Thursday, October 30, 2014

Day in the Pride at Hofstra

The folks at Hofstra's Media Relations office ran a cool program yesterday in which the entire university community was urged to tweet photos of their day for 24 hours to show what life is like on the campus.  You can see some of the tweets here and here.  

I really enjoyed seeing so many great things going on across campus that I had no idea about.  For example, it was fun to see the shots from various classrooms, athletic events, talks, performances, and meetings.  

The more that I see of Hofstra, the more I like it!  It really is a special place.  My experience at a big state school was terrific, but class sizes were large, funding was always a problem, and the administration was impersonal.  At Hofstra, most of us know each other in the faculty and administration.  Class sizes are small.  Plus, we do big things like the Presidential debates.  Students are really lucky to have picked this university to attend.  

Below are the photos I contributed to the twitter feed to capture my day.

Arriving on campus with my plug in hybrid car.  1000 miles per gallon on my commute.

Where I cross Hempstead Turnpike.  A nice bus stop and bike path along the way.

One of my team, Keshanti Nandlall already at work when I arrived on campus.

A rare moment when my crew is together.  Steve Handler, Joanne Norris, Keshanti Nandlall, and Joe Murphy.

I had a meeting with my friend and colleague, Bret Bennington, Chair of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability and all around great guy.  Here he is with Darwin.  He dresses like Darwin on Darwin Day.  How cool is that!

Ran into my good friend Linda Longmire at the Day of Dialogue talks on campus.  Each year, Hofstra has a "day of dialogue" during which events are held to discuss key issues of the day.

One of my former students Scott Smith showing off his new bike sharing business.  He graduated last year with a degree in business and a minor in sustainability.  If any of my university friends want to start a bike sharing program on your campus, let me know and I'll put you in touch with him.  He is focusing on university bike sharing.

As part of Day of Dialogue, I organized a round table for the students and faculty who attended the Climate March in New York City.  We had great attendance and we discussed next steps for what we should do.  Here I am leaving that event with Sustainability Studies senior Scott Simon.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Denmark Produces 110% of Electricity from Wind

Click for photo credit.
On Sunday, Denmark produced 110 percent of its electricity from wind power.  This isn't a regular occurrence.  The environmental conditions were right and Sunday is a low-use day.  However, it does demonstrate was investment in green energy can do.  Right now the goal in Long Island is to double green energy production.  Which would get us to just 6% of energy from clean sources.  I do not see any reason, given the abundance of wind off the Long Island shore, that we could not match the 110% production of Denmark.  Six percent just does not cut it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vancouver Redux

Our Hofstra booth.
My trip to Vancouver was very productive. I attended the Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting where I gave a poster presentation at GSA with colleagues and our Department had a booth where we advertised our new masters degree program in sustainability.  Several of our students attended the conference.

I think the most interesting thing I noticed at this particular convention is the distinct change in the discourse around the Anthropocene and human agency within the field of geology.  The Anthropocene is an informal (for now) name given by geologists to the period of time in which we live.  The dominant feature of this time is that most major earth systems are in some way impacted by human activity.  Even if one looks at coastal or riverine sedimentation, one finds all kinds of new sediment types within the modern sedimentary record--plastics, glass, and metals.

The Anthropocene was front and center in several poster and paper sessions.  The idea of human environmental change was certainly one of the central themes in the conference.

Downtown Vancouver.
I spent a little bit of time trying to see some of the sites in Vancouver to get some photos for my upcoming book on sustainability.  The idea of environmental change is evident in the region.  Forestry is a dominant industry in British Columbia.  While there are organizations that manage forest resources sustainably, there is still a fair amount of clear cutting.  Coastal change is also quite evident, in part due to the huge sediment load entering streams from clearcut high-slope landscapes.

While this is not directly related to sustainability, Vancouver is due for a major earthquake.  The region experiences an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude every 300-500 years.  The last one was in 1700.  Since then, the city has built a dense downtown with many high-rise condos and apartments.  This density is great for regional sustainability in that it has limited extensive sprawl to the surrounding landscape.  Yet, the development pattern of the city does make it vulnerable to earthquakes, particularly due to the fact that parts of the city are built in coastal and alluvial sediments.

I also got to see some old friends at the conference from the soils, karst, and sustainability world.  Perhaps the best serendipitous meet up was when I saw my masters thesis advisor, Norm Lasca, at the affiliated societies breakfast.  It was really nice to catch up with him.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How Wolves Change Rivers

I've been away at a conference in Vancouver the last week.  While away, I came down with a pretty tough cold  that has kept me down.  My apologies for the lack of posting.  In the mean time, enjoy this video on how wolves change rivers (hat tip, Lynne Goldstein).

Friday, October 17, 2014

Guest Post by Dr. Michael Finewood on Stormwater

A sign along a riverwalk, warning of possible combined sewage overflows
 during wet weather events. Photo by Sara Powell
As western and southern communities battle over water access and cope with drought conditions, other areas of the country wrestle with the opposite side of the water quantity coin: too much water. (Putting aside the anthropogenic characterization of too much…) Water on the East Coast – particularly in postindustrial cities – embodies yet another iteration of the wicked nature of urban water governance.

A few weeks back, Dr. Brinkmann posted a photo to Facebook showing a pool of water on the surface of a road. The sky was cloudy, so I assumed it was just after a rain. Under his post I commented that I am completely obsessed with this. He agreed. And our nerdiness bore the idea for this post. Our obsession is with stormwater runoff. In most cities, when it rains, impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops prevent water from absorbing (or infiltrating) into the soil. Instead, stormwater pools and runs off these hardened surfaces typically to low points in the city, such as storm drains or nearby waterways.
Stormwater Runoff.  Photo by Sara Powell.

There are two fundamental problems here. The first is when stormwater runs across hardened surfaces, it picks up trash and pollutants from cars, power plant emissions, and other sources, which eventually make their way into local waterways. The second is that stormwater runoff often overwhelms urban stormwater conveyance systems (both the treatment plants and the pipes themselves). In many cities, the volume of runoff has increased as our cities expand outward, hardening up the landscape through construction of roads and buildings. Existing urban water conveyance systems and treatment plants were not designed to handle the growing volumes of stormwater that are added to the systems. In other words, the systems can’t keep up with the growth. This is particularly deleterious when sewer and stormwater systems are combined – which is the case for most older cities in the Northeast. So as cities experience what can often just be a fraction of an inch of rain, the systems overflow and sewage and polluted stormwater runoff flow into local waterways. Add to this scenario climate change and increasingly fragmented communities, and you can see why this is such a challenge. However, the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other state and local regulations compel metropolitan regions to address the issue.

But here is the good thing. There are some unique ways that communities are trying to address these issues. From technical approaches such as sustainable drainage systems, to community-driven approaches such as ecodistrict planning, and many iterations in between; municipalities are realizing that multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and community based projects have created the most overall good in communities, while also meeting water quality regulations. This should sound familiar to sustainability aficionados. These are urban water governance strategies that are locally negotiated with a wide range of stakeholders participating in the process, producing outcomes that create multiple benefits for communities. Think here of a riverwalk that serves as a recreational space, riparian restoration, and expanded floodplain to mitigate flooding. Or green stormwater infrastructure that captures stormwater before it is introduced into the system, while simultaneously enhancing biodiversity and increasing community greenspace.
A sign along a river, warning of possible combined sewage
overflows during wet weather events. Photo credit Sara Powell.

But the point isn't about the specific strategy or technology, really. Sustainability is not so much about its definition or outcome as it is about the process. In my view, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder, and it cannot be defined by a minority or devoid of context. In other words, true sustainability must be negotiated at the local level by all community members. Of course, there will be teeth gnashing – and the projects I allude to above are not without their problems – but all 'new' things take time to work out.

Expertise in sustainability will be critical to designing, implementing, and monitoring projects like these. If you live in a city, I would bet you are dealing with some sort of water issue. I encourage you to get involved. Go to public meetings and make your opinion heard. Educate your neighbors. Strengthen your personal conservation approaches. But most of all, consider the ways sustainability could be implemented in your community, and get to work.

Michael Finewood is an assistant professor of Geography and Sustainability in Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability. His interests are in water, climate change, and urban sustainability.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

NYC Back in Business Two Years After Sandy

I did a little field trip to Long Beach and Coney Island to get a sense of the recovery of the region to years after Sandy.  Below are a few photos I took along with some summary text.
While this is not the big season for tourists, it is clear that Coney Island is back in business.  Stores were open, a few tourists were about and the rides are still open on the weekends until the winter.

Even the Side Show is open in its venerable location.

The boardwalk at Coney Island is thriving.

As is the beautiful new boardwalk and seawall at Long Beach.

There is construction all over the place on Long Beach.
Many homes have been lifted above the floodplain
 and there are many infrastructure improvements.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Good, Better, and Best?

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Check out this article from the New York Times about efforts to rank food sold at Whole Foods and other stores on a variety of indicators such as pesticide use and worker fairness.  Wal-Mart, always a player in sustainability rating systems, is also jumping on board the food rating system.

I think that this is a good advance for changing agriculture in the U.S.  I'm a bit leery about the "good, better, and best" rating scale.  It is a bit too positive in my mind.  But, it is a start.

What is interesting about this advance is that it is one of the first major organized marketing movements away from organic labeling.  For years, farmers like Joel Salatin have argued that the federal organic system was flawed due to the bureaucracy of the scheme and because it didn't go far enough in protecting soils, addressing regional ecosystems, and considering workers.  While this good, better, and best rating system does not fully address the concerns of Salatin and others, it does take a fresh look at food systems to provide consumers with choices about the food they consume.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Texas Week Continues--The Good People of Bexar Grotto

Texas, for all of its quirks, is a very welcoming place.  The expression, "y'all come back now" should be patented for Texas tourism.  Plus, the sense of community in the state is strong.  Texans are very proud of their regional distinction among the United States.
Texas is serious about caves and karst.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

However, Texans are work together to try to make the world a better place.  One of the better examples of this is through the work of Bexar (pronounced "bear") Grotto.

Grottos are cave clubs loosely affiliated with the National Speleological Society.  They promote recreational activities in karst landscapes along with service projects such as cave or sinkhole clean ups and public education.  The Bexar Grotto is taking these activities to a whole different level. 

The interior of Cave Without a Name where I gave the keynote for the
Texas HydroGeo Workshop.
On the weekend of September 26th, they organized the Texas HydroGeo Workshop for students and professionals from around the state.  About 250 attended.  There were even some attendees who planned to come from Mexico.  The workshop featured many field-based workshops such as environmental testing in the field, cave mapping, stream gauging and sampling, geophysics, field-based GIS, and many others.  There was even a keynote speech in a cave by yours truly to round out the first night.

What matters in this context is that this was all organized by volunteers of Bexar Grotto and that the presenters were all volunteers.  I have never seen such a great weekend field training anywhere.  This workshop was billed as the "first annual" and I hope that they continue the tradition.  Great work y'all.

This concludes Texas Week on On the Brink.  Y'all come back now.

Previous Texas Week posts are here, here, here, and here.

Stream gauging as part of the Texas HydroGeo Workshop

Sample protocol training as part of the Texas HydroGeo Workshop.  Photo by Bob Brinkman

One of the leaders of Bexar Grotto at Bracken Cave where the group has done considerable volunteer work.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Texas Karstecue

Everyone knows that Texas is big on cookouts and barbecues, but some of you probably didn't realize that Texas is also big on karst.

The origin of the word barbecue probably comes from native Caribbean languages.  The word entered Europe as barbacoa and was used in Spanish to mean a raised platform for cooking.

Click for image credit.
Of course, raised platforms have a solid top and an often porous subsurface to collect drippings from the roasting meat.  Thus, in many ways, parts of the Texas karst landscape are like the ancient barbacoas of the Caribbean.  That is why it might be appropriate to consider Texas the type location for the landscape known as a karstecue or karst-e-cue if you prefer.  In my mind, I define a karstecue as a limestone or other soluble rock landscape in arid or semi arid regions that is higher than the surrounding landscape.

These karstecues often have rock exposed at the surface or on slopes.

Inside Cave Without a Name in Texas.  Note the microphone.  This was one of
venues where I gave a lecture on karst and sustainability.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
While not all karst areas of Texas are karstecues (the low wet karst landscapes of southeastern Texas come to mind), the state is rich in karstecue landscapes in areas like Austin, San Antonio, and Kerrville.  In the U.S. karst map above, the karstecue areas of Texas are largely the blue, pink and dark green areas of central and western Texas.  These are places with abundant caves, karst water resources (that are now threatened due to overuse and overdevelopment), and prickly pear cactus.

I got to hang out in one of the well-known karstecue areas outside of San Antonio recently at Cave Without a Name.  Here, the landscape is dotted with numerous caves that are richly decorated with a number of different types of speleothems.  Like many areas of the United States, suburban development is encroaching onto this landscape which is creating challenges for water quality and quantity in the region.

Of course, karstecues are great places to live at first glance.  They are relatively flat, water is at some depth below the surface, and they often have terrific views.  However there are many water challenges associated with these places that make them unable to support large populations over the long-term.  The aquifers are interconnected making pollution a particularly vexing problem.  The arid nature of the landscape makes aquifer recharge slow.  Many communities in karstecues are mining water that fell thousands of years ago.  Water use is not sustainable over the long-haul--particularly if you add irrigated agriculture into the mix.

This brings on another image of the barbacoa--that of cooking. The hot Texas sun is quite good at heating the limestone and dolomite landscapes of the state.  Perhaps the best land use we could make of such areas is as low intensity housing, agriculture, and parks or natural lands.  Karstecues are not truly suitable to intensive urbanization.  The landscape cannot support the water use needs over decades of use.  By overdeveloping these areas, we are putting systems out of synch...thereby creating conditions that will lead to a collapse of the land's ability to support the population--putting human's on the hotseat, or babacoa, in the coming years.

For previous Texas week posts, see here, here, and here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Going to Bat for Bats!

The sign at Bracken Cave (photo by Bob Brinkmann).
Texas Week continues on On the Brink!  For previous Texas week posts, see here and here.

One of the great things about the Texas karst landscape is that there are many caves scattered throughout the state.  These caves are home to many species of bats, many of which are migratory.

Due to the importance of bats to ecosystems, the ecology and cave scientific communities seek to preserve caves and protect the habitat of these important creatures.  We've seen a significant drop in bat populations in recent years due to habitat destruction and white nose syndrome, a disease plaguing bats in many caves in the eastern portion of North America.

The entrance to Bracken Cave (photo by Bob Brinkmann).
That is why conservation efforts of karst systems are so crucial to us.  Many of the bats are key pollinators and they also eat lots of bugs.

One Texas cave, Bracken Cave, is home to the largest bat colony in the world, according the Bat Conservation International.  You can read about the cave here.  Bat Conservation International focuses on cave and bat protection around the world.

In Texas, many volunteers have worked to protect Bracken Cave and the surrounding karst landscape.  In addition, they have built a viewing area where visitors (with permission of the managers of the cave) can watch the millions of bats enter and leave the cave in the morning and evening.  A big thanks to the folks at Bexar Grotto for showing me the cave.

If you've ever been to Austin, you are familiar with the bat bridge colonies that draw tourists from all over the world.

 You can see the video below of one of the flights.

Here is a video of bats leaving bracken cave:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Water

After a slight delay, I am back with Texas Week!  Today, I discuss water issues.
As I mentioned last time, Texas has a number of water issues.  Much of the state is undergoing an historic drought and communities are running out of water.  Private wells have gone dry and municipalities are implementing conservation measures.

While one might consider that municipalities are the main users of water, the reality is that agricultural use accounts for roughly 60% of the water consumption in the state.  Some of the water is used inefficiently and some of the agricultural enterprises are out of synch with the natural dry climate of some parts of the state.  In many ways, Texas is facing a stark reality.  For many years, agriculture, municipal, and industrial interests mined water from the ground without considering the long-term implications of excessive withdrawals.  Now, due to declining resources, excessive use, and the drought, there is greater competition and conflict over water.

There is no doubt that better water management is needed in the state.  There are already outstanding organizations working on this issue (the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the San Antonio Water System for examples).  However, greater policy clarity is needed to effectively manage the resource for the greater good of the entire population of the state.  The ownership of this commons resource is commonly disputed.

Of course, there also needs to be greater emphasis on conservation.  Texas has one of the highest per capita municipal water use rates in the U.S.  Plus, that water consumption figure is not even throughout the state.  Dallas, according to this source, uses 213 gallons per person per day while Houstonians use 134 gallons per day.  Dallas, it is time to go sit in the corner of the classroom for your bad behavior!  Houstonians, you get an A for Awesome conservation!  With the very high population growth that Texas is seeing, per capita water consumption must go down beyond the usage rate of Houston.  Dallas has a long way to go.

It seems to me that the next decade in Texas will see some interesting changes.  Agricultural interests will need to find new ways to conserve water to try to reduce their need for the dwindling water supply.    Some may not be able to continue to operate as water resources diminish.  At the same time, cities and industrial concerns will also need to advance conservation efforts as populations grow in the region.  Policy makers will need to develop sound regional strategies for effectively managing water resources.  

The current drought condition is a bit of a warning shot for Texas.  How the state moves forward in the next decade will decide the long-term sustainability of the region.  Right now, water use is unsustainable in many areas of the state.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Texas Week on On the Brink!!

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Howdy Y'all!!  It's Texas week on On the Brink--which means that the blog posts for the next seven days will be bold, exciting, and full of great stuff!!  As my readers know, I just spent about a week in Texas giving a variety of lectures and learning about how they do geology, environment, and sustainability in the vast region.

In the next several days I'll be posting on water resources, bat conservation, karst, environmental education, and the role of "good deeds" in protecting the environment.  Stay tuned!

First, I thought I would give y'all some basic facts and figures about Texas and its environs.

Texas has 23 major watersheds as can be seen on the map below.  Some of these are quite large.  For example, Texas contains part of the Colorado River and Rio Grande Drainage Basins.  Managing these systems is difficult since many of them receive limited rainfall given the expanding population in many of the regions.

Of course, some of these drainage basins are in karst regions which means that most of the water is stored underground where the aquifers are highly connected through porous, often cavernous, rock.  Pollution and regional water management are especially challenging in these settings (such as in the case of the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio and Austin).
Drainage basins in Texas.  Click for credit.

The geology of Texas is highly varied.  Anyone who has driven the 1000 plus miles east-west across I-10 from Beaumont to El Paso knows that the landscape varies considerably.  Traveling from the east near Beaumont the low coastal Gulf plains rises up to a Cenozoic piedmont landscape.  From there, one enters the hill and upland country in the west past San Antonio.  As elevation increases, the precipitation decreases.  Thus the hills and mountains often display beautiful expressions of geologic strata.  While much of the bedrock is sedimentary, there are volcanic and plutonic igneous rocks (and associated metamorphic partners) in some areas.  For example, the Precambrian rhyolitic rock llanite is found in Llano Texas not too far from Austin.  It is a prized decorative stone that is used for everything from jewelry to tombstones.
Llanite.  Click for photo credit.

Of  course, much could be said about the scale of development of Texas due to its strong impact on the environment.  Texas is home to about 26.5 million people--making it roughly the same size as Venezuela by population.  It is also the largest energy producer in the U.S., roughly accounting for 18% of all energy produced in the country.  Texas consumes more energy than any other state in the U.S., although by per capita figures, Texas ranks 5th (tied with Iowa).  Texas also ranks 5th in overall renewable energy production in the U.S.  There is rapid expansion of renewable production throughout the state.

So, this is my very brief introduction to Texas week!  I hope you enjoy the coming posts. Tomorrow, I'll discuss some of the water challenges in the region.