Compost.

If you need a good reason to compost your food waste, Kenneth Weiss provides it an article he wrote for Science magazine in May (Vancouver’s Green Dream, Science 20 May 2016, Vol. 352, Issue 6288, pp. 918-921, DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6288.918).  Weiss describes Vancouver’s efforts to combat climate change, among other environmental initiatives, by capturing methane generated in its landfills with extraction wells. Methane can be 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide, so rather than allow methane to escape to the atmosphere, Vancouver burns what it collects to generate useful heat.

Then the city discovered that about 40% of the methane generated in its landfills evaded the extraction wells and escaped to the atmosphere. Extraction wells can only capture so much, so Vancouver decided to do what other cities have begun, barring the food wastes and other compostable garbage that generates methane when buried in a landfill.

That meant convincing the city’s population (over 600,000 within the city limits alone) to keep their food wastes and other compostables out of the regular trash and save it for a separate collection. When that separate collection only happened every other week, compliance lagged, but when the frequency increased to weekly, the city experienced a 40% reduction in garbage while compost collections jumped 60%.

It’s coming, folks. We can’t afford to throw food and other recoverable garbage into landfills which not only tosses valuable nutrients out of reach, but also produces dangerous greenhouse emissions. If your town or city collects food scraps for composting, participate in the program. If they don’t, start your own compost bin. It’s not that difficult, and it will combat climate change.

 

To do science…

Recently came across this quote from T.S. Eliot’s 1942 poem, Little Gidding, and thought it a wonderful description of the scientific endeavor.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

—T.S. Eliot

Hungry Birds

Walking around the Apex Reservoir this afternoon I noticed a lone Double-crested cormorant paddling along. I kept an eye on him as I figured he’d soon be diving, and I was curious how far he’d go underwater. Sure enough he submerged, and I looked ahead five, ten yards to catch where he came up.

I stretched to see around trees that blocked my view, and noticed a Great blue heron standing tall and statue-like about three feet offshore. Then the cormorant surfaced, a white fish about 4 inches long wiggling in its beak. Before the first cormorant swallowed his catch, a second cormorant surfaced, also bearing white fish. As soon as the first cormorant downed his fish, he dove under and within seconds surfaced with another fish. Suddenly I noticed a third cormorant, also with white fish in its beak.

All this time the heron looked on, motionless, less than five yards away from the ongoing feast, beak empty.

The school of white fish under the surface continued to provide a late afternoon dinner for the trio of cormorants for another few minutes while the heron watched.

 

ABC Asteroid XYZ

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Spacecraft NEAR Shoemaker executed a soft landing on this asteroid, Eros, in 2000.

In “Asteroids Good and Bad” we touched on NASA’s plans to detect asteroids as well as to eventually land on one and “redirect” a piece of it into orbit around the Moon.

Why the interest in these space rocks?

Asteroids have pounded Earth for billions of years, and they’re not done with their mission, as the Chelyabinsk meteor rudely reminded us over Russia in 2013. With no warning it slammed into Earth’s atmosphere and exploded 28 miles up. Even that far away the relatively small 18-meter diameter asteroid fragment’s 500 kiloton equivalent explosion injured over 1,200 surprised people going about their business below it.

So what are asteroids? They consist of rocks and minerals, and come in three varieties: chondrite (C-class) made of clay and silicate rocks; stony (S-class) made of silicate and nickel-iron rocks; and metallic (M-class) consisting of mostly nickel-iron rock. They’re irregularly shaped, usually pitted or covered with craters.

Size matters, especially if one is headed our way. Most asteroids range from thirty feet to 330 miles in diameter, and none have any atmosphere. They orbit the Sun, rotating or tumbling along. More than half-a-million are known, but millions more are out there – exactly how many is unknown – and size matters.

Most asteroids orbit our Sun between Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt. Between 1 and 2 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer in diameter may exist in the main belt, yet most are still a million or more kilometers away from their nearest sibling. Just 150 have a companion moon, a few have two moons, and some asteroids occur as a pair of relatively equal-sized bodies. Astronomers have even spotted triple asteroids tumbling along together.

Although most asteroids may remain in the main belt, Jupiter’s massive gravity flings them out across the solar system from time to time. At present, 10,003 are known to approach Earth close enough to be considered potential collision hazards. These asteroids are called “Near-Earth Objects” or NEOs, and 861 NEOs have a diameter of 1 kilometer or more. Thus far scientists have tracked over 1,400 “Earth-crossers” that pose a significant threat. But as the surprise arrival of the asteroid over Chelyabinsk, Russia demonstrated, we’ve not yet located every potential collider.

How often do astronomers expect an asteroid to hit Earth? What evidence do we have that asteroids have hit Earth in the past? Where else can we find most asteroids other than in the main belt? How do asteroids get named, and did you know there’s an asteroid named for a cat called Dr. Spock? That’s weird.

The Ozone Protocol: A Climate Change Precedent

The following letter appeared in the January 1, 2016 edition of the News and Observer, Raleigh, NC

News and Observer Letter

It’s deja vu all over again reading George Will (“Another false ‘turning point’,” N&O, 12/17) and Charles Krauthammer (“Obama’s legacy of fiction,” N&O, 12/18) whine about efforts to address climate change. Neither one considers the science or the history. In this case, it’s history worth repeating, not avoiding.

When the world faced the destruction of stratospheric ozone, 12 countries sat down in 1977 to plan how to negotiate a planet-wide pact. It took 10 years, and the outcome was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed by just 24 countries. It’s strength was flexibility, proven in the eight revisions made since 1987.

Now 197 countries are party to a protocol that includes monitoring, reporting, and critically, sanctions for noncompliance. Most important, it’s working, as the rates of emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals have dropped, and since 2000, the ozone layer has begun its slow process of recovery.

International agreements can succeed in addressing a global environmental crisis. The fits and starts seen in the attempts to address climate change might work faster if those with a monetary or political stake in burning fossil fuels would cease their misinformation campaigns, aided by the head-in-the-sand antics of Will and Krauthammer.

—Denis DuBay

P.S. See this article by Jennifer Morgan and Eliza Northrop,  “Form AND Function: Why the Paris Agreement’s Legal Form Is So Important” for confirmation that the Paris deal holds real promise, not unlike the situation with the Montreal Protocol when it was first signed my just 24 countries. It was published online December 16, 2015 by the World Resources Institute.

ASTEROIDS GOOD AND BAD

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Ceres, the largest asteroid, first discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and visited by the Dawn spacecraft in February, 2015. Those bright spots remain a mystery, and Dawn continues taking pictures of Ceres from its closest approach, which continues the next few months. Image from NASA JPL via Dawn.

NASA’s new 2016 budget includes money for two asteroid missions. One of those missions continues an effort underway for years, the detection of near-Earth objects (NEOs), asteroids that pose a risk of colliding with our home planet. The other mission proposes to land on a near-earth asteroid, pick up a large boulder from its surface, and redirect the boulder into an orbit around the Moon. Once in a stable lunar orbit, manned missions would visit the asteroid fragment and retrieve pieces to return to Earth for detailed study.

Both missions complement each other and serve multiple roles. The detection mission will help protect Earth from a potentially cataclysmic collision with an asteroid. It’s happened many times in the past, and it continues to happen now. The biggest recent impact came in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia, from an asteroid estimated at a mere 18 meters in diameter.

The detection mission would also help NASA find a nearby asteroid from which it might pluck a piece. That mission to “redirect” a piece of an asteroid into orbit around the Moon would build our understanding of what asteroids consist of and how they might contribute valuable minerals for industry. Perhaps even more important, the “redirect” mission involves landing on an asteroid and moving a piece of it onto a different trajectory, skills we would need if we ever detected an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and wanted to deflect it away.

How many asteroids are out there? How big are they? How many are on a course that might bring them into contact with Earth one day? What are they made of and does their composition mean we might benefit by capturing one and mining it? Could we deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? What spacecraft missions have already studied asteroids, and what have we learned?

Stay tuned.

 

A referral…

Des Latham explores the evolution of definitions for the term “aviation” from 1934 until 2015, and includes the 1934 meaning of “aviator.” As a bonus you find out why the word “avigation” was invented. A nice end-of-the-year aviation post. Whether you fly for business, fun, or out of necessity, and regardless of where you sit, remember what you’re doing up there!

See Navigation, Avigation, and the Sexless Aviator, by Des Latham.

WW II VETERAN, December 28, 2015

I converged on the compact four-door approaching the Kroger parking lot entrance. It slowed, perhaps a bit more than conditions warranted, and the license plate on the Chevy came into focus. “WW II Veteran” lined the plate’s left side.
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At first glance, the Chevy driver’s slim, trim face appeared a bit young to be the WW II veteran who owned the license plate. He turned left and parked in a handicapped spot close to the store. I spared a moment’s judgment of a son or grandson using the veteran’s prestige to park up close. That judgment continued as I pulled past and parked much farther down the lane and walked back towards the store.

I passed in front of the Chevy and risked a surreptitious front-faced glance at the driver. Perhaps caution was in order. He could be older than I at first thought. Or maybe he waited for his father to come out of the store. In either case, he just sat, stone-faced, behind the wheel, his age difficult to estimate.

Fifteen minutes later, with about that many items checked out and bagged, I headed towards the door to leave. The WW II veteran, yes, he was the veteran, almost shuffled slowly on his way in, grim face stiffly facing forward. Tell-tale wrinkles gave away his age, but only just. Graying, thinning hair and his slow progress confirmed the estimate. The license plate belonged to this man, this veteran of World War II.

Walking to my car allowed ample time to do the math. The war ended 70 years ago. He was at least 18 in 1945, which meant this veteran carried no less than 87 years on his shoulders, on top of memories of war he may or may not have shared with his wife and children and grandchildren. Did he recall those events more today than when he was younger, as my mother recalled trauma she suffered as a teenager perhaps more acutely after age 80 than before? Did those memories plague him now, while he walked through Krogers, while he tried to sleep at night?

What kind of courage does it take to face those memories, or just to face the aches and pains and imbalances of nearly 90 years of life and drive to the grocery store? The courage which led a generation to defeat Nazism and overcome vicious and powerful enemies on two fronts – maybe it helped him face another day.

 

 

Conquering our fears while that star-spangled banner yet waves

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Francis Scott Key wrote lines that most of us now repeat, or at least listen to, at nearly every sporting event we attend. For my wife, it’s her favorite part of any football game. Okay, she’s not a fan of football nor of standing around in cold, rainy weather, but you’ll still find her standing straight, hand over heart, eyes glued, ears alert as the band starts to play, indoors or out.

Some may struggle to remember all the lines of The Star-Spangled Banner. Most will struggle to hit all the notes. I often tear up and wonder how many others do, too.

I get emotional now just thinking about that hymn honoring my homeland. It’s not a happy emotion. Though our star-spangled banner still waves overhead, by this dawn’s early light, something essential is missing. I speak of our once-acclaimed compassion and courage.

At this Christmas season, we face grim facts of life. The red glare of violence, hatred, and fear overshadows the bright stars we strain to see. Millions of the world’s citizens fleeing bombs bursting in terror find themselves homeless, looking for safe shelter, not unlike a family-about-to-be many of us will celebrate in the days to come.

Faiths of all kinds would have their followers extend a hand to those in need. We bemoan the fact that a particular family found no room at the inn late one night. So why do we resist taking in fleeing families today? Fear.

Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, but it must be faced and overcome. The American soldiers who gathered under Fort McHenry’s ramparts knew fear. Few thought they stood much of a chance to survive the night. Less than three weeks earlier, the British fleet had landed a force in Washington and burned the Capitol, the Treasury, and President Madison’s house. The poorly-equipped American Army and Navy were outmatched.

Finding the courage to overcome that fear took strength and leadership. American major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, somehow convinced his soldiers to vanquish their fear, and they lived through that perilous fight.

We face a fight of our own. With its complexity, our challenge – terrorism – presents perils different from those posed by the British navy on the night of September 13, 1814, but threats nonetheless.

Others face the same risks we do, and have found the strength to resist their fears. I joked with my son-in-law from Toronto a few weeks ago about maybe emigrating to Canada, after reading of Canada’s resolve to accept twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees by March. This week, seeing pictures and reading stories (N&O, 12/10/15) of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcoming a planeload of those refugees to his homeland, made me lament my own homeland’s cowering fear. Canadians can remind us how to conquer fear as they band together to sponsor refugee families, embracing the opportunity to practice their humanity, whatever their faith.

We can do the same. We have overcome fears in the past, though not before making withering mistakes along the way. We turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, imprisoned innocent Japanese citizens during World War II, and conducted witch hunts for communist sympathizers. Our lingering racism owes much of its power to fear.

How do we quell our fears? Maybe we remember those bright stars we saw gleaming before terrorism’s twilight dimmed their brilliance. It might help to refuse to let our fears overrule our common sense and bury our bravery, giving in to dark voices shouting about danger all around. Perhaps we recall our pride in the stars and stripes gallantly streaming after hard-fought victories from 1776 and 1814 to 1918 and 1945.

Our best hope lies in shared convictions and collective action. We cannot do it alone. Pray for the leaders we need in both parties to find the courage and honor to lead us together through the night.

The next time you hear the band start playing that song, or a singer starts with “Oh, say can you see…”, see through your misty eyes to the bright stars of our past and remember the final six-words of our National Anthem.
– – – – – – –
You may also find this story in Raleigh’s News and Observer for December 25, 2015. See News and Observer, Op-Ed page

December’s Bird-of-the-Month: Double-crested cormorants

Double-crested cormorants have returned to the Apex Reservoir. It’s not that they’ve been absent for any period of time, it’s just that a large flock has returned. I can see cormorants much of the year, but the more common sighting is of just a pair or two. But come December, the past two years at least, double-crested cormorants at Apex Reservoir can number in the hundreds.

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One seagull amidst a gathering of double-crested cormorants in Apex, NC

They love the NC Wildlife Resource Commission’s automated fish feeders, of course. Though these birds hardly need any help catching fish, they don’t mind us making the task a little easier. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Double-crested_Cormorant/id) reports that cormorants eat more than 250 different kinds of fish. They will occasionally eat a crustacean, an insect, or an amphibian. When eating crustaceans, they’ve been seen flipping the animal up in the air and catching it headfirst to make it easier to swallow.

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Double-crested cormorants waiting for fish.

 

The double-crested cormorant is a large, colonial black bird, up to a yard long with a wingspan that can stretch to four feet. It has a beak that starts from a yellowish throat patch and extends forward three or four inches. With binoculars you can see the slight downward hook at the end of its upper bill that it uses to catch fish.

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Portion of a large gathering of double-crested cormorants on the Apex Reservoir, NC

Young birds are brownish with pale breasts. The birds nest in colonies, and the young often cluster together in groups called a creche. Only a mature, breeding male exhibits the “double-crest,” which I’ve never seen. The oldest reported double-crested cormorant was banded in 1984 in Canada and recovered 22 years later in Louisiana. Cormorants will return to the same nesting areas year after year, and in some much-used locations trees have toppled due to the accumulated weight of nest after nest. Large pebbles frequently find their way into a cormorant nest, and the birds will treat these pebbles as they would an egg.

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Three double-crested cormorants, low in the water, necks riding high.

Most of the year, cormorants on the Apex Reservoir may be found floating low in the water, their long necks the most conspicuous feature. The beak and head will usually be pointed slightly up. Oftentimes a pair will be separated by a few yards to a few dozen yards. One at a time the birds will take turns fishing. A bird will thrust its beak forward and down, surface diving underwater, disappearing for what seems like at least a minute or more. It will resurface twenty to forty yards away.

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Double-crested cormorant in flight

With all four toes connected by webbing, and powerful wings, the double-crested cormorant makes a powerful underwater swimmer, and a dangerous predator, if you’re a fish. Though I’ve never seen it swim underwater, it reportedly beats both its webbed feet and wings to propel a streamlined body along after its prey.

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Cormorant landing on the Apex Reservoir, NC.

An interesting behavior I have seen is a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants apparently have less oil in their feathers, which means their wings get soaked when swimming. Although this means they have to make the effort to dry out their wings, it may also help them swim faster underwater. Perhaps due to the time it takes to dry their feathers after fishing, cormorants often spend half their day perched above the water on an overhanging branch or rock.

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Double-crested cormorant drying its wings

The double-crested cormorant, scientific name Phalacrocorax auritus, is related to frigatebirds and boobies, winters along the shorelines of North America, and summers on inland lakes. In the past the birds suffered from overhunting and pesticide exposure. DDT thinned their eggshells, leading to reproductive failure. Since the 1970s, double-crested cormorant populations have rebounded, in some areas colony sizes doubling in five years.

Although I’ve never identified one, neotropic cormorants will sometimes mingle with double-crested cormorants. The former species is the smaller of the two, and the space immediately forward of its eyes is covered with black feathers rather than the pale featherless skin found in the double-crested cormorant.