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by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine
EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail usyour question: earthtalk@emagazine.com  

Dear Earthtalk: Are the California redwoods in danger because of the drought?
-- Jesse Pollman, Seattle, WA

California is home to two of the three redwood tree species: coast redwoods and giant sequoias. The coast redwood is the Earth’s tallest tree, growing more than 360 feet tall, with a trunk that can extend to 24 feet wide. The “General Sherman” giant sequoia tree at Sequoia National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountain range is the “undisputed King of the Forest,” being not only the largest living tree in the world, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. General Sherman is 2,100 years old, 2.7 million pounds, 275 feet tall and 100 feet wide at its trunk.

Redwood forests offer shelter to many animals, including mountain lions, American black bears, Roosevelt elks and mountain beavers. According to the National Park Service, approximately 280 species of birds have been recorded within the boundaries of redwood national and state parks. Just over 800 bird species occur in all of the United States, so that equates to approximately one third of the country’s birds.

“Redwoods are an iconic key species,” said Anthony Ambrose, a postdoctoral researcher with the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. “They’re the tallest, oldest, and largest trees in the world. Everybody around the world knows about them. People love them, even if they’ve never visited them. They’re beautiful forests and beautiful trees.”

For the past four years, California has been suffering a grueling drought. Agricultural economists at UC Davis recently calculated that the drought will cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015. Drought can reduce tree growth rates and may even lead to tree death. Coast redwoods receive up to 40 percent of their water supply from fog, which is created from warm, moist air rising from the cold surface waters of the Pacific. Giant sequoias grow in mountain habitats where an abundant winter snowpack recharges the groundwater they depend upon and use in the summer. However, during the past two winters, much of the giant sequoia range had little to no snowpack. As a result, groundwater levels have dropped, sometimes below the roots of immense giant sequoias that are greater than 1,000 years old, says Todd Dawson, a UC Berkeley Professor of Integrative Biology who’s been studying redwood ecology and physiology for over 25 years.

For the coast redwood, the drought impacts are not as severe as they seem to be for the giant sequoia. Trees at the edges of the coast redwood range, including the southern end of the range in the Santa Lucia Mountains south of Big Sur, seem to be the most affected. Here, young trees have lost a lot of their leaves, and have not grown very much, if at all, Dawson said.

“Many trees are experiencing the highest levels of water stress we’ve ever measured. We’ve not seen much tree mortality, but many trees have thin crowns and do not look healthy,” Dawson said. “Our biggest question is just how far can these trees be pushed?  If the winter does not bring good rainfall and a normal snowpack throughout the state I am not sure how our state trees will do. We are likely to see some mortality as we are seeing in some of the pines and firs in California. But how bad this will be - only time will tell.”

CONTACT: Save the Redwoods League, www.savetheredwoods.org.

Dear Earthtalk: What is biophilic design in architecture and where can I see it implemented?
  -- Winston Black, Newark, NJ

Biophilia is defined as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature. The moral imperative of biophilia is that we cannot flourish as individuals or as a species without a compassionate and considerate relationship to the world beyond ourselves of which we are a part. Biophilic design, an extension of biophilia, incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment.

According to Stephen R. Kellert, author of Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, humans may have evolved in the natural world, but the habitat of contemporary people has largely become the indoor built environment where we now spend 90 percent of our time. The result has been an increasing disconnect between us and nature. However, the emerging concept of biophilic design recognizes how much human physical and mental well-being relies on the quality of our relationships to the natural world.

“We put people in windowless offices and give them a computer and a desk and think they should be able to work just fine because they’ve got all the obvious things they need, like air to breathe, artificial light to see by and access to all kinds of information,” Kellert says. “But we find that they don’t actually work all that well in those kinds of environments. They are more likely to experience fatigue, lack of motivation and higher rates of absenteeism. If you just put certain aspects of nature into these environments, it actually results in improved well-being and productivity.”

Current low-impact design, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, emphasizes avoiding pollution, eliminating chemical toxins, minimizing waste, increasing energy efficiency and decreasing water use. However, due to rapidly evolving technological advances, energy-efficient solar collectors and other low-impact design features quickly become outdated. Biophilic design’s aesthetic, sensory-rich fusion with nature, along with its health benefits, make it the missing link in most sustainable design, Kellert says, and only development which incorporates both biophilic and low-impact design can achieve true and lasting sustainability.

Furthermore, Kellert says. “…you need to create a sense of affiliation or attachment to these structures that motivates people to want to sustain them over time, which is just as important as reducing harmful impacts. We’ve done ourselves in the environmental field a disservice [by] only focusing on the negative impacts and forgetting the root of the environmental movement, which, whether it’s Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Aldo Leopold, was very much a celebration of our connection to the natural world and how it’s fundamental to who we are as individuals and as a species.”

Recent biophilic design can be seen in structures like Yale University’s Kroon Hall, the Bank of America Tower and the Cook+Fox Architects office in New York City, Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, and more. Kellert says one of the most satisfying projects he worked on last year was an elderly health care complex in Indiana. By incorporating biophilic design into the complex, it created a less alienating, more positive, therapeutic environment for people with memory loss.

CONTACTS: Stephen R. Kellert, www.stephenrkellert.net; USGBC LEED Program, www.usgbc.org/leed/; Cook+Fox Architects, www.cookfox.com.

Dear Earthtalk: My company talks the talk when it comes to the environment but could do so much more to reduce paper use. Do you have any tips to help get the higher-ups on board to reduce paper use company-wide? -- Elena Sepulveda, White Plains, NY
Cutting back on paper may seem “so 1990s” given the current focus of environmental organizations on climate change and related global issues. But reducing paper use is still one of the best ways companies, government agencies and institutions can help the environment during the course of day-to-day activities.

Getting a handle on just how much paper your entity could save is the first step. The non-profit Environmental Paper Network (EPN)—an umbrella group launched in 2002 and made up of more than 100 organizations working to reduce paper production and consumption and clean up the inefficient yet still expanding paper industry—makes it easy with its Paper Calculator. The free online tool compares the environmental impacts of competing paper products and assesses the larger impacts of paper use.

According to EPN, some of the tangible results of its work include legal protection for millions of acres of endangered forests, significant increases in the number of paper-related certifications and forest acres certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a marked increase in the number of large companies developing environmental paper policies, vastly increased availability of genuine environmental papers for consumers, and increased demand for, and use of, recycled fibers.

EPN also makes available easy-to-read reports outlining the benefits of making more sustainable paper choices. Showing companies the economic advantages of reducing their paper usage and greening other aspects of operations has been key to building EPN's membership and expanding its influence overall.

While joining EPN may be more of a commitment than some entities are willing to make, there are plenty of other free resources to help reduce paper use and green business operations. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offers up a plethora of tips on responsible paper consumption via its Greening Advisor program. A few examples include more double-sided printing and the use of smaller type fonts, eliminating paper coffee cups, and e-billing (invoicing clients via e-mail instead of paper).

NRDC also emphasizes that saving paper helps the bottom line: “A typical office disposes of about 350 pounds of wastepaper per employee per year…Identifying ways to reduce paper use can save money.”

Yet another great resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) WasteWise program, which offers free information and assistance for corporate environmental sustainability efforts. Hundreds of companies have already partnered with EPA on the program. One of the biggest WasteWise partners, Bank of America, has saved upwards of $1 million annually since syncing up with the program.

CONTACTS: Environmental Paper Network, www.environmentalpaper.org; Forest Stewardship Council,www.fsc.org; NRDC Greening Advisor, www.nrdc.org/enterprise/greeningadvisor/; EPA WasteWise,www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/smm/wastewise/index.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is solar desalination and how can it help an increasingly thirsty world? – Maryann Dell’Amore, Howard, MN

Solar desalination is a technique used to remove salt from water via a specially designed still that uses solar energy to boil seawater and capture the resulting steam, which is in turn cooled and condensed into pristine freshwater. Salt and other impurities are left behind in the still.

Less than one percent of the world’s desalination is powered by renewable energy sources today, but that could all change soon if companies like California-based WaterFX have anything to say about it. Its Aqua4 “concentrated solar still” (CSS) uses a concentrated solar thermal collector to compress heat, create steam and distill water at 30 times the efficiency of natural evaporation. It can produce 65,000 gallons of freshwater per day—and it can desalinate a wide range of water sources, not just seawater.

To wit, the company will start employing solar desalination to treat some 1.6 billion gallons of salt-laden irrigation drainage from California’s drought-stricken, agriculturally-rich Central Valley next year. Crops extract nearly pure water from soil, leaving behind salt and other potentially toxic minerals like selenium that naturally occur in the water. These excess minerals must be drained from the soil, or crop productivity plunges. By treating this drainage, WaterFX can prevent about 15 percent of farmland in California from being retired every year to make room for storage for untreated drainage water. It will also prevent the drainage from contaminating fresh waterways and endangering wildlife. According to California’s State Water Resources Control Board, approximately 9,493 miles of rivers and streams and some 513,130 acres of lakes and reservoirs are listed as being impaired by irrigated agricultural water.

“If we don’t start removing the salts now, at least 10 percent of all current farmland in production in California will have to be retired, and in many scenarios this number could be up to 30 to 40 percent, especially on the west side of the Valley where the salinity is very high,” says WaterFX’s Matthew Stuber. “Water in the drainage areas will contaminate groundwater and natural surface waterways at an accelerated pace, eventually polluting sources of drinking water and the natural environment. Once that is released into the environment, you severely damage the natural habitat and wildlife.”

Another large-scale solar desalination project is currently under construction in Saudi Arabia and scheduled for completion in early 2017. The plant is slated to produce 60,000 cubic meters of water per day for Al Khafji City in North Eastern Saudi Arabia, ensuring a constant water supply to the arid region throughout the year. According to Abengoa, the Spanish renewable energy company building the pioneering facility, the incorporation of solar would significantly reduce operating costs, as Saudi Arabia currently burns 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its desalination plants, which provide 50-70 percent of its drinking water. Total desalination demand in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries is expected to reach 110 million cubic meters a day by 2030.

With freshwater supplies at a premium already in many parts of the world as a result of climate change, there has never been a better time for solar desalination to come of age. Whether or not this emerging technology can go mainstream sooner than later may mean the difference between a peaceful future and one wracked by conflict over access to ever-dwindling supplies of freshwater.

CONTACTS: WaterFX, www.waterfx.co ; California’s State Water Resources Control Board, www.swrcb.ca.gov; Abengoa, www.abengoa.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Do scientists have any idea why so many whales are dying in the Gulf of Alaska lately? -- Michelle DiCostanzo, New York, NY

Over the past four months, 33 large whales have been reported dead in the Western Gulf of Alaska, which encompasses the areas around Kodiak Island, Afognak Island, Chirikof Island, the Semidi Islands and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula. The significant die-off of whales has been declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marking the first large whale UME ever in Alaska.

The majority of the deceased humpback, fin and gray whales have been found moderately to severely decomposed and scientists have only been able to obtain samples thus far from one fin whale. Alaskan citizens have been instructed to call the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline immediately if a stranded or dead whale is spotted to ensure the fastest response possible by trained experts.

“Large whale UMEs are the most difficult UMEs to deal with, principally because the animals are floating and rarely beached and we have a difficult time getting to the carcasses to actually examine them,” says Dr. Teri Rowles, Coordinator of the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Program. “The most critical thing for this UME, given it is large whales, is our ability to get to the animals, document them, and if possible perform sample collections either at sea or on the beach if they are stranded. It is critical that the public and mariners report large whale mortalities or animals that they see in distress as soon as possible so that the Network can either document, access or track the carcasses.”

Exposure to harmful algae blooms (HAB) is NOAA’s leading theory for the cause of the surge in whale deaths. While the organization has collected some disparate samples of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Alaska that they determined could possibly produce biotoxins, there is no conclusive data currently associating the whale deaths to HAB, and the fin whale sample tested negative for HAB biotoxins.

“Even though the one sample we tested was negative, it was not the most appropriate sample to collect and test for biotoxins. We can’t rule it out based on the results we have right now,” Rowles adds. “It’s my understanding that sea surface water and air temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska have been high, and that always concerns us because that means there’s probably a change in overall pathogen exposure—possibly HABs and other factors.”

Claims that the UME is linked to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown or the Navy-led “Northern Edge” military training exercises conducted in the Gulf of Alaska this past June have been dismissed due to lack of evidence. Muscle tissue from the fin whale sampled was sent to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for cesium analysis, and the preliminary results did not suggest any unusual exposure to manmade radiation. As the investigation continues, NOAA will be publishing updated information pertaining to the UME on their website as it becomes available; however, the investigation could take months or even years to complete.

“It takes a fair amount of time to pull data together even if the event is over, and a lot of deliberation and analyses have to happen in order to determine what’s going on,” Rowles added. “It could be quite a period of time before we actually have an answer, if indeed we end up with a definitive answer for this UME.”  

CONTACT: NOAA Fisheries, www.nmfs.noaa.gov.

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