How to Honor Earth Hour on March 28

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Earth Hour is a worldwide grassroots movement uniting people to protect the planet, and is organized by World Wildlife Fund. Earth Hour was started as a lights-off event in Sydney, Australia in 2007. Since then it has grown to engage more than 7,000 cities and towns worldwide.

Now in its ninth year, Earth Hour will again be honored on Saturday, March 28 at 8:30 p.m. local time, when people from 172 countries will switch off their lights for one hour to focus attention on climate change.

Won’t you join the movement?

Recreate Your Commute

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Excitement builds for the kick off of Bike to School Day in Santa Cruz, California. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

by Shauna Potocky

How long is your commute?

How many hours do you spend traveling to and from work, school or completing your errands? What if this time could be transformed into something that actually invested in your own well being? What if your commute time translated into health-benefits, saved you money—maybe even made your community a little nicer—by helping clean the air or reduce traffic congestion. Would you be interested?

Walking, running, skating, bicycling or using human-powered modes of travel are known as active transportation or non-motorized transport (NMT). When people empower themselves with these types of transportation options, individuals as well as communities see remarkable outcomes.  These outcomes are studied and evaluated,  such as through the work of Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, and via this work the benefits become increasingly clear.

Take the example of bicycle commuting: this single mode of transportation has the ability to produce positive change by freeing people from single vehicle transportation. It opens the door to providing physical exercise—burning approximately 500 calories an hour, while saving money directly related to gasoline costs, vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and parking expenses. In addition, cycling is commonly used as a recreational activity, so there is the added benefit of cycling actually being fun, getting people outside and being practical.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work / School event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

How does bike commuting improve communities? Studies have demonstrated that by choosing to bicycle commute individuals have a direct and positive impact related to reductions in air pollution, traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) provides this incredible example as reported on their website, “On average, WSDOT adds more than 20 miles of new sidewalk, trails and paths each year. A recent federal study showed that when bicycle and pedestrian safety increases, total vehicle miles traveled is reduced by an estimated 156.1 million miles over the course of a year. These investments can mean savings of more than $23 million in fuel costs, and 67,000 metric tons of reductions in CO2 emissions.”

In addition, bike commuting can have even broader and longer-term positive impacts related to community planning. As communities embrace bike commuting as a viable option for individuals, they may invest in additional bike lanes, bike paths separated from roadways, bike commuting programs, bike lockers, and initiative options that further enhance cycling as a long-term transportation goal. Great examples of cities that have impressive bike commuting cultures include Santa Cruz, California and Portland, Oregon just to name two. Both areas take pride in their robust cycling infrastructure and community, which has embraced and grown truly passionate about cycling.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and handmade bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

As positive outcomes increase, communities often build on these successes, resulting in expanded investments or programs, which further benefit bicycle commuters as well as other stakeholders. Consider the success of Rails to Trails initiatives, which seek to transform train/rail systems into multi-user travel corridors that often include pedestrians, cyclists and recreational user groups. For an excellent example of a program designed to build community engagement—consider the popularity of Bike to Work days, which occur in cities and communities throughout the United States as well as internationally. Bike to Work days inspire people to take to the bike—either as a newcomer or as an experienced rider and provides encouragement, safety messaging and often food as positive ways to reinforce the effort.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

One surprising or often unseen benefit to community investment in non-motorized transport projects is that ultimately they help to create more “efficient and equitable transportation systems” as reported in the study released in February 2015 by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

How can a transportation system become more equitable? Investments that improve active transport such as walking or cycling actually translate into benefits for individuals who rely on these modes of transportation due to socioeconomic factors or physical capabilities. Thus, when a community invests in transportation modes outside of motorized use, they create benefits for user groups beyond the regular commuter. It is a true win-win for citizens and the community as a whole.

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

What if breaking into a new commute mode is daunting? Find some encouragement here! There are great resources to help get you started. Ecology Action, a pioneering organization in Santa Cruz, California has one of the most successful and inspiring Bike To Work programs around. Their site has plenty of resources, advice, tips from the pros and more to help inspire a ride to work or school by bike.

Ecology Action is an excellent example and role model for getting people inspired to make a shift in their commute—and they are just a starting point. If you are interested in taking a more active approach to your own commute consider your options and then do some homework. Depending on the mode of transportation you would like to try—whether walking or bike commuting, you may want to search for resources in your community.

Specifically for bike commuting, some employers, schools and communities offer bike purchasing assistance programs. Many bike commute programs also offer assistance with helmet purchases or bike light advice. A trip to your local bike shop can also be a great first step—experienced staff can help answer questions on what kind of bike you need or what maintenance your current bike might benefit from—in order to make your first miles smooth. In addition, they can provide advice on the proper fit of a bicycle as well as your bike helmet.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed to help more people use alternative transportation modes.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed, thus helping more people embrace alternative transportation modes. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action

Perhaps having a commute partner will help make those first few miles easier. If that is the case, not to worry, some organizations, such as Ecology Action, help provide connections through Bike Buddy programs. In addition, asking friends, family or looking for riding partners via your work, school or local bike shop can be great places to start as well.

So as the days get longer, the weather gets warmer and Spring emerges, consider all the ways you can recreate your own commute. You never know how it might just transform you and your community.

You never know where your commute might just take you!

You never know where your commute might just take you! Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler

Finding Refuge

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Sandhill Cranes and other species find refuge at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

by Shauna Potocky

The morning is damp and cool—not cold, just wet and cool. A thick blanket of Central Valley tule fog keeps the Merced Wildlife Refuge in a dream like state of obscurity. In the gray mist the voices of thousands of birds rise in the morning air. Only a few Whitefaced Ibis, Pintail ducks, Cinnamon Teals, and Northern Shovelers are seen on the edge of the wetland as the fog begins to lift and the sun rises.

Pintail Ducks and more stand at the water line as the fog breaks.

Pintail Ducks and company preen in the emerging sunlight as the fog breaks. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Today, what the fog is hiding is substantial. As California emerges from January with hardly any precipitation, it is clear that the historic drought that California is experiencing is set to continue into a fourth year. With it will come significant challenges—exacerbating last year’s remarkable issues. From critical and hard decisions regarding water allocations to agriculture, wildlife refuges, and rivers with native fish runs. To addressing tree mortality estimated at 40 percent in some areas of the state as well as having faced a prolonged fire season, with no shortage of extraordinary and fast moving wildfires.

Taking action, California is now employing significant steps to address the ongoing drought and provide for both human use and environmental needs. In November, California voters approved Proposition 1, which allocates $7.5 billion via a bond measure for water programs, projects and restoration. The proposition addresses seven key areas: Regional Water Reliability; Water Storage Capacity; Water Recycling; Groundwater Sustainability; Safe Drinking Water; Flood Management; Watershed Protection and Ecosystem Restoration.

Specifically, the proposition focuses on expanding and diversifying water resources and management options. It is clear that one method of water management cannot address the needs of the entire state. Thus, the goal is to diversify water collection and storage, protect and correct current water quality issues—primarily in disadvantaged communities where water pollution is a major issue. In addition, efforts will be made restore ecosystems and river functions and address both short and long-term water needs.

The importance of water has grabbed the attention of representatives, business owners, farmers, public land managers, and citizens. Collectively, the people of California are taking a forward-thinking, diverse approach to address another record-breaking dry year. Of course there may not be consensus on all the initiatives, yet it seems clear a diverse approach will offer more potential solutions than a narrow focus.

Faced with today’s water realities in California, a proactive forward-thinking approach is needed to address these challenges.

Habitat that received water despite overall reduced wildlife refuge water allocations.

Habitat that received water despite reduced water allocations. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

One example of proactive management includes the actions and planning of California’s Wildlife Refuge managers in addressing the dry conditions of this winter’s migratory season. Many planned for a large influx of migratory birds in December and January based on reports of a productive breeding season in the northern habitats of Alaska and Canada. With refuges situated along the Pacific Flyway, it was critical that managers provided habitat for migratory species, despite the drought conditions, which serve as resting and feeding grounds as the birds move through California.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Faced with reduced water resources, wildlife refuges have concentrated water in critical habitat.  Many California refuges received only a portion of their normal water allotments, making strategic management of the wetlands essential. In addition, visitor use activities have been limited including hunting and tours at various locations. Although difficult for bird enthusiasts, it is a good reminder that the refuges are for the birds. They represent only 5 percent of the remaining historical habitat in California’s Central Valley.

A Whitefaced Ibis forging on a mild winter day.

A Whitefaced Ibis forges on a mild winter day in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

As the fog lifts on this winter day, the Sandhill Cranes begin to dance for their partners. The Ross’ Snow Geese rise in great loud clouds of movement and the reeds that frame the wetlands shimmer with the flutter of Redwing Black Birds—their songs as sharp as their brilliant red and yellow shoulders. With the receding fog, we are reminded that as resources like water become scarce, we are all pressed to be wiser and more forward thinking in our planning, use and conservation.

The fourth year of California’s drought is the perfect time to examine how water is allotted, conserved, and protected. Although facing significant challenges, California is also perfectly poised to embrace responsible, innovative, and robust water planning and management. Its success is critical. Frankly put, citizens, wildlife and ecosystems are depending on it, as California seeks its own refuge during a paradigm-shifting drought.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the wildlife refuge comes to life as the morning breaks.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the refuge comes to life just after daybreak. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

Sign the Petition in Support of President Obama’s Veto of the Keystone XL Pipeline

The time is now to support the president’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that carries the weight of irreparable environmental damage. The first link below is to the petition in support of Obama’s veto. The other links are to sites that explain what’s harmful and dangerous about the pipeline.

Petition: https://secure3.convio.net/lcv/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=2097

Information:

http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/about-2/why-oppose-kxl/

http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline

http://www.nrdc.org/energy/keystone-pipeline/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/17/keystone-xl-pipeline-opposition-cowboys-indians-alliance-oil

http://350.org/campaigns/stop-keystone-xl/

Hope for Mitigation of Ocean Acidification

By Neva Knott

I teach at a small college in Washington, Centralia College. Even though we only have 2,600 students, the college has a strong STEM focus. As an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, the college hosts speakers for the Rising Tide Seminar Series. The speaker for the January 2015 seminar was Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographer and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. He opened his presentation at Centralia College with the message that climate change is undeniable and serious, but it’s not too late.

Dr. Sabine gave the following five take-home points:

1. The profound impact of humans on the earth’s climate is “unmistakable at this point”

2. Carbon dioxide released into the climate has fundamentally changed the chemistry of oceans

3. The current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will impact climate for thousands, if not 10’s of thousands, of years

4. Even though the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been higher in the past, the rate of increase is 10-100 times faster than ever before in the geological past; this rapid rate of increase has a real, negative impact on adaptation–the ability of species, including humans, to change enough to exist in the changed biotic system

5. That there is a way out

Dr. Sabine’s presentation was largely based on the International Panel of Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013), on which he consulted. The latest findings are that the evidence substantiates a better than 95 percent likelihood of human influence as the driver of climate change. In referencing the work of IPCC, Sabine explained that there are “multiple lines of evidence” to support the unequivocal warming of the earth’s climate system, evidence that he suggested climate deniers can no longer avoid. These lines of evidence are: increasing air temperature; increasing atmospheric water vapor; increasing temperature over oceans; increasing sea temperature; increasing sea level; increasing ocean heat; decreasing sea ice.

The statistics behind these factors are staggering and somewhat unfathomable. Dr. Sabine explained that, as the climate has warmed in the last 40 years, 275 zeda jewels of additional solar energy have accumulated in the earth’s system. To illustrate–one zeda jewel is enough energy for the needs of the entire human population for two years. About seven percent of this accumulated energy is stored terrestrially, on land, in plants and soils. The rest is going into the oceans.

Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial revolution the atmosphere measured 228 ppm of carbon dioxide, whereas today the measurement is 400 ppm or more.

Dr. Sabine illustrated the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide with another measurement, the petagram. The current rate of release is right around 10 petagrams per year. The image Sabine offered in order for the audience to wrap our minds around this huge number was this: a 156,500 mile-long hopper car of coal would release one petagram. Thus, the current 10 petagrams would equal that hopper car of coal circling 70 times around the earth at the equator. To further illustrate, Sabine explained that the annual rate of 28,000 square miles of deforestation equals one petagram of carbon dioxide emission.

The culminating effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans is that the oceanic carbon cycle has been reversed. Pre-industrial revolution and climate change, oceans were a carbon source. Through their natural processes, they released carbon into the atmosphere that was, in turn, taken up by leaves, which then degraded into the soil system, where the carbon was stored. Now, oceans are a carbon sink. This increase is the cause of ocean acidification–because carbon dioxide is an acid gas. Dr. Sabine stated that pH balance is “very important for ocean ecosystems.”

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Corals of The Great Barrier Reef. Courtesy of wiki commons.

Acidification makes it difficult for organisms to form shells, using reefs to weaken and bleach. In the arctic, shells are dissolving off snails. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral over the last three decades. Not only is ocean acidification problematic to marine species, one billion people globally rely on the oceans as a food source, some for 100 percent of their dietary protein.

NOAA has several programs to help coastal communities mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the organization’s goals is to create a “climate literate” public. In addition to these public support programs, NOAA offers a Climate Stewards Education Project. NOAA’s efforts are also linked with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The solution to ocean acidification is at once simple and enormous–humans must decrease carbon emissions. The time is now.

Chipmunks and Carbon Storage

Sometimes the best positive stories of the environment come from our own backyard. When you sum up the effects of millions of backyard naturalists, the positive impact is significant for the planet. The personal story I am sharing here will hopefully inspire, enlighten and encourage the development of even more backyard biophiliacs.

Last March, several trees were downed in my front yard by a heavy ice storm. Many other trees had significant loss of limbs. The clean up required a professional. Fortunately I am childhood friends with someone who married a certified arborist. He gave me a few options, when possible. One of the options was to either dig up and grind stumps for some pine trees that did not fully erupt from the Earth or to just saw them at the bottom and let them sink back into the Earth as much as possible. Two factors influenced my choice: the price to my wallet to dig and grind the stumps versus the price to the environment to dig and grind the stumps. The price for both was pretty steep.

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Conventional wisdom always chooses to make our lawns “pretty,” often with little regard to the effects of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and selection of native plant species instead of ornamental non-native plants. Non-native plants often compete with native plants and rob wildlife of hosting sights and food resources which can only be provided by native plants. Also, one man’s yard trash can be a critter’s mansion. With that in mind, I opted to keep the stumps. I can see the grove of pine trees from my home office window and enjoy watching a great variety of wildlife supporting their lives there on a daily basis. Last week, I had the joy of watching a chipmunk sunning himself on one of the stumps. Chipmunks hibernate and the cutie had emerged from the den beneath the stump on an unseasonably warm day. Smart rodent.

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Wildlife habitat was not my only motivation for keeping the stumps. If you recall the biology of photosynthesis, you know that plants absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air around them to fuel themselves. Plants store the carbon that is obtained from the break down of the carbon dioxide molecule and, in most cases, release the oxygen back into the air. Those of you with lungs probably already understand how vitally important oxygen is to all non-plant life.

Graphic from the creative commons.

Graphic from the creative commons.

When vegetation, large or small, dead or alive is made into smaller pieces through chopping, grinding, sawing, mulching or most any other type of processing, it immediately releases a large amount of carbon. Of course, vegetation naturally rots and releases carbon but much more slowly. If you consider that deforestation is occurring on a global scale, thereby decreasing the amount of trees producing oxygen, and couple that with net carbon release because of these activities, it is clearly not a sustainable practice that will support a well-oxygenated planet. When you understand this, you never look at a stump, downed tree, logging operation or old wooden furniture in the same way. In my mind, all these kinds of items have a large invisible label that reads CARBON STORAGE (open with care).

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

How can you help? Keep that old adage “think globally, act locally” in mind when you engage in lawn and gardening activities. Piles of limbs, old logs, even leaf litter can be used by many animals for many purposes. For more tips on how to make your lawn and garden friendly to wildlife, check out tips at the National Wildife Federation’s website.

Orangutans and the Great Ape Conservation Fund

Earlier this month, I wrote about Sandra, an orangutan at the Buenos Aires Zoo and a landmark ruling on animal rights. I am following up with more information about the natural history of orangutans and additional positive stories of the environment from which they directly benefit.

Orangutans can live 60 years or more. Their diet includes eggs, insects, leaves, wood, bark, stems, seeds, grains, nuts, fruit and flowers. All wild orangutans live in tropical rainforests, spending almost all of their time in the trees, where they build nests in which to sleep. Bornean orangutans live on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. Sumatran orangutans live on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, restricted entirely to its northern tip due to deforestation.

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

The Sumatran orangutan is almost exclusively arboreal. Females virtually never travel on the ground and adult males do so only rarely. By contrast, Bornean orangutans (especially adult males) will often descend to the ground. Both species depend on high-quality primary forests but Bornean orangutans appear better able to tolerate habitat disturbance.

Orangutans are seriously threatened by logging (both legal and illegal), wholesale conversion of forest to agricultural land and oil palm plantations, and habitat fragmentation created by the formation of logging roads. Orangutans are also illegally hunted and captured for the international pet trade but, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this appears to be more a symptom of habitat conversion, as orangutans are killed as pests when they raid fruit crops at the forest edge.

Be of good heart. Orangutans have many champions. Here is one example.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Great Ape Conservation Act and since then Wildlife Without Borders, through the Great Ape Conservation Fund has helped in protecting the orangutan population on the island of Sumatra. This is done by increasing law enforcement to combat poaching and mitigating human-orangutan conflict.  Wildlife Without Borders is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation that works with partners worldwide to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, and maintain the integrity of ecological processes beyond our borders, for present and future generations.

In 2011, with a Congressional appropriation of $2.2 million and additional funding through the USAID/CARPE program, the Great Ape Conservation Fund awarded 51 grants totaling $3,869,265, which was matched by an additional $4,538,640 from partner organizations. The funds are used to support conservation efforts for several ape species throughout Africa and Asia and also to provide support to families of park rangers who gave their lives protecting apes. Funding also supports prevention and prosecution of poaching and other wildlife crimes.

In 2013, the USFWS awarded 30 new projects and two amendments to existing projects from the Great Ape Conservation Fund totaling totaled $2,081,120, which was matched by $3,161,108 in additional leveraged funds. Field projects in 17 range countries in Africa and Asia were awarded grants. Following is a description of some of the grants used specifically towards conservation of orangutans and orangutan habitat.

  • Reintroduction and monitoring orangutans in Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan.
  • Long-term home range patterns and the effect of habitat disturbance on Sumatran orangutans.
  • Reintroduction project for rehabilitant orangutans in West Kalimantan.
  • Protection of endangered ape populations in Sabangau, Central Kalimantan: An integrated conservation-research program in collaboration with local communities.
  • Bornean orangutan and forest habitat conservation through customary forests.
  • Increased environmental awareness and human-orangutan conflict mitigation.
  • Conservation of orangutans and critical habitats in Sabah.
  • Conservation of orangutans in the Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape (outside existing protected areas) in Sarawak.

Many other organizations are helping to protect habitat, which is the single most effective way to prevent extinction of orangutans, as this National Geographic video explains:

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/embedded/orangutan_kalimantan/src/

How can you be a champion for orangutans too?

It’s easy! Avoid use of products with palm oil or use only products with palm oil that was obtained from RSPO certified sustainable sources. You can find out how simple it is to do this by reading my other piece about orangutans, How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol.