Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Reflections from recent trips across Southeastern Pennsylvania:

Communities are increasingly forced to deal with the long-term impacts of industrialization, where the veneer of economic prosperity ultimately gives away to reveal damaged communities and impaired ecological processes. We visited two sites that are deploying strategies to deal with such post-industrial conditions. One location was Palmerton, Pennsylvania; a Superfund town nestled in the bucolic backdrop of the Kitatinny Mountains. The other was Philadelphia’s Mill Creek, which is currently encapsulated within enormous sewer pipes underneath the city. The sustainable practices at Palmerton and Mill Creek provide some insight on how to design strategies that restore the ecological functions of highly impaired environments.

Palmerton Superfund Site

In 1898, Palmerton was founded as a factory town, nestled between two ridgelines, to conduct zinc smeltering during the height of industrialization in the United States. After decades of constant smeltering, the forest ecosystem collapsed, affecting an expanse of nearly 2,000 acres. Due to deposition of zinc, lead and cadmium from the furnaces, microorganisms in the soil substrate were killed off, and an integral component of the forest lifecycle ended. Without decomposers, nutrients in the soil were eliminated, leading a domino effect that decimated the forest. To date, it is the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River.

On site, I was struck by the eerie landscape of windswept, bleached trees amongst barren grounds of dry dirt. Abandoned, rusted factory facitilies stood like sentinels to remind residents and visitors of a foregone era. Amazingly, some plant and wildlife species are returning to the environment; numerous sprouts of sassafras and sourgum were seen emerging from gnarled trunks.

Due to the immensity of the contaminated area, removing the toxic substrate was out of the question. We learned about two strategies to rebuild the soil nutrients, with the goal of creating a capping layer of substrate above the contaminated soils. The first attempt to “green” the decimated slopes entailed terracing the mountain to establish over 60 miles of roadways. These costly roads provided access for trucks to spray “ecoloam” along the slopes. Ecoloam was an engineered growing medium composed of sludge and schlag material from city waste. From afar, this method successfully “greened” the mountainside. However, some critics of this method blame the pervasive amount of invasive species on the applied slopes, due to the unpredictability of the seed composition of the ecoloam mixture. Additionally, trees could not establish beyond the depth of the ecoloam because the roots would hit the contaminated substrate beneath.

The land now belongs to telecommunications monolith known as Viacom, as a side acquisition through various transactions. To its credit, Viacom is funding the implementation of the second strategy, which relies on the hardiness of warm season native grass species to restore and stabilize the mountain slopes. Based on a serpentine barren-type ecology, this strategy aims to mimic the type of succession that had occurred in the site’s geological glaciation context. To establish the grasses, a growing medium composed of limestone, commercial fertilizer, grass seeds and compost was sprayed from the air, or hand-dropped along the slopes. This method appears to be less disruptive of the mountain slope because roads are not necessary, and the warm season grasses seem to be growing quite successfully.

In addition to the warm-season grasses, the predominant plant species we observed included the gray birch, sassafras, poplar, aspen and chestnut oak trees. Furthermore, some rare plant species were thriving quite well in these extreme conditions, such as wild bleeding heart and sandwort. Despite the calculated efforts to establish native plants, invasive species continue to pose a threat to the restoration efforts. As such, the staff work hard to eradicate the butterfly bush and ailanthus tree that they find along the slopes.

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This semester, one component of our core requirements involves weekly ecology field trips around the Philadelphia region.  When we left the city to head to the Ringing Rocks County Park, I was anticipating our visit to be merely a casual observation of some rock formations. I didn’t expect that this trip would involve an extremely sensory and awe-inspiring experience.

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Still staying in tune on the Michigan front:

This week the Detroit Free Press published a pretty good article about local activists in Michigan who are speaking out about global warming through workshops and presentations for community organizations, neighborhood block clubs and church groups. The individuals highlighted (including my friend and former employer) are part of a cadre of volunteers trained by Al Gore and The Climate Project and who are now raising awareness about climate change in their local communities. The Climate Project website is very interactive and includes a calendar of events for you to see what local activities are taking place in your state.

The presenters’ tasks are to be available to talk about climate change and make the technicalities behind global warming more accessible to non-scientists (i.e. regular folk). So if you want to do something tangible about combatting climate change, get in touch and tap into this resource to bring them out to your own community organization.

Top of the Rock

Last night I went to the Top of the Rock to see New York City’s skyline. The view was fantastic. It was raining, so I couldn’t get a good shot of the city, but here’s a photo from Gothamist.

Just within the past two weeks, I have been part of conversations with a range of people — with non-SNRE types, around Detroit living rooms, during carpools, and in sangha discussions, that are speaking with passionate concern and urgency about global warming and climate change. The level of public consciousness about climate change has changed remarkably, and this comes to me with a mixture of surprise, anxiety, and relief. No doubt Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had something to do with getting the message out to a broader audience, and for many who live in Michigan, the warm weather and lack of snow in January has caught a lot of our attentions. While this year’s unusually warm weather may not be directly attributed to global warming, it is still to hard to ignore the melting ice shelf and decrease in bird migration.

What is missing from some of these conversations is an awareness of the disproportionate impact of global warming among people of color, poor communities and indigenous folks — which is an analysis carried by the Climate Justice movement. As global temperatures increase, these populations may be hit hardest and perhaps were least responsible for the greenhouse gases that are accelerating global warming. Here are some scenarios of what those impacts could be:

  1. Climate change will reduce discretionary spending because prices will rise across the board. Low-income families will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets.
  2. Indigenous Peoples are losing traditional medicinal plants to a warming climate, and subsistence households are suffering from the loss of species that are unable to adapt.
  3. Climate change harms the health of communities of color and Indigenous Peoples. Communities of color and Indigenous Peoples are burdened with poor air quality and are twice as likely to be uninsured than whites. Yet, these communities will become even more vulnerable to climate-change related respiratory ailments, heat-related illness and death, and illness from insect-carried diseases.
  4. Air pollution already hits people of color especially hard. Over 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Latinos live in 437 counties with substandard air quality. Global warming is expected to double the number of cities that currently exceed air quality standards.
  5. Climate change will reduce discretionary spending because prices will rise across the board. Low-income families will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets. (thanks for pointing out that this repeats #1).

There are many groups working diligently on this issue. Admittedly, the pessimist in me feels that all this talk is too little too late, that our human footprints are irreversible. So I can only turn to the hopefulness in me, which asks me to embrace my cynism and fears by looking at how to reduce my own impact, as a person living in the world’s wealthiest country. In the spirit of TNH, I’m committing myself to a No Car Day once a week, and I invite others to do the same, to the extent that they are able.

The Detroit Free Press recently published a great feature on Professor Bunyan Bryant, former teacher and mentor to me when I did my stint at U-M. What I have always appreciated about Bryant is his dedication to students, and his passion to push the envelope in academia, challenging traditional notions of epistemology and research.

A response to social and environmental issues at both the national and international levels is the environmental justice movement…it touches upon every sphere of human endeavor. And although we have embarked upon an era of environmental destruction unprecedented in modern times, and although social conditions for many in this country and throughout the world have failed to improve to any significant extent, the environmental justice movement, drawing its strength from both the grassroots and academia, has the potential to change the way we do business in this country and throughout the world profoundly.

I’ve also admired Bryant’s unconventional approaches to engaging students and community members about environmental justice, using theater of the oppressed exercises and other popular education methods.  My own experiences applying these techniques in workshops and trainings have also left me with profound moments of connection and solidarity with participants.

Grace Lee Boggs often cites Magaret Wheatley‘s writings. Lately she has been referring a lot to the quote below, where Wheatley draws comparisons between Newtonian science and quantum physics as they relate to organizing. This is a different kind of approach to thinking about the impacts of our every action in our daily lives. It helps give me more hope and resolve to continue on.

In a web, the potential impact of local actions bears no relationship to their size. When we choose to act locally, we may be wanting to influence the entire system…From a Newtonian perspective, our efforts often seem too small, and we doubt that our actions will make a difference. Or perhaps we hope that our small efforts will contribute incrementally to large-scale change…

But a quantum view explains the success of small efforts quite differently. Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system, participating in all those complex events occurring simultaneously. We are more likely to be sensitive to the dynamics of this system, and thus more effective. However, changes in small places also affect the global system, not through incrementalism, but because every small system participates in an unbroken wholeness. Activities in one part of the whole create effects that appear in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system. We never know how our small activites will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of “critical mass.” It’s always about “critical connections.”

Wheatley is an organizational consultant, who has some pretty interesting writings posted on her website. I’m still reading and reflecting upon her work, but so far I appreciate the connections that she draws upon various disciplines and bodies of thought.