Washed Up

Knobby Sea Star Artist: Jane Kim/InkDwell

Knobby Sea Star
Artist: Jane Kim/InkDwell

Warmer water temperatures, reduced ability to fight illness, pathogens passed on from shellfish – it’s not quite clear which of these, or maybe which combination is raging through the sea star populations of the United States West Coast. But the fact is that millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico are wasting away, suddenly and across a number of different species.

Sea stars feed on shellfish, and are apex predators of marine coastal environments – when they suffer, the entire ecosystem is affected. Many of the sea star species affected are endemic to their small regions; they aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

It’s not the first die-off that’s been observed among sea stars, but it’s by the far the largest in terms of geographical area and number of species affected. If the juvenile sea stars can manage to develop immunity to the current illness that is wiping out the adults, the populations will have a chance of eventual recovery. Researchers and citizen scientists up and down the coast observe, record and try to figure out the exact causes of what’s been labelled the sea star wasting syndrome.

The disease forms lesions on the sea star, which eventually cause the limbs to dissolve. Sea star Pisaster ochraceus, the most commonly affected species, is pictured.  Photo : University of California, Santa Cruz, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The disease forms lesions on the sea star, which eventually cause the limbs to dissolve.
Sea star Pisaster ochraceus, the most commonly affected species, is pictured.
Photo : University of California, Santa Cruz, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

When I was a kid, we had a salt water aquarium that included a couple of starfish, now more commonly known as sea stars. But we could never get it quite right, and the poor creatures kept making extremely ill-conceived attempts to escape by climbing out of the tank at night. All we could do was pick up their desiccated forms in the morning. We gave up when the seahorses started hurling themselves on to the carpet. We never did quite figure out exactly what we were doing wrong.

As for the Pacific coast, my hope is that the future holds more promise than an increase in the kind of science taking place around sea stars right now – the monitoring and understanding of an extinction in progress.

Floating Farms

I always have a soft spot for illustrations of future visions. This image of seaweed carriers is no exception. A company called Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES) has developed and patented seaweed growing technology that it hopes will make possible the cultivation of seaweed on a vastly larger scale than we have seen thus far.

Mass Seaweed Carriers Source: SES

Mass Seaweed Carriers
Source: SES


Seaweed has so many uses – as I said on a recent post, some are calling it the potato of the 21st century when it comes to feeding large numbers of people. And it can be cultivated without the use of expensive land and water for irrigation.

Which brings me back to the SES floating farms. The goal for this kind of industrial seaweed farming is to grow enough seaweed to make biofuel. Ethanol, to be exact, using the high level of carbohydrates in the sea plants. It’s not the first time at the biofuel circus for seaweed enthusiasts.

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden. Photo: Josie Iselin

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden.
Photo: Josie Iselin

Like algae, seaweed has long been the subject of renewable energy attention, for the same reasons it might be an alternative potato: It doesn’t compete with other food crops for land space or resources and it practically grows itself given the right foundation.

Regions with lots of coastline and little arable land could use a prolific cash crop like that.

I don’t know enough about the topic to say whether there aren’t environmental arguments to be made against the industrialization of seaweed cultivation, although the mass production of any mono-crop usually brings with it some concerns. I don’t know at what stage the seaweed-to-fuel processing technology finds itself, or what distribution channels are already in place.

Maybe, as with many future visions, the idea of seaweed as fuel will float away in time without becoming reality.

Still, I deeply appreciate a technological design that so nicely reflects the very crop it is meant to support.




The Whale in the Water

The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.


Submerged Lines

We humans are visual creatures. It’s in our nature to focus on what we can see, it’s in our nightmares to focus on the unseen and the hidden because we just aren’t very good at preparing ourselves for what isn’t readily visible. Even within our own bodies, some of the most dangerous illnesses are the ones with few symptoms – at least until they suddenly erupt. High blood pressure seems like no big deal until a stroke hits.

Somehow, we manage to have the same approach to pathways and passages which we ourselves have built. Like forgetful squirrels, we lay pipelines for oil and gas supplies, assume the supply will remain intact, and then put them out of our minds.

Pipelines to carry oil have been laid all around the world for a century. And like any pipe, at some point they show their signs of age. Pipes can break due to corrosion, excavation work, material and welding errors, natural force, external damage (such as anchors hitting underwater pipes), and faulty operation.

Mostly, though, it’s age and material failure that cause leaks like the recent Tioga leak in North Dakota, the largest U.S. onshore spill in history. A quick glance here will reveal an unsettling, ongoing litany of oil spills during any given month.

Lakehead System Source: Enbridge

Lakehead System
Source: Enbridge

In Michigan, two 50 cm (20 in.) pipes were laid down in 1953 as a part of the 3000 km (1900 m.) Lakehead System that runs from North Dakota down to points east and south. Most of the Lakehead system is underground, this segment, known as Line 5, runs underwater through the Straits of Mackinac between northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The pipes traverse the juncture between two Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. “While Line 5’s capacity has increased, neither regulatory scrutiny nor corporate transparency have followed suit. The Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s and 20% of the planet’s surface freshwater, are at a greater risk than ever,” according to FLOW, a non-profit organization working to protect the Great Lakes.

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.  Source: NWF

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Source: NWF

Line 5 is owned and operated by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a company that insists the lines have been operating well for ‘decades’ and are perfectly intact. This is the same company whose lines burst and polluted the Kalamazoo River at a continuing clean-up cost of four years and over $1 billion.

Sometimes, the unseen around which we build our nightmares doesn’t merit closer examination; it’s just smoke and ephemera, the stuff of tall stories.

This probably isn’t one of those cases.

Straits of Mackinac Source: FLOW

Straits of Mackinac
Source: FLOW

Ode to Joy(rides)

Ford Mustang 1, graphite on paper. Artist: Marcus Junge

Ford Mustang 1, graphite on paper.
Artist: Marcus Junge

Every time I go to the Geneva International Motor Show, one of the world’s major automobile shows, I have the vague expectation that I will see something that will exceed expectations, break the rules, extend the boundaries.

So far, no luck. The 84th year of the show, which is closing today, is said to have boasted the most prototypes of any show this year. Still, there were no hovercars, and no cars that ran on water, banana peels or thorium. I also didn’t any listing for the once-touted International Advanced Mobility Forum (IAMF) that used to be held during the show to talk about other forms of transportation. So, what was there?

There’s the Tesla, which is a snazzy sedan at the cutting edge of personal vehicle battery powered transport. And at a base price of US$ 69,000, I guess the lit-up door handles are a nice perk.

Tesla door handle.

Tesla door handle.


There were a number of very nice electric cars from some of the best automakers, and a number of related products boasted their environmental friendliness.

Still, the vast majority of vehicles got very low efficiency ratings.


Yokohama BluEarth tire line.

In the case of this giant tire covered in an atlas of the Earth, I’m not sure I get the symbolism. Is it Earth-friendly, is it saying that all of  Earth is wrapped around a petroleum-based tire, or is it saying the tire is going to roll over the blue marble of Earth?

But mostly, as is to be expected, the car show is an orgy of attention on the biggest, baddest motors housed in the fastest, most luxurious, fantastic configurations of metal, leather and plastic one can imagine, an ode sung by hundreds of thousands to the culture of fossil-fuel powered vehicle.

Throngs watch a car turn on a pedestal.

Throngs watch a car turn on a pedestal.

I’m not saying the cars aren’t beautiful (some of them, anyway), or that I don’t still drive a standard-fuel powered vehicle myself.

It’s just that when I first went to the show, back in 1998, I thought by now we’d have gone a bit further down the road of harmonizing our abject adoration of cars with a few concessions to the future of sustainability.

And because it’s a glorious sunny Sunday here, I’m still going to put an an Ode to Joy in spite of this skeptical post.

Leaping Forward

The diminutive planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) is the only creature we know of besides ourselves that uses intermeshed gears for heavy, synchronized lifting. The gears, which look like a comic book model of miniature technology, form the ratchet joint between the planthopper’s back legs.

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

They create a smooth response where the insect’s developing system is still incapable of carrying through the complex coordination required when the hopper wants to make one of its signature great leaps from one point to another. The tiny planthopper can jump a meter (3 feet) in a single bound.

The gears are only present while the animal is immature, for while the planthopper’s body is learning to leap forward, it puts such a strain on the joint that the tiny gear teeth tend to break off completely. No worry, the insect is still growing, and with each new molt it emerges with shiny, intact gears, regenerated for further leaps.

Once adult, the hopper develops a system altogether more mature and reliable, without all the breakables.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a final report this week stating that if humans can’t manage to collectively confront the issue of climate change immediately and on a massive scale, we may find ourselves in need of an as-yet-to-be-invented sucking technology to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and put them – where? Underground where we got them? Into outer space?

Abandoned coal mine gear. Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Abandoned coal mine gear.
Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Meanwhile, technologies for better ways to frack natural gas, extract oil from shale, dig deeper to find hidden oil reserves are developing apace.

We’re still in a developmental phases of our progress, still breaking the gear teeth when we want to make great leaps from one point to another.

Maybe the next sloughing phase will see us shed this immature skin, refine and improve our gears and coordination, and take a longer leap forward to where we put our collective minds towards solutions that won’t leave us without a safe place to land.

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Nest Egg Protection

It’s been fifty years since a watershed report was released in the United States, the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the effect of tobacco and smoking on health.

A recent study estimated that as a result of this 1964 report, 50 million lives were saved worldwide that would have otherwise been lost to tobacco-related disease. The number of adults who smoke has been reduced by half – from 40% to 20% – between the 1960s and now.

With the publication of the report, the U.S. and other countries began to implement a broad variety of measures to counter widespread addiction to cigarettes.

What was the reaction of the powerful tobacco industry?

Protecting the nest egg Photo: Brian Klaus

Protecting the nest egg
Photo: Brian Klaus

From before the report was published, and well into the 1990s, the industry countered with independent research that questioned the direct links drawn between using tobacco products and various diseases; new markets with fewer impending regulations were opened; new restrictions were met with litigation and arguments about consumer rights and choices; new forms of cigarettes were presented as less harmful.

Books and studies have dissected the tactics used by a large-scale, highly profitable and powerful industry to save itself. One very thorough book, The Cigarette Papers, quotes press statements released by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee over the course of decades. A sampling:

The tobacco industry recognizes that it has a special responsibility to help find the true facts about tobacco and health. Since 1954, it has been supporting a program of independent research through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC)…images

The TIRC emphasizes that many clinical and experimental factors still need to be identified, investigated, and evaluated regarding the origin of lung cancer and other diseases. Actually, the number of suspects under study in lung cancer has broadened and now includes viruses, previous lung ailments, air pollutants, heredity, stress and strain, and other factors.

While these [TIRC-funded] research studies have increased our factual knowledge, they have at the same time continued to make clear and to emphasize the great and critical gaps in that knowledge.

We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.

As the book’s authors state, the goal here wasn’t to discover facts, it was to perpetuate controversy about the adverse effects of tobacco, and in the interim, continue to remain an economic force.

And in all fairness, the industry can’t be blamed for trying to protect its interests, nor can those supporters who saw the tobacco industry in terms of employment, industry and taxes.images-1

The fact remains that smoking is harmful for anyone except the tobacco industry itself.

None of this, really, is news except for the part about how many lives were saved due to the Surgeon General’s report and its aftermath.

What I wondered, while I was reading all this and revisiting the ads proclaiming a ‘safer cigarette’ was this:

There have been countless reports on the effects of fossil-fuel consumption on health, the environment, and the climate. The oil industry has reacted in much the same way as the tobacco industry – to the point that numerous financial companies draw parallels between the plight of the two industries for investment purposes.

When it comes to damaging products and industries, it might take time, but regulation, awareness campaigns and alternatives work.

So, when will we have our watershed moment when the majority of us learn to kick the habit?Shell2

Sunspot Window

Coils of magnetic field lines. The bundles of coils are charged particles swirling along magnetic field lines. Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Coils of magnetic field lines on the Sun.
The bundles of coils are charged particles swirling along magnetic field lines.
Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Besides being the sole source of warmth here on the third planet in its orbit, the Sun displays surface activity that is beautiful as well as relevant. These images from NASAs Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) were taken and processed with a number of techniques that highlight sunspot phases.

Sunspots are temporary areas of high magnetic activity that appear as dark spots on the surface of the sun.

A low frequency of sunspots can lead to lower temperatures here on Earth; a high sunspot frequency can support higher temperatures.

The current phase of sunspots, known as Sunspot Cycle 24, has seen the lowest number of sunspots since the space age began, and all the way back to 1906.

Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

There are those who continue to argue that the current upwards trend in the temperature of our climate is largely due to solar activity rather than to any man-made influences.

For those who insist that the mitigation of global climate change doesn’t require weaning the world energy supply from fossil fuels, the lack of a sharper rise in atmospheric warming during Sunspot Cycle 24 might be just the window of opportunity needed to support the ongoing expansion and exploitation of fossil fuels.

The overwhelming scientific consensus, however, holds that while Sunspot Cycle 24 might mean that temperatures will rise at a slower level than they would during a period of higher sunspot activity, they will continue rise due to anthropogenic influence unless major changes are made in human activity and behavior.

From this perspective, a slow sunspot phase might offer a bit more time to adapt, to cooperate, to develop new solutions for a warming world. A window of opportunity to be seized.

All things considered, I’m hoping this slow sunspot phase will be a long one.

The Sun now Image/Caption: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

The Sun now
Image/Caption: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)


A note on the Solar Dynamics Observatory from the SDO website: “The SDO is a sun-pointing semi-autonomous spacecraft that will allow nearly continuous observations of the Sun,” and is “the first mission to be launched for NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) Program, a program designed to understand the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth.”

Plant Plastics

An Australian company named Zeoform has been in the news recently for its patented technology of producing a new kind of plastic that uses neither fossil fuels nor toxic chemicals in its production or materials.

The input materials are water, and anything from landfill fiber-based material such as old newspapers or used clothing. The end material is both fire resistant, and compostable.

According to an article in HuffingtonPost, “Zeoform’s manufacturing process exploits the natural process of hydrogen bonding, taking a patented matrix of cellulose fibers and activating it with water (no glues required) to create a fire-resistant material that can be sprayed, shaped or molded into any form.

Zeoform guitar Source: Zeoform

Zeoform guitar
Source: Zeoform

“Zeoform can also be made to different densities — from cork-like to as hard as ebony — resulting in a wide range of possibilities: home construction, plastics in the aviation and automotive industries, (and) musical instruments.”

I couldn’t find any information on the energy input necessary to make this product, so it’s hard to say what its final carbon footprint would be. It’s hardly the first plant-based plastic, but the lack of toxic ingredients is a major step forward.

Even if it would take longer than most of us can imagine, massive success of any manufacturing technology based on waste would, at some point, ideally run out of ‘raw’ materials when the waste runs out (yes, an unlikely scenario, but it’s nice to dream).

That wouldn’t be a problem for Zeoform plastic, which can use plant fiber when needed.

An interesting product, and one to watch.

Zeoform chair Image: Zeoform

Zeoform chair
Image: Zeoform

A Larger Slice

Click to go to interactive infographic. Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies via The Guardian

Click here to go to interactive infographic.
Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies
via The Guardian

The infographic above came out in The Guardian, and is an exploration of the role played by private companies, nation-states and state-run companies in the generation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. There are 90 companies listed – all but seven are companies that deal mainly in fossil fuels.

The infographic below is an exercise in refinement. Lars Boelen was reading the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, edition 2013 that came out in early November. He came across the small pie chart here,

Carbon budget for 2 C° Source: IEA via Stormglas

Carbon budget for 2 C°
Source: IEA via Stormglas

which illustrates the ‘remaining budget’ of carbon emissions left for humanity to generate if the goal is to limit a global temperature increase to 2 C°.

Mr. Boelen was irritated by the simplicity of the chart, which had the largest slice allocated to 1750 – 2011.

The pie chart implies, to me at least, that we – meaning the current generations – aren’t necessarily responsible for the cumulative effect of carbon emissions because, after all, this is a process that has been going on since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Why should we take all the blame and by extension, have to make drastic changes?

Mr. Boelen thought the pie chart needed a bit of refinement, and lo, the distribution of culpability looks a bit different when we find out that the vast majority of ‘carbon budget’ has been ‘spent’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘squandered with profligacy’) since 1970.

Almost all the major fossil fuel companies in the top infographic, at least in their original forms, were founded in the glory years of oil and gas discovery between 1870 and 1920, although the past 30 years have seen countless mergers. The companies have grown ever larger. As for nation-states, China accounts for 8.5% of emissions, with a continued rise due to its dependence on coal.

Together, according to the soberly-titled report published in the journal Climate Change, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010, these companies account for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial era.

Half of all emissions have occurred in the past 25 years alone.

So when we hear about how hard it will be to curb emissions, or that ‘this is the way things are done’ and how expensive it will be to change course, keep in mind that there is no long history or tradition behind our current carbon spending spree. This is as new as cars that are still driving on the road today.

Carbon Budget  Graphic: Lars Boelen

Carbon Budget
Graphic: Lars Boelen