy requirements of modern snakes, the team estimated that Titanoboa required an average temperature of 86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, somewhat higher than the modern average of about 83 degrees in coastal Colombia."

So there you have it folks, everything old, and by this we mean REALLY OLD, is new again. The more coal we burn, the warmer we make the earth, the more likely that our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will be fending off attacks by giant snakes.

Just one more reason to do what we can to stop global warming or, as my friend Sue Fordyce at the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area suggested at the end of one of my previous posts, "climate change."

Whatever you want to call it, I call the threat of bringing back the era of giant snakes one more reason to lower your carbon foot-print, although it would make a great summer blockbuster...paging Joel Schumacher!

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Across the Road Again

Blogger's note: Reporters have a love/hate relationship with press releases. They often convey necessary information and they all too often offer the temptation of copying them word for word and then slapping your by-line on top so you can play solitaire for the rest of your shift.
Other times, they are so poorly written, lacking crucial information like a date, or so obtuse as to be completely useless.
What appears below is none of those.
Arriving in my e-mail box was information on an event unique to North Coventry that I was hard-pressed to improve. Also being hard-pressed for time, I chose simply the dreaded "copy and paste" option and present it below unchanged from its original, well-written form.
Hats off to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection not only for providing this vital information about Norco's famous salamander and frog migration, but also for putting out a cleverly worded press release. (I suspect it was written by a former reporter.)

Why did the salamander cross the road? (a) To get to the vernal pool; (b) To ensure survival of the species; (c) To watch humans run across the road in reflective gear carrying buckets of amphibians; or (d) All of the above.

If you answered (d), you know it’s that time of year again, when Friends of Amphibians gather in North Coventry Township, armed with flashlights and buckets, to help hundreds of salamanders and frogs cross St. Peters Road without mishap.

The migration usually occurs at the end of February or early March, when temperatures are above freezing and weather conditions are damp or rainy. Unfortunately, humans never know when amphibians will choose to migrate, so the Green Valleys Association, which coordinates the migration, is looking for motivated volunteers with flexible schedules.

Traffic does not stop during the assisted migration, so only adult volunteers may participate.

In 2008, the group assisted 299 spotted salamanders, 27 Jefferson salamanders and 228 wood frogs over a three-night period.

Adult friends who would like to participate in this year’s migration may contact Kim White at kim.a.white@gmail.com.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where's the Warm in Global Warming?

It has become customary among global warming deniers to remark during winter's coldest days that global warming can't possibly be true when it is so cold outside.

So let me beat them to the punch.

Man is it f*#%ing cold outside!

How cold is it? It' so cold snowmen are massing for their final assault on humanity. (See above)

How cold it it? I saw a guy try to light a cigarette on the street today and the flame froze.

How cold it is? I saw a polar bear holding a sign that read "Will Work for tickets to Florida."

Hell, they even had freezing temperatures in Florida this week. Hell, that's like hell freezing over. How do I know? Let's just say I have sources.

It's so cold that I couldn't get into my car when I went out this morning. It had a bit of an ice problem.

Then, when I gave up, I went down to Riverfront Park here in Pottstown for a brisk walk along the Schuylkill.

Well let me tell you, what I saw nearly took my breath (and my body heat) away.

Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

Well they say timing really is everything and that is apparently true for blogs as well.
Fast-forward three days. When I started this one, it was MF cold outside and of course now, it's been 60 for two days.
Hey wait, it's warmer, that must mean global warming is real!
And it's real right here in Pennsylvania. How do I know? The Union of Concerned Scientists came to Berks County and told us so.
When they came in October, they said "The Pennsylvania we know and love today might not be here in our children's lifetime," at least according to this article in The Reading Eagle (if you can believe anything they report).
According to their study, accessible by clicking here, a broad number of changes are in store for the Keystone State as a result of our carbon emission lifestyle.
Here are a few:

Yields of Concord grapes, sweet corn and some kinds of apples will decrease as temps rise and pests have an easier time in warmer climes;

Widespread ski resort closures will occur, along with a decrease in snowmobiling (no great loss there);

By 2040, our climate will be more like Virginia and North Carolina than the place that made Valley Forge famous because of its winters. By 2070, it could well feel like Georgia here.

Here's another way to look at it, by 2039, the number of days hotter than 90 degrees will double, more than 70 days a year for us along with a 10 percent increase in precipitation. Can anyone say "the Manatawny is flooding ... again"?

From 1961 to 1990, Philadelphia had about 20 days a year over 90 degrees, according to a handy chart in the report. By 2099, we will see more than 80 such days.

Not that we didn't do some of this ourselves. According to the scientists, Pennsylvania contributes 1 percent of total global emissions of CO2, and is the third highest in the U.S., behind only Texas and California.

There's another reason to worry about global warming -- it might kill you.

According to a report issued by the EPA (link not available either to the report of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune story that reported on it), climate change is "unequivocal" and blame is placed squarely on humanity's shoulders.

The report said as temperatures rise, extreme weather events; diseases borne by ticks and other organisms and an increase in asthma attacks cause by higher levels of pollen and smog will kill more people. (It was unclear whether that will be offset by fewer people freezing to death.)

And, because no environmental column would be complete without a swipe at the Bush administration's record on this issue, the Star-Tribune reported several months ago (yes I am a pack rat and save all kinds of things) that the former administration tried to "bury" the report so as not to have to regulate greenhouse gases.

In the governmental equivalent of sticking its fingers in its ears and saying loudly "I can't hear you lalalalalalalala," the former White House staff chose to deal with this issue by refusing to open e-mails about it from the EPA (this after Darth Cheney's office brazenly deleted testimony on the science made to a Congressional panel.)

Unfortunately for us all, what they don't know can hurt us.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why Newspapers Matter

Chances are, you've never heard of Susanne Rust or Meg Kissinger, unless, maybe, if you live in Milwaukee.

I had certainly never heard of them and I have never met them. But I want to thank them nonetheless.

Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger are members of an endangered species -- investigative newspaper reporters. And by all indications, they're pretty good ones.

By that I mean they pursued a story that was not sexy, that would not make them famous and was unlikely to hold the attention of most Americans. Why? Because it was important and because it may not have been something most people would initially "want" to know, but it is something they "need" to know.

The story is about a chemical, known as bisphenol A.

Never heard of it?

That makes two of us, until, that is, I stumbled across their on-line stories posted (here and here) on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Web site.

Now normally, despite being the greenie that I am, I would not rush downstairs in the morning to speedy quick read a report on bisphenol A before my morning coffee. I mean come folks, I may be a geek but I have a life you know.

But luckily, these two reporters did and now, I may think twice about what I put in my microwave.

Now experts on the chemical industry, as evidenced by the newspaper's superlative series (how's that for $10 word alliteration?), these reporters and their editors have uncovered the places this chemical is found and the manner in which the chemical, which disrupts your endocrine system and can affect how children's brains develop, enters our bodies.

Take it from a guy who has read more than his share of technical scientific reports on everything from TCE to stream bank restoration, this was no walk in the park.

Having figured out something was fishy with this chemical, these two then did what nosy reporters are supposed to do, they looked at the people involved and asked the obvious question: where were the government regulators who are supposed to protect us from things like this?

The all-too-familiar answer was: in bed with the industry they were supposed to regulate.

It wasn't bad enough that, as they reported here: "A retired medical supply manufacturer who considers bisphenol A to be 'perfectly safe' gave $5 million to the research center of Martin Philbert, chairman of the Food and Drug Administration panel about to make a pivotal ruling on the chemical's safety."

Or, as they reported here that: "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency routinely allows companies to keep new information about their chemicals secret, including compounds that have been shown to cause cancer and respiratory problems."

Or even here: "A flame retardant that was taken out of children's pajamas more than 30 years ago after it was found to cause cancer is being used with increasing regularity in furniture, paint - even baby carriers and bassinets - and manufacturers are under no obligation to let the public know about it."

But then there was what I consider to be the worst (best) of all. Something that has become all too typical in a country that demands protection it is often unwilling to pay for, and an all-too-familiar arrangement for those familiar with how the Bush White House worked under the Tom DeLay-dominated Congress: "A government report claiming that bisphenol A is safe was written largely by the plastics industry and others with a financial stake in the controversial chemical, the Journal Sentinel found."

Aside from the obvious "fox watching the hen house" cliches, perhaps the most important words in that last sentence are "the Journal Sentinel found."

Not "CNN has found," or "Fox News has found," or "ABC News has found."

Not "ijuststartedmyownwebsitesoimustbeareporternow.com has found," or "yahoonews has found," or even "The Thin Green Line has found."

Because stories like that, despite the fact that it could result in protecting babies (born and un-born I might point out) don't lend themselves to quick and easy sound-bites in Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room.

And they require work.

Not the "can you get a shot of that guy while I ambush him in the parking lot" work either.

No, they required the combined skills of painstaking research, experience-informed intuition and not-taking-no-comment-for-an-answer that are part and parcel of being a good investigative news reporter.

That is not work that is done by yahoo, or google. They get their news from wire services, which, more often than not, get their news from the very newspapers that the Web is putting out of business.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is surely a business, but I doubt this series of stories brought in extra revenue, increased circulation or resulted in a crush of advertisers clamoring to be seen in its pages.

I doubt its stock rose because of this series.

Why should you care?

Because when those newspapers are gone, who will pay people like Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger to expose a danger we and our babies face every day, a danger from which our government (as they so diligently showed) was incapable of protecting us?

No doubt, there are on-line journalists out there who can and do do this kind of work. My hat is off to them. But how do we discern between legitimate on-line reporting and the muddled musings and rhetorical evidence of the latest conspiracy-theorist/blogger?

The answer is we can't always.

But because the work done by Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger came to us under the banner of a newspaper; a newspaper known to the country and its community; an organization answerable for what it presents, it is information that can be trusted, information that we feel more confident is the truth. Because if its wrong or inaccurate, we trust it will be corrected or those reporters won't have jobs anymore.

That trust, that name, is where the power of the press comes from and what makes chemical companies meet in sleek, glass-lined conference rooms and decide they have to deal with this revelation.

Hopefully, (gasp!) they may decide they need to clean up their act. Or maybe an enterprising U.S. attorney or regulatory agency will grow a set and decide they will clean it up for them; that perhaps slowly poisoning the population should be considered a criminal act, or at least frowned upon.

Note that to an extent, this is exactly what happened, as this follow-up story shows.

Increasingly, the Web provides opportunities for people to present information in an anonymous, non-accountable format. Without the reputation, the standing of an established (or even new) newspaper, the only thing that will happen in that conference room is laughter.

Will newspapers always arrive on your door-step rolled inside that paper bag, or screaming headlines from the honor box on the busiest corner? Probably not. No doubt they will exist in some form on-line, which is where I found the very reports I have highlighted here.

But while they may take on a new form or format, they must be allowed to retain their essential function in our society, as the first line of defense against corruption, waste and malfeasance in an attention-fractured society that does not have the time, energy or expertise to be a watch dog for its own self-interest.

This is true whether its the local paper digging into the latest property tax hike and where that money is going, or a major city daily exposing the hidden dangers of mysterious sounding chemicals.

This, as the title of this blog entry so flatly puts it, is why newspapers matter. They do what no else does, whether we've asked them to do it or not, for no other reason than because it needs to be done and nobody else will do it.

I'll climb down off my soap box now and we will return to environmental subjects at hand with our next post. Thanks for listening.

Labels: , , , ,