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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmental or health risks associated with the solar storms that have been hitting the Earth recently? -- Betsy R., Suwanee, GA

Solar storms have been in the news lately, but the truth is these naturally occurring solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun happen all the time—or at least a few hundred times a year from what we can tell here on Earth. They are caused by large-scale magnetic eruptions from the Sun that send particles into the atmosphere at high speeds. But luckily for us, the only threats these solar storms pose within the Earth’s atmosphere are to our technology.

According to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), harmful radiation from these flares can’t pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground; however, when intense enough, they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. Both CMEs and solar flares, if powerful enough, have this disrupting effect.

“When a CME strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it causes a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field,” reports Deborah Byrd, editor of the EarthSky.org website. “The charged particles can slam into our atmosphere, disrupt satellites in orbit and even cause them to fail, and bathe high-flying airplanes with radiation.” Besides disrupting navigation and telecommunications systems, solar storms can also cause electricity blackouts down below on Earth. One example happened in Quebec on March 13, 1989. A particularly strong CME caused a power failure that stretched across Quebec and parts of the Northeastern U.S., blacking out the region for nine hours and affecting six million people in the process.

The technological effects of solar storms can be worrisome, but scientists can track and predict these storms in order to mediate their potential negative impacts on a region. Additionally, one positive result of solar storms in places that lie at higher latitudes is the appearance of the radiant Aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) during these phenomena.

While there have been plenty of solar storms lately, this year actually marks a low-point for such activity—a so-called Solar Minimum—in the solar cycle. The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that the next peak of solar activity will be in July of 2025.

Amateur astronomers interested in tracking solar storms should check out SpaceWeatherLive.com, a non-profit, all-volunteer project out of Belgium which coordinates information from several websites on a range of topics including astronomy, space, aurora and related subjects. One of the site’s cool features is a free glimpse into the last three days of solar storm activity hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

If you would like to become more involved in the process of tracking solar storms, the Solar Stormwatch II project led by University of Reading in England looks for volunteers to help record data. Volunteers can virtually aid the project by observing CME data and imagery on the project’s website and recording/outlining what they see.

CONTACTS: EarthSky, www.earthsky.org; SpaceWeatherLive.com, spaceweatherlive.com; Solar Stormswatch II, zooniverse.org/projects/shannon-/solar-stormwatch-ii.

Dear EarthTalk: Do wild animals have any rights under the law in the U.S. (or other countries) the way human citizens do? -- John Hamilton, Raleigh, NC

Winnie the Pooh said it best: “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.” While attention to animal rights has increased over the past few decades, animals are still largely underrepresented and unprotected under the law. Most laws that protect animals do not recognize their “sentience”—the capacity to feel and perceive, and show awareness—but rather protect them as property.

If a living thing can hear, see, touch, smell, or communicate, it is considered to be sentient. But whether that applies to all animals depends on who you ask. Aside from our pets, animals are almost exclusively considered not to be sentient in the court system or under U.S. law. In a court, an inanimate company or corporation has rights and privileges (“corporate personhood”), but a living, breathing creature does not.

In the eyes of the law, animals are treated as property. Domestic animals belong to their owners, animals in labs and agricultural industries belong to the company or institution that owns them. Wild animals belong to the state or federal institution which presides over the land they live on. When animals are harmed, it is considered ‘property damage.’ The real dilemmas in the courts arise when those with ownership over these animals are the ones hurting or abusing them. That is usually when “animal rights” are called into play.

Progress for animal rights under the law has been slow moving. In the U.S., the movement for animal rights began in 1866 when Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The New York State legislature authorized the organization to investigate cases of animal cruelty in the state and make arrests. By 1888, almost every state had joined New York and passed laws against animal cruelty.

The first federal animal rights laws in the U.S. were the “28 Hour Law” of 1873, the Lacey Act of 1900, and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The first two regulated animal transport and banned illegal wildlife trafficking. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was created to regulate the research, transport, exhibition and dealing of animals in the U.S., but farm animals in agricultural laboratories are excluded from protections under the AWA. The AWA is still considered the minimum standard for acceptability today.

Another federal law for animal rights was the Humane Slaughter Act first passed in 1958 and then amended in 1978. While chickens, turkeys and other birds feel pain as any other animal, they are excluded from protections from this law. The most recent federal law that has passed has been the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) Act of 2019 which makes crushing, burning, suffocating, impaling and sexually exploiting animals a federal crime.

Globally, animal protection and rights laws vary widely. European countries along with Australia and New Zealand have the strongest animal rights laws because they formally recognize non-human animal sentience. Countries with no official recognition of animal sentience or suffering are ranked lowest for their animal rights, such as Russia and a number of East African countries.

CONTACTS: Laws That Protect Animals, aldf.org/article/laws-that-protect-animals/; Current Animal Welfare Laws,.animalhumanesociety.org/advocacy/current-animal-welfare-laws.

Dear EarthTalk: Is Trump going to be able to finally open up the contentious coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling before his first term ends? -- J.P, Maumee, OH

The debate over whether to open up the most ecologically sensitive part—the so-called 1002 area, or coastal plain—of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling has raged for decades. Known for its scenic beauty but more so as the birthing place of migrating caribou as well as hundreds of species of birds that use the coastal plain as a nursery for their newly hatched offspring before migrating south for the winter, ANWR’s coastal plain is also thought to be rich in oil.

These lands are not only crucial to wildlife, but also to people. Long before the U.S. government named ANWR in 1960, the Gwich’in knew it as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (“the sacred place where life begins”). Now they and other Alaskan natives are working alongside conservationists to protect it.

But in late 2017 Congress paved the way for opening the contentious strip of land by authorizing oil drilling there in its tax bill. But even though Trump is champing at the bit to start drilling in the coastal plain, he’ll have to wait until seismic tests are complete—and there is no way that can happen before the end of his (first) term.

Seismic surveys need to be conducted in order to provide hard data as to how much oil exists in a given area. But the seismic blasts themselves can negatively affect wildlife species’ behaviors and mortality rates. Since oil companies haven’t been able to show conclusively that seismic testing won’t harm protected species (like polar bears), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has held firm against issuing the permits. But the Trump administration is trying to do an end run around these precautions and get the seismic tests approved by the Department of Interior instead. If the Trump administration can get the testing done and the results are to their liking—and they retain power—expect to see oil leases operational in the coastal plain before the end of 2021.

Of course, a new president could stop any or all of this by using the Antiquities Act to declare ANWR a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale and any other future development. Candidate Joe Biden has committed to using his presidential powers to protect ANWR from oil interests, if elected.

This past September, 15 of the Lower 48 states and three of Alaska’s tribal entities each took legal action against the federal government to stop oil leases within ANWR’s coastal plain. Additionally, a consortium of native and conservation leaders convinced major banks (including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs) to pull out from funding fossil fuel projects there.

To get involved yourself, the non-profit Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges has volunteer opportunities and can always use donations. Meanwhile, another way to help is to urge your U.S. Senator to support S. 2461, The Arctic Refuge Protection Act, which calls for permanent protection of ANWR’s coastal plain from development and resource extraction.

CONTACTS: Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, alaskarefugefriends.org; Help Protect The Arctic Refuge Petition, thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/219/068/612/.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the environmental impact of all the single-use PPE we are throwing away now in huge numbers as a result of responding to the COVID-19 crisis? -- Jay M., Cary, NC

There’s no question about it: all the disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in our waste stream is taking a toll on the environment. A recent study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that we are using some 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves every month around the world nowadays as we try to stay safe in the midst of the worst pandemic to hit the human race in a century.

Most of the masks in the U.S. are made out of polypropylene-based plastic but some are made from related forms of plastic such as polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene or polyester. These synthetic fibers are designed to resist liquids and do not biodegrade in the environment once discarded, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that end up in landfills or, even worse, as litter that finds its way into waterways and the ocean.

Some of the discarded PPE ends up in medical waste bins and is shipped off to an incinerator for disposal, which unfortunately may not be any better for our health or the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), incinerators send particulate matter, heavy metals, acid gases, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other noxious pollutants airborne. As such, environmental advocates aren’t happy about a plan by the United Nations to help communities around the world set up their own small local incinerators to deal with PPE and other COVID-related waste.

Meanwhile, reusable masks may have a longer life as a useful product, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily biodegrade in the environment when their time comes. Most are made from cheap synthetic fabrics like nylon or polyester and are prone to breakage and short lifespans, and can last even longer and wreak more havoc when littered into the environment.

The upshot of all this is that we’ll have discarded PPE from the pandemic around for a lot longer than we would like. It joins the rotting plastic that sits in landfills, washes up on beaches and floats in oceans, amounting to more than five trillion plastic particles contaminating the world’s surface waters. The particles are toxic to ecosystems and wildlife. Marine creatures can mistake mask remnants and fibers for food, and/or can get entangled in them so they can’t hunt, feed or eat.

So what can we do to offset, or even halt the impact? The pandemic continues, but by choosing reusable, biodegradable masks, we can reduce the demand and consumption of PPE. Eco-friendly alternatives are available—or you can make your own using salvaged fabric and online craft guides. The Hemp Foundation and Tentree sell masks made from biodegradable and repurposed materials. Meanwhile, Bambooo’s bamboo masks are made out of sustainably sourced, pesticide-free bamboo, and Planet Organics’ cotton/rubber varieties are also attractive and easy on the environment.

CONTACTS: “COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics,” pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.0c02178; “COVID-19: Unmasking the Environmental Impact,” earth.org/covid-19-unmasking-the-environmental-impact/; “Health experts call for reusable PPE to protect people and planet,” greenpeace.org/international/press-release/44356/health-experts-reusable-ppe-protect-people-planet/; Hemp Foundation, hempfoundation.net; Tentree, tentree.com; Planet Organic, planetorganic.com, Bambooo, Bambooo.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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