Any tool that helps us understand what we humans are doing to the planet is welcome. This one is a doozy.
We now have a skyhigh diety’s view of land, all land. The images are simply riveting. You can’t stop looking at them. Best of all, they are internally consistent—that is, objective over time. Comparing one image to the next is an apple to the same apple, not what some agriculture minister wants us to think is an apple.
All of this work is thanks to a team of scientists in the discipline of remote sensing from NASA, the United State Geological Survey, Google Earth, and University of Maryland, with financial help from the Moore and Packard Foundations. From space, the view resolves to 30 meters, enough to see forest loss and gain, the effects of climate change, water uses, the status of habitat, population shifts, pest infestations—the uses beguile the imagination.
New York lost four thousand farms and half a million acres of farmland to housing developments, strip malls and big-box stores in the last 25 years. More than 80 percent of the fruits, vegetables and dairy products produced in New York State are raised near urban areas, on land threatened by encroaching development.
These are the facts that the American Farmland Trust has been bringing home to policymakers in Albany and Washington for more than 50 years, and they think they are at last gaining traction. More people understand, more people are taking up the cause of farm preservation and more people are supporting their local farms.
More colleges, senior centers and other community institutions are seeking locally grown food. And land trusts, private landowners and others are making land available to young farmers, immigrants, veterans and others who are looking for a way to farm or expand their farm businesses.
Although many still believe that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by left wing scientists, an increasing number of people now take it seriously.
At the recent Connecting for Conference, presented by the Marion Institute, climate change was the subject of talks by James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Maggie Fox, the President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project founded by former vice president Al Gore. Both Hansen and Fox take climate change seriously, and spoke about how we might mitigate the effect it will have on our future and that of our children and grandchildren. They also suggested ways we could reduce the use of the fossil fuels that is driving rising temperatures around the world.
Steward Pickett, introduced by Dr. William Schlesinger last Friday as a distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute, talked about sustainability and planning in cities. Although his area of study was Baltimore, Pickett pointed out that the trends and issues in that city are common to almost all the world’s cities.
Pickett described the evolutionary transformations cities go through. First came Baltimore the colonial port, a trading emporium; that was followed by a fast-growing industrial city needing thousands of workers and marked by population densities and water-borne diseases. In 1880 Baltimore had a 20 percent child-mortality rate. The next phase was the sanitary city, culminating in 1904 when Olmsted’s parks began an era of beautification and rebuilding after a fire. The parks became outposts for the ecological life that managed to survive. Yet it was not until 1911 that Baltimore got a sanitary sewer system.
Most of what we think we know about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill has issued from either BP, which still calls it an “accident,” or elements of the U.S. government, which range from the undernourished Coast Guard to the Cheney-weakened EPA to the former Minerals Management Agency, whose sole overseer for the Deepwater Horizon and a hundred other massive drilling rigs was a single young fellow fresh out of school.
That’s not the 15 minutes of fame you want.
On its own track, science is filling out a different picture. The audience at the Cary Institute enjoyed an especially informed and articulate window into this knotty situation last Friday from Samantha “Mandy” Joye, biogeochemist at the University of Georgia’s marine science program and head of the Joye Group of scientific investigators. She previewed parts of a paper under consideration by the prestigious journal Nature. What its reports should probably cause an immediate halt to deepwater drilling in the Gulf, if not everywhere—or risk that sections of deep ocean will become oxygen-free dead zones.
A paper recently published in Environmental Science and Technology is the first to document the resistance to Triclosan in a natural environment. Triclosan, a synthetic antibacterial invented for surgeons in the 1960s, is found in many of the products we use every day, from soap to toothpaste to deodorants to cosmetics. The study found that when Triclosan enters streams and rivers via domestic wastewater, leaky sewer infrastructure or storm overflows, resistance to it develops in the bacteria that are part of the base of aquatic food webs.
According to Cary Institute aquatic ecologist Emma Rosi-Marshall, one of the authors of the report, “The bacterial resistance caused by Triclosan has real environmental consequences. Not only does it disrupt aquatic life by changing native bacterial communities, but it’s linked to the rise of resistant bacteria that could diminish the usefulness of important antibiotics.” In short, the very bacteria we are using Triclosan to protect ourselves from are now becoming resistant themselves.
In this crazy age, characterized by blistering technological progress on one hand and faith-based reasoning on the other, it’s refreshing to find such a fine piece of science as the new United Nations report on our global climate. It’s been an agonizingly long time coming, is conservative to the point of being gun-shy, and is perhaps already two years out of date.
Some 800 volunteer climate scientists under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have drawn two major conclusions. First, global warming is even more irrefutable than it was in 2007. Second, the chance that global warming is human-caused is 98 percent, up from 95 percent in the prior report. That percentage among any group of reputable scientists is as close to unanimous as science gets.