Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

Happy New Year from all of us who contribute in some way to On the Brink.  May your past meet your present in wonderful new ways.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Nitrogen and Phosphorus

It might seem counterintuitive but excess
nutrients are a serious threat to marine
life.  Excess nutrients cases a reduction of
oxygen in water which leads to hypoxia.
Click for photo credit.

At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

So far this year, I've written about the science of early humans, the stark reality of climate change, the acceptance of junk science by the American public, the return of nature and the growing importance of the Internet in documenting environmental science and policy issues.  You can catch the posts herehereherehere and here.

My final post for this series and for this year is on the growing problems with nutrient pollution.  The U.S. and many other parts of the world have done an amazing job in eliminating public exposure to harmful pollutants like heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and a variety of other unhealthy chemicals.  However, we still are unable to fully address the vexing problem of nutrient pollution, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.

The problem with nutrients is that they are often non-point pollutants, meaning that there are multiple sources of the pollutant, often in low concentration.  However, with time, the low use rate adds up and entire ecosystems can change as nutrients slowly increase.

Storm water is an important source of nutrient pollution.
Click for photo credit.
What are the sources of nitrogen and phosphorus?  According to the EPA, there are 5 main sources:  agriculture (from fertilizer and manure runoff), storm water, wastewater from sewage treatment plants, burning of fossil fuels (for nitrogen), and home use (particularly home fertilizer use and septic systems).

The real challenge of managing nutrient pollution is that it is difficult to regulate the sources.  How do you cut fertilizer runoff from a farm?  How do you ban fertilizer use for home lawn or garden use?  How do you reduce sewage or septic system discharges?  How do you reduce stormwater runoff?  Reductions are possible in all of these situations, but extremely difficult and time consuming.  They are also politically and socially difficult.

But the problems are becoming acute.  Some areas of the U.S. have so much nutrient pollution in the groundwater that it is likely that important aquifers will become unavailable in the coming decades.  Algae blooms in coastal waters have caused massive fish kills in important recreational and commercial fisheries areas like Long Island Sound.  Whole ecosystems, like the Florida Everglades, have transitioned from natural low nutrient environments to high nutrient environments, thereby transforming ecosystems into something completely different from what they were.  This drives extinction, exotic species expansion, and a wide variety of other issues.

The problem is also an international one.  As populations grow and modern agricultural techniques and suburbanization expand across the world many areas are experiencing unprecedented nutrient pollution.

Many of us have been working on these issues for a long time.  There have been some successes, but many problems remain in the U.S.  Some things to look for in the coming years:

1.  More fertilizer bans.  I expect we will see more fertilizer bans in communities.  As people start to become more aware of the problem and how it is impacting their water quality and local environment, there will be greater acceptance of fertilizer bans.  The green lawn will be socially out.  They are already very uncool.

2.  Off the septic.  We will see more and more areas moving off septic systems.  It is believed that a significant portion of the nutrient problem in Long Island Sound and many other areas of the U.S. is caused by nutrient pollution from septic systems.  There will be greater effort to get homes off of septic systems and onto sewer lines.

3.  Nutrient recycling.  There are many who have advocated nutrient recycling for years.  Indeed, farmers who use animal wastes for natural fertilizer have been doing this for generations.  However, I expect we will try to find innovative ways to remove nutrients from wastewater, stormwater, and agricultural runoff in the coming decades.  Right now, significant amounts of sewage waste are added to agricultural fields.  There have been concerns with this practice due to the expansion of pharmaceutical and their subsequent release into sewage and then onto fields.  How can we remove just the nutrients?  Algae biofuel has some strong potential.  You can read about this innovative source of energy here and here.

4.  More engineering and regulation.  I expect that we will see more engineering solutions to stormwater management, agricultural runoff, and manure field runoff.  The engineering fixes will cost more than current practices and will have to be built into code, which will require greater regulation.  No one likes expanded regulation of course, but strong local government regulation is one of the only ways to manage non-point pollution.

5.  More problems.  I don't see a clear way out of the nutrient pollution mess we are in at the present time.  We will have some fixes, but there will be some areas that will be very difficult to manage.  Thus, I expect we will continue to see critical problems in some areas such as the Mississippi delta region in the Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound, and some groundwater systems.

While there is much cause to be concerned, there are some success stories.  Just take a look at Chesapeake Bay. There, a regional approach to managing the Chesapeake watershed led to reductions in nutrient content of the Bay.  Clear regional environmental management was the key to success in that area.  The Bay has a long way to go, but great improvements have been made since the 1980's.  Poke around this Website and you'll get a sense of how strong multi-government and regional management can solve serious nutrient problems.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Phenology, the Cloud, and the Power of the Internet

At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

Click for photo credit.
It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

So far this year, I've written about the science of early humans, the stark reality of climate change, the acceptance of junk science by the American public, and the return of nature.  You can catch the posts hereherehere, here.

Today, to add to my end of year discussion, I am highlighting the power of the Internet to improve science and bring people together.

Some luddites have expressed many times in recent years that the Internet is dead.  Just check out this depressing essay on the topic here.  I would argue the exact opposite.  The Internet is expanding and providing great opportunities for expression and exchange of ideas.  Many of these exchanges are accelerating scientific discovery to the betterment of mankind and greater understanding of our planet.

Just take a look a the National Phenology Network.  Phenology is the study of the timing of key events in plants and animals like flowering and hibernation.  The network was set up to capture information from citizen scientists from around the country to capture data and upload it onto a national database.   The number of participants in the network is astounding and provides tremendous information on subtle year to year changes that may demonstrate patterns on how climate change is impacting (or not impacting) broad phenologic changes.

This is not the only type of network that brings together citizen scientists into a virtual world.  Just take a look at this list here on the number of projects available for local engagement.  Clearly, the Internet is not dead in trying to engage the public on producing strong research projects.

Plus, the public has access to tremendous scientific and environmental information.  They can read journals, look at data, and interact with scientists.  Plus, just look at all the you tube videos that teach us so much about the world.  This is one of my favorites.  Even the silly animal videos that everyone is sharing on Facebook gives us a look at the emotional life of animals in ways that could never be examined in the past.  Each of us has probably seen more different types of cat and dog behavior as a result of Facebook than most cat and dog behaviorists of the pre-Internet age.  We understand that animals have pretty complex emotional lives as can be seen here and here.

Plus, everyone over 45 in academics knows that information sharing and technological approaches to building a bibliographic reference list has changed tremendously.  I can find emerging research on a particular topic any time of day through the Internet and set alerts so that I am informed automatically if there are any new emerging publications.  There are also specialized information portals like the Karst Information Portal that bring together a wide variety of research sources within one easily searchable location.

A relatively recent innovation, cloud technology, allows us to have access to information pretty much anywhere we go in the world.  This makes the Internet much more open.  Sure, we have issues like the whole Wikileaks thing and some believe that the Internet is culturally risky or somehow doing damage.  But a more open and accessible Internet is expanding with time.

Some also believe that the Internet is a soulless place.  However, just take a look at this video and I think you'll see that the power of the Internet is just being felt.  It has the ability to connect us in ways that we can only imagine.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Return of Nature

Each day, thousands of environmental professionals
around the world work to help us maintain positive
environmental conditions on our altered planet.
This firefighter in Georgia is working on a prescribed burn.
Click for photo credit.

At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories of the year.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

So far this year, I've written about the science of early humans, the stark reality of climate change, and the acceptance of junk science by the American public.  You can catch the posts herehere, and here.

Today, I'm writing about great successes in environmental management in many parts of the world.  While we have a long way to go, it is worth noting the success.  All too often we focus on the negative impacts of human action on the planet without taking time to reflect on how we have changed behavior over the last 40 years in order to protect many areas of the earth.  Please note, that I understand that many areas are still threatened and many species are on the edge of extinction.  But, in this changed world, there are success stories.

For example, this study from a few years ago demonstrated that forests are expanding throughout North America and Europe.  The noted geographer, John Fraser Hart, wrote about the expanding forests (albeit many of them commercial) in the American south and how forests have replaced former cotton plantations in many areas.

But it's not just about the forests.  Many animals have had very successful population increases.  Just take a look at the Florida black bear which was at risk of extinction.  It is now delisted from the state's tally of threatened species.

Overall, we have solved, or at least mitigated, many environmental problems from acid rain to the ozone hole.  We have decreased (at least in North America) most major pollutants and are working on developing solutions to other emerging problems.

We live in a very changed environment and it is changing in interesting ways with us.  We no longer have the natural world of the past.  It is evolving into a heavily altered and managed place.  And nature, in some form or another, is along for our wild ride into modernity.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Junk Culture's View on Science

Yes, Animal Planet had a serious documentary about
the reality of mermaids.  Click for photo credit.
At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories of the year.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

So far this year, I've written about the science of early humans and the stark reality of climate change.  You can catch the posts here and here.

Today, I'm writing about the overall expansion of junk science in popular culture.  Certainly it is not surprising that scientific thought and reasoning take a back seat in an American culture where the Kardashians and a duck hunting reality show have high ratings or when Miley Cyrus gets more votes than any world leader or major thinker in Time Magazine's people's choice award for person of the year.

A whole bunch of the junk science is focused on kids and young adults.  Just take a look at the recent documentary on Animal Planet cable channel on mermaids.  It was a documentary that basically took a pseudoscience look at mermaids as if they were real.  It wasn't tongue in cheek.  It was a seriousish effort.  You can see it here.  I would have been embarrassed to be involved with this one!

Now let's go over to National Geographic Channel.  One of their hot shows is called Diggers and is basically about a bunch of looters of archaeological artifacts.  They also have shows called Polygamy USA and Rocket City Rednecks.  National Geographic has gone a long way toward destroying their well respected gold-seal brand based on over a century of solid scientific and geographic writing in their magazines by helping to dumb down television.

The Discovery Channel originally focused on historical and scientific documentaries.  Now, it has shows like Amish Mafia and Naked and Afraid (I guess they put naked people in nature and see what happens).

I won't even begin to list what passes for Art and Entertainment on A and E.  Suffice it to say people are leaving cable in droves due to the lack of thoughtful or interesting stuff.  So many of my friends now have cable just for the internet.  Sure the bad TV is fun, but too much of it is bad for our culture.

But that's TV.  What about in schools and museums?  Well, take a look at who is choosing public school textbooks in Texas or the Creation Museum.  Note:  I am not anti-religion, just anti anti-science. The expansion of anti-science thought leads to these kinds of issues where it becomes problematic for science teachers to teach basic accepted science.

Even in our public discourse, there is bad science that creeps in.  Just take a look at the GMO debate.  There are reasonable arguments to be made on either side of the issue, but there is a ton of bad science out there that distracts from the real issues.  It leads to headlines like this.

The problem with all of this anti-science stuff in our culture is that it gives a voice to really bad people who want to intentionally deceive the public on important issues like environmental change.  Plus, the expansion of bad science in public or private schools makes students from those schools far less competitive nationally and internationally.  Do you really want your doctor to graduate from a high school or a university that is considered outside of the accepted norm of scientific or intellectual reasoning?

I don't want to be too harsh, because there are many great things in our culture that celebrate science and intellectual thought.  However, look around you and you will see that there is more and more junk out there--and it is more and more accepted.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hoff the Beaten Path

Adriane Hoff, the author
of Hoff the Beaten Path.
Check out this cool blog on living car free in Los Angeles.  It's called Hoff the Beaten Path and is written by my niece, Adriane Hoff.  The blog is relatively new but has some great posts already.  She works in la law (that's French for L.A. law) in a big skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles and lives in Koreatown.  She is also a major surfer and commuter and a homeless advocate.  All of my transit research peeps will like her blog a whole bunch.

LA is often seen as a city that is impossible to live in without a car, but Adriane is making it work and telling her story.

I'll return to my end of year posts mañana, but thought I would share this gem around with my readers.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adaptation or Big Science Fixes to Global Climate Change

Calcite, calcium carbonate.
Click for photo credit.

At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories of the year.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

Yesterday I wrote about the science of early humans.  You can catch this post here.  Today's overlooked environmental issue about the increasing awareness in the scientific community that current policy around global climate change is doing very little to mitigate the long term problems associated with climate change.  In the west, getting a Prius or turning down your heat or air conditioning isn't going to cut it.

Thus, many scientists are looking at big fixes to global climate change or trying to understand how we need to adapt in order to deal with the consequences of a much warmer world.  The big science fix that most interests me is carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in some way in rock, living matter, or in some media in the subsurface.  I find this approach fascinating because it intervenes with the carbon cycle, which is very much tied to the rock cycle, particularly the parts of the rock cycle that involve karst landscapes.

A number of interesting questions are being asked.  Are there ways that we can enhance calcite (calcium carbonate) formation?  Even while many reefs are sick or dying, can we enhance reef formation to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere to create carbon-rich reefs?  Can we pull carbon out of the atmosphere and manufacture calcite or find ways to store it in water or voids deep within the earth?

Many do not realize this, but there are many carbon sequestration projects already in place or being built.  But these are largely for sequestering new releases of carbon, and not existing carbon in the atmosphere.  The challenge will be to try to remove existing carbon and other greenhouse gases.

Other scientists are focusing on climate change adaptation.  Those of us who have seen the sea rise models know that the next century will be a challenging one for coastal communities.  There are entire nations that could disappear.  In our own country, places like Florida and coastal Louisiana will be particularly hard hit.  Many of our coastal communities, including New York, Miami, and Washington DC will be threatened by sea level rise.  How do we adapt to changing sea level?  It will happen rapidly by geologic standards, but more slowly over the span of human life.

Most coastal areas in the U.S. are developing sea level change adaptation plans.  Check out Delaware's here and San Diego's here.  There are dozens of plans out there for communities throughout the U.S. This indicates a level of awareness on sea level rise that wasn't in place a few years ago.  Clearly, we are getting ready.

While we can all do our part to reduce greenhouse gases, the reality is that our society is failing to address the problems with global climate change in meaningful ways.  Big science fixes and adaptation seem our only options at this time.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Science of Early Humans

Click for photo credit.
At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories of the year.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

Today's overlooked environmental story is on the growth in the understanding of early humans.  While this may seem like an odd choice as an overlooked environmental story, I think it is important to understand how humans developed in order to understand how we can adapt to today's changing natural and cultural environment.

Early humans lived in some extreme environments and anthropologists have been diligently working out the details of their lives for decades.  New information coming from DNA analysis is particularly fascinating, including the recovery of the oldest DNA from a human ancestor.  We are also getting detailed information on early modern human DNA from a number of different locations from around the world including China.  What all this research is telling us is that human ancestry is much more complicated than originally thought.

We are also learning much more about how early humans lived.  For example, this story tells us that dogs were first domesticated in Europe between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago.  We have also learned this year that Neanderthals had a much more complex culture than originally thought.  We are also learning more about diet and its role in early cultures.

We are also learning a great deal about the environmental impact of human arrival in the Americas and their interaction with now extinct megafauna. And we are learning how humans interacted with ancient climate change in other parts of the world and about the environmental changes associated with the transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural societies.

These are just a few new pieces of information that came out this year and there is much more I could report.  Indeed, the amount of information coming out on early humans is accelerating.  It provides evidence that while we are very different from our ancestors, we do have many similarities.  One big similarity is that we have always been altering our environment in some way.  Hopefully we will be able to learn more from the past in order to understand where we may be heading.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

5 Tips for Being an Awesome Faculty Colleague

I reread yesterday's post about how to leave a classroom in good shape for the next classroom instructor and I realized I came off a bit whiney.  As someone who tries to be positive and keep whining to a minimum,  I thought I needed to counteract the negative with some positives.  Yesterday's post was an amalgam of suggestions from experiences of nearly 30 years of higher education teaching and wasn't reflective on any one institution or person.
Click for photo credit.

Today's post is all about really fantastic experiences I've had with faculty who have gone above and beyond to help me, other faculty, or students.  I've put the experiences into generalized tips so that any new or seasoned faculty can become more awesome than they already are.

1.  Help others with research.  One of the great joys of being a faculty member is that I get to be a professional writer and researcher as part of my job.  Each faculty member has different skills.  Some may be great with statistics and others may be great with field work or grantsmanship.  I've had so many wonderful collaborators over the years who have helped me in immeasurable ways.  One of the best gifts you can give to your colleagues is help with their research without any expectation of publication credit (although sometimes that happens too).

Click for photo credit.
2.  Honestly evaluate teaching.  In this day of continuous outcomes assessments, university professors are formally evaluated quite often.  However, we don't often take the time for informal low-pressure evaluations of teaching.  Some of my best teaching advice came from informal evaluations by my faculty friends who coached me on new teaching techniques, classroom exercises, or exam styles.  Be honest.  Praise without critical assessment is not a true evaluation.

3.  Be supportive through thick and thin.  Friendships are really lifelong treasures.  Over the years we have people come and go in our lives, but some are able to last through difficult times--including difficulties that may arise in the workplace.  Over the years, I've had a few faculty friendships dissolve over small university political disagreements.  However, I've had many others that were able to survive very tough times.  As time passes, the disagreements are forgotten, but the friendship lives.

Click for photo credit.
4.  Give of your time.  If you've been in the higher ed biz, you've certainly had the colleague who won't do anything outside of the strict confines of his or her limited schedule.  They can't show up for meetings except for particular days at very specific times or they never volunteer for needed department or university service work.  I don't want to unload too much on these folks because I've had periods of time in my life when I've been unable to do much beyond my assigned duties.  However, some of the most productive and awesome people I know in higher ed are very much available for service work and they are also highly productive teachers or researchers.

Click for photo credit.
5.  Help students who aren't your own.  We've all had students come to us for advice or assistance who are outside of our department.  Some few faculty members are not particularly helpful in such circumstances.  I knew one faculty member who wouldn't even talk to students from his department who weren't his own graduate students.  I felt sad for this faculty member because it impacted his relationships with students and other faculty, thereby isolating him.  Of course, such behavior is rare and most faculty are extremely helpful to students across the board.  You never know where such assistance may lead.  One of my best friends is a professor I had from outside my department when I was a Ph.D. student.  I went to her for advice, took her class, and we ended up being great friends.

In summary, most faculty are really awesome already. What other tips for awesomeness would you suggest?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Top 5 Tips for Leaving a College Classroom Ready for the Next Professor

College profs are nomads.  Our classes are often in different rooms each semester.  Plus, with widely variable schedules, each semester brings new experiences about how we find our rooms when we walk in--especially if one teaches late in the day.
Don't leave your classroom boards looking like this.
Click for photo credit.

I tend to teach late in the afternoon, so my classrooms are used by several professors and their classes by the time I take over for my hour and a half.  In most cases, I have found classrooms totally clean and ready to go.  However, in other cases, I have found classrooms less than ready for productive work.  So, today, I present to you my top tips for how to leave a classroom in good shape for the next professor.

Pick up a messy classroom before you leave.
Click for photo credit.
1.  Stop on time.  It takes me about 5 minutes or so to load my power point slide and get myself together once I enter a classroom.  I usually try to show up 5-10 minutes early so I am ready to go when class is scheduled to start.  However, I've had some semesters when the prof before me regularly went on through the 10 minute break period between classes and ended just when I should be starting.  When this happens, it takes time for students to exit and time for my students to get settled and thus puts me behind 5-10 minutes after the class start time.  Some profs also linger into the next class time in the classroom to talk to students in the classroom without logging off of the projector system or without making an attempt to clear the lecture podium. 

2.  Clean the workspace before leaving.  One semester I had a prof before me who always left student papers, half filled coffee cups, and various sticky substances on the prof workspace.  It was really quite gross and inconsiderate.  I spoke to her about it, and it got better for a while but it kept happening.  I eventually just started throwing everything away.

3.  Clean the whiteboard.  Before one class I taught several years ago, a math prof wrote across the three-tier whiteboard, filling every space.  He left without cleaning it, leaving me with a mess to clean up and hands and clothes stained black from the massive amount of ink he used.  I wrote to him about it and he was very apologetic and it never happened again.

4.  Deal with problems.  I've walked into classrooms with overflowing stinky garbage, spills, broken heating systems, and projectors that don't work.  In each case, the previous prof didn't contact the appropriate party to try to solve the problem.
With all of the to go containers and coffee cups on campuses
the garbage in classrooms is sometimes out of control.
Click for photo credit.

5.  Put seats back in order.  Many profs like to use group work in their classroom.  In doing so, the room order gets out of line and chairs and desks become disordered.  I've walked into classrooms that were a disaster from group work when the prof didn't have the consideration to put it back into shape before leaving.

I am sure that I've caused profs that follow me great consternation when I left a classroom, so I don't want my readers to think that I'm without sin.  However, I thought I would provide some suggestions.  Am I missing anything?  If so, please add it in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Interest in Dams Overflows in Wisconsin

The Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River.  It was
developed in 1914.  Click for photo credit.
I ran into this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about expanded interest in hydropower in the midwestern U.S.  Hydroelectric energy is considered a green energy source and it produces roughly 7% of the electricity generated in the U.S.  Other green energy sources, such as wind and solar produce approximately half the electricity as hydroelectric power.

Many of the existing small hydroelectric dams are old.  They were built decades ago and have a number of challenges ranging from aging equipment to reservoir infilling.

Yet, in this era of finding alternatives to fossil fuels, some are returning to hydroelectric power as a viable source of energy for the future in some areas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Karst and Global Climate Change Papers

In this time of major anthropogenic releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, many are looking at karst as a key component of the global carbon cycle.  How do the formation and solution of limestone and other carbonate rocks influence large global carbon cycle patterns and what does this tell us about managing carbon to reduce the impact of global climate change?

Recently, the Karst Waters Institute and the National Cave and Karst Research institute put on a conference called Carbon and Boundaries in Karst.  Selected papers from the conference are available in Acta Carsologica here.

I think anyone interested in karst and the changing global climate cycle like I am will find something interesting in this suite of papers.  For example, a paper by Larson and Mylroie provides detailed information about how atmospheric carbon decreases during glaciation events and how that may set up a feedback loop.

There are several other papers that I found helpful in this broad field.  As it becomes clearer that we need a serious big-science atmospheric fix to try to solve the greenhouse gas problem, clearer understanding of the carbon cycle is important.  This suite of papers significantly adds to this knowledge.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hot Springs National Park

Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks.  Today we go to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas--the U.S.'s only urban national park.

For more information about the park, click here.  I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order.  If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along.

Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts on the National Parks.  Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.
Click for photo credit.
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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Update on Reindeer Cam Post

A quick update on this post that featured information about the natural history of reindeer as well as a reindeer cam.  The video below highlights another important, but oft-overlooked, natural history fact about reindeer that is often misrepresented in the literature.


The Sunshine State Falls to 18th in Solar Installations in the US

If cloudy Germany can lead Europe in solar, why
can't the sunshine state lead the U.S.?
Click for photo credit.
Check out this article from the Tampa Bay Times noting that Florida fell to 18th in solar energy installations the U.S. behind less sunny places like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Missouri.  According to the article, the reason for the fall is a lack of political leadership in the state on solar.  Indeed, I can attest that there is a lack of strong political leadership in Florida on any type of green energy initiative.

When I was in Florida, many made the argument that solar didn't work well in Florida due to the high number of tropical clouds.  Sure, clouds are a challenge for any location--just look at New Jersey which is ranked 6th for installations.  Florida has its challenges with intermittent cloud cover during the summer.  But it is also a red herring.  There are plenty of opportunities for solar energy production even with the challenges of Florida's tropical climate.

This solar installation is in the anti-sunshine state of New
Jersey.  This is a site you will not see all that often in Florida.
New Jersey is ranked 6th in the U.S. in solar installations.
Florida ranks 18th.  Click for photo credit.
As I've noted before on this blog, cloudy dreary  Germany produces on average just over 5% of its electricity from solar energy.  On sunny days, it produces 30-40% of the nation's electricity.  Germany is able to do this because it has a thoughtful energy plan that weens them off of nuclear energy and dirty energy like coal.

Let's be real about this.  Florida isn't serious about solar because there isn't any political leadership on the issue.  It is falling behind the national curve on emerging green energy technologies.  I think anyone who knows Florida politics understand$ the reason why.  Floridians deserve better.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Are Monarch Butterfly Populations Collapsing?

Click for photo credit.
In case you missed it, check out this article from the Sunday New York Times on the collapse of the monarch butterfly.  The population seems to be on a serious tailspin.  The author of the article ties it to the heavy use of herbicides and pesticides as well as land use change.  It also highlights how insect population overall is on the decline in some areas.

But, there is also a big debate going on in the monarch butterfly research world as to whether or not the monarchs are true navigators or whether they are taking advantage of prevailing winds and travel in straight lines.  Read all about that debate here.  The trigger for migrating north and south?  Temperature.  Read all about the temperature issue here.  This book chapter has a very nice review of conservation challenges for butterflies.  It is not looking good for these fragile insects. The populations of many species are on the decline, habitat is being lost, and the range of the insects is getting smaller.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Snowy Owls Invade New York Metro Region

Check out this new video below about snowy owls showing up in large numbers in the New York Metro Region. The video below was taken from the Jersey Shore. You can also read this news story about them.  An unusual number of Arctic snowy owls have arrived this year to take advantage of our relatively balmy temperatures.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Seven Tips for University Email Communication

Oh email, how I love and hate you.
Click for photo credit.

There are days I get over 100 emails a day.  However, most days run between 40 and 50 a day.  I could sit like Ernestine the operator and deal with email communications all day long.  But, like most these days, I triage emails and deal with the most significant ones during the day and leave the rest for a once every week or two massive email answer and purge.  I just finished my biweekly email purge.  After finishing, I can see why many companies have banned email.  It's a huge time sink.

So, I thought I would provide seven pieces of advice on email communication within a university setting to make everyone's world a little easier.

1.  If it is really important, call or stop by, don't email.  I think everyone is overwhelmed with email and a phone call might be more efficient than a series of emails that lack clarity and that take time.  I deleted several very long email streams today that might have been avoided if I would have picked up the phone or walked to someone's office for a few minutes.

Click for photo credit.
2.  Don't expect replies from informational emails.  I think everyone sends out information emails such as, "I'll be late to the meeting" or "Here's that document you requested".  This week, I had several emails from people asking me if I got their informational email.  I did, but I didn't see a need to respond.  The follow up email just clogs up email files.  If you want to know if someone got something, just ask them in the original email to acknowledge that they got it.  But it better be important.  No one wants to take the time to acknowledge an email from someone who is stating that they are going to be late to something.

3.  Be clear.  We all receive and send emails that lack clarity.  I have sent some real whacky rambling ones that probably made folks question my sanity.  The best emails are short and to the point.  If there is a question that needs answering, make it very clear what you are asking and when you need it answered.  If your email is long, bold or underline key points or questions.

4.  Don't expect email to substitute for personal interactions.  I get emails at least once a day from organizations asking me to attend conferences, send students as interns, or somehow otherwise get involved with them.  In most cases, I don't know the individual or the organization.  In other cases, I can't tell if it's a legitimate organization or spam.  If you want to get to know a person or an organization, make an appointment and meet them.  Suggest a skype meeting if you are not local.  An email doesn't substitute for the networking or personal contact needed to build a trusting relationship.  Unfortunately, some organizations become angry or upset if I don't respond to them quickly when they initially reach out to me.

Click for photo credit.
5.  Don't email unless you have to.  Every professor has gotten this kind of email, "When is the exam?".  Of course, we all post exam dates on the syllabus, and the syllabus is online.  So, this is a clear statement that the student is not taking the time to login and figure it out.  It doesn't reflect well on the student.  But faculty do this as well.  I know I am guilty of this, but I've been trying hard to avoid excess emailing over the last several months.

6.  Don't think think that email reflects personality.  We've all gotten one word email responses and thought, "How rude!" at one time or another.  But, the reality is that the person was probably very busy when s/he sent it and we shouldn't read anything into it or other brief or terse emails like it.  I like to think of email communication as just a fact based way of sharing information.  I always try not to read anything into it beyond the facts presented.

7.  Don't expect immediacy.  Most university faculty are very busy people.  We all have department, student, research, service, community, and faculty obligations.  If it is really important see 1 above.  Most faculty will return emails within 24 hours.  However, it might take more time for some.  I know it does for me during busy times of the year.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Energy Companies Get Real on Global Climate Change

While some in the climate change denial world are hanging onto their anti-science beliefs, most of the world's energy companies are planning for a day when they will have to build carbon taxes and costs into their prices.  Check out this New York Times story about this issue.

Carbon taxes are in place in a number of countries.  They provide funds for programs to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  This is similar to other types of environmental taxes that have been put in place to deal with other problems such as auto exhaust.  Carbon taxes are seen by many as the most cost effective way to fund climate change mitigation.

In the U.S. there is very little law that deals with climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, or carbon tax.  Indeed, most of the recent rule making is coming out of the executive branch of government through the EPA.  This has been challenged quite a bit in court because the EPA is using old laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc.) that were developed prior to concerns about global climate change.  The U.S. Congress has not passed any law regarding climate change and it is unlikely to do so any time soon given the polarization and disfunction in Washington.

So while there is limited policy implementation in the U.S. Government, the real action on climate change policy is at state and local governments and the business community.  Just take a look at BP's climate change information Website here.  They, and other energy companies have long acknowledged the reality of global climate change.  They even specifically encourage a carbon cost system to address the impacts of global climate change.  I quote from their site below:

We believe that the most effective way to encourage companies to find, produce and distribute diverse forms of energy sustainably is to foster the use of markets that are open and competitive, and in which carbon has a price.

Our view is that putting a price on carbon – one that applies economy-wide and treats all carbon equally, whether it comes out of an industrial smokestack or a car exhaust – will make energy efficiency and conservation more attractive to businesses and individuals, and help lower-carbon energy sources become more cost competitive within the energy mix. While a global price would be most economically efficient, regional and national approaches are a necessary first step, provided temporary financial relief is given to domestic industrial sectors that are trade exposed.



So while the U.S. is tinkering with policy via limited EPA programs, many energy companies are encouraging strong policy far beyond what the U.S. is able to do at the present moment due to political gridlock.