Happy Earth Day from Santa Greta

I trust that everyone is celebrating Earth Day in an environmentally responsible low-impact manner. Here are a friend’s photos from the Carnivale in Viareggio (Italy, in a much happier time) this year:

In one of them, Greta Thunberg says “thanks” for recycling, which raises a question about whether single-stream recycling is still practical in the Age of Corona. Are Americans still sorting through what used to be called “trash” and exporting plastic to Asia in containers? Or does what go into the recycling bin just get tossed into a landfill, a casualty of coronaplague just like the reusable shopping bag?

Update: Email received from the President of MIT, Rafael Reif…

Unfortunately, while we are preoccupied with the present wave of human suffering, the rolling devastation of Earth’s ecosystem carries on too. If this spring had unfolded according to the pre-Covid plan, today would have featured the last in a series of symposia designed to focus our community on how best to use MIT’s distinctive strengths in the fight to slow and adapt to damaging effects of climate change.

As I argue in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, the ongoing struggle to respond to Covid-19 holds important lessons about the kind of scientific advances and humane leadership it will take to succeed in the climate fight. I confess that this subject feels very close to home, because the past few weeks have showcased the finest qualities of our community, from brilliant hands-on problem solving and incomparable analysis and policymaking to an inspiring sense of adaptability, openhearted kindness, and a passion for service.

The painful challenges imposed by the virus will surely demand our attention for some time to come. But I am more convinced than ever that on climate – the defining challenge of this century – our community is also poised to do a world of good.

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Should we expect less pollution with a larger population?

“Air quality in the US is getting worse and could be killing thousands, study finds” (CNN).

The implication of the article is that, given sufficiently aggressive government regulation, we should expect improved air quality every year.

But if we combine a growing population (chart) with a trend toward greater urbanization (data), wouldn’t our starting assumption about air quality be that the typical American would be breathing filthier air every year? If we hit any kind of technological plateau, a larger denser population should experience dirtier air, no?

We are gradually adopting some cleaner technology, but we are also gradually growing in number of people and density. Why is CNN shocked that one growth curve can’t beat the other consistently?

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Factory farms may be killing coral reefs, not a warming planet

Interesting article from the nerds at phys.org:

A study published in the international journal Marine Biology, reveals what’s really killing coral reefs. With 30 years of unique data from Looe Key Reef in the lower Florida Keys, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and collaborators have discovered that the problem of coral bleaching is not just due to a warming planet, but also a planet that is simultaneously being enriched with reactive nitrogen from multiple sources.

Improperly treated sewage, fertilizers and top soil are elevating nitrogen levels, which are causing phosphorus starvation in the corals, reducing their temperature threshold for “bleaching.” These coral reefs were dying off long before they were impacted by rising water temperatures. This study represents the longest record of reactive nutrients and algae concentrations for coral reefs anywhere in the world.

In other words, the same factory/industrial farming that creates massive dead zones in oceans worldwide (including the Gulf of Mexico) is also at least partially responsible for killing the coral reefs, not a rise in sea temperature.

Will Earth support a human population of 10 billion or more? Yes, but maybe without any animals, including coral.

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Ten years since Deepwater Horizon set a depth record

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Deepwater Horizon setting a record by drilling a 35,000′-deep hole (a few months later, of course, we got to see the unfortunate flip side of the edge of engineering success).

I’ll use the occasion to relate some notes from reading The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea, a book that isn’t a single narrative story, but contains some interesting facts across a range of domains.

The Gulf is the origin of the Gulf Stream:

The Stream builds from a vigorous loop current in the Gulf, formed from the heat and energy of the Yucatán and Caribbean currents and the sun. … “Christopher Columbus found the way to the New World, but Ponce de León found the way back.”

Florida is named for a Spanish “feast of flowers”:

Present-day Floridians prefer to think of the Spaniard as coming upon a land that spoke to him with the colors, fragrance, and, indeed, flowers of subtropical exuberance. It’s a quaint notion that says less about a conquistador’s inclinations than about a contemporary people who use the orderly landscaping around their homes and in their parks to picture early Florida, and know little of the harsh wildness that the Spanish often engaged in North America. Ponce de León’s view of the shore would have taken in dune grass, vine-tangled forests, and long stretches of scrubland of virtually impassable saw palmettos. There would have been few flowers. As devout Roman Catholics, the Spanish often named a place for the religious day on which they discovered it. If the expedition had made landfall farther north, then Delaware or New Jersey, still waiting for spring flowers, might be known today as Florida.

Native Americans knew about the invaders, but apparently could not get organized to stop them, even though the Spanish were generally clueless (they did not find the mouth of the Mississippi River for many decades after one would have expected them to).

Thousands of natives lived on the Gulf coast at the time, with strong defenses and effective communication networks that reached great distances across land and water. Seafaring people, they did not live in primitive isolation, as the Spanish assumed. Their world reached beyond horizons. Indeed, they knew of the Spanish before the Spanish knew of them. They were aware of the enslaving and killing of Indians in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. Shipwrecks, too, so common in the age, gave away the presence of others. Flotsam had been washing onto Indian shores around the Gulf since the early days of European exploration, and the “gear of foreign dead men,” to quote T. S. Eliot, sometimes included dead men themselves, their faces oddly covered with hair and their bodies weighted with clothing. On occasion, a live one crawled onto the beach, revealing even more about the foreigners. The first time Ponce de León met the Calusa, whom he knew nothing about, a native greeted his expedition with Spanish words.

The natives, fed on oysters, were taller and healthier than the Spanish, who initially starved on the Gulf coast due to their inability to harvest the resources. (Watermelon was among the crops being grown by Indians.) Industrial fishing by Europeans peaked circa 1900 and the fish population has never recovered. Rich men and women (no other gender IDs are mentioned) came down from the Northeast on the new railroads and hunted for 200+ lb. tarpon in the Gulf. These fish were becoming “scarce and shy” by 1895.

Between 1880 and 1933, Louisiana surrendered 3.5 million alligators to the market; Florida, twice as many. The alligator and egret populations went into tailspins simultaneously. The difference was that hardly anyone cared about the welfare of alligators; their one salvation was the plume market. … The Great War between nations redirected resources away from civilian markets and fashion. Women’s outfits shed several yards of cloth, and hats grew smaller, in part to complement the latest bobbed hairstyle and accommodate new enclosed automobile designs. When women working the red-light districts, which were booming around military installations, took a fancy to feather-wear, women of proper society boxed up their plume hats for fear of mistaken identity. Vanity once again succeeded where moral persuasion had not.

The origins of modern beachfront high-rise development on the Gulf dates to the 1928 opening of the Don CeSar Hotel on “deep-set concrete pyramid footings” in St. Pete Beach, Florida. The wind-filled enemies of these buildings are named after the Mayan god Huracan. (Hurricane Ike did $50 billion of damage to Galveston and surrounding areas in 2008.) Despite the hurricanes, the population of Florida has grown from 3 million in 1950 to more than 20 million today. The author says that mosquito control, notably from DDT, was critical for this expansion.

How did the practice of flying into hurricanes originate?

Airborne weather chasers were invaluable for tracking hurricanes. The first storm cowboy in history lifted off from Bryan Field in Texas during World War II. His name was Joseph Duckworth, a flight instructor in the US Army Air Corps. The storm that earned him recognition as the original hurricane hunter was another Gulf native. It organized on a July day in 1943, one hundred miles south of the Mississippi coast. At the time, Duckworth was training British airmen in instrument flight using the AT-6 Texan single-engine trainer. Experienced combat pilots, the Brits hated the Texan, a decrepit airplane beneath their expertise. When the July hurricane prompted an order to evacuate the planes from Bryan Field, their disdain for the aircraft deepened. The AT-6 wasn’t worth saving at the risk of British lives, the trainees said. Coming to its defense, Duckworth set out to prove both the plane’s sturdiness and the merits of instrument navigation. He wagered a highball with the Brits that he could fly the AT-6 into the hurricane and live to tell about it. Without official permission, he and a navigator, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph O’Hair, belted in, took off, and bored into the black wall of the storm, where, O’Hair later said, they were “tossed about like a stick in a dog’s mouth.” They discovered the eye—calm and quiet, ten miles across—and saw the ground below. After circling inside, they plunged back through the wild darkness.

It was Lyndon Johnson who transferred responsibility for dealing with the Mississippi and the New Orleans levees from the state to the Federal government:

When Katrina hurled its way through New Orleans forty years from the day Betsy was identified as a hurricane, bureaucracy, scandals, and insufficient funds had left the Corps’s levee project a work still in progress.

Shipwreck was a constant hazard:

The Coast Survey’s Ferdinand Gerdes reported bitterly that within fifteen minutes of a ship’s running up on a reef, “five or six vessels under the denomination of wreckers” would converge on it like ants at a June picnic. In turn, making navigation safer jeopardized the wreckers’ lucrative vocation. Legend has it that these “honest-looking men” tore down the Survey’s beacons and markers, and lit phony lighthouse signals to abet disaster.

Thanks to the miracle of immigration (from other U.S. states as well as from foreign countries), Floridians today live in Puerto Ricans of the 1950s:

As buildings, modern-day condominiums became attractive in places where the population had outgrown the availability of land, … Puerto Rico, where condominiums had served the crowded island commonwealth since the 1950s, exported its building ideas to south Florida. When Congress allowed the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages on condominiums, construction took off. By the late 1960s, so-called supertowers were stacking humanity as high as fifty stories. To Florida developers, condominiums were an ingenious way to sell a single waterfront lot to fifty, a hundred, or more buyers. … At the millennium, Cape Coral was the fastest growing US city, with a population of 100,000 or more. Pricey Sanibel had an untaxing population density of 356 people per square mile, allowing the coexistence of human and wildlife habitation. Affordable Fort Myers had 2,065 people per square mile and Sarasota 3,540, allowing little more than the coexistence of humans and concrete.

I had hoped to get a definitive explanation of the red tide phenomenon that renders Gulf Coast beaches noxious for quite a few weeks per year. Red tide seems to be fueled by human discharges, but the precise mechanism does not seem to be understood.

A map in the 1954 Gulf study conducted by the US Public Health Service uses building-shaped icons to show the placement of wastewater treatment plants in the region. They’re all on bays and rivers. Black icons indicate plants dumping poorly treated waste, and from Corpus Christi to Naples, they are bunched up like flies on an outhouse.17 The study also mentions red tides, natural warm-water algal blooms that discolor the surface with a veneer of red, brown, or green. In that pivotal decade of the 1950s, scientists were noticing more of these noxious events in the Gulf. Red tides irritate people’s eyes and lungs and leave heaps of dead sea life on the beach. Manatees are especially hard-hit. Cabeza de Vaca may have seen outbreaks in Texas, and Diego Lopez de Collogudo, a Franciscan monk, chronicled what was likely a red tide striking Yucatán in 1648: a “foul odor” and “mountain of dead fish.” Experts regard an 1844 event on the Florida panhandle, near where Leonard Destin fished, as the first documented red tide, although no one knew what it was. “Poison water,” people called the events. A 1935 outbreak off South Padre Island that killed two-inch mullet, eight-foot tarpon, and everything in between left researchers flummoxed.18 Then, after a 1947 red tide devastated most of the sponge beds, from which Tarpon Springs never fully recovered, microscope-peering scientists determined that the malicious rafts of algae discharge a toxin that paralyzes the respiratory system of marine life. But they didn’t know how or why, or from where exactly the red tides originate. To control red tides, scientists tried dousing a few with copper sulfate. This only killed more fish. In the 1980s and ’90s, off the south Florida and south Texas coasts, red tides bloomed in higher numbers. As it happened, ranchers in Texas were raising more cattle than ever, and slaughterhouse capacity doubled. In Florida, the exploding residential population ignited a chain reaction in lawn fertilizer use, facilitated by ambrosial garden centers at big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Wal-Mart and monthly lawn treatment service provided by companies like TruGreen and Scotts. Some scientists were connecting the intensity of red tides to green grass, purgative cows, and gushing sewer pipes, vexing some of their colleagues, who claimed that evidence didn’t exist to confirm the connections. The press reported algal blooms as one of nature’s cruel mysteries, and sometimes falsely identified pollution-induced fish kills as red tide, incriminating nature instead of the actual offender.

The author characterizes humans as generally trashing the Gulf. The author says that a Proctor & Gamble (owners of Gillette!) diaper factory in Florida has done far more damage to the Gulf than Deepwater Horizon, but nobody seems to care. In addition to the obvious pollution, agricultural runoff from the Midwest creates massive dead zones within the gulf.

TIME’S 1988 “FILTHY SEAS” cover story noted what it called dead zones. There were a few in nearshore waters around the US, all modest in size compared with one, which was three hundred miles long and ten wide and “adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.” Over the next few years, this lifeless region, fronting the coast of Louisiana, reaching to eastern Texas in one direction and to Alabama in the other, would grow to the size of New Jersey. It lingered as more or less a giant underwater vacuum chamber sucked clean of dissolved oxygen.

All manner of sea life that didn’t get out when conditions turned stale met the same suffocating fate. The bottom was littered with the dead—a tragic wasteland of crab, mollusk, and sea worm remains. It was

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Solar panels failing after six years

Why let the amateurs at the power company generate and deliver power in exchange for a monthly subscription fee when you can go into the power generation business yourself?

A local friend (and MIT PhD in EECS!) put solar panels on his roof six years ago, responding to the massive government handouts on offer at the time (thanks, fellow Massachusetts taxpayers!). Roughly half of the panels have now failed, casualties of squirrels, UV light, etc.

Given the rising cost of labor (a bundle of wages and health care expenses), will it turn out that America’s big rooftop solar experiment was a colossal failure from a total lifecycle cost perspective?

Already it seems to me that single-family homes are unaffordable for a typical family because the cost and challenge of bringing contractors in to maintain all of the systems has been growing every year. Adding an electricity generation plant on the roof makes this problem worse.


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Our Earth: Spinning faster, covered in filth

Back home in Boston now after enjoying the magic of big airplanes:departed Tel Aviv on Lufthansa at 0530, slammed down at Frankfurt four hours later (European airports charge a landing fee for every practice touch and go and therefore most European pilots have much less experience with landings than their American counterparts), got into a 747 at Frankfurt and climbed over scary-looking cumulus clouds that topped out at 20,000′.  Seven hours later we broke through a 5000′ cloud layer to touch down (smoothly) on 22L, exiting the runway with 2000′ to spare out of 10,000.  Would have been several months of planning and fitting extra fuel tanks and one week of flying/waiting for weather in a light airplane.  One of my hosts in Israel was a retired air traffic controller from Ben Gurion airport.  He said that it never ceased to amaze him that a 747 could get off the ground and deliver hundreds of people to the other side of the planet in a fraction of a day.

Up above the clouds it is easy to start reflecting on the state of the planet…

Flying out of Boston to Nantucket you can take a short detour over the
famous dunes of Provincetown and eastern Cape Cod.  These natural
treasures are protected by Federal law as a National Seashore.  Just
how ancient are these dunes?  They go back to just after 1600 when the
Pilgrims arrived and cut down all the trees, thus allowing the soil to
turn into pure sand and blow around.

Wales and Scotland are the “wild” portions of the United Kingdom.  The
collision of Scotland with England way back generated a collection of
mountains that have eroded into rolling hills, typically rising to
2000′ or 3000′.  From any town, trail, or road you have unobstructed
views because the island was deforested by humans many years ago,
perhaps during Roman times.  You’d expect it to look a bit like
Vermont, with pastures in the valleys and large areas of tree cover,
especially near the ridges.  Without trees, however, it looks like,
well, England.  The remotest parts of the UK are incredibly crowded by
rural and small-town American standards.  No matter how minor the road
that you’re on, there is always one car behind you and another visible
coming in the opposite direction.

The crowding seems to be irritating the people who live in the UK.
Buildings and parks are festooned with signs asking people not to do
this or that.  You are threatened with heavy fines should you park for
more than 2 hours at a motorway rest stop or park sloppily and take up
two spaces in a 500-person village’s central car park.  If you own a farm, it is very difficult to get permission from
neighbors to land your airplane in your backyard.  People even attack public airports in the UK, something that is almost impossible in the U.S. due to the fact that nearly all regulation of airports is federal.  For example, Madonna, the pop singer, bought a big estate in southern England.  She travels there by private jet to a big airport and then a turbine-powered helicopter (Mother of All Noise) to her backyard.  A few miles away is a public airport, Compton Abbas, with a short grass runway and a bunch of Brits goofing off in ultralights and Cessna-style airplanes.  Madonna has been trying to get them shut down because, after her private helicopter roars away, she wants a little more peace and quiet.

Perhaps some of the violence in Africa can be explained by overcrowding.  The Congo, for example, has about 25 people per square kilometer, roughly the same density as the U.S.  But their percentage of arable land is 3 percent versus 19 percent for the U.S.  Thus they have something like 6 times as many people per acre of farmland and, due to a lack of education and infrastructure, many fewer opportunities to survive via non-agricultural pursuits.

Let’s move on to Man’s effect on the environment…

Looking up into the UK sky one occasionally sees a blue patch.  The
air seems clean through the vertical slice that you’re seeing.  Get up
into an airplane, however, and you look through horizontal layers of
air.  It is the same brown color that strikes one when returning in an
airplane from Alaska or the Caribbean into the Continental U.S.

Israel from a small airplane looks rather like Los Angeles without the
big mountains.  One side bordered is by the sea.  Development sprawls
in all directions from Tel Aviv, mostly high-rise apartment buildings
rather than the single-family houses you see in less densely populated
L.A.  Old citrus groves surround new exurbs.  Occasional undeveloped
scraps of dry scubby land poke through the buildings.  The air, seen
sideways from a plane, is tinged brown with pollution.

Traveling out of North America, with its vast wilderness areas, one is struck by how atypical North America is.  The UK and Israel are representative of the human experience on this planet:  most people will never see even one tiny corner of the Earth in anything like its natural state.

If one is not a professional ecologist and one has grown up in North America it is tough to appreciate at a gut level that humans are able to have any significant effect on the Earth.  Our planet seems like an infinitely huge and forbidding wilderness punctuated by the occasional human settlement.  According to Understanding Earth (a very interesting book but a new edition is coming out within a year or so), our planet’s mass is 5.976×10^27 grams, i.e., much heavier even than the biggest S.U.V.  Yet we humans have managed to speed up the Earth’s rotation enough to shorten each day by 10 microseconds by impounding water behind dams in rich countries, which tend be at high latitudes.  The dams pull water away from the the equator, where it was spinning with a high linear velocity.  By conservation of angular momentum the Earth is forced to spin a little bit faster when the mass of water is pulled inwards, just as ice skaters spin faster when they pull their arms in.

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